Two communities seemingly at odds with each other are among the groups of Americans most likely to be skeptical of the new COVID-19 vaccines: Christian nationalists and Black Americans.
The reasons why each group is skeptical are different, but the outcome could be the same with both groups being underrepresented in those willing to be vaccinated.
To be clear, neither group expresses uniform opposition to vaccination; but a larger-than-usual percentage of people in each group has told pollsters they may not take the vaccine, compared to responses from the general population.
And because of the overlapping subsets of ideology in American religious life, there are points at which leaders of the two groups — which normally fall on opposite sides of political debate — now face the same challenge: Encouraging skeptical friends, family and congregants to take the new vaccine.
Two groups, two different reasons
Christian nationalism is a worldview — sometimes also known as white Christian nationalism — that seeks to keep white, native-born, politically and religiously conservative Christian Americans at the center of culture and in control of institutions. Christian nationalists have been strongly identified among the core supporters of former President Donald Trump and also are more likely than other Americans to buy into conspiracy theories.
Black Americans, on the other hand, have not been Trump supporters, tend not to be Christian nationalists and are less susceptible to conspiracy theories. However, Black Americans have experienced decades of mistreatment and experimentation within the white-dominant medical community, leaving a history of mistrust.
“The distrust stems, again, from the fact that the health care system is flawed, deeply flawed, and treats African Americans differently,” ethicist Harriet Washington told NPR in a Dec. 20 interview. She’s written about race and health care and is author of the book Medical Apartheid.
Regarding medical evaluation for COVID-19 symptoms, Black citizens still have been treated differently than white patients, she asserted. “Many reported that their symptoms weren’t taken seriously. They were sent home, although ill. And so we know that this is certainly the case with many other important illnesses in African Americans. Their reports of pain and symptoms tend to be discounted more often than are whites’. So their access to health care is severely limited by these factors.”
A similar response created danger in the United States in 2014 when Thomas Eric Duncan, a Black man from Liberia, presented at a North Dallas hospital with severe symptoms of Ebola but was treated for a routine infection and sent home, where his symptoms worsened. This was the first known case of Ebola in the U.S., and it was misdiagnosed by health professionals.
The irony is that white Christian nationalists represent the group most likely to downplay or discredit the health care needs and concerns of Blacks. And yet the two groups share a distrust of vaccines.
Research on Christian nationalism
“Our findings reveal that Christian nationalism is the second strongest predictor of general anti-vax attitudes (only behind identifying as Black), even when accounting for traditional measures of religious commitment or political conservatism,” said researchers Andrew Whitehead and Samuel Perry in their December 2020 report titled “How Culture Wars Delay Herd Immunity: Christian Nationalism and Anti-vaccine Attitudes.”
“Christian nationalism strongly predicts Americans’ skepticism toward the trustworthiness of doctors and pharmaceutical companies, an elevated assessment of the risks involved, misinformation about the link between vaccines and autism, and belief in parents’ ultimate authority to withhold vaccines from their children,” the duo reported.
Whitehead and Perry explained more of their findings in a January article for NBC News.
“Americans have found all sorts of reasons to be suspicious of vaccines,” they wrote. “One community that appears disproportionately opposed is Christian nationalists. In fact, we find in a new study that Americans who strongly embrace Christian nationalism — close to a quarter of the population — are much more likely to question the safety of vaccines and to be misinformed about them (e.g., believing that vaccines cause autism or don’t work or that those who administer them are dishonest). If enough of these Americans resist a COVID-19 vaccine based on suspicions rooted in misinformation, the results would be disastrous for achieving herd immunity and reducing the spread of the virus.”
Whitehead and Perry noted that Americans who embrace Christian nationalism typically “are more skeptical of science. They are more likely to believe scientists are hostile to faith, that creationism should be taught in public schools and that our country relies too much on science over religion. Christian nationalists believe that authority in the public sphere should come from sources they trust are friendly to religion, not secular scientists.”
Christian nationalists have been at the forefront of the libertarian assault on COVID-19 public health precautions.
Thus, Christian nationalists have been at the forefront of the libertarian assault on COVID-19 public health precautions such as social distancing, mask wearing and not gathering in large indoor groups, such as for church services.
A connection observed from afar
This connection has made headlines well beyond North America. The German news organization Deutsche Welle, for example, published an article by David Sloan about American evangelicals resisting the vaccine.
“The vaccine has been polarizing among the evangelical right-wing community,’ the German press reported. “Rumors about malicious misuse of the vaccine and mass conspiracies have been cultivated through social media platforms — and continue to be promoted by some church leaders.
“Myths suggesting the virus is a coverup for billionaire Bill Gates to implant trackable microchips into people have spread online. Others assert unfounded claims that Dr. Anthony Fauci, the head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, helped plan the coronavirus pandemic for his personal benefit. The misinformation was peddled by a video pushing the so-called “Plandemic” conspiracy theory, which quickly spread to conservative corners of the web. Social media companies, meanwhile, struggled to contain it.”
The influence of Pentecostalism
Deutsche Welle points to Pastor Tony Spell of Life Tabernacle Church in Baton Rouge, La., as an example of this resistance. Spell, who encountered nationally publicized legal tangles for defying public health orders, has denied that the pandemic is a threat.
“We’re anti-mask, anti-social distancing, and anti-vaccine,” Spell told the German press, which reported: “He believes the vaccine is politically motivated and will ultimately make you sick, even though available evidence points to the contrary. Spell says he will continue to discourage his followers from taking the vaccine as it is distributed throughout the country.”
Spell represents a certain brand of Oneness Pentecostalism that often finds itself at odds with government.
Another prominent variation on Pentecostalism within the anti-vax segment of Pentecostal Christianity is the curious medical advice of Stella Immanuel, a licensed medical doctor and African Pentecostal evangelist based in Houston.
Immanuel shot to the apex of public attention last year when she fronted a viral video that made false claims about the drug hydroxychloroquine curing COVID-19 and that face masks and social distancing are ineffective and unnecessary.
Her cult-like status among anti-vaxxers draws power from the unique combination of being a doctor, a minister and a Black woman fighting against conventional teaching on public health.
Interview with Stella Immanuel
In a recent interview with Baptist News Global, the pastor at Fire Power Ministries in Katy, Texas, said she opposes and dismisses the COVID-19 vaccines as a devil’s alternative and believes the world would not have waited this long for a vaccine to cure the coronavirus but for some special interest by people in high places.
Immanuel is a native of Cameroon who has lived in the United States since 1992. As a Black woman, she represents an odd merger of the kinds of conspiracy theories embraced by white Christian nationalists and a skepticism of medical science — even though she is trained and licensed in this field — seen in parts of the African American community. Her apparent distrust of the medical establishment, however, is rooted in distrust of government — a belief shared with Christian nationalists.
It is her brand of Pentecostal theology that brings all these things together. She has linked her medical practice and her Pentecostal theology into a whole that often raises eyebrows. She has made controversial claims about human sexuality, including that endometriosis, infertility, miscarriages and sexually transmitted infections are caused by spirit spouses and astral sex. She also has endorsed conspiracy theories, such as the involvement of space aliens and the Illuminati in manipulating society and government.
In the January interview with BNG, she picked up this theme while discussing the COVID vaccine. “The globalists — they are ruthless. They want to kill people, and they want to promote a vaccine. People say they want to create a vaccine to make money, but it’s deeper than just making money.”
One of the ingredients used to stabilize the COVID vaccines is called luciferase, she explained. “Luciferase is a name of the beast, Lucifer. If you go to Revelation 14 verse 11, it says if you take the mark of a beast, the name or number of his name, you will be doomed forever. So while people are busy arguing about politics, arguing about this or that, the bottom line is that this whole pandemic was about vaccination, not just vaccination but being able to give people a biomarker which is called Luciferase which to me is the mark of the beast and I do believe that if you take that, your soul is doomed forever and there are many, hundreds of thousands of people taking it.”
This idea of Satanic invasion by vaccine has been debunked by multiple scientists, doctors and theologians. Among those is Tad Pacholczyk, a Catholic priest who earned a doctorate in neuroscience from Yale and did post-doctoral work at Harvard. He serves the diocese of Fall River, Mass., and is director of education at the National Catholic Bioethics Center in Philadelphia.
This idea of Satanic invasion by vaccine has been debunked by multiple scientists, doctors and theologians.
In a Q-and-A on vaccine myths, Pacholczyk addressed the myth that “luciferase is the name of the bioluminescent enzyme contained in the vaccine, which seems connected to the ‘forces of evil.’”
His answer: “Luciferase, an enzyme involved in firefly illumination, is being used in various testing and development stages ahead of the production of a COVID-19 vaccine, but is not itself part of the injected material included in human vaccinations. Luciferase is a commonly used biomedical research tool, and has been used, for example, in lab animals to study the most effective way to deliver mRNA vaccines, whether by an injection into the skin, muscle or a vein.”
Nevertheless, Immanuel believes COVID-19 is a “biological weapon” intended to crash the American economy. “The Democrats used it as a means to win elections, but the globalist agenda is population control.”
From her perspective as a care provider, she believes “there are different strains of the virus being released at different times.” In all variations, however, she prescribes the immunosuppressant hydroxychloroquine and the anti-malarial drug Ivermectin.
“I tell people if you want to take the vaccine, go ahead but it’s most likely you will lose your soul because you cannot have a luciferase gene or marker floating inside of you.”
Unlike other skeptics who believe COVID-19 doesn’t exist or has been overhyped as a public health threat, Immanuel confirmed she knows the virus is not a hoax.
Unlike other skeptics who believe COVID-19 doesn’t exist or has been overhyped as a public health threat, Immanuel confirmed she knows the virus is not a hoax.
“COVID is real. I take care of patients. I’ve seen people die. I’ve seen people get sick,” she said. “I know people who have died. One of our church members, her husband died. One of my friends, her mum died. I know people personally. I have lost about eight patients in this work, so I know people who have died. This is not some hoax. I know people that have come to the clinic and they cannot breathe.”
During the pandemic, her clinic has treated about 16,000 patients proactively and 5,000 for therapeutic care, she reported.
She always prescribes a mixture of hydroxychloroquine, ivermectin, steroids, antibiotics and vitamins. “We have a cocktail that we give people, and it saves them,” she said. “I have been taking hydroxychloroquine since April. I see COVID patients all the time, and I’ve not gotten sick. … Everybody in my church is on hydroxychloroquine.”
Despite her sudden national profile, she has received a mixed response, she said. “Black people don’t hear me. A lot of white people hear me, they come and get the medication and are getting saved. Black people only call me when they are so sick and almost dying.”
Meanwhile, she’s trying to get her message back to Africa: “I did a video recently speaking to Africans, just giving them a breakdown of the medication they should take if they get sick because this stuff is over-the-counter in Africa and because I just don’t want my people to die.”
The majority advice is different
Despite Immanuel’s passion for her perspective, it remains a distinct outlier in the U.S. among both doctors and clergy.
The Nashville Tennessean recently reported on a dialogue between Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, and Russell Moore, executive director of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission.
Collins, who also is a devout Christian, urged anyone questioning whether they should take a COVID-19 vaccine to evaluate all the available evidence and not be swayed by conspiracy theories and misinformation.
He pointed to a Bible verse in Philippians 4 for guidance: “Brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable — if anything is excellent or praiseworthy — think about such things.”
Some pastors set an example
Despite the well-publicized concerns in some populations, a number of pastors are stepping up to lead by example on vaccine acceptance.
The first week of February, 20 Black pastors in Mississippi volunteered to be among the first people in the state to be vaccinated. The event was publicized widely.
Among those vaccinated was Jerry Young, pastor of New Hope Baptist Church in Jackson, Miss., and president of the National Baptist Convention, USA, Inc. He was vaccinated along with his wife, Helen Young.
“There is no other time that I can remember when it is more important for leaders to lead by example in order to ensure the safety, security and health of our community,” he said.
He told a local TV news station: “This virus is ravaging our community and it is critical that our community join the war on this virus by wearing masks, practicing social distancing, washing our hands and being vaccinated. That is why I called all of the Baptist State Convention presidents throughout Mississippi together to collectively, not simply declare that we should receive the vaccine, but to demonstrate that we should be vaccinated. By receiving the vaccine ourselves, we aim to show how critically important the vaccine is in bringing an end to this unprecedented pandemic.”
Reporting on this story includes an in-person interview with Stella Immanuel conducted by BNG Africa correspondent Anthony Akaeze, a Nigerian journalist who lives in Houston.
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