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Breaking evangelical resistance to coronavirus vaccines will be hard

This hesitancy is rooted in the intersection of history, theology and politics

A nurse draws up doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on April 27. (AJ Mast for The Washington Post)

Evangelicals make up one quarter of the United States population and they are the Americans least likely to get vaccinated against the coronavirus. Even as the Biden administration works fervently to overcome vaccine hesitancy and some in the evangelical community like Franklin Graham, son of legendary preacher Billy Graham, pledge to help them, they face a daunting task. The hurdle: For many evangelicals, the vaccine, and proof that you have had it, are tools of the Antichrist.

Enough people are worried that the vaccines are from the Antichrist that TikTok has apparently banned hashtags that link vaccination with apocalyptic plots. Posts and videos all over social media — many of which Facebook and YouTube have taken down — warn that the government’s efforts to vaccinate people are part of an end times plot. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) recently called vaccine passports the mark of the beast.

This may all sound absurd. But millions of Americans believe it, making evangelical fears over the vaccine a public health problem. The origins of these ideas, however, have little to do with science but are instead grounded at the intersection of history, theology and politics. Understanding, explaining and challenging these beliefs could be key to saving lives.

For the past 150 years, evangelicals have read their Bibles as a code book that foretells the immediate future. They crafted a complicated and convoluted analysis of Daniel, Ezekiel and Revelation, overlaid with some of Jesus’s and Paul’s New Testament statements, that reveals a hidden “plan of the ages.” What they see in their Bibles is the end of history, and exactly how it will unfold.

Evangelicals have long believed that the current age would climax with horrific plagues, social anarchy, rampant sexual immorality and military conflicts. Seeking to unite the world’s nations and end chaos and war, a new leader appears promising peace and security. Unwilling or unable to recognize he is actually the prophesied Antichrist, most political and religious leaders around the world cede their sovereignty and independence to him through an international agency.

In every generation, evangelicals believed the end was near, and they interpreted the changes happening around them through the lens of biblical prophecy. World War I, the Bolshevik Revolution and the rise of fascism in Europe during the Great Depression all reinforced their convictions.

They saw in Franklin D. Roosevelt’s internationalist sensibilities and expansion of the power and reach of the federal government in the 1930s more ominous signs that the Antichrist was lurking in the shadows. They came to believe New Deal liberalism was undermining American sovereignty and paving the way for Armageddon.

The sexual licentiousness of the 1960s, the continued expansion of federal power and the war in Vietnam again reinforced this sense.

Crucially, Evangelicals believed that as the United States ceded power to the Antichrist, he would demand that all people pledge their allegiance to him by taking his mark.

Revelation 13:16-18 reads, “And he causeth all, both small and great, rich and poor, free and bond, to receive a mark in their right hand, or in their foreheads: And that no man might buy or sell, save he that had the mark, or the name of the beast, or the number of his name. Here is wisdom. Let him that hath understanding count the number of the beast: for it is the number of a man; and his number is Six hundred threescore and six.”

Evangelicals have long debated what precisely the mark of the beast would be. In the 1930s, they thought that perhaps the logo of Roosevelt’s National Recovery Administration, the blue eagle, was the Antichrist’s logo.

In the 1960s, some Christians worried the new Visa credit card was the mark of the beast — after all, with it one could buy and sell things. Perhaps, they speculated, the world would soon have a single global currency overseen by the Antichrist and run by computers.

The adoption of grocery store UPC bar codes beginning in the 1970s inspired crazed doomsday scenarios in which people walked around like zombies with bar codes tattooed across their foreheads.

In the 1980s some alleged that perhaps Ronald Wilson Reagan was the Antichrist — the letters in his name added up to 6-6-6. Although many evangelicals voted for Reagan, some fretted that perhaps he was not all that he seemed. The Bible says Satan can masquerade as an angel of light.

In 2008, some said a John McCain presidential campaign ad played on evangelicals’ fears that linked Democratic candidate Barack Obama to the Antichrist.

Today, evangelicals’ convictions are just growing stronger that these events will happen in the near future. Although many Christians reject this apocalyptic reading of the Bible, a Pew poll revealed 41 percent of all Americans (well over 100 million people) and 58 percent of White evangelicals believe that Jesus is “definitely” or “probably” going to return by 2050.

Driven by their mix of political and religious convictions, large numbers of evangelicals are sure President Biden is paving the way for the end times. The Biden administration’s internationalist focus, attempts to expand the state and support for inclusive and diverse social policies from transgender rights to anti-racism reinforce their fears.

In their view, the president also has the aid of Big Tech with the most powerful social media companies in the world shutting down those Christians (and their former president) who think they are exposing the devil’s handiwork.

Seeking evidence that they are living in the end times has made evangelicals students of world events. They were and are constantly lining up global changes with their reading of prophecy.

In the future, historians probably will write about how evangelicals worrying about the vaccine as the mark of the Antichrist will look as silly as those who once feared credit cards or bar codes do to us today. Indeed, during the past 50 years, evangelicals have always learned to integrate the supposed mark into their lives without diabolical consequences: They use Visa cards and scan bar codes at self-checkout lines.

Coronavirus vaccines will be no different.

But in the meantime, evangelical hesitancy poses serious health risks as the United States struggles to vaccinate enough Americans to develop herd immunity to the deadly virus. Speed is of the essence, and understanding and overcoming these evangelical fears are a key part of meeting this goal.