The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Some element of vaccine hesitancy is rooted in faith — but party still seems to be more important

A 32-bed emergency hospital has been set up in a University of Mississippi Medical Center parking garage to help with coronavirus patients. (Rogelio V. Solis/AP)
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Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves (R) seems pretty certain that partisanship isn’t playing a role in his state’s bottom-tier vaccination rates. In April, for example, he suggested that the problem wasn’t a function of Republican resistance but, instead, of Mississippi having “a very large African American population” and “a lot of rural people.” Each of those claims is dubious for different reasons, but we’ll come back to that.

More recently, Reeves said at a fundraising event in Tennessee last week that the general indifference to the coronavirus that’s common in his state is in part because Mississippi is so religious.

“When you believe in eternal life — when you believe that living on this Earth is but a blip on the screen, then you don’t have to be so scared of things,” he said. He then added that “God also tells us to take necessary precautions,” which he encouraged people to do. But the point was made: People aren’t worried about the coronavirus because, in part, they’re not worried about death.

There are obviously true aspects to Reeves’s claim. The first is that those who are most likely to say they don’t plan to get vaccinated are in fact also those who express the least concern about becoming sick from the virus. This is a common component of polling: Groups that express low concern about infection are less likely to report wearing masks or seeing urgency in being inoculated. It may be inexplicable to many people, but it’s not logically inconsistent.

The other true aspect of Reeves’s claim is that many religious Americans are putting their faith in God to weather the pandemic. Writing for FiveThirtyEight last week, the Public Religion Research Institute’s Natalie Jackson explored her organization’s polling on the subject, specifically through the lens of White evangelical Protestantism.

“PRRI’s March survey found that 28 percent of white evangelical Republicans agreed that ‘God always rewards those who have faith with good health and will protect them from being infected with COVID-19,’ compared with 23 percent of Republicans who were not white evangelicals,” she wrote. “And that belief correlates more closely with vaccination views among white evangelical Republicans — 44 percent of those who said God would protect them from the virus also said they would refuse to get vaccinated.” Only 32 percent of Republicans who aren’t part of that religious tradition agreed.

Jackson cited research indicating that, for many evangelicals, something other than passive trust in God was at play. Almost two-thirds of them indicated that recent turmoil in the United States was a sign that Armageddon was near, a belief that would seem to obviate concerns about becoming ill from the virus.

The challenge with this analysis, though — and as Jackson points out — is that it’s tricky to extricate evangelical positions from Republican ones, given the overlap between those groups. That overlap is, if anything, underappreciated, as Gallup data from 2019 makes clear. Views of President Donald Trump among evangelicals at that point overlapped neatly with partisan views; it was just a densely Republican population.

This is also why Reeves’s suggestion that the hesitancy was a function of rural voters was dubious. Rural voters are overwhelmingly Republican ones. Data from Kaiser Family Foundation polling released this month showed that rural Americans were basically as likely as Republicans to reject the vaccine, a function of that group being composed mostly of Republican voters. Evangelical Christians were more likely to report having been vaccinated but just as likely to say they wouldn’t do so.

Notice, too, that while hesitancy among Black Americans in that poll is higher than the rate for Whites, that’s only because there are so many White Democrats driving hesitancy rates down for that population. Black Americans are much less likely to report hesitancy about being vaccinated than White Republicans.

This is the point. Reeves keeps pointing the finger at groups that aren’t Republicans, even when that latter group is probably more to blame.

For example, consider the relationship between the density of White Christians and vaccination rates. PRRI did a national census of religious belief that included this calculation, which it shared with The Washington Post. There is a correlation, but not a particularly strong one.

Now consider the correlation between vaccination rates in a county and the margin of its 2020 presidential vote. The correlation is much more robust.

We can see the same effect in the Kaiser Family Foundation’s July polling. It estimated that about 51 percent of the unvaccinated are Republicans, compared with 23 percent who are White evangelical Protestants. That group includes some who say they plan to get vaccinated or that they might do so. Looking only at the most hesitant, those who say they won’t get a dose of a vaccine, we see both densities increase. About a third of that group is evangelical; about 3 in 5 are Republican.

Most of those in the evangelical category are also Republican, so not only are Republicans a majority of the hesitant, nonevangelical Republicans are a large segment of it as well. In 2019, the Pew Research Center estimated that a third of Republicans are White evangelical Protestants, meaning that they are overrepresented among vaccine-hesitant Republicans.

Granted, Reeves wasn’t explicitly talking about evangelicals, only speaking about religion in broad terms. (That said, PRRI’s analysis found that his state was one of the least religiously diverse in the country, with eight of the 10 least religiously diverse counties falling within its borders.) The point, though, is that if Reeves is looking to find the group that contributes most to the ranks of the unvaccinated, the group that uses its fervently held beliefs to rationalize not getting vaccinated and that is heavily represented in Mississippi, he doesn’t need to point at rural or religious voters. He can just point at his own political party.