The disproportionate resistance to the COVID-19 vaccine among white evangelicals in the United States has been well documented. Part of the explanation is likely found in the anti-vaccine conspiracy theories and alarmism promoted by religious-right and right-wing media and advocacy organizations like the Liberty Counsel, as well as anti-vaccine preaching by some conservative evangelical preachers.
Even before the COVID-19 vaccines were available, religion scholars Andrew Whitehead and Samuel Perry warned that Christian nationalism “is consistently one of the two strongest predictors of anti-vaccine attitudes” and that Christian nationalist suspicion and resistance could be “disastrous for achieving herd immunity and reducing the spread of the virus.”
Their prediction has come to pass. In February, a Pew survey found that white evangelicals are far less likely to get vaccinated than the general public. In March, a Kaiser Family Foundation survey found that white evangelical Christians and Republicans were the most likely groups to say they would “definitely not” get vaccinated for COVID-19. In April, the Public Religion Research Institute reported that 26 percent of white evangelical Protestants said they would not get vaccinated and another 28 percent were “vaccine hesitant.”
Last month, One America News host Natalie Harp interviewed Liz Harrington, editor-in-chief of Steve Bannon’s “War Room: Pandemic,” to try to explain away the mounting evidence that white evangelical Christians are leading the resistance to taking the COVID-19 vaccine. Harp said she personally was getting the vaccine, but she called news stories about evangelical resistance to vaccines a “dangerous” and “troubling” narrative, adding, “Imagine classifying an entire race and religion as a quote-unquote major problem that needs to be dealt with.” Harp tried to turn the story into one of anti-Christian persecution, saying:
It’s like almost now becoming a religious argument where they’re saying, you know, “Christians are bad.” So, instead of turning into, “Let’s fight COVID,” it’s now, “Let’s fight Christians because they don’t believe the science,” when we’re not even saying that. We’re just saying we believe in freedom. We don’t believe in living in a communistic society.
As Right Wing Watch has reported, religious-right legal group Liberty Counsel, probably best known for its anti-LGBTQ advocacy, is a leader in spreading COVID-19 conspiracy theories and anti-vaccine alarmism. In early April, Right Wing Watch reported that Liberty Counsel founder and chairman Mat Staver was promoting conspiracy theories about the virus and the vaccine on his new “Freedom Alive” television show, which airs on Orlando’s Good Life 45 TV station. Two weeks later, we reported that Liberty Counsel was promoting additional conspiracy theories, claiming globalists who were pushing a regime of social control were committing “one of the greatest crimes of our generation” by covering up what Staver claimed, falsely, was a cheap cure for COVID-19.
Staver is still at it—using his own media platforms and appearing in other conservative Christian media to peddle anti-vaccine disinformation.
On April 29, Staver appeared on the American Pastors Network’s “Stand in the Gap Today” podcast, where he denounced what he claimed was “intimidation and coercion” designed to “force the submission to the experimental gene therapy.” And he denounced “vaccine passports” as “the most serious threat to freedom that we’ve ever faced.” In response, APN’s Sam Rohrer called for “biblical and constitutional resistance” to public health policies meant to limit the spread of the virus, claiming they enabled “a global government agenda which is anti-freedom and anti-Christ.”
This month, Staver touted Dr. Janci Chunn Lindsay, who had appeared at a CDC forum on April 23 and called for all gene therapy vaccines to be halted immediately, warning that “we could potentially sterilize an entire generation.” A fact- heck by the Frech news agency AFP, which included responses from the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and other experts, called her claims “inaccurate and misleading.”
On May 5, Staver was a guest on VCY America’s “CrossTalk” program, where he warned that companies or schools that require vaccines could face legal liability for exposing people to harm. He claimed that unvaccinated women are having miscarriages just from being around vaccinated people. While interviewing Staver, the “CrossTalk” host referred to a widely refuted study linking the Pfizer vaccine to Alzheimer’s disease.
This week, Staver devoted several episodes of his “Faith and Freedom” podcast to an interview with Dr. Lee Merritt, a spokesperson for America’s Frontline Doctors, a fringe group infamous for its press conference proclaiming that hydroxychloroquine is a cure for COVID-19. (It isn’t.)
“This is a war against your children,” Merritt told Staver. “And the masks are the keystone. Don’t wear them. Just stop wearing them.” Staver and Merritt suggested that it was possible that the vaccine could spread from vaccinated people to unvaccinated people. Merritt said that if she were pregnant, she wouldn’t work around vaccinated people and predicted that doctors’ offices will begin turning away vaccinated people rather than unvaccinated ones.
When Staver featured Merritt on his television show, Right Wing Watch noted that Merritt had been criticized by the director of McGill University’s Office for Science and Society as a “bumbling neophyte” on the science of COVID-19. Earlier claims by Merritt about the vaccines having been distributed before receiving emergency use authorization from the FDA were rated “false” by PolitiFact, which described Merritt as “an orthopedic and spinal surgeon and the owner of a clinic in Nebraska that performs tattoo removal and other services.”
Based on the assertion that adverse reactions to the vaccines that are reported to the federal Centers for Disease Control capture less than 1 percent of the number of people who are harmed by vaccines, Staver claimed in a May 4 email that “the COVID shots are killing more people daily than 9/11 did!”
Many of the claims and conspiracies Staver promotes are similar to those debunked by The Atlantic in April.
Liberty Counsel has also represented churches that fought pandemic restrictions on worship gatherings as a violation of religious liberty. The group reported Monday that a settlement agreement against “discriminatory” COVID-19 restrictions on churches had resulted in California paying Liberty Counsel $1.35 million “to reimburse attorney’s fees and costs.” Liberty Counsel had represented Harvest Rock Church and Harvest International Ministry, led by dominionist New Apostolic Reformation leader Ché Ahn, who participated in a “Stop the Steal” rally in Washington on the eve of the Capitol Insurrection.
Staver has warned in apocalyptic terms that governments or businesses requiring proof of vaccination, commonly referred to as “vaccine passports,” are a threat to religious liberty and freedom itself. He portrays them as part of a longstanding globalist conspiracy to track, trace, and control every person akin to systems employed by the totalitarian government in China. In a May 13 email alert, Staver warned, “Kiss freedom goodbye unless we stop this NOW.” And in a May 14 email, Staver said that Liberty Counsel had sent a model executive order to all Republican governors urging them to forbid local governments or businesses from using “vaccine passports”:
The push for vaccine passports was developed long before COVID, is not limited to COVID and will continue after COVID. This is about control–forcing your medical decisions and using freedom as a carrot. The truth is you lose your freedom by submitting to a vaccine passport–which will include tracking and tracing your every move.
But Staver is not without hope. In an April 23 email, he declared that “neither control-obsessed politicians nor billionaire social engineers can stop the Spirit of the Lord!” Liberty Counsel has sent demand letters challenging school districts and universities requiring that students be vaccinated before returning to school.
COVID-19 denialism and resistance to public health measures were also a feature of so-called “Stop the Steal” events like the Jan. 5 rally in Washington, D.C. In March, religious-right pundit and Stop the Steal activist Eric Metaxas tweeted, “Don’t get the vaccine. Pass it on.”
In April, the Public Religion Research Institute and Interfaith Youth Corps released a study of vaccine hesitancy and resistance suggesting that nearly half of white evangelical Protestants who were vaccine hesitant said that faith-based approaches—like a religious leader getting a vaccine or a congregation serving as a vaccine site—would make them more likely to get vaccinated.
Last month, two evangelical Christians published an open letter to Metaxas telling him that his support of “unfounded COVID-19 anti-vaccine claims” is “dangerous.” And religious-right leader Franklin Graham recently appeared on CNN to encourage fellow evangelicals to get vaccinated, saying, “I thank God for the vaccine.”