As a COVID-19 vaccine gets closer to a public rollout, public health experts and policymakers in the United States are likely to encounter a big cultural barrier: Christian nationalism.
Americans who embrace Christian nationalism will be much more likely to abstain from a coronavirus vaccine, according to a study published Monday by sociologists Andrew L. Whitehead and Samuel L. Perry.
The results are further indication of a country deeply polarized over more than just politics. The coronavirus, too, has become a source of partisan and cultural divide.
“Christian nationalism is consistently one of the strongest predictors of anti-vaccine attitudes,” Whitehead, who is co-director of the Association of Religion Data Archives and professor of sociology at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, told Sojourners. “Around 20 percent of Americans strongly embrace Christian nationalism.”
To reach their conclusion, Whitehead and Perry analyzed data from the 2019 Chapman University Survey of American Fears, an annual survey that collects information on Americans’ social, political, and psychological fears. They found that Christian nationalists — or “Americans who desire to see their particular expression of Christianity privileged in the public sphere” — were “more likely to hold beliefs such as the following: ‘Vaccines cause autism,’ ‘Doctors and drug companies are not honest about the risks of vaccines,’ ‘People have the right to decide whether or not to vaccinate their kids,’ ‘Kids are given too many vaccines,’ and ‘Vaccines do not help protect children from dangerous diseases.’”
Whitehead, Perry, and other academics have previously found that Christian nationalists are much more likely to distrust scientists, more likely to have libertarian attitudes that prioritize individual liberty, and more likely to support President Donald Trump, who has shared anti-vaccine arguments.
When it comes to religion, support for Trump is often associated with white evangelicals, but Whitehead said he believes Christian nationalism is a better cultural framework for understanding the role of religion in conservative U.S. politics today.
“We find that Catholics or mainline Protestants or unaffiliated Americans who embrace Christian nationalism all look alike in how they see the world,” Whitehead said. “It cuts across denominational lines.”
“It is a lot more about this idea of a cultural Christianity,” he added. “It’s wrapped up in ideas of who a true American is, which tends to be white, native born, and politically and religiously conservative.”
Whitehead said it’s important that policymakers acknowledge these cultural barriers, given that widespread adoption of the vaccine will likely be necessary to end the pandemic. Thresholds for herd immunity vary by disease — for measles, as high as 95 percent of a population needs to be vaccinated — and it’s not yet known exactly what percentage of people will need to be vaccinated in order to achieve herd immunity to COVID-19, according to the CDC.
“It won’t be enough to say, ‘Here’s the vaccine,’” said Whitehead. “There’s going to have to be some calculated efforts to make a case as to why it would be effective or safe.”
Whitehead, Perry, and fellow researcher Joshua B. Grubbs previously found a link between Christian nationalism and incautious behavior during the COVID-19 pandemic, including eating in restaurants and gathering in large groups, as well as a lower frequency of engaging in precautionary behavior, such as refusing to wear a mask in public.
The COVID-19 pandemic has led to “a cleavage between Americans,” according to Whitehead.