(RNS) — As public health officials grapple with the slowing rate of COVID-19 vaccinations in the U.S., two groups of Americans stand out as being particularly resistant to rolling up their sleeves for the shots: Republicans and white evangelicals.
In mid-April, about 20% of white evangelicals said they would “definitely not” get the shot, compared with 13% of all Americans, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation survey. About 20% of Republican respondents said the same.
Given the increasing overlap between the two groups, it is reasonable to assume that evangelicals’ religious beliefs are driving Republicans’ statistical resistance, as well. Certainly, religious beliefs — about the end times and God’s power to heal — may be fueling some of this skepticism, but there’s much more to the story.
Sociological research has shown that the way Americans think about the relationship between science and religion has changed drastically over the past few decades. The chasm that appears to exist today between these two sources of cultural authority wasn’t as wide in the past. And a bird’s eye view of history may offer some hope that bridge building is possible.
In 1972, researchers for the General Social Survey, working with the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago, began measuring how confident Americans felt in the people leading certain key cultural institutions. Since then they’ve occasionally asked Americans to rate how confident they felt in the people leading the scientific community and organized religions.
Timothy O’Brien, a sociologist at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and Shiri Noy, an assistant professor at Denison University’s anthropology and sociology department, pored through 30 waves of the GSS to track how these attitudes have changed over time. The researchers found that in the 1970s, Republicans were more likely to place their confidence in science than religion, while the opposite was true of Democrats.
By 2018, these attitudes had completely reversed.
White evangelicals played an important role in this switch as they migrated into the Republican party. But even after excluding white conservatives from the dataset and controlling for beliefs about the Bible, O’Brien and Noy found that the same patterns still held. Compared with Democrats, even secular, religiously unaffiliated Republicans have become more closely aligned with religion over time.