Pastors in the South resist calls to promote vaccines, suspicious of another fight against Covid


State health officials are holding informal focus groups and outreach activities to try to allay pastoralists’ concerns about the immunization discussion, but progress is often elusive, they said. Many pastors have said they have already lost worshipers to fighting over coronavirus restrictions and feared risking further desertions by promoting vaccinations. Others said their congregations were so ideologically opposed to the vaccine that discussing it would not be worth it.

“If I tried hard to push it, I would lose my breath,” said Nathan White, pastor at Liberty Baptist Church in Skipwith, Va., A small town near the North Carolina border.

The pastors POLITICO spoke to are located in Virginia and Tennessee, mostly in predominantly white communities. Some in rural areas lead predominantly conservative congregations while others in more suburban areas said their churches were more politically mixed. Every pastor had been vaccinated but not all were keen to discuss it with their congregations.

Polls have consistently shown that white evangelicals are among the most vaccine hardened groups. The most recent, a June survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation, found that 22% of white evangelicals said they “definitely would not” get vaccinated, a figure that has barely budged since April. About 11% said they wanted to “wait and see” how the vaccines work.

NIH Director Francis Collins, a devout Christian who has used his ties to the religious community to promote public health measures during the pandemic, said he regretted pastors had faced “such a barrage of responses. negative ”from the faithful.

“It’s heartbreaking to come to this because of something that can save lives and yet has been so completely tainted with political opinions and conspiracies that it is impossible to have a simple romantic conversation with your herd.” Collins said in an interview. “It’s a sad diagnosis of the disease plaguing our country, and I’m not talking about Covid-19. I’m talking about polarization, even tribalism within what should be the loving community of a Christian church.

Officials in the Biden administration have often spoken of the role religious leaders could play in the vaccination effort. The White House’s Office of Faith and Neighborhood Partnerships holds an appeal every Thursday at noon with religious leaders from across the country offering advice and sharing resources that can help them encourage people to get vaccinated, said an administration official. Collins appeared with evangelical leader Franklin Graham to tout the safety and effectiveness of Covid vaccines, and Biden spoke about immunization during his Easter message and National Day of Prayer.

“From day one of this administration, religious leaders have played a key role in the vaccination effort,” said Josh Dickson, White House senior adviser on religious engagement. “As the trusted voice of the community, they continue to be essential partners in our work to connect with people from all walks of life and in all geographies on the safety and effectiveness of vaccines.”

Besides Graham, other prominent evangelical leaders have encouraged vaccination. Robert Jeffress, who called vaccines a “gift from God,” organized an immunization clinic at his 14,000-member mega-church, First Baptist Dallas. Conversely, there are also prominent examples of pastors warning the faithful not to be vaccinated.

Some religious leaders told POLITICO they lament that Covid vaccines have become the latest flashpoint in the country’s growing political division.

“At one point, people who thought they could at least overlap the political differences within their congregation now find it almost impossible to do so,” said Dan Bagby, professor emeritus of pastoral care at Baptist Theological Seminary in Richmond, Virginia. This is a significant problem for a number, if not the majority, of congregations. “

Virginia vaccine coordinator Danny Avula, in focus groups he led with evangelical pastors, sought to persuade them to take a more active role in promoting immunizations. The state offers content that can be inserted into church newsletters, testimonials that religious leaders can share, and runs virtual town halls for pastors. These efforts have been slow, Avula said.

“People ask themselves the question: is this our role? he said. “Is this a position the church should take given the politicization of this?” “

Tony Brooks, a field strategist with the Baptist General Association of Virginia, said he repeatedly urged pastors in northern Virginia to meet with Avula, but found almost no takers.

“Most are still timid of all the criticism they have received over the past 15 months from members on both sides of the Covid guidelines,” he said.

Certainly, some religious leaders have actively promoted Covid vaccines. Bill Christian, a spokesperson for the Tennessee Department of Health, said the Office of Faith Based and Community Engagement speaks with leaders of all faiths and tries to answer all questions.

“The feedback has been overwhelmingly positive and has resulted in several hundred small contextual immunization events in minority and vulnerable communities across the state,” Christian wrote in an email.

Black churches have a long history of activism, and many pastors in the South have spoken enthusiastically about the vaccine. Black adults are now among the least likely to say they definitely won’t get the vaccine, according to a KFF poll.

“We haven’t met the level of resistance from the clergy,” said Albert Mosley, senior vice president of Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare in Memphis, Tenn. Health system staff advised pastoralists on how to answer questions about vaccine side effects and misinformation. “It’s part of the overall role that black clergy see themselves occupying,” Mosley said.

Some pastors who urged worshipers to get vaccinated said they were careful not to appear critical or hostile when faced with misinformation. But they acknowledged that the feelings among many worshipers are particularly strong in the face of the pandemic.

Ricky Floyd, a pastor who held a vaccination clinic in early April at the Pursuit of God, a large predominantly black church in Frayser, Tenn., Said he had lost worshipers over the past year due to disagreements over reopening and masks.

“I’ve been a pastor for 20 years and Covid has done more damage to the church than anything I’ve seen – more than sex scandals, more than racism,” he said.

Floyd said he was initially reluctant to promote Covid vaccines because he felt city and state officials were not doing enough to make vaccines available in his community, despite having been hit hard by the virus. Now, he said, he is more aggressive in promoting vaccines, but resistance among his followers has hardened.

“When the momentum for the vaccine was high, we didn’t make it available to people,” he said. “We missed the opportunity to convince, to condemn and convert people.

Josh Hayden, a pastor from Ashland, Va., Decided to hold immunization clinics this spring at his church despite reservations about how they would be received. But he said many of his peers are emotionally drained after intense conversations about race and the coronavirus.

“They are really tired of tackling complicated issues and a lot of them are exhausted,” he said. “Anything you say or do can frustrate someone. “

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