Ministers could saves lives by stepping up and promoting COVID-19 vaccines from pulpit

YORK DISPATCH EDITORIAL BOARD
  • Ministers, especially in the Bible Belt, have been reluctant to promote COVID-19 vaccines.
  • A poll said 40% of white evangelical Protestants said they likely would not get vaccinated.
  • Widespread support from ministers could help to reduce that number.
Many white evangelicals have been hesitant to receive COVID-19 vaccinations.

For Americans of faith, ministers hold unique positions of influence.

As spiritual leaders, what they say, or don’t say, from the pulpit can make a real difference in the lives of their followers.

That’s why a recent story from The Associated Press was so disconcerting.

Many Bible Belt preachers silent on shots as COVID-19 surges

As the delta variant causes a nationwide surge in COVID-19 cases, many preachers, especially those in the Bible Belt where the COVID surge is at its worst, are remaining silent on the benefits of the vaccines.

Even worse, a few outspoken religious leaders are outright telling their members not to get a shot. They’ve received a tidal wave of media attention for their outlandish stances, but fortunately they appear to be outliers in the debate.

The more worrisome — and larger — faction appear to be ministers who are staying silent on the need to get vaccinated.

And, in many cases, it’s not because they don’t personally believe in the value of inoculations. In fact, a survey by the National Association of Evangelicals found that 95% of evangelical leaders planned to get inoculated. Unfortunately, that number hasn't translated into widespread advocacy from the pulpit.

Showing hesitancy: Many ministers, it seems, simply don’t want to weigh in on a debate that’s become downright hostile at times.

“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," said Dr. Danny Avula, the head of Virginia’s COVID-19 vaccination effort.

Avula said some members of his own church have referred to vaccines as “the mark of the beast,” a biblical reference to allegiance to the devil. Avula said his minister wasn't sure how to respond.

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"I would say that the vast majority (of ministers) are paralyzed or silent because of how polarized it has been,” said theologian Curtis Chang, who has pastored churches and is on the faculty at Duke Divinity School.

The ministers’ hesitancy is understandable. No one enjoys unpleasant or nasty confrontations. That’s simple human nature.

Many also likely fear that they could get fired if they did speak out.

And some ministers certainly believe that it’s not their role to tell their followers how to make their medical decisions.

A need to take a leadership role: Still, ministers are supposed to be leaders, not followers, especially when their words can help to save the lives of their members. There is not a more vital pastoral role than that.

Need proof?

A poll by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research in March showed that 40% of white evangelical Protestants said they likely would not get vaccinated, compared with 25% of all Americans, 28% of white mainline Protestants and 27% of nonwhite Protestants.

Widespread support from ministers, who have personally gotten the vaccine in overwhelming numbers, could help turn the tide on those frightening numbers.

Some ministers have supported vaccines: Fortunately, some ministers have shown a willingness to wade into the polarizing debate and are publicly praying for more inoculations.

Some are even hosting vaccination clinics, despite the possible backlash. Those men and women of faith are to be commended.

Other ministers, who have remained silent but believe in the value of vaccinations, need to follow their lead.

It would be a true act of courage.

It would also be the Christian thing to do.