White evangelicals are the demographic group least likely to support vaccine requirements for children to attend public schools, according to new data from Pew Research Center.
The share of white evangelicals who are in favor of vaccines for public school attendance has dropped to 58%, down from 77% who said the same in 2019, Pew’s data shows.
The COVID-19 vaccine prompted an increase in parents claiming religious exemptions for vaccines, as both state vaccine data and opinions expressed in the Pew surveys show. The data didn’t surprise the Rev. Rob Schenck, a pastor who has written about the dangers of mixing politics and religion and has also written multiple articles about what Christian theology says about vaccines and vaccine mandates. He said he believes there is no theological basis for refusing vaccines.
“There’s an assumption among many evangelicals that science and medicine have discounted the reality of the supernatural, so why trust it? If we serve only one master, one Lord, then whenever the government starts getting into your personal business, they’re trying to be God.”
Most religions and most denominations of Christianity do not oppose vaccines. Pope Francis called getting the COVID-19 vaccine “an act of love.”
There are also legal implications on the topic. An article written by Mark E. Wojcik Professor of Law, University of Illinois Chicago School of Law published by the American Bar Association reflects many of Schenck’s views on the issue.
“Religious exemptions from vaccination mandates should be granted only for sincerely held religious beliefs and practices, not for suddenly held beliefs invented merely to avoid vaccination,” Wojcick said in the article. “State and local governments appear to be particularly ill-suited to adjudicate the sincerity of claims that religious beliefs or practices prohibit compliance with a mandate to be vaccinated against COVID-19.”
To explain why white evangelicals are less likely to support vaccine requirements, Schenck said it’s useful to look at the language surrounding the anti-vax movement that grew rapidly during the pandemic.
“Now there’s a much more aggressive strain of anti-vaxxers who say taking some vaccines is contrary to faith. They say getting a vaccine means you’re not exercising your trust in God for you for your or your children’s health. Some will even say getting a vaccine is defying God and assisting the devil’s work to harm Christians,” Schenck said.
He’s met many pastors who say they would have gotten their children vaccinated against COVID-19 if it was not required–a defiance that he said has driven this evangelical resistance to vaccines, especially the COVID-19 vaccine.
As someone who claims the term “evangelical,” Schenck said he does not agree with anti-vaccine rhetoric that’s been present in many evangelical churches. He also offered a warning to other evangelicals about the types of dogma and anti-vaccine messages they share.
“I think American evangelicals need to be very careful that we don’t start contradicting ourselves,” said Schenck. “For example, we call ourselves a pro-life group of people. We say we want to foster life. Well, when you become anti-science, anti-medicine and anti-vaccine, you actually start fostering death, not life.”
So, what happens if fewer people are getting their routine vaccines? Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health has already warned that the decrease in regular immunizations caused by the pandemic (and fewer well visits to the doctor) could cause a measles outbreak.
“Reduced immunity and more disease-susceptible people have set the stage for a global resurgence of the most contagious pathogen we know,” Johns Hopkins public health experts said in a statement about measles for World Vaccine Week in April.
Every state in America requires vaccines for children to attend school and 44 states allow for religious exemptions to those vaccines. An additional 15 states also allow parents to file a “philosophical exemption” to vaccines based on any belief–religious or not.
California, Connecticut, Maine, Mississippi, New York and West Virginia do not allow religious exemptions. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo ended the state’s religious exemptions in an attempt to stop the largest measles outbreak recorded in recent history.
“It contradicts our very witness in the world,” Schenck said. “So, American evangelicals would be well-advised to think deeply about the consequences of these things.”
The data also showed, despite COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy and a growing share of evangelicals and Republicans who are anti-vax or vaccine-hesitant, the majority of Americans still believe children should be required to be vaccinated against certain diseases to attend public schools.