Dr. Danny Avula, the head of Virginia’s COVID-19 vaccination effort, suspected he might have a problem getting pastors to publicly advocate for the shots when some members of his own church referred to them as “the mark of the beast,” a biblical reference to allegiance to the devil, and the minister wasn’t sure how to respond.
“A lot of pastors, based on where their congregations are at, are pretty hesitant to do so because this is so charged, and it immediately invites criticism and furor by the segment of your community that’s not on board with that,” Avula said.
Across the nation’s deeply religious Bible Belt, a region beset by soaring infection rates from the fast-spreading delta variant of the virus, churches and pastors are both helping and hurting in the campaign to get people vaccinated against COVID-19.
Some are hosting vaccination clinics and praying for more inoculations, while others are issuing fiery anti-vaccine sermons from their pulpits. Most are staying mum on the issue, something experts see as a missed opportunity in a swath of the country where church is the biggest spiritual and social influence for many communities.
That was on display recently in metro Birmingham, where First Baptist Church of Trussville had an outbreak following a 200th anniversary celebration that included a video greeting by Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey. The pastor promised more cleaning and face mask availability without uttering two words that health officials say could make a difference among people long on religion but short on faith in government: Get vaccinated.
A few outspoken religious leaders have garnered crowds or media attention for their opposition to the vaccines, such as Tony Spell, who repeatedly defied COVID-19 restrictions to hold in-person services at the Baton Rouge, Louisiana, church where he is pastor. He has preached that vaccinations are “demonic” and vowed that the government will not “force us to comply with your evil orders.”
But they appear to be outliers, according to theologian Curtis Chang, with the majority of ministers avoiding the vaccine issue so as not to inflame tensions in congregations already struggling with the pandemic and political division.
“I would say that the vast majority are paralyzed or silent because of how polarized it has been,” said Chang, who has pastored churches and is on the faculty at Duke Divinity School.
A survey by the National Association of Evangelicals found that 95% of evangelical leaders planned to get inoculated, but that number hasn’t translated into widespread advocacy from the pulpit, he said.