With the colder weather, Americans are spending more time together indoors, including with family and friends to celebrate the holidays. Are they safe doing so? Currently, more than 30% of Americans remain completely unvaccinated, and COVID-19 cases are surging again in many states, increasing the risks of indoor gatherings even for those vaccinated. The looming threat of the new omicron variant makes it all the more important that we stamp out opposition to vaccination now.
Many point the finger at faith communities for why inoculation rates aren’t higher in the United States — and certain concerns about religious congregations’ threat to public health are well-founded. After all, churches served as major transmission sites early in the pandemic. A number of pastors also publicly and persistently condemn wearing masks. And plenty of evangelical Christians continue to rally behind the anti-vax cause.
But faith communities also hold the potential to be one of our most powerful forces for good in the fight to overcome vaccine hesitancy.
Some prominent faith leaders and organizations have already spoken out encouraging vaccination on religious grounds. For example, Presiding Bishop Michael Curry of the Episcopal Church has promoted vaccination as a way to fulfill the biblical mandate of “loving your neighbor as yourself.” However, faith communities could do — and need to do — so much more.
In late May, we surveyed a representative sample of 2,500 American adults about religion, vaccination and mask-wearing opinions and behaviors. We found that two-thirds of those who are part of a congregation received messaging of some kind encouraging vaccination from their leaders or fellow members. And, surprisingly, only 5% of congregants heard solely negative messages about vaccines.
At the same time, however, faith communities are not a panacea. Of those who received at least some encouraging messaging, more than half also heard an accompanying negative message about vaccination. And nearly one-third of congregants surveyed received no messaging whatsoever, at a time when over 60% of Americans were not fully vaccinated.
Given that millions of adults attend church services during any week, no other sector of civil society today rivals this level of exposure. Coupled with the generally high level of trust in faith communities on matters of public health, imagine what would happen to vaccination rates if the majority of congregation-based networks offered uniform messages of encouragement.
The mixed messaging we observed is representative of the opposing perspectives shaping U.S. public health strategies toward COVID-19. At this moment of political polarization, conservative congregations are generally seen as a lost cause in the fight to increase vaccination rates. By contrast, progressive faith communities are believed to be consistently strong advocates of inoculation.
But our study demonstrates that neither of those perspectives is entirely true. No matter where they fall on the political spectrum, only a minority of American adults who are part of congregations are exposed to uniform messages from leaders and fellow members encouraging or discouraging vaccination.
Instead, our data suggests that it is the consistency of messaging, not the particular type of congregation to which one belongs, that is critical for understanding individuals’ decisions about vaccination.
While these patterns might reflect a range of processes, including self-sorting into religious groups sharing similar beliefs, they point to the potential power of faith communities’ messaging in the battle against vaccine hesitancy.
The theological positions of the major faith traditions do not prohibit vaccination, a point Dr. Anthony Fauci and other public health officials have recently emphasized. So, if not these formal tenets, what is stopping more congregations from spreading encouraging messages about vaccination?
The time for faith communities to reach a clear and uncontested commitment to vaccination is now.