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Religious Leaders Play A Key Role In People's Decision To Get Vaccines Or Wear Masks

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Some U.S. political leaders are encouraging people to consult their doctors about the vaccine for coronavirus. Tennessee's governor has encouraged people to talk to their clergy, too. As Paige Pfleger from member station WPLN reports, some local church leaders take that responsibility seriously. Others are spreading misinformation.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHURCH CHOIR)

PAIGE PFLEGER, BYLINE: At a recent Sunday service, pastor Travis Fleming stands at the pulpit and prays.

TRAVIS FLEMING: We want to be in prayer, certainly, for a number of individuals that have tested positive this past week.

PFLEGER: In late July, the coronavirus spread rapidly through the pews at First Baptist Gallatin outside of Nashville. More than 50 congregants who attended a Sunday service got sick. Some were even hospitalized.

FLEMING: We had more who have tested positive for COVID in about a 10- to 14-day timeframe than we've had all of the previous 18 months of COVID.

PFLEGER: Fleming says it was sobering. The church temporarily paused in-person services. And when they do get back together, he'll ask people to wear masks. The outbreak could have been much worse, but he says they were lucky. Many of his congregants are vaccinated and didn't have serious symptoms.

FLEMING: It's obviously also - should be a wakeup call for those who are unvaccinated to say, oh, I don't want to go through that as an unvaccinated person. I need to go ahead and get vaccinated.

PFLEGER: Fleming is vaccinated himself. He thinks the vaccine is a gift from God. Still, he has reservations about preaching that from the pulpit.

FLEMING: It's a fine line for us as ministers to walk as to how much we say about a vaccine or how much we say for it or against it.

PFLEGER: Fleming says it's too divisive. That's the approach many leaders of white evangelical churches are taking. Their congregants are among the most vaccine-hesitant, and the states along the Bible Belt have some of the lowest vaccine rates. But there are outliers who do take a stance at the pulpit, like pastor Greg Locke of Global Vision Bible Church just outside Nashville.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GREG LOCKE: You will not wear masks in this church. I'm telling you right now, do not get vaccinated.

PFLEGER: That's what Locke sounds like when he's preaching from the stage under his red-and-white-striped tent. But later, sitting amid the rows of empty plastic folding chairs, he's more cool-headed.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LOCKE: People are like, how can you be so sure of yourself? Oh, I'm not sure of myself. I'm sure of the facts.

PFLEGER: Where do you get your facts?

LOCKE: And the facts embolden me. Well, I can't give up all my sources.

PFLEGER: A lot of what he preaches about the pandemic is based on misinformation and conspiracy theories. For example, he thinks that COVID-19 is a flu that's being overblown by the government. Why?

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LOCKE: Right now, they're trying to cover up a stolen election.

PFLEGER: But there's no evidence that's true. And the science has shown clearly that the coronavirus is far deadlier than the flu. Locke put up a vinyl sign facing the street that says, Global Vision is a mask-free church that celebrates faith over fear. He even has a tattoo on his bicep that says fear is a liar. Yet much of what he says seems to stoke that fear he's so against.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LOCKE: You get that COVID-19 vaccine, you're going to get sick, or you're going to die, period.

PFLEGER: The truth is, in Tennessee, nearly 90% of COVID-19 hospitalizations are unvaccinated people. While Locke's approach has drawn thousands to his church, it's also planted seeds of doubt among other followers, like Paula Greene.

PAULA GREENE: I got so upset. I was crying.

PFLEGER: When Greene first encountered Locke's sermons on Facebook over a year ago, she liked his preaching style. But that changed as his message went from religious to political, culminating in the service where he said people can't wear masks. Greene has an autoimmune disease and would have to wear one if she attended.

GREENE: And I prayed immediately. God, lead me.

PFLEGER: She remembers turning off the livestream dismayed.

GREENE: We're in a time right now that we are uncertain of, so I'm praying for discernment. Is this somebody that is wrong for me to follow? God has not laid on my heart to watch another service of his.

PFLEGER: She says she was searching for a shepherd, not someone who would lead her astray. For NPR News, I'm Paige Pfleger in Nashville. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.