Convincing the rest of the congregation at his church to get the shot proved to be more difficult.
“There has been some reluctance to put a lot of faith in what the government says typically, and so there was some hesitancy,” Belloit said.
In recent weeks, plummeting vaccination rates have put President Biden’s goal of getting at least 70 percent of adults partially inoculated by July 4 in peril. As of early June, every state was down at least two-thirds from the April peak of 3.4 million shots a day, particularly in the South and Midwest. Government, community and health leaders are putting renewed attention on those hesitant to get the shot. Among the most reluctant: White evangelicals.
A March poll by the nonprofit Public Religion Research Institute found that White evangelicals ranked highest among those who are religious and refusing to get vaccinated. Forty-five percent of White evangelicals said they would get the vaccine, the second-lowest acceptance of any religious affiliation behind Latino Protestant groups.
Much of the hard work in convincing the faithful to get vaccinated is falling on people such as Belloit, who say they are facing a deluge of misinformation.
Some leaders think the best way to combat concerns is through a faith-based approach, with information and appeals coming directly from the church. In states such as Florida, where according to Pew Research Center a quarter of all residents identify as evangelical, persuading this group can have a significant impact on the United States’ overall vaccination rate.
Narrowing the vaccine acceptance gap with White evangelicals has global implications, too, said Curtis Chang, a consulting professor at the Duke Divinity School and founder of the Christians & the Vaccine project.
“In parts of Africa and Asia, the church is growing; in countries like Uganda, 85 percent of the population are Christians. Where do they get their info? It’s largely from the U.S. faith leaders,” he said. “Leaders of the church need to wake up and realize the vaccine is not an isolated issue; it reflects the deeper divisions and dysfunctions Christians have and how it relates to the greater society.”
One such division is over what is considered a trusted source of information.
“I’ve heard crazy rumors; I mean, just insane kinds of things,” Belloit said. “I heard one just before yesterday that blew me away. People said, ‘Well, if you get the vaccine and you sit next to somebody who’s been vaccinated, it’ll cause you to bleed.’ I mean, that’s the kind of insane things people see out there.”
The reasons for White evangelicals rejecting or hesitating to get vaccinated against the coronavirus are complex and not necessarily tied to religious doctrine.
During the pandemic, people often engaged in what Jamie D. Aten, a disaster psychologist and disaster ministry expert at Wheaton College, calls “spiritual bypass” — using personal spirituality to keep questions over decisions such as whether to get the vaccine at bay.
“If God tells us something, it’s kind of hard to argue with God,” Aten explained. “It’s not a faith issue, but faith is used to argue against it.”
Four Florida evangelical pastors interviewed by The Washington Post agreed that views on coronavirus vaccines are largely shaped by political and other cultural beliefs, with government mistrust being a key factor.
“I feel like a lot of people really don’t want to feel forced to do anything,” said David Chauncey, the lead pastor at Westside Baptist Church in Gainesville. “It’s something that characterizes us as Americans — not just evangelical Christians — just the sense that we don’t want the government overreaching into our lives and feeling like we’re being made to do things.”
Over a quarter of White evangelicals said they are hesitant to get the shot, preferring to wait and see how the vaccines work out for others or only willing to consider it if it is required, according to the Public Religion Research Institute poll.
Chang said that late last year Black Protestants and White evangelicals had similar rates of vaccine hesitancy. But in recent months, Black Protestants have begun getting vaccinated in larger numbers, while White evangelicals remain on the fence.
“Now it’s really a White evangelical issue,” he said.
Faith leaders said they’re not only combating a general mistrust of government and the effect of vaccines themselves becoming so heavily politicized but also a steady stream of misinformation that some pastors suspect has only increased during the months of pandemic isolation.
Chang said he and his colleagues started the Christians & the Vaccine project last year in anticipation of vaccine resistance; the controversy and politicization of wearing masks was their early clue, he said — as was the struggle for pastors to lead their congregation through that issue and often coming to odds with parishioners over closing churches.
“I’ve had pastors say to me: ‘I can’t compete. Tucker Carlson gets them for 12 hours a week. I get them for an hour,’ ” Chang said.
Many of the rumors John Marsh has heard congregants at his Bella Vista Baptist Church in Edgewater, Fla., ask about are similar to what other pastors say they are questioned on: that getting a vaccine dose will implant a patient with a microchip; that the vaccines have antifreeze; that the vaccines are a satanic plot.
“I had one person ask me if it [the vaccine] was the sign of the beast, which, you know, in the Book of Revelation, it says that when the Antichrist takes over the world that he will mark everyone with a number that identifies them as belonging to him,” Marsh said.
“There had to be someone in charge of the whole world for it to be the sign of the beast,” he added with a laugh, “and the world I see has no one in charge.”
Ashlie Bailey-Ely, a 31-year-old congregant at Floral City United Methodist, where Belloit is a church trustee, was troubled by the rumors she heard about the coronavirus vaccines, including that a vaccine’s patent number was “666.” It discouraged Bailey-Ely, who said she was already reluctant about getting vaccinated despite the fact that her older sister had died of covid-19 two months earlier.
“Pastor Jerry did send me an email with a lot of information on it, and I did scroll through it a little bit,” she told The Post. She didn’t read the whole email, she said, but it did make her feel more confident — to a point. “It kind of made me feel like, ‘Okay, maybe there’s not much to worry about because all these people are getting it and there’s nothing bad has happened so far.’ ”
But she said she went back and forth and remained “wishy-washy” on her decision.
Ultimately, experts say, the root reasons for a person’s vaccine hesitancy are often deeply personal.
Aten, the Wheaton College professor, said his research shows that humility is important in effectively countering an individual’s objection to getting vaccinated: “We can’t assume we already know why the other person is already hesitant.”
To address health stigmas, Aten and his co-researchers developed what they call the BLESS method, which encourages people to understand a person’s needs tied to biological, livelihood, emotional, social and spiritual concerns.
Betty Jean “BJ” Ezell, a faith-based outreach coordinator for the Citrus County Health Department working with churches to combat vaccine hesitancy, said reluctance can boil down to an obstacle as simple as not having a ride to a vaccination site, or needing to hear from a trusted expert voice that the coronavirus vaccines were not hasty concoctions, but built on 15 years of existing technology.
Ezell had heard plenty of questions about the false claim that vaccines contain microchips that will allow tracking of a person’s every move.
“And my response is, ‘You have a cellphone. Anybody can track anybody.’ I can have my phone found even if it’s turned off, so that doesn’t hold much water,” she said.
Ezell tries to win over the vaccine hesitant through trust, compassion and education. She knew the microchip claim was bogus, but that it was something many people in the community were questioning. On the day a local drive-through clinic was starting, Ezell studied the setup start to finish so she could share her observations with others on how it would be impossible, from a logistics standpoint, to give people a microchip.
When it comes to faith leaders, Ezell said pastors can and should be crucial sources of influence.
“Church leaders have a higher calling,” she said. “They are to be responsible to the congregation. But more so than that, they have a responsibility under God to care for God’s sheep, and that is through education and information.”
Ezell worked with Belloit to set up a vaccine clinic at Floral City United Methodist. The first day 140 people were vaccinated and the second saw around 40. Bailey-Ely, the hesitant Floral City United Methodist congregant, ended up in the latter group.
“In order for me to be in the church choir, I had to be vaccinated,” Bailey-Ely said. The day she went in for a shot, she had miscalculated the clinic’s operating hours by an hour.
“If I wasn’t supposed to be vaccinated, then I feel like the clinic would have already closed up and left,” she said. “I gave it all to the Lord and that’s why I was the last one to show up that day. And the vaccine was still here.”