The pandemic revealed a house divided
In the Christian New Testament, the Apostle Peter refers to the church as “a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people.” We didn’t realize just how peculiar American white evangelicals had become until Donald Trump and a pandemic revealed the worst.
When vaccines were first available, 54% of white evangelicals said they probably wouldn’t get it, and 45% said they definitely wouldn’t get it. This was twice the rate of likely refusal registered by non-evangelical white people.
A Pew study conducted six months later showed that evangelicals had been true to their word. Slightly over 40% had not been vaccinated compared to 26% of non-evangelical whites.
The divide is as political as it is religious. The same vaccine enthusiasm gap showed up when Republicans were contrasted with Democrats. At the senior end of the dial differences were modest: 94% of Democrats over 65 had been vaccinated by September of 2021 compared to 80% of Republicans. But among respondents between 18 and 29, 81% of Democrats had received the jab compared to just 45% of Republicans.
Mainline Protestants, Black Protestants and Catholics, by contrast, took mask mandates very seriously. But masks were optional at most white evangelical churches and Republican gatherings. Statistically, white evangelicals and Republican voters move in tandem.
But, disturbingly, white evangelical Republicans (74%) are more likely than their non-evangelical peers (54%) to believe Trump’s big lie about the 2020 election. White evangelicals were also far more likely than non-evangelical Republicans (67% to 52%) to believe that “A group of unelected government officials in Washington, DC, referred to as the ‘Deep State,’ had been working to undermine the Trump administration.”
Covid-related Conspiracy Theories
Opinion polls reveal that covid-related conspiracy theories, commonly circulated through social media, were highly influential within the white evangelical world.
Vaccine resistors learned that vaccines contain fetal cells obtained from abortions. There is a sliver of truth to this rumor. Vaccines did use decades-old stem cell lines initially related to aborted fetuses, but the link is so faint as to be meaningless.
People also learned that the vaccines can cause infertility (not true), or that they alter human DNA (also, not true) or that vaccines contain microchips that allow people to be tracked.
It was frequently suggested that Covid-19 was a bio-weapon invented by evil scientists; that it was a hoax created by wealthy elites for financial gain; or a conspiracy designed to rob Americans of their fundamental rights; or a cover-up created to distract public attention from a coming financial crash.
Emily Smith, an epidemiologist at Baylor University, created a Facebook page dedicated to countering inaccurate information about Covid-19. Initially, she says “I thought, these are just fringe beliefs.” Smith’s husband is a Baptist pastor, so she thought she understood the culture. “But the further we got into the pandemic, I realized, these are very widely held, and I was surprised by how many Christians and churches subscribe to this.”
Then the nasty comments and threats started pouring in. “It’s one of the scariest and most disheartening parts of this,” Smith told the Washington Post, “that so many people think that when you put on a mask, it is the mark of the beast or signals that you don’t have faith or God isn’t in control.”
Stuck in the middle
Not all white evangelicals refuse vaccine or resist mask mandates, of course. In fact, many members of the white evangelical community have dispensed accurate, scientifically-based information. Conservative columnist David French and Curtis Chang and Kris Carter, evangelicals all, founded Christians and the Vaccine, an intentional outreach to evangelicals. Baptist ethicist Russell Moore has used his bully pulpit to advocate for Covid-19 vaccines. The same is true of Tish Harrison Warren, an evangelical Christian who writes a weekly column for the New York Times.
Warren speaks for the 19% of evangelicals who couldn’t vote for Trump. The ex-president, she says, “has shown that he is more than willing to say any lie, ignore any standard of decency, and bring any amount of violence and division to shore up his own power.”
Let me oversimplify. There are appear to be three strands of opinion within the white evangelical community. There is the Trump-loving, conspiracy theory-believing, vaccine refusing camp. I’ll call them Group One. Then, there’s Group Two, people who voted for Trump as the lesser of evils, aren’t sure what to make of conspiracy theories, and, although they get vaccinated, don’t talk about it in front of their Group One friends. Finally, there is the 19 percenters, thinking evangelicals who think Trump is a dangerous fool, who live in the evidence-based world, and who have dutifully lined up for the shot. I’ll call them Group Three.
I can’t find good data to support the claim, but my gut tells me that Group One and Group Two are approximately the same size. They are the 81%. Group Three, though influential, represents the remaining 19% of white evangelicals.
In the long run—and I’m still going with my gut here—I suspect Groups One and Two will learn to live together while Group Three (the Never Trump, evidence-based people) will eventually realize—if they haven’t already—that Group One worships a different God.
Two forces hold Groups One and Two together: a shared attachment to conservative politics, and a unique set of theological assumptions. I will call this fusion of Groups One and Two, the white evangelical consensus.
The white evangelical consensus builds on the assumption that God is the author of everything that happens. The familiar statement, “everything happens for a reason” is a corollary of God’s complete control of events. Thus, if someone dies, God decided, for his own inscrutable reasons (and this God is unquestionably male) that the dearly beloved needed to come home.
By the same theological logic, if God wants you to die from Covid-19, you’re toast. If God’s “plan for your life” has a few more chapters, you are sure to survive. It’s all up to Big Guy.
The second assumption undergirding the evangelical consensus is that God rewards faith with good fortune (call it “Job’s friends theology”). The strong form of this belief is found in Pentecostal and charismatic religious traditions that see healing as part of the atonement.
The flip side of this belief is that, if you are numbered among the faithful, you have nothing to fear from Covid-19 or anything else. By this reasoning, mask-wearers who submit to vaccination, betray (a) a lack of faith, and (b) a spirit of fear.
A PRRI survey from March of 2021 found that 28% of white evangelical Republicans agreed with the statement:“God always rewards those who have faith with good health and will protect them from being infected with COVID-19.”
If a third of a preacher’s flock are Group One people, he will likely maintain a polite silence on the matter of masks and vaccination.
End of the world theology, the third assumption holding the white evangelical consensus together, expresses itself in two ways. Since the form of this world is passing away, the pandemic should not be our ultimate concern. Alternatively, hard times, pandemics included, are viewed as the death pains of creation described in Revelation.
All three of these theological assumptions encourage a sheep-goats cleavage. Since the folks beating the drum for mask mandates and vaccination belong to the liberal elite, their views should be rejected out of hand. We are sheep and they are goats. If they are getting poked and wearing masks, the faithful of the land will do the opposite. Many Group One people have even concluded that covid vaccination might be the mark of the beast.
The same PRRI survey cited earlier, found that 64% of white evangelical Republicans believed that “the end of the world and God’s ultimate judgment is coming soon.” If the pandemic is one of the plagues of the Apocalypse, why fight it?
This explains why only 48% of white evangelicals report that they would consider the community health effects a lot when deciding to be vaccinated. For the purposes of comparison, consider that 70% of black Protestants, 65% of Catholics and 68% of Americans with no religious affiliation report that they would take public welfare into consideration. All these numbers are disturbingly low, they demonstrate the degree to which the white evangelical consensus has demonized its ideological opponents.
A traditional suspicion of science
Underlying these theological assumptions is a long-simmering tension between American white evangelicals and the scientific community. If you believe that the created world is less than 10,000 years old, that all of the stories related in the Bible (including Noah and his Ark) are literally true, and that everything that happens, (sickness and natural disasters included) is a direct reflection of God’s will, the agnostic assumptions of the scientific community will be perceived as a threat.
Few white evangelical students are encouraged to embark on scientific careers, and those that do often end up leaving the fold. Evolutionary theory, with its ancient earth, is a particular bugaboo in many churches.
Group Three evangelicals don’t have this problem. They are scientifically literate and seek to harmonize faith and science. They may feel alienated from the academic elite. They have little patience for New Atheist rants and anti-faith memes on Facebook. The 19% are almost exclusively pro-life. Until recently, they tended to vote Republican.
But factor Group Three out of the white evangelical equation and you are left with a constituency that views scientists as part of the secular elite. The evangelical consensus is increasingly inclined to reject elite opinion on any subject as a matter of course.
Conservative Republicans have their own beef with environmental and climate scientists. When conservative politics and conservative religion join forces, each side encourages the worst impulses of the other. The toxic result has been on display since the earliest moments of the Covid-19 pandemic. The rapid decline in church attendance and religious affiliation is partly a result of this white evangelical-Republican convergence.
Caught in the middle is Group Three, the 19 percenters. Compared to the white evangelical consensus, the 19 Percenters are few in number, but, being well-educated and articulate, they punch above their weight. Bestriding the ideological divide, as they do, they are uniquely positioned to make a positive contribution to a fraught national conversation. I’m listening.
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