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Among white evangelicals, pushback against Covid-19 vaccines has remained stubbornly high, with polls in recent months suggesting between 30% and 40% refused to get vaccinated, the highest proportion among any religious group surveyed.

So one group of researchers had an idea.

Sociologists from Stanford and Columbia asked 1,765 unvaccinated, self-identified white Christians to watch a short video in which then-NIH Director Francis Collins — a white evangelical himself — answered questions about the safety and effectiveness of Covid vaccines. Participants also read an essay describing support for vaccination within the medical community.

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Some of those surveyed saw an introduction to the video in which Collins declared his “trust in Jesus as a source of all truth” — and were told that “many medical experts are people of faith.”

Where trust in medical experts among the group that saw the version without Collins confirming his faith was 56 on a 100-point scale, it was 64 in the group that saw and heard his statement. “Intent to vaccinate” among the first group scored 34; in the second group, it was 38. “It’s a modest effect, but off of a tiny video,” said James Chu, a Columbia University sociologist and one of the authors of the study. “If we had a stronger treatment where we had bombarded them with ads, I’m sure that would have had a stronger effect.”

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The study is part of emerging research that suggests that appealing to white evangelicals’ faith could make a dent, however small, in their stagnant immunization rates. For many scientists, that underlines an age-old truism in public health: If you want to reach a population resistant or reluctant to act, you have to carefully tailor your message.

The video of Collins, who stepped down from his NIH post last month, was made in partnership with a pro-vaccination organization called Christians and the Vaccine. Collins told STAT he wasn’t aware it was used in Chu’s study until after it was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

A clip of a video in which former NIH leader Francis Collins described both his trust in vaccines and his faith.

Collins said the use of his message provided “a very public opportunity to see how that might influence decision-making for people who might be hesitant about vaccines on the basis of their faith.

“It’s heartbreaking, frankly,” said Collins. “These are my people, and to see the way in which this group of people who are very devoted to their faith and devoted to loving their neighbors have somehow gotten pulled into this stance of being suspicious and distrustful is heartbreaking.”

Throughout the pandemic, Collins has appeared on podcasts with leaders across the religious spectrum, including white evangelical leaders Rick Warren and Franklin Graham. His goal was “to encourage both people in the pews and their pastors to really step back from all of the misinformation and embrace vaccines as answers to prayer.”

Pastors have a potentially valuable role to play in bolstering vaccinations. John Jenkins, the pastor at First Baptist Church of Glenarden in Maryland, worked with a local hospital to start up a Covid-19 vaccination center in his Black evangelical megachurch and brought in medical experts to give talks from the pulpit. He appealed to people’s community values to look out “for the best interests of the rest of the congregation.” All told, the clinic administered 40,000 vaccinations between March and June 2021.

“It was a community affair,” said Jenkins, who also had his own vaccination videotaped to build trust among parishioners.

But among some white evangelical leaders, there has been a reluctance to encourage vaccination because their followers are hesitant, said Curtis Chang, co-founder Christians and the Vaccine. “There’s an underlying suspicion among white evangelicals about public health,” he said. “No one has done the work of convincing white evangelical leaders to come out with a single strong common statement.”

Collins sees the vaccine pushback coming from two places. “Much of it was triggered by social media conspiracies,” he said. “Some of it came from mixing politics with positions of faith, which I think when it comes to vaccines has been pretty unfortunate.”

The poll that found a 30% vaccine refusal rate, conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute, or PRRI, in partnership with Interfaith Youth Core, searched for reasons. One may be government distrust: White evangelical Protestants were the only major religious group in which a majority of respondents believed the federal government is holding out on other treatments and instead promoting vaccines. Another reason might be in how evangelicals understand public health. Only 42% of white evangelical Protestants agreed that getting vaccinated is a way to practice the principle of loving your neighbors. That compares to 51% of Hispanic Protestants, 59% of white non-evangelical Protestants, and 63% of Black Protestants.

“Politics has come before faith, defiance before concern, and rights before love,” Robert P. Jones, founder of PRRI and a white evangelical, wrote recently in Sojourners, an online magazine about faith and culture. “I’ve personally been consistently frustrated — and, yes, angry — with the response of my fellow white Christians, particularly white evangelicals, to the pandemic.”

The Department of Health and Human Services is trying to change things. It set up a Covid-19 Community Corps in April 2021 that includes groups ranging from the American Medical Association and the Infectious Diseases Society of America to the AME Zion Church and the National Association of Evangelicals. The White House has hosted meetings with faith leaders, and President Biden has participated in several events.

There has been some movement. While a March 2021 PRRI-IYC poll showed that only 45% of white evangelical Protestants would accept a vaccine, by November, 65% said they would accept one. But the group remains well below white non-evangelical Protestants and Black and Hispanic Protestants, groups that include both evangelicals and non-evangelicals.

There may be less opportunity to intercede among the most resistant. The November poll found only 14% of unvaccinated white evangelical Protestants said they could be convinced by a “religious approach,” such as being encouraged by a church leader.

“I think we have some work to do in the area of researching how people make these kinds of medical decisions,” said Collins, who, before stepping down as the director of NIH initiated discussions about studies to determine how people adopt misinformation and how to combat it. “If science is going to be able to contribute anything to our nation now or in the future, then it has to be doing so because it discerns truth and then shares that. But if that kind of truth is seen immediately as suspicious, then we’re in real trouble.”

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