Many faith communities have resumed in-person worship with over 57% of the U.S. now fully vaccinated.
A recent Pew Research Center study revealed that regular religious service participants are moving from remote worship to public worship in significant numbers.
In July 2020, only 33% of regular service participants attended public worship at least once a month and 72% attended remotely at least once a month. By September 2021, those numbers flipped to 64% and 55%, respectively.
This is a welcome relief for believers to feel safe enough to raise their voices in solemn praise together.
However, this same Pew study also revealed that most churches did not speak on the importance of vaccines.
Only 39% of worship attenders felt encouraged by their clergy or church to get vaccinated, Pew found. While only 5% of attenders felt discouraged, 54% reported that their faith group did not say much about the vaccines.
This reveals two things. First, religion may not have had as negative an impact upon vaccination rates as was previously thought. Second, half of our clergy might just be asleep at the wheel.
With nearly five million deaths and more than 240 million cases worldwide, along with a growing number of “long COVID” cases still experiencing symptoms over six months after infection, one would assume religious leaders would be compelled to say something – or at least bring some much needed reason to the debate.
This pandemic is the greatest public health event in decades. It is one thing to refuse to take a position about vaccination or to simply say this is an issue between a patient and their physician. It is another to ignore or avoid the issue.
At a minimum, churches and clergy should be providing their congregations with information that comes from recognized experts. Some have done so.
Among historically Black Protestants, 64% report that their pastors encourage vaccination, while 34% say their pastors haven’t said much about being vaccinated and 2% that they had been discouraged from doing so.
Other traditions have not, with only 21% of evangelicals saying pastors had encouraged vaccination, 73% reporting that not much was said and 4% saying vaccination had been discouraged.
During this pandemic, we forgot that public health, like public education, has a long and fruitful history of religious partnerships. As far back as the late 1700’s, public health officials were calling upon religious communities to help them promote the new smallpox vaccines.
This was exemplified in 1799 when the French Central Vaccine Society called upon Jewish, Catholic, and Protestant clergy nationwide to participate in public inoculation efforts.
Countless ministers participated by reading statements from the pulpit, developing whole sermons, distributing medical literature and, in some cases, administering vaccines themselves.
It should not be forgotten – these brave clergy were taking a big risk putting their reputations behind the new treatment. They did so because their theology and understanding of ministry called them to service and to promote the common good.
For the last few decades, we have mistakenly assumed that religion is at odds with public health. History says different.
The very beginning of the vaccine movement in the United States goes back to the controversial Calvinistic pastor Cotton Mather. While best known for his role in the Salem witch trials, he was a driving force for the early inoculation effort in America.
In 1721, the HMS Seahorse brought a new wave of smallpox to Boston, with half the city becoming infected and 844 Bostonians dying in the first year. This, and the death of his wife and several children, caused Mather to passionately promote vaccination from his pulpit at the Old North Church.
A century and a half later, Lorenzo Snow, the late president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, put the entire weight of his tradition behind inoculation efforts when he released an official statement calling on Mormons to avail themselves for vaccination in 1900. Later in 1957, a similar statement was released related to the polio vaccine.
We have also forgotten about the Sabin Sundays of the 1960’s where families would wait in line for a spoonful of a pink syrup or a sugar cube containing the polio vaccine. These vaccination clinics happened at churches after worship services and were promoted from the pulpit.
Houses of worship historically have done everything from distributing pamphlets on public health issues and hosting cancer support groups to serving as crisis response centers and even free clinics.
During the H1N1 pandemic of 1918, many churches were closed for worship in order to slow the spread of the virus but were quickly reopened as hospitals.
While I understand why a trained theologian would be hesitant to address medical issues due to feelings of inadequacy, it is no excuse.
The simple and unavoidable truth is that religious leaders are, by definition, community leaders and influencers. Such a role negates one’s ability to avoid issues that stress the public. The public is looking for reassurance.
The above-mentioned Pew study reveals just this, finding that 61% of Americans trust the clergy at their place of worship and 84% trust their primary care physicians. By comparison, only 49% expressed trust in their state elected officials and 41% in the media.
People trust their preacher and their doctor far more than public officials or talking heads on television.
The public is looking for guidance, and they want it from someone they trust. A coalition of physicians and pastors has, historically, been what built the bridges that defeated both smallpox and polio.
As clergy, our congregations are looking to us not to be medical experts. They are looking to us for guidance as to where to find the best information and how to make decisions, as well as for reassurance that one can trust public health experts.
This has been the role of clergy for millennia.
So, not to engage congregants regarding community issues – as far too many appear to have done during the COVID-19 pandemic by not speaking about the importance of vaccines – is a betrayal of the profession, calling and public trust.