A strong majority (76%) of U.S. adults say they have been, or plan to be, vaccinated against COVID-19, according to a June 7 Gallup report.
This is good news, but it means roughly 24% of the nation is vaccine resistant. As these numbers have only slightly fluctuated since early spring, it is unlikely they will change.
The same poll revealed that of the 24% who are not planning on getting vaccinated, 78% say that they are unlikely to change their minds.
Some have pointed to political affiliation as an explanation of vaccine resistance, with 46% of Republicans reluctant compared to 31% of independents and 6% of Democrats.
Others have linked vaccine resistance to education level, as Americans without college degrees are more likely to be vaccine reluctant (31%) than those who hold degrees (12%).
Religious affiliation is probably the most notable trend.
In a Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) report published in April, church affiliation and attendance were highly indicative of decisions about vaccination.
PRRI found that 28% of self-identifying white Catholics who regularly attend services are vaccine reluctant. Surprisingly, 33% of self-identified white Catholics who never or seldom attended were reluctant.
The same trend could be seen in other religious demographics.
For example, 43% of Black Protestants who regularly attend services are vaccine reluctant, compared to 59% of those who seldom or never attend.
Among white Evangelicals, 57% who regularly attend services and 51% of those who seldom or never attend are vaccine reluctant.
Something is going on here, especially among individuals who self-identify with a religious group but seldom attend services.
The simple answer may be grounded in theology – or, more specifically, a lack of theological knowledge about their tradition’s views on vaccination and health care.
Religious objections typically fall into two categories: (1) moral objections to vaccine development and manufacturing and (2) theological objections.
The first set of objections focuses on either an immoral process in development and manufacturing or a forbidden substance in the vaccine itself.
The most common objection is the use of fetal stem cells in the development and testing of vaccines. This objection centers around abortions that were linked to the original eternal fetal cell lines dating back to the 1960s.
For example, the Catholic Church and the Southern Baptist Convention disapprove of this moral infraction.
Yet, both point out that these cell lines have existed for 60 years and the need to protect current human lives outweighs the past infractions. Therefore, they both encourage their members to get a vaccine.
Similar to this is a rare Jainist objection to vaccines because their development involves the destruction of a living thing, a virus, which violates their core principle of nonviolence.
However, most believe that the killing of microorganisms through practices like cooking, the use of cleaning products and vaccinations is necessary and morally acceptable to protect humans.
Other practical objections are linked to a substance within the vaccine.
Some religious groups have rejected specific vaccines because their serum is made from porcine-derived gelatin. Obviously, this impacts Muslim and Jewish groups, though the leading COVID-19 vaccines do not contain animal products.
Overall, while some religious leaders have expressed displeasure over certain elements within a vaccine, they generally state that their religion affirms the protection of life over adherence to dietary rules.
The other category of religious objections is theology and relates to divine providence or divine healing.
The first was promoted early in the history of vaccines by the Dutch Reformed movement, which argued that vaccines interfere with divine providence. Today, this has typically been rejected and most leaders in the movement see vaccine development as a divine gift.
The best example of the second objection is the Church of Christ, Scientist (Christian Science Church), which argues that disease can and should be cured by prayer.
Like many other religious groups, Christian Scientists have been pragmatic.
For example, its founder, Mary Baker Eddy, argued, “Rather than quarrel over the vaccination, I recommend, if the law demand, that an individual submit to this process, that he obey the law and then appeal to the gospel to save him from bad physicians’ results.”
Similar appeals to prayer can be seen in a number of traditions emphasizing faith healing, but often these same traditions insist upon medical interventions like mechanical ventilation and hemodialysis.
Typically, religious objections to vaccination have been rare. However, they do exist and should be respected without public ridicule.
Yet, such objections cannot explain why so many self-identified people of faith are vaccine reluctant. In the end, it is probably not the result of legitimate objections.
More likely than not, those who self-identify with a denomination but rarely attend are unaware of their tradition or churches’ position on the subject.
This is a theological education problem. People do not know what they believe and why they believe it.
Therefore, we need to do a better job of communicating what our religious traditions have to say about vaccinations and the promotion of public health for the common good.