Mormon vaccine raises the bar, dividing members of the faith
SALT LAKE CITY – After more than a year of virtual church attendance, Monique Allen struggled to explain to her daughter with asthma why members of their Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints congregation do not wear masks. Allen said she taught her daughter that wearing a mask looks like Christ, but now she worries her child will feel like an outcast.
Church leaders recently released his strongest statement yet urging people to ‘limit the spread’ by getting the COVID-19 vaccine and wearing masks, but Allen said she feared it still wasn’t enough to convince the many families in her congregation who refuse to wear masks and succumbed to anti-vaccine misinformation.
Members of the faith widely known as the Mormon Church remain deeply divided over vaccines and wearing masks despite constant guidance from church leaders as the highly contagious delta variant of the coronavirus spreads.
About 65% of Latter-day Saints who responded to a recent survey said they accept the vaccine, which means they have received at least one dose or plan to do so soon. According to the survey conducted this summer by the Public Religion Research Institute, a Washington-based polling organization, and Interfaith Youth Core, 15% were identified as hesitant and 19% said they would not get the shot.
The survey found that 79% of white Catholics and 56% of white evangelical Protestants identified themselves as accepting the vaccine.
Allen, a church member living in Wisconsin, is part of a contingent who fears that other members who refuse to be vaccinated will let their political views trump their loyalty to a faith that places great emphasis on l unity and obedience.
The message she shared with her 8-year-old daughter is that “of course Christ would wear a mask, of course he would get vaccinated because he is a loving person,” she said. “And that’s the only way you can take care of people these days are doing these simple things.
Other church members are upset that their leaders won’t let them exercise their own decision-making about vaccines and masks. The Utah-based religion with 16 million members worldwide is one of many faiths struggling with how to best deal with the lingering effects of the pandemic.
Divisions over masking and vaccinations in the Latter-day Saint faith appear to follow political lines, with conservative members more hesitant, said Patrick Mason, associate professor of religion at Utah State University. Mason said the division of the church is indicative of a larger pattern in the United States of political ideologies shaping people’s religious commitments.
“The common perception of Mormons and Mormonism is that when church leaders speak, church members listen and do as they are told,” Mason said. “It has at times revealed how conditional that loyalty can be.”
The faith of Latter-day Saints was one of the first to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic. In March 2020, church leaders suspended all church gatherings and closed temples. The church also held three major remote conferences since the start of the pandemic. The biannual conference typically brings together around 100,000 people in Salt Lake City over two days.
Many religious leaders have spoken out in favor of the vaccinations, including Church President Russell M. Nelson, a former cardiologist who received the vaccine in January and has encouraged members to follow his example.
Church-owned Brigham Young University in Utah has asked students to report their immunization status, but does not require vaccination. Masks are mandatory in classrooms and in all interior spaces where social distancing is not possible.
The church also requires that American missionaries serving in foreign countries be vaccinated.
Regarding masks during services, senior church officials said it was up to the bishops to encourage people to follow local public health guidelines.
In mid-August, they went so far as to issue a statement calling on members to get vaccinated, which they described as “safe and effective.”
Among other faiths in the United States, religious leaders have varied widely in how they approach issues of vaccination and wearing masks. To a large extent, there has been vocal support for getting the vaccine – including from senior leaders of conservative bodies such as the Southern Baptist Convention and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.
However, some Catholic prelates and evangelical pastors have sharply criticized the vaccination campaign and masking warrants, and others have been reluctant to address these issues for fear of angering some members of the congregation.
An AP-NORC poll in August found that among white evangelicals, 51% are at least somewhat confident in the effectiveness of variant vaccines, compared with 73% of Catholics, 66% of white Protestants such as Presbyterians and Christians. Lutherans, 65% of non-white Protestants and 67% of non-religious affiliates.
Some Latter-day Saints have accused those promoting anti-vaccine rhetoric of apostasy, a term that is associated with wickedness and describes when individuals turn away from church standards.
Kristen Chevrier, co-founder of a Utah-based health freedom group that has campaigned against vaccines, said the church should not be involved in health choices, and she fears people are not discriminated against because of their vaccination status.
Chevrier, who is a member of the Faith, said she rejects the idea that anti-vaccine people are apostates. She cited the history of the church to encourage members to seek their own personal revelation with God.
“How can we say that there is a general statement that applies to everyone, regardless of their personal revelation,” said Chevrier, based in American Fork, about 50 kilometers south of Salt Lake City.
Many members have raised concerns on social media that pro-mask and pro-vaccine sentiments are not shared by all regional church leaders, with some describing their experiences as “episcopal roulette.”
Unmasked bishops at a church in Idaho read the statement from senior church officials to the congregation, but only a few chose to start wearing masks.
A member, Marie Johnson, said she was disappointed that so many in her community had heeded misinformation on social media rather than continued calls from church leaders for immunizations.
“You can find something on the internet to support any position you want to take,” Johnson said. “Why would you choose the side that doesn’t include your religious leader? “
But some churches began to resume masking practices even before the leaders’ statement.
A church in Salt Lake City encouraged vulnerable people to participate virtually in meetings and sent a message to worshipers in early August recommending that everyone wear masks and get vaccinated.
“Our religious leaders have been so consistent from the very beginning,” said Søren Simonsen of Salt Lake City. “And to hear people say, ‘It’s a hoax, it doesn’t matter, it doesn’t affect us’, when millions of people are dead, it’s heartbreaking.”
Eppolito is a member of the Associated Press / Report for America Statehouse News Initiative corps. Report for America is a national, non-profit service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to cover undercover issues.
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