American Evangelical Anti-vaxxers, explained
To many, it really feels like the end of the world.
Anti-vaxxers. Most folks who see the vaccines as utterly necessary might dismiss them as “crazy” or “deranged.” For others, whose loved ones refuse to get vaccinated and willingly remain vulnerable to covid, it can be heartbreaking. Moreover, 44% of unvaccinated respondents in a September 2021 Kaiser Family Report were “white Evangelical Protestants.” Many of us see how our Christian faith requires and inspires us to get vaccinated, and we’re dismayed that our beliefs are being used to oppose humanity’s best shot at ending the pandemic and its suffering.
In the beginning…
Why might American Evangelicals be more inclined to believe misinformation about the vaccines? One reason stems from their long history of opposing the prevailing scientific consensus. This opposition took root in the nineteenth century, when Protestants in the US became highly polarized on the nature of the Bible. In his podcast on Premier Christian Radio, British New Testament scholar N.T. Wright recounts how many liberal-minded Americans imported the historical-critical approach developed in German universities. Historical criticism focuses exclusively on rational/scientific and historical questions about the authorship, context and compilation of biblical texts. This focus led to an attitude of distance from the Biblical message.
Wright states that in response, a large conservative minority of Bible teachers and pastors adhered to a strict literal interpretation of biblical events as an attempt to “save” the Bible from the doubts of modern rationalism. For them, it was fundamental to believe that every event in the Bible literally occurred as written, hence the term “fundamentalism.” On a later episode, Wright reminds us of the longest-lasting fault line between fundamentalists and the broader intellectual world. As Darwin’s theories in evolutionary biology approached the status of scientific consensus, Evangelical Protestants doubled down on the contrary claim that the Creation stories in Genesis 1 and 2 were literally true.
Set Apart or Left Behind?
If their beliefs about the beginning of the world already started to set American Evangelicals apart from the rest of society, their beliefs about the end of the world hammered home a visceral skepticism of popular trends and consensus. A chief proponent of this end-times belief was Jerry Falwell Sr., father of the now-disgraced Jerry Falwell Jr. Falwell Sr. sparked the current politicization of conservative Evangelicals: he co-founded and led the “Moral Majority” in the 1970s, which campaigned against abortion rights and formal gender equality, same-sex marriage, sexually-explicit material in films and tv and a host of other “liberal” causes that were gaining traction at the time and have since been enshrined in US law.
Falwell and many others viewed this rising power of liberal secularism and the accompanying decline of white conservative Christianity in America as signs of a cosmic, final conflict. As quoted in a PBS profile, Falwell asserted that “We are born into a war zone where the forces of God do battle with the forces of evil….Satan wants to lead us into death. God wants to lead us into life eternal.” President Reagan, in his famous (or infamous) “evil empire” speech to the National Association of Evangelicals in 1983, positioned himself as a hero in this conflict by vowing to wage holy combat against the dual spectres of American liberalism and Soviet communism.
Falwell and Reagan were far from alone in promoting an us-vs-them, end-times interpretation of twentieth-century society. Numerous novels and movies popped up over the latter decades of the millennium, written as fictional narratives but purporting to describe a possible imminent future. Hal Lindsey and C.C. Carlson’s 1970 book The Late, Great Planet Earth was the standout early example, selling ten million copies by 1980 and about 35 million by the year 2000. The preeminent entry in this genre was the Left Behind series by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins, written from 1995 to 2007. According to an NPR report, the series had sold 80 million copies by the time LaHaye died in 2016. It was adapted into a film trilogy starring Kirk Cameron, which met with mixed success. The trailer gives a pungent sense of the genre and its preoccupations:
Marked and Unmarked
Common to all these stories is an anxiety about the growth of secular and scientific cultural power as an existential threat to the lives of honest, patriotic Christians. According to American Evangelicals, this threat is explicitly foretold in the Bible, such as the reference in Revelation 13 to a “mark of the beast.” The beast is symbolic language for both a ruler and a civil government that defies God and oppresses Christians. Left Behind’s beast takes his cue from Reagan’s speech twelve years before the first novel’s publication: the series features a sinister and arrogant eastern European politician who seamlessly transitions the United Nations into a sketchy, anti-Christian and anti-American world government. The “mark” itself is often imagined in the “end-times” genre as a computer chip, tattoo or other implant that a government mandates in order to control Christians and exclude them from engaging in society and culture, or even buying food and other necessities.
This brings us at last to that visceral suspicion of covid vaccines. It’s true that some Evangelical leaders argue strongly in favour of getting vaccinated. It’s also true that a Democratic president, state governors and mayors, following the consensus of governments the world over, have mandated vaccines for public servants and strongly encourage similar mandates for private businesses. These mandates emerge from both popular support and a strong consensus in the global scientific community that vaccination is our safest and clearest shot at ending the pandemic. Thanks to these mandates, it is very difficult (or impossible) for someone who isn’t vaccinated to go to a movie theatre or a live sports game, much less eat at a restaurant. And if workplaces have a vaccine mandate, then unvaccinated employees risk losing their job over what they believe to be a matter of conscience and religious conviction. After more than a century of eyeing popular trends and scientific consensus with deep-seated mistrust, it’s understandable—if not fully rational—that some American Evangelicals believe, and a great many more American Evangelicals feel, that covid vaccination is simply a means of anti-Christian control.