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Public health officials are hoping a national vaccine campaign can stop the spread of COVID-19, but some groups are hesitant to get on board, among them white evangelicals. Surveys show they're among the people least likely to say they will get the vaccine. NPR's Sarah McCammon reports on how pastors and public health leaders are working to change that among one of the nation's largest religious groups.
SARAH MCCAMMON, BYLINE: In a certain segment of Christian eschatology, which is just a big word for what you think will happen at the end of the world, there's this idea of the mark of the beast. For the uninitiated, it's bad, and if you want to go to heaven, you'd better not get it.
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MARJORIE TAYLOR GREENE: And I asked the question earlier today, is this something like Biden's mark of the beast? - because that is really disturbing and not good.
MCCAMMON: That's Georgia Republican Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene in a recent video posted online. Greene is suggesting - and, I have to say here, without evidence - a connection between that idea and vaccines. Jared Cornet is a pastor in Irving, Texas, and he's heard this, too, in some of his Southern Baptist Facebook groups.
JARED CORNET: But to me, I have a very hard time from getting the vaccine to the mark of the beast.
MCCAMMON: Cornet says thankfully, he hasn't heard that in his church, but he has run across some skepticism and misunderstandings about the science behind the coronavirus vaccine. Nationally, white evangelicals report a high degree of vaccine hesitancy. In one recent survey, just over half said they were likely to get vaccinated compared to 64% of evangelicals of color. Both groups were well below the rate for non-evangelicals - 77%.
CORNET: And I think there's just disinformation as well.
MCCAMMON: Cornet says some church members who oppose abortion also have moral concerns about how some of the vaccines were developed, including research involving fetal cells from abortions performed decades ago. Cornet has pointed them to expert sources and reassured them that he believes the vaccine is safe and ethical. These concerns about the vaccine pose a public health challenge, given that as many as 1 in 4 Americans of all racial backgrounds identify as evangelical. Several national evangelical leaders also are speaking out in support of vaccination, including Franklin Graham, son of the late Reverend Billy Graham.
FRANKLIN GRAHAM: We have seen firsthand - at least I have - what coronavirus can do to a person. And it's frightening, and you don't want it.
MCCAMMON: Graham's charity Samaritan's Purse set up several field hospitals to treat COVID-19 patients around the world. After posting on Facebook about his decision to get the Moderna vaccine, Graham received thousands of comments, some showing support but many expressing outrage, calling Graham a false prophet among other things. His niece, Jerushah Duford, is a granddaughter of Billy Graham and a frequent critic of the white evangelical Christian right. She wants more evangelical leaders to encourage their followers to get vaccinated.
JERUSHAH DUFORD: I want the church to fight for others more than they're fighting for themselves. That's what I have not seen over the last year, and that's what we're called to do.
MCCAMMON: Walter Kim, president of the National Association of Evangelicals, says church leaders can do that by changing the way they talk about the virus.
WALTER KIM: The more we can move the discourse from a discourse about politics and political affiliation to the discourse of mission of love for neighbor, then I think we're tapping into something profoundly motivating for evangelicals.
MCCAMMON: Kim's group is partnering with the Ad Council on a new initiative reaching out to evangelicals with the message that getting the coronavirus vaccine may be a way to love your neighbor and love God.
Sarah McCammon, NPR News.
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