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Pastor reveals the reasons behind COVID vaccine hesitancy in the evangelical community

As of Thursday, more than 64 million Americans are fully vaccinated against the coronavirus, and many others are eagerly waiting for their shots. But among white evangelical Americans, interest in the vaccine isn't as widespread. John Yang speaks with one evangelical leader about why that is, and what can be done to change it.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    As of today, more than 66 million Americans are fully vaccinated against the coronavirus, and many others are eagerly waiting for their shots.

    But among white evangelical Americans, interest in the vaccine isn't as widespread.

    John Yang speaks with one evangelical leader about why that is, and what can be done to change it.

  • John Yang:

    Judy, among religious groups, according to the Pew Research Center, white evangelicals are least likely to say that they intend to get the COVID vaccine.

    In Pew's latest survey conducted in mid-February, 45 percent of white evangelicals said they definitely or probably would not get vaccinated. That compares with 30 percent of all Americans and 33 percent of Black Christians — Black Protestants, rather.

    According to Pew, about 17 percent of adult Americans identify as white evangelicals.

    The Reverend Russell Moore president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention.

    Reverend Moore, thanks for joining us.

    First of all, let's get this out of way. Have you gotten the vaccine?

  • Rev. Russell Moore:

    Yes, I have had both shots.

  • John Yang:

    From what you can tell, this skepticism among — that the polling is capturing among people who identify as white evangelicals, does this have anything to do with religious beliefs?

  • Russell Moore:

    No, this doesn't have anything to do with religious beliefs.

    It's instead about the mistrust and distrust that's evident in American society right now. And, plus, I think some of it has to do with the fact that we have been isolated from one another in lots of ways for over a year. And much of the way that misinformation and disinformation gets combated is with people in conversation with one another.

    And that's why lots of us are doing what we can to say, vaccination is not only something that's acceptable for Christians; it's something we ought to thank God that we have the technology for, because it's going to get us back to doing the things that we need to do quicker.

  • John Yang:

    We reached out to some evangelicals in our viewership to ask them about their attitudes towards the vaccines.

    One person we heard from is Billy Bryan. He's 49 years old, a teacher in Memphis, Tennessee. He said he's young and healthy and that, in his view, what he sees as the potential risks of the vaccine outweigh the risks of COVID.

    Let's take a look at what he says.

  • Billy Bryan:

    My real hesitancy, though, is, I just don't really want to see the government or anybody force people to do something that those people feel like is not in their best interests.

    Again, if people are comfortable with it, I think the more the merrier. But it does seem like a logical decision to old off, at least to me individually, at this time.

  • John Yang:

    How typical is that, is what he just had to say? And how do you respond to it?

  • Russell Moore:

    Well, I think we have to make very clear the government isn't forcing people to get the vaccine.

    Instead, this is something that's in not only our own best interests, but also in that of our neighbors. We have really good scientific data on the vaccines. And I think some of the hesitancy that we saw in that clip may be overcome just as people start to see their neighbors being vaccinated and to see the fact that this isn't scary.

    This is, in fact, something that's helpful, and helpful to protect the people who are the most vulnerable around us. So it's not just about protecting oneself.

  • John Yang:

    The people we heard from also said — and this is obviously a small sample — but they said that their pastors in their churches aren't encouraging them to get the vaccine. They say it's up to them. It's a personal decision.

    Do you think pastors and churches should be encouraging it?

  • Russell Moore:

    Well, I think there are a lot of pastors who are. They're doing vaccination drives in their congregations.

    They're helping people to understand what can be gained. So, for instance, many evangelical churches have vacation Bible school every summer, to say, we will be able to gathering together for vacation Bible school, to do mission trips, to do youth community outreach, and so forth, and to minister to the elderly among us, who are often the most isolated in assisted living facilities and nursing homes and other places.

    We want to get those grandmothers and grandfathers together with their grandchildren. And so I think talking about the positive aspects of vaccination is the way to go, rather than seeking to scold people.

  • John Yang:

    Is there — for instance, when you got your vaccine, did you — was there any backlash or any negative reaction from friends and other pastors?

  • Russell Moore:

    Not from friends and other pastors. There's always going to be some people online.

    And I think a lot of this is driven by social media, where people are going to suggest, oh, well, this is part of some dark conspiracy, or this is going to get someone sick. And we have adequate data on all of that.

    And that's one of the reasons why one of the things that I did early on was to do a Webinar with Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, just going through every conceivable sort of conspiracy theory and every conceivable sort of fear to counter those things.

    And so I think there are some people who are not anti-vaccine. They just hear some of the rumbles going on around on social media, and they wonder, is this all right? Is this safe? Many of them, I think, will eventually come around.

  • John Yang:

    Francis Collins, of course, a Christian himself, a very fervent Christian himself.

  • Russell Moore:

    Yes.

  • John Yang:

    Is — I take it from what you're saying that a government push to try to reach evangelical Christians could actually backfire.

  • Russell Moore:

    Well, it could if it's too heavy-handed.

    I think that the emphasis ought to be on what's possible, if we get vaccinated in large numbers, the way we actually can get back to — we disagree on so many things in American life right now. And we're at each other's throats on so many things.

    But there are some things that we actually can agree on. And part of that is, we want to be together again. We want to be able to get as close back to normal as we can. And that's probably especially true for people who are religious communities, because we believe we ought to be congregated together.

    And so I think emphasizing the positive is the best way to go.

  • John Yang:

    The Reverend Russell Moore of the Southern Baptist Convention, thank you very much.

  • Russell Moore:

    Thank you.

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