As winter falls on the Northern hemisphere and Covid’s Omicron variant drives a new surge in morbidity and mortality globally, vaccination rates in the United States remain uncommonly low among white evangelical Protestants. With white evangelicals making up 14 percent of the U.S. population, 32 percent affirmed in recent polling that they hadn’t been vaccinated, and nearly a quarter, that they wouldn’t be. Among the secular, or even adherents of other religious faiths, there may be a temptation to draw straight lines between these numbers and evangelical beliefs. But as recently as 2017, more than three-quarters of white evangelicals supported vaccine mandates in schools, for measles, mumps, and rubella. What’s happened here?

Curtis Chang is the founder of the evangelical organization Redeeming Babel, a senior fellow at Fuller Theological Seminary, and on the consulting faculty of the Duke Divinity School. According to Chang, there’s nothing intrinsic to the evangelical mind that’s caused widespread vaccine skepticism: Evangelicals are prone by their faith to question secular authority, not to reject it irrationally. What’s formed the correlation between anti-vaccine convictions and white evangelicals, Chang says, are a set of factors that have combined to break down their trust in U.S. pro-vaccine advocates and secular public-health authorities. The key to engaging white evangelicals on the pandemic effectively, as Chang sees it, is understanding that breakdown and how to create networks of trust capable of overcoming it.

Eve Olivette: How do you understand the factors driving such a high rate of aversion to the vaccine among white evangelicals in America?

Curtis Chang: There are two main factors driving that rate—and they’re factors that are important for understanding vaccine skepticism among many Americans, whether they’re evangelical or not. One is polarization, unsurprisingly, and the second is a distrust of institutions. More than religion, or even religion versus science, this is what’s going on.

On polarization, we’ve gotten into this situation in the U.S. where almost anything can become what I would call elements of the uniform for the two teams, and it can have nothing to do with a person’s core beliefs. The car that you drive, what you read, the TV shows you watch—they’ve now all essentially become, for complex reasons, markers of left and right, red and blue. For unfortunate reasons, the vaccine was enlisted into the culture war American life is now locked into, such that to be on one side of it this war to be on one side of the vaccine—which, when you step back, is nonsensical. It’s absurd that a public-health measure like this, which benefits everyone, would somehow get recruited into polarized political conflict. But here we are, now in 2022, when everything is sucked into that dynamic, including the vaccine.

Debby Hudson

On the distrust of institutions, this is where it’s important to realize that any of us who’s taken the vaccine has done so to the extent that we trust the institutions behind it. With a very small exception of high-end scientists, none of us can tell you exactly, Here’s the full range of studies that show the safety and efficacy of the vaccine. Here’s the chemical composition of the vaccine. Almost all of us are taking the vaccine because we trust the FDA, the CDC, Big Pharma, local public-health authorities—or we’re not taking the vaccine, because we distrust those institutions. And this is where understanding the white evangelical resistance to the vaccine in America means understanding the history of, and the reasons for, this pattern of distrust, especially in secular institutions.

Olivette: Have the interactions between those two factors changed, with Joe Biden succeeding Donald Trump in the White House and the U.S. federal government now under Democratic control?

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