Is Social Encouragement the Key to Increasing Vaccination Among Evangelicals?
June 7, 2021
This article is part of a series called Faith in the Field that explores responses to Covid-19—including vaccination efforts—within different faith communities. The series features racially and religiously diverse leaders across the United States who shared their stories with IA via one-on-one interviews. In addition to illuminating distinctive experiences of the pandemic through a faith lens, these interviews offer practical guidance for conducting vaccine outreach in thoughtful, culturally competent ways.
The following interview features Micah Fries, director of programs at the Multi-Faith Neighbors Network and director of engagement at GlocalNet. Prior to joining the Network and GlocalNet, Fries served as senior pastor in several congregations, most recently Brainerd Baptist Church in Tennessee. The interview was conducted by Shauna Morin for IFYC; it has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Interfaith America (IA): I’ll start by asking you to share how you’ve experienced the pandemic in the various evangelical communities you’ve been part of since March of 2020.
Micah Fries (MF): A lot of my experience with the pandemic in the evangelical community I would describe as a little disconcerting. There’s been a fair amount of misinformation that’s been deemed credible in a lot of evangelical circles and that’s been frustrating. From the beginning of the Covid pandemic, so much of the decisions were viewed as political, even if they weren’t. When I stepped down from the pastorate [last year], I remember telling my wife, “The thing I’m most grateful for is that I never have to make another Covid-related decision.” It didn’t matter what decision I made, or our leadership made, we were going to be strongly and vocally disagreed with by a large number of people.
Regarding the vaccine, I have several sources I have used. Friends of mine, in particular; one of them is head of pharmacology for a hospital and the other one is an infectious disease physician and professor at a research hospital. Both are committed evangelicals. They have all the credentials from an academic or scientific perspective, but they also speak our language theologically and culturally. It’s been frustrating to me to communicate things they’ve shared and have that rejected by some in the evangelical community.
IA: Have you had any conversations with people who have not been opposed or who are more in line with what you’re sharing in terms of getting vaccinated?
MF: The majority of my conversations, truthfully, have been with those folks. Most people are affirming of the vaccine, and have either been vaccinated or are planning to be. But they’ve often been hesitant to say anything publicly. It’s often been private. “Hey, I’m with you. We’ve been vaccinated, we’re excited about having our kids vaccinated.” The truth of the matter is, people across all belief systems are being vaccinated and are pro-vaccine. But a lot of the voices you hear the loudest are, obviously, those that are not happy. Even when I disagree with them, I understand that for most of them, their motivations are good. They think, “This vaccine is potentially dangerous, and we want the best for you.” That gives me pause to be patient with them. But it doesn’t change my resolve in terms of my belief in the vaccine and my desire to see more people be vaccinated.
IA: So certainly, being public about your decisions and your views as a faith leader is a strategy that we have looked at and talked about, even at IFYC. Have you been part of, or have you observed, other vaccine outreach efforts within the evangelical community that you feel are effective or may have promise?
MF: I think because so much of this conversation has been entangled with political conversations, and the pro-Trump MAGA movement vs. a more progressive pro-Biden movement. Seeing, in the last week for instance, men like Franklin Graham and Robert Jeffress (from First Baptist Dallas, TX) both coming out strongly [in support of the vaccine] … I think that’s probably important. I think the voices who are opposed to the vaccine need to hear people that they trust saying, “You can take this. I’ve taken this.”
IA: Could you talk about whether tenets of the faith have been useful in having conversations around the vaccine? And if so, maybe give some examples of what seems to resonate with people?
MF: I like to say that everything is theological. Every decision we make has bearing on our belief about God, morality, and scripture. Certainly, there are scripture passages that speak to our need to serve others. Matthew 25 would be a good example: “Whatever you do for the least of these, you do for me.” So, for instance, we know the hardest-hit communities were the elderly, racial minorities, people living in multi-housing units, those who tend to be on the lower side of the economic scale. When we take the vaccine, we help contribute towards mass resiliency. And as we move toward mass resiliency or herd immunity, it’s going to help protect our more vulnerable members of society.
So, I’ve used passages like that, but I’m afraid they haven’t been as effective as I wish they would be. I used to think we identify politically because of our religious belief system and I’ve reversed that pattern now. There’s some interesting data that suggests, as a nation, that we tend to be politically driven more than religiously or theologically driven, and that we then identify religiously or theologically based off our political perspectives. In other words, our politics shape our theology instead of vice versa. I think that’s probably bearing out, including in the evangelical community, in terms of our views of the vaccine and whether we should take it or not. I wish scripture was more effective at helping move people, but I’m afraid political positions and advocacy from political leaders may end up being more effective.
IA: Do you see opportunities or avenues to sort of take advantage of that influence or have conversations? To kind of take the messaging in that direction, from a political vantage point?
MF: I think there are some opportunities out there and I wish we could see more of that. I really do think, though, that ultimately the most effective spokesperson we’re going to have is increased vaccination. You know, everyone in my family now has had the Pfizer vaccine and the worst response anybody has had was a few hours of flu-like symptoms. So, to be able to say, “Look, I’ve had it, my wife’s had it, my 17-year-old daughter’s had it, my 15-year-old daughter’s had it, my 14-year-old son has had the vaccine, and nobody’s had any bad side effects.” And now, with the CDC’s shift in terms of their guidance, the world has opened up to us. We can travel, we can shop, we can do anything else, we can go to sporting events without reservation.
So, I think that’s our best incentive. The more people get the vaccine, the more they’re able to advocate person to person, friend to friend, neighbor to neighbor, family to family, which is going to be the most effective method we have for seeing hesitancy decline.
IA: The last formal question I have for you is a little bit bigger picture. We’ve been talking specifically about this pandemic, which is unique globally, once in a hundred years. But are there implications from this experience we’ve had over the past 14 months or so for faith communities’ involvement in public health generally? If so, what are your thoughts about what role faith communities could play going forward in advancing equitable public health?
MF: There is a real sense that, coming out of this, we’re going to see a smaller but more robust religious experience for people and a stronger belief that faith matters in all areas of life. It’s not just my personal spiritual experience that I hold onto for hope; it has bearing on how I view public health, how I view racial inequality, how I view poverty or income inequality. My faith informs, and it should unashamedly inform, all those things. I don’t know if that will be true for everybody, but I’ve certainly seen it to be true for a number of people in a number of congregations.
IA: Have you seen that awareness deepen within the evangelical community?
MF: Yes, I think so. We’ve dealt with public health crises in the past, but they’ve been Ebola in West Africa, or AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa. My wife and I used to live in sub-Saharan Africa, so it was more personal to us, but you could be an evangelical in the U.S. and say, “Well, our faith ought to inform that but that’s their issue.” Covid has changed that. We’ve had to grapple with Covid-19 as our issue. For Anglo evangelicals now who are middle class, or upper-middle class, who … previously could stay outside the engagement of those issues if they weren’t impacted personally by them … they don’t have that luxury now. Covid has personally impacted all of us. So, I think it’s forced us to have to deal with questions of public health and inequality and those sorts of things. Not everybody’s answered it well, but I think at least everyone has had to grapple with the question, which is new.
IA: Can you imagine how you as an evangelical leader might encourage other evangelicals to think about public health challenges as everybody’s problem to solve, when future health crises that arise maybe aren’t in our backyard?
MF: I think Covid gives us a tangible illustration to bring this home in any given circumstance. Take SARS, or the swine flu, or something along those lines, that we’ve seen over the past decade and that predominantly focused on Asia. I think right now we have a real tangible way to say, “We have just walked through Covid ourselves. We understand what this is like. This has bearing on us. We ought to have concern for the state of humanity globally. Our personal experience should inform our global view.”
I mentioned Matthew 25 earlier: “Whatever you do for the least of these, you do for me.” And so, communities that are impacted to a greater degree, we have an opportunity to serve them and care for them. For evangelicals, the Great Commission is, “Go and take the Gospel to all nations.” The Great Commandment is, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, your soul, your mind, your strength” and “Love your neighbor as yourself.” If we can take these Biblical realities, these Biblical foundations, and connect them to our own experiences with Covid, I think we’ll be more effective than we’ve been in the past at awakening a concern and interest in public health crises that aren’t necessarily in our backyard.
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