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Gauging the 'Wall of No' Among Vaccine-Resistant Evangelicals in South Carolina

Ministers have been key to getting real COVID information to some communities. But health officials might have a tougher time taking that same tack with vaccine-hesitant evangelicals.
Scott Morgan
South Carolina Public Radio
Ministers have been key to getting real COVID information to some communities. But health officials might have a tougher time taking that same tack with vaccine-hesitant evangelicals.

Evangelical Christians have similar reasons and similar percentages of vaccine hesitancy to other groups. But where there is resistance, it's strong resistance.

Church pastors are playing a big part in turning initial COVID vaccine hesitancy into rolled-up sleeves in South Carolina’s Black communities.

So why might that not work as well with evangelical Christians?

“If pastors made an effort to talk about [the coronavirus], or if they were pro-COVID vaccine, it would maybe cause people to question or to think about it,” says Dr. Jessica Minor, dean of Bob Jones University’s School of Health Professionals. “If you had a pastor and they’ve never talked about an issue like that in the past, they wouldn’t necessarily feel comfortable bringing it up. Or, the people in the congregation would say, ‘Why are you suddenly talking about vaccines when you’ve never talked about that in the past?’”

To get a couple things straight before we move on, yes, there are evangelical Christians of color and no, not all evangelicals are against the vaccine. A survey by the National Association of Evangelicals in February showed that 95 percent of evangelical leaders said they would be getting vaccinated, and just about 90 percent said they would recommend others do so. Studies by the Pew Research Center show that, though percentages are much more even among rank-and-file Christians, the majority still favor getting vaccinated.

But hesitant White evangelicals tend to be among the most staunchly hesitant. So, for state health officials and Christian medical professionals like Dr. Minor and her colleague, Dr. Mark Chetta, an M.D. who teaches anatomy and physiology at BJU, getting through that “wall of no” (as Assistant South Carolina Epidemiologist Dr. Jane Kelly puts it) is a tough task.

Doctors Chetta and Minor say a lot of the resistance among Christians is the same as that among other groups – mistrust of confusing or conflicting information; fears of too-rushed vaccines, of ludicrous side effects (like growing horns), of government tracking programs, and of other unfounded conspiracy theories floating around the social mediaverse.

But many pro-life Christians in particular have a problem with what they’ve heard about the use of fetal stem cells and fetal tissue in the development of the vaccines. And those theories – though false – can be harsh.

Dr. Chetta and Dr. Kelly both emphasize that there is no fetal material in the messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccines, Pfizer and Moderna.

But there is concern over the Janssen/Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which is an adenovirus vaccine. Some claim this vaccine contains stem cells from an aborted fetus. That is not true, Dr. Chetta says. The Janssen vaccine does contain replicated fetal stem cells that are generations removed from what was a legal, consensual abortion from several decades ago. But those stem cells in the Janssen vaccine are lab-grown, not derived directly from a fetus.

The makers of the mRNA vaccines, Dr. Chetta says, did test their vaccines in replicated stem cells, but the mRNAvaccines themselves do not contain any fetal material. And the testing, he says, was only an exigency, given how fast and how frequently the coronavirus was killing people right now.

“Because of Operation Warp Speed and the necessity to get it out as soon as possible, we used an existing cell line to test it,” Dr. Chetta says. “So you took the messenger RNA vaccine and you put it in some cells. Those cells came from an aborted fetus from decades ago.”

Christian medical professional like Dr. Chetta, who credits the Trump administration with accelerating the development of the vaccines under such intense conditions, and Dr. Francis Collins, the director of the National Institutes of Health and an evangelical Christian, say the sheer number of generations separating the original fetal stem cells and the ones used in the testing of the mRNAs and even the development of the Janssen vaccine make them morally clean.

In a podcast appearance with the National Association of Evangelicals in January, Dr. Collins said:

“Pro-life Christians can be in a position of acceptable ethics and morality by taking advantage of these vaccines if, in fact, that is going to potentially save lives. There is not a consideration there that Christians are somehow being complicit in some evil action.”

Worries about infertility are another consideration, particularly for younger Christians worried about not being able to have a family, says Dr. Robin Vedders, a nursing professor at BJU. Dr. Vedders teaches maternity and says she hears, especially from her female students, that they fear the vaccine will cause infertility.

Though she is not ruling it out, Dr. Vedders says the truth is, no one yet knows answers to questions like that. What they do know is how dangerous COVID-19 can be for pregnant women. According to the Centers for Disease Control, pregnant women are at higher risk of getting more seriously ill from COVID.

Israeli researchers say that vaccinating pregnant women could help protect the baby, and that country is actively vaccinating pregnant women. This actually includes Dr. Chetta’s daughter, who lives in Jerusalem. He says he is waiting to hear about whether his grandchild will be immune to COVID-19.

For the health and medical faculty at Bob Jones, getting through to resistant evangelical students can be daunting. But Dr. Chetta says it helps to think of the minds of the scientists and doctors working on these vaccines as gifts from God.

“As a doctor,” he says, “I’m just amazed at what God is allowing us to do.”

Scott Morgan is the Upstate multimedia reporter for South Carolina Public Radio, based in Rock Hill. He cut his teeth as a newspaper reporter and editor in New Jersey before finding a home in public radio in Texas. Scott joined South Carolina Public Radio in March of 2019. His work has appeared in numerous national and regional publications as well as on NPR and MSNBC. He's won numerous state, regional, and national awards for his work including a national Edward R. Murrow.