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Examining the role of religion as Idaho's COVID-19 cases show no signs of slowing

APTOPIX Virus Outbreak California Vaccine
Damian Dovarganes/AP
A protestor opposing COVID-19 vaccine mandates holds a sign in front of City Hall in downtown Los Angeles Saturday, Sept. 18, 2021. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)

Idaho continues to have one of the lowest vaccination rates in the country—even while the state is suffering through its most deadly surge of COVID-19. We know that hospitals are treating younger, sicker people now than in previous surges.

For some, the decision to not get vaccinated comes down to politics. But how does religion contribute to this decision? According to the Pew Research Center, the two largest religious groups in Idaho are Evangelical Protestants (21%) and Mormons (19%).

Idaho Matters is joined by Walter Kim, the President of the National Association of Evangelicals, and Jana Riess, a columnist who writes about the LDS Church for Religion News Service, to get a better idea of the ways religion could be influencing vaccine acceptance in Idaho.

"Being pro-life means if we have an opportunity to do something that is safe, simple, effective and cheap in order to help our neighbor, we should do that thing."
Jana Riess, columnist with the Religion News Service

Read Full Transcript Here:

Gemma Gaudette: You're listening to Idaho Matters, I'm Gemma Gaudette. Idaho continues to have one of the lowest vaccination rates in the country, even while our state is suffering through its most deadly surge of COVID-19 so far. We know hospitals are treating younger, sicker people now than in previous surges. Now, for some people, the decision to not get vaccinated comes down to politics. But how does religion contribute to this decision? According to the Pew Research Center, the two largest religious groups here in Idaho are Evangelical Protestants at 21% and Mormons at 19%. So today we're going to be talking with two people to get a better idea of the ways religion could be influencing vaccine acceptance here in the state. My guest today, Walter Kim, he is the president of the National Association of Evangelicals and Jana Riess. She's a columnist who writes about the LDS Church for Religion News Service. I want to thank you both for being here today.

Walter Kim: Thank you for having me.

Gemma Gaudette: So, Walter, I'd like to start with you. Let's begin with vaccines, so we know that white evangelicals in particular--and as I mentioned, that's a significant group here in Idaho--have been vaccine hesitant when you compare this group with other religious groups. I'm talking even among other Christians. Pew Research reports, about 40% of white evangelicals are still not vaccinated in September--so just this month. So why do you think that is?

Walter Kim: Well, Gemma, there are undoubtedly several factors. One is certainly the concerns that have been raised theologically by some segments of evangelicals that fetal material had been used, and it touches upon the deep pro-life concerns of the evangelical community. But those concerns have been repeatedly addressed in a myriad of contexts. We had Francis Collins, the head of the NAE, on webinar with the leaders of any member groups, and he gave a wonderful explanation of the reality scientifically of the fact that fetal materials were not directly used in the formation of these vaccines. So, you know, if theological concerns, ethical concerns are moved out of the equation, what else is left? I think evangelicalism is a grassroots revivalist movement and as such it has a very deep independent streak. And so some of the concerns revolve around religious liberties, the freedom to be able to worship. And that kind of independent streak has crept into the conversation and at times has become deeply politicized. So there are a number of factors that contribute to why evangelicals are hesitant--concerns about the vaccine safety that would also apply not simply to evangelicals, but to anyone who is wondering, you know, is this really safe? So whether it's just general safety concerns, whether it's a theological ethical concern or whether it's this kind of sociological reality that evangelicalism is is deeply independent and concern for religious liberty...I think there are a number of factors that might contribute to that hesitancy.

Gemma Gaudette: So, Walter, what is your personal perspective on getting the vaccine, if I might ask?

Walter Kim: Yeah, I think that there are deeply good reasons for getting the vaccine. At the NAE, in January, we had a survey of our evangelical leaders--so the NAE has 40 different denominations, scores of ministries and institutions that are represented within our membership--and we had surveyed a substantial portion of leaders. We're talking, you know, to about 80 leaders and over 90% of them said that they had planned on getting the vaccine. So that's a very substantial number. And the reasons given were...example, Romans, Chapter 13, a book in the Bible sets forth this principle. 'Love does no wrong to a neighbor.' So there's a strong principle of love that plays into the reasoning why we would get the vaccine, not merely safety for one's own health, but our responsibilities to our neighbor to stop the spread of this disease and to get back to those things that we deeply miss a worshiping life or community life together.

Gemma Gaudette: So, Walter, what do you tell people then within your community who are on the fence about this?

Walter Kim: First of all, I want to listen well. I mean, there are all sorts of reasons why people are hesitant, and we can't assume that one size fits all as a response. So to take into serious, serious consideration the concerns that are raised and secondly, shame doesn't prove to be a very good motivator. So shaming people into getting the vaccine invariably fails. There is an appeal to our deep ethic of love that we should pursue those things that benefit our neighbors. And as the science is well established, as there's a strong precedent for the ways that vaccines have been used in history to stem and then reverse the tide of pandemics and various influenzas. We have here an opportunity to contribute to the good of society because of our ethic of love, because of our desire to seek the welfare of those around us. And this participation in the common good is something that I would accentuate.

Gemma Gaudette: I want to turn now to Jana Riess, who writes a column about the LDS Church for Religion News Service. And Jana back in May, you wrote a piece--you said you were concerned about a study around vaccine hesitancy in the Mormon church. It's a study which showed that there was a split among Mormons on getting the vaccine. So why were you so worried about that?

Jana Riess: Yeah, so that data was from the Public Religion Research Institute or PRRI. And what's particularly interesting is that they repeated the survey three months later. So the data that I was reporting on in the late spring, early summer had been collected in March, and then they repeated the survey in June. And actually, there was very positive development among Latter Day Saints in regard to vaccination. So back in March, when they were surveyed, Mormons were basically split right down the middle. So 50% said that they either would get vaccinated or had already been vaccinated, and the other 50% were split between a group that was hesitant for some of the reasons that Walter Kim has beautifully described. And then a sort of recalcitrant group of refusals of 17% refused to get the vaccine. But by the time they were surveyed in June, that hesitant group that kind of moveable middle had been cut in half. So, you know, that was down to 15%. And most of those people who had been in the movable middle went on to say that they would get vaccinated or had already been vaccinated. So Mormons actually now are very similar to the national average, just a little bit lower than the national average in terms of who has been vaccinated. And I do think that what has happened is that Mormons are kind of falling in line with what the church leadership has instructed them to do.

Gemma Gaudette: Mm hmm. So, Jana, for those who are still hesitant, do they--in your research--do they cite religious concerns at all? But then on the flip side of that, what's the theological basis for getting vaccinated in your mind?

Jana Riess: Great question. And you know what we're seeing in this country more generally, not just related to Mormonism, but everyone really is this deep fissure, this deepening polarization along political lines and things that we would never have thought would become political issues have been politicized, and vaccinations have become one of those issues that's now politicized. And so I would say religion is part of that, but it's also part of a much larger and more complex web of issues that include partizanship as the most important factor in whether someone is getting vaccinated is really what political party they belong to, and that is the sad reality of our situation. Region of the country is very important. The West and the South have been far more reluctant to be baptized...[laughter]...not baptized...to be vaccinated excuse me.

Gemma Gaudette: baptized, vaccinated, you know...[laughter]

Jana Riess: Sorry about that. Compared to the Northeast, for example. Age is a factor. You know, Idaho has a younger population than many other states, as does Utah, and that makes a difference as well. Some of the states that have the highest vaccination rates also have older populations. So my point is just to say that it is complex and it's not reducible to any one factor.

Gemma Gaudette: Yeah. So, Walter, same question to you then. Are there biblical reasons people in the evangelical community cite to not get vaccinated? And if so, how do you then counter that argument?

Walter Kim: Well, I alluded to one of the issues earlier in terms of the moral hesitancy that exists. You know, was there fetal material used and again, better information that is provided about addressing that particular question is available, and I think we can address that a question well and allay the concerns. There's an overwhelming sense among religious ethicists, faith community leaders that this is a very pro-life vaccine that we are contributing to the saving of lives, particularly those who are vulnerable. The second thing is, you know, the deep concern about religious liberties, the freedom that we would have to worship in the mandate that we would wish to secure of our freedom of worship. To that, I would say. There are certainly concerns that we within the evangelical community have about our ability to worship. But with respect to the vaccine, I would wish to note that there are also deeper concerns that Christians have historically had over securing our freedoms, and that is the concerns of helping the vulnerable. The most profound ethical commitments that we have are the commitments of love, to love God and to love our neighbor--and that even comes at the cost of self-sacrifice. So I think there's a deep ethical concern that we have here to preserve our ability to worship, to pursue religious liberty. But there is an even deeper ethical and religious commitment that we have to love God, to love our neighbor, to pursue that which would protect the vulnerable. And lastly, you know, the Bible really does have many examples of medicine, and I think of some advice that the Apostle Paul gave to his protege, Timothy, where he told him to take a little wine for the sake of your stomach and your frequent sicknesses. So Paul himself, the writer of many of the books of the New Testament, advocated the use of medicine in a preventative manner. So take a little bit of wine as an antiseptic in order to prevent your sicknesses. I think there's a great biblical precedent for what we would have in the vaccine preventative medicine that is not simply preserving and protecting oneself, but deeply tapping into the ethic of love for the neighbor.

Gemma Gaudette: And Walter, what's interesting to me is-- being a person of faith myself and I think many people have have struggled with this--and it's exactly what you just said about protecting the vulnerable right? Protecting those who cannot protect themselves doing this...I mean, God asks us, calls us to care for each other. And I think it doesn't necessarily matter what religion you you identify with, I think there is a tenet within most faiths of of protecting one another, protecting the most vulnerable, frankly, protecting children who cannot be vaccinated if they're under the age of 12. And I think that there is a real struggle for many people of faith to understand why there are other people of faith who are choosing to not be vaccinated and citing religion as their reason when this is not what any of our faiths are based on.

Walter Kim: That is so true. You know, this is not merely an academic discussion, this is not something that we could debate in isolation from the tremendous and tragic human toll. I was in conversation recently with a hospital chaplain who was describing how overwhelmed he was for having had to officiate and supervised the death of 14 people in a week and how overwhelming that was because these were 14 people who had families who are deeply a part of communities who represented a loss that in many cases would have been prevented with vaccination. Maybe not all, but substantially so. And the human cost is terrible and the opportunity for us to reframe this discussion away from politics, away from the polarization to the ethic of loving those who are vulnerable, caring for our families, protecting them and contributing to the well-being of communities. It's really profoundly religious in its concern for the good of those around us.

Gemma Gaudette: And Jana, can we talk about the church institution...because LDS leaders have really come out in force to get their members vaccinated. Can you talk a little bit about that because it seems that it's become more and more forceful the longer we are in this pandemic?

Jana Riess: Yes, I would agree, and theologically, the reasons for that are very similar to what Walter Kim was just outlining. There is this emphasis on helping our neighbor. There is an emphasis on acting morally for the greater good, and vaccines are a part of that. The church has, as you mentioned, maybe stepped this up a little bit. Last week, for example, it announced that anyone attending a session in an LDS temple anywhere in the world has to wear a mask. It's not optional, or so it would seem the wording may be...perhaps there is a little bit of latitude, but I don't think so. I think part of also what's going on is that the president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints is himself a retired cardiothoracic surgeon. He's 96, so he's been retired for a while now, but he is primarily a medical professional, and he remembers what it was like to be a physician when the polio vaccine came out, and that seemed like such a miracle. And with COVID, he actually talked about that context of the polio vaccine all those years ago and how vaccines are intended to give us really a comprehensive ethic of life. This is...we're not selectively pro-life, I think is the message that the church would like to disseminate. And that being pro-life means if we have an opportunity to do something that is safe, simple, effective and cheap in order to help our neighbor, we should do that thing.

"Shame doesn't prove to be a very good motivator. So shaming people into getting the vaccine invariably fails."
Walter Kim, President of the National Association of Evangelicals.

Gemma Gaudette: You know, Jana, I've been very impressed with the leadership of the Mormon church when it comes to, I think, how direct they've been about about this. With that said, though, do you think there's more leadership should be doing?

Jana Riess: Certainly, I would have liked to see a more consistent emphasis on mask wearing everywhere and leaving that more up to individual leadership has led to a lot of confusion. It has led to the experience being very different from one area to another. This morning on Twitter, I posed the question to folks who live in Idaho. What is it like there? And it's, you know, people who live in wards--which are congregations are called wards--where there are more people who are wearing masks, they might have 75% or 80% mask wearing other places. It might be just a couple of families. And that just places an unreasonable burden on people who are vulnerable, such as the elderly or people who are immunocompromised. And it doesn't have to be that way. Let's all be on the same page.

Gemma Gaudette: Walter, you lead an evangelical organization, but it's so often individual pastors, I think, in churches that people are really listening to. So what grade-- if we could grade--would you give individual pastors and leaders on making sure their members get vaccinated? Or do you not think that that's the place of a pastor to do so?

Walter Kim: You know, the evangelical movement, as I mentioned earlier, is this populist movement, and so we don't have a centralized location where there could be a mandate and all evangelicals would need to adhere to it or at least respond to it. And that gets to the fact that what we really have is moral influence, moral persuasion. And so a lot is placed on a local pastor. I've served as a local pastor for nearly 30 years. And it's extraordinarily complicated work. You're trying to teach the scriptures and care for people in need and balance all sorts of practical and theological questions. As things become increasingly politicized and polarized, it's very difficult to enter into this kind of vaccination discussion without really losing traction on your ability to do other parts of the work. You know who wants to be spending all their Monday, you know, sorting through emails of complaints. I mean, that's just not attractive at all. And so there's the balance of what are the overall needs of the church that a local pastor must address? What are the practical success possibilities of addressing this issue? And to recognize that different parts of the country, different streams of evangelicalism, even within the same city, different evangelical churches have different constituencies, different kind of local cultures, and each of them really require a response that is most sensitive to its local context. So our encouragement would be to address boldly and teach consistently this notion of an ethic of love, and then to encourage local pastors to find opportunities as culturally relevant as possible to encourage people to move forward in working toward this common good.

Gemma Gaudette: So Walter, are you disappointed in pastors and other leaders? And I would not say that this is just within the evangelical Christian movement, because we've seen this in other religions who have actively spoken out against vaccines. I mean, we even have lawmakers who have called this vaccine the 'sign of the beast.'

Walter Kim: I think that's truly unfortunate. You know, this is an incredibly sober and grave assessment to call something the mark of the beast is something that scripture would reserve for the most profound evils. And so it is disappointing to see that something that scripture would reserve for profound evil is applied to something that many actually within the faith tradition would strongly affirm to be quite the opposite an expression of a gift from God. That is for the saving of lives in this kind of comprehensive pro-life approach that Jana really compellingly speaks about. And so there's a lot of work to be done. But again, I would say the voices of some should not negate the fact that they're the voices of truly many on the national and the local level who are in the evangelical community strongly advocating for this vaccine as a practical good and as an expression of love. So yes, voices of dissent and deep concern for this vaccine exists, but there are many, many voices that have spoken compellingly beautifully. And many churches that have acted very decisively. I think of the chairman of the Board of the NAE, Pastor John Jenkins. His church in Maryland served as a vaccination site, a prime vaccination site in Maryland and vaccinated thousands of people. And that's a story that needs to be told because good work is actually happening.

Gemma Gaudette: Mm hmm. Well, and I think too, it's interesting, Walter, I have in my own life during this pandemic have never had a crisis of my faith. I have heard other people talk about having a crisis of their faith when--as we've already spoken about-- why people of faith choose to not be vaccinated and it goes, you know, it's what we are supposed to do as Christians. But there seems to sometimes be a crisis of your religion, if that makes sense, because when people choose to say it's for religious reasons, it's very difficult to wrap your head around why anyone could say for religious purposes...I mean, let's take we know now with the fetal material that that is no longer a viable argument...it is difficult to to wrap your head around why someone would choose not to do this. So with that said, is this part of maybe the reason why your organization has frankly provided resources? I mean, you've put together an entire online guide to really help people get the proper information?

Walter Kim: That's right. You know, we wanted to take an approach of first educating and then secondly, engaging and lastly equipping so educating by providing a variety of resources, recognizing that one size doesn't fit all. There's different types of resources and the different formatting of those resources and different venues in which those resources are provided. So we do want to educate, but we also want to engage in a personal way. Encouraging conversations, smaller webinars of gathering people and that kind of engagement really speaks to the fact that people have different reasons for why they may be vaccine hesitant or vaccine opposed. And again, this personal engagement, it's laborious. It's difficult, and it is deeply reflective of the Christian way. We believe that God took the time and energy to come down in the form of Jesus, to engage with humanity and then equipping to consistently and persistently provide those resources, those engagements, and to make sure that church leaders are able to reproduce this kind of work on their own.

Gemma Gaudette: I want to end on a on a personal note, if you both don't mind... And Jana, I'll start with you--and same question for you, Walter--but how has this pandemic, How has COVID 19 tested your faith? But also, how has it made it stronger?

Jana Riess: I think you said it very eloquently, actually, that it hasn't tested my faith, but it has tested my religious orientation a bit because it's so hard to see people who are people I know to be good people who are not taking the virus seriously or even mocking it. That has happened and it's really painful to see that happen. And I just feel like we could be doing better as a people. We proclaim that we are Christians and that we want to follow Jesus. I'm pretty sure that we know that Jesus would have felt terrible mourning for the fact that six hundred and seventy something thousand Americans have died--to say nothing of that terrible death toll around the world. This is serious and it is a crisis, and we ought to be mourning with those who mourn. So I would say also that my faith has been strengthened in that there are tools within my tradition and within my religious institution that are helping and are trying to do the right thing. And that is good to see. So it's some of both, I would say.

Gemma Gaudette: Yeah. And Walter, what about you? How has this tested your faith, but then how has it made it stronger?

Walter Kim: You know, the testing of the faith that it really comes in the form of, for me, the application of faith, you know, to walk with people who are grieving, to hear these stories of loss and to enter into that is a testing of faith. It's also a testing of faith in that in as much as we proclaim, this vaccine is an expression of love for God and love for our neighbors, those neighbors include the vaccine hesitant and even the vaccine opposed. So, you know, we need to love those with whom we may disagree or even people who have profoundly and sharply criticized, you know, my position on this issue. Love really needs to go in every direction, and it's always difficult to love in that kind of Christ like manner. But there's a deep strengthening because as I see this pandemic unfold, I've witnessed so many beautiful stories of local churches rising up to the occasion and providing care for those in great need. And those stories are compelling stories of expressions of faith on the local level that really makes the difference. You know, there might be a lot of national discord and conversation about this. But on the local level, there are many churches, there are many individual Christians, there are many communities that are living out a beautiful, beautiful vision of what it means to love our neighbors.

Gemma Gaudette: And I must say, Walter, you make such a good point, it is difficult, I think, to remember that we do need to love those who even have opposing views from us. That has definitely been tested. I want to thank both of you for coming in and talking about this. It has been an enlightening conversation. I've appreciated it so much. Both of your perspectives on this. We've been talking with Jana Riess, columnist with Religion News Service, and Walter Kim, president of the National Association of Evangelicals. Thank you both so much for the conversation.

Walter Kim: Thank you.

Jana Riess: Thank you.

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Frankie Barnhill was the Senior Producer of Idaho Matters, Boise State Public Radio's daily show and podcast.