Since the early days of the pandemic, Collins, who watches McLean Presbyterian Church in Northern Virginia services online, has urged churches to avoid holding services indoors and done interviews with religious leaders like theologian N.T. Wright and pastor Timothy Keller on how people can protect themselves. Most recently he spoke with pastor Rick Warren and Southern Baptist leader Russell Moore about the vaccines.
One of the few high-profile Obama appointees to continue serving in President Trump’s administration, Collins carries a certain kind of authority to address people of faith, many of whom are skeptical of scientific evidence for such things as evolution. The following interview with Collins about how he’s talking to faith leaders about the vaccine has been edited for length and clarity.
How are you messaging to faith leaders about the coming vaccines?
They are in a tough spot because they have a lot of strong opinions coming at them from their parishioners. If we’re going to actually get to the point where covid-19 is conquered, it’s going to require a full investment by everybody in that solution, which is to acquire immunity. And the way to get there without losing hundreds of thousands of more lives is going to be the vaccine.
It is entirely appropriate for people to ask the question, what is the safety data? And is it going to be effective? I’ve encouraged pastors to track that closely, make up your own mind about whether you think this is something you want to take yourself and recommend to your congregation.
The church, in this time of confusion, ought to be a beacon, a light on the hill, an entity that believes in truth. This is a great moment for the church to say, no matter how well intentioned someone’s opinions may be, if they’re not based upon the fact, the church should not endorse them.
A pastor might ask, is it really his or her role to address matters of public health?
They can certainly say, talk to your doctor (as people should), but they are going to be asked what they think as a pastor. People want church leaders to express their views, and I don’t think they should be unprepared.
I think of pastors as shepherds who figure out how can I keep my flock safe and secure and keep the bad things from happening. I think that is part of the overall responsibility and mandate of our leaders in the church and not to be shied away from.
As you talk to leaders, are there specific moral concerns that they raise?
There are fetal cell lines derived in Scandinavia in 1970 or 1980 that have been used as part of the vaccine manufacturing process for two of the vaccines (AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson). I understand it is a concern to people of faith who are troubled that those cell lines were derived admittedly, 40 or 50 years ago, from an elective pregnancy termination.
A lot of people seem to think these vaccines require fresh fetal tissue from abortions. That is absolutely not the case. And four of the six therapeutics that are currently under development, including the two that are furthest along, do not use any fetal cell lines in the manufacturing process.
They do have a step along the way where they validate whether the vaccine is likely to work. In a lab-based experiment, they have used the same fetal cell lines from decades ago, just to check and see if the vaccine looks promising. If the cell line was used in actual production, that’s a bit more of an ethical concern for some.
I point to the Catholic Church, which has had a very thoughtful deliberation about this going further back where they have said it’s ethical for pro-life people to utilize these vaccines if there are no other alternatives.
Are you going to be able to go to your doctor and say, for example, can I have the Pfizer or the Moderna vaccine?
I think that's yet to be determined, given that the distribution of these vaccines is being developed. The Pfizer and Moderna are the two that will be less controversial and will be the first ones to be distributed.
If you are a strictly pro-life person of faith and you’re at high-risk and one of the vaccines like Johnson & Johnson is available to you, and the others won’t be for a couple of months, and it might be lifesaving. I think you could make an ethical decision to go ahead. I think that’s what the Catholic Church would say. But that’s a personal, private decision for each person.
The Pew Research Center finds that the highest percentages among religious people who said they would not take the vaccine were Black Protestants and White evangelicals. Why do you think that is?
The African American community has a long experience of not necessarily being well treated by medical research. They still remember Tuskegee [where syphilis patients were deceived and had treatment withheld so doctors could study the disease], and anything that’s coming out of the scientific lab that says this is good for you is viewed with some skepticism.
We’ve worked really hard in the vaccine trial to do the kind of community outreach to the African American community and actually worked through their churches to try to convince people that it’s in their own best interests to be part of this. The Moderna trial ended up with 37 percent of the participants being people of color, which is a pretty significant achievement.
We have a community outreach effort that includes church leaders to try to be sure that they get the information they need to promote the truth to their own congregations so that it’s not something that’s just coming from a company or from the government.
Some of the resistance among White evangelicals probably relates to the tension in churches over science, particularly in biology. There’s an unfortunate, heartbreaking perception of conflict between what science is teaching us about the age of the Earth and about species that come from narrow interpretations of Genesis 1 and 2. This conflict goes back 150 years and has not been resolved.
There is a tendency in many White evangelical churches to assume that science is atheistic and materialistic and whatever the scientists are telling you maybe has another agenda to try to discourage you from your spiritual faith. Skepticism immediately kicks in at a time like this.
Are you worried that, when President-elect Joe Biden takes office, some White evangelicals might be less willing to take a vaccine?
Politics has found its way, unfortunately, into this issue about whether a vaccine is safe and effective. That means that when it comes to these messages about vaccines and their safety and efficacy, those messages really can’t come from politicians effectively, no matter which politician. They need to come from people with credibility to the skeptics.
I will be doing as much as I can. But I recognize I am seen as a representative of the government and a scientist, probably seen as somebody who has a desire for science to look good. And my views about this may matter less to a White evangelical than talking to their own physician who has done their homework and can say here are the facts, I’m going to take this myself, and I think you should, too.
John Hagee, a pastor in Texas, contracted the virus. He has recovered and has said that “Jesus is the vaccine.” How worried are you about these kinds of messages?
I’ve heard a [similar] statement from somebody who was very upset about the idea that churches could not just continue to gather in large crowds indoors. She said “Jesus won’t let the virus back into my church. I know I’ll be safe because Jesus will protect me.” I appreciate the depth of somebody’s faith. But I think that goes a bit beyond what we know from biblical examples.
God gave us both a sense of God's love and care and compassion, but he also gave us the brain and the opportunity to understand God's creation, which is nature, which includes things like viruses. And I think God expected us to use those gifts to understand how to protect ourselves and others from disease. If we have the opportunity to heal through medicine, I think God expects us to do that and not count on some supernatural intervention to come and save us when he's already given us the chance to be saved by other means.
That kind of statement [from Hagee] puts other lives at risk. People of faith should be on the front lines of saving lives, using the best science, not denying the reality of COVID-19. Go back through the centuries and look at the plague. People of faith ran to it, trying to do everything they could based upon what they knew. We should be doing that now, armed with the information that God has made it possible for us to use.