Rural, White Evangelical, and Republican: A Deadly Combination in a Pandemic September 2, 2021

Rural, White Evangelical, and Republican: A Deadly Combination in a Pandemic

Many of us spend so much of our time and energy being angry at those who refuse to vaccinate themselves against COVID-19 despite all the advice from experts. Some might see us as angry liberals, or hateful atheists, but the truth is that we’re angry because we’re scared. The line between anti-vaxxers and pro-vaxxers runs directly through many of our families.

Yes, we are afraid for our own health, but many of us have done the best we can by vaccinating ourselves. What’s especially terrifying is when our close family members refuse to keep themselves safe. There is often nothing we can do.

This is largely thanks to the vaccine’s politicization, which stems from the entire pandemic being politicized from the beginning. It is incredibly frustrating to explain to family members why vaccination is their very best defense against a deadly disease, only for them to ignore you because it goes against what’s preached in their white evangelical echo chambers.

In a piece for Religion & Politics, Jason Koon writes about a man named Keith (his last name isn’t given) who worries about losing his own mother to COVID:

Keith’s anxiety over his mother’s unvaccinated status is compounded by her poor health and her October battle with a Covid infection in which she narrowly escaped being put on a ventilator. “I’m experiencing a terrible amount of anxiety over her,” Keith said. “Her October hospitalization was ugly. If she gets it again, I think she’ll die.”

Despite her recent battle with Covid, Keith’s mother is still holding out on vaccination. He believes her daily contact with her siblings, whom he characterizes as hardline “anti-vax Trump supporters,” is reinforcing her resistance. As Keith sees it, it is this pressure from those around her, even more than religious and political considerations, that are keeping her from accepting the vaccine. Still, he holds out hope that reason will eventually overcome the influence of friends and family members, and she will change her mind. “When I asked her about it recently, all she had to say was, ‘I haven’t firmly declined and probably will get it,’” he said.

Even with that glimmer of hope, the situation is even more dire with Keith’s in-laws,

… whose vaccine hesitancy is much more deeply entrenched. As Keith sees it, since 2016, their political beliefs have almost totally overtaken the religious beliefs they once held. “I don’t think they would even consider attending a church that didn’t support Trump,” he said. He added, “They have the ‘faithful remnant’ complex. The smaller the remnant becomes, the more faithful they feel. My attempts to convince them just make them feel more righteous for not doing so.”

It can be difficult to feel pity for people who have put themselves in harm’s way like this. But when your own family is entrenched in the alt-right Trump-supporting community, nothing is simple. Like Keith, so many of us remember who our family members were before they became so radical. It’s as if religious extremism is its own pandemic that’s just as deadly as the virus. And when your loved ones are white evangelicals — as well as Republicans living in rural areas — the likelihood that they will refuse the vaccine is compounded.

Tribalism likely plays a role in the vaccine resistance of Keith’s in-laws as well… they are committed Republicans and rural residents, three demographics which, according to the KFF June polling, had some of the lowest vaccination rates. Considering the significant overlap among the three demographics, characterizing vaccine hesitancy as an exclusively white evangelical phenomenon is unfair. Instead, it is also a rural, Republican, and white evangelical problem, as well as a problem among young people and those without insurance who are under 65; in June, polling showed similar vaccination rates and vaccine hesitancy among those groups.

To be fair, research is still being conducted on whether vaccine hesitancy and refusal is worse in certain evangelical circles than others, and how pervasive it is even in the younger secular demographic. Even so, seeing people you love lose their reasoning skills — and potentially their lives — in the name of manipulative leadership is a tragedy, especially when you feel powerless to help.

(Image via Shutterstock)

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