They’ve been frozen from family gatherings or church groups. Their theology is questioned, their faith credentials put under a microscope.
But these are not people who swear by ivermectin, hydroxychloroquine, Zithromax or divine healing as the cure for COVID-19.
These are conservative Christians who are pro-vaccine. And they are steaming.
It was in late August that Heather Mashal, 46, an evangelical Christian from Wilmington, Delaware, had had enough. She was surrounded by unvaccinated Christian friends who didn’t wear masks and were spouting conspiracy theories about COVID being a hoax.
“I wanted to create a group of people who were Christians and not on board with that mind-bending insanity,” she says. “I have so many close friends who are so far gone into COVID denialism, they will barely speak to me.”
She formed a Facebook group: Christians Against Covid Denialism , that led with:
“Do you find yourself pulling your hair out at the conspiracy theories that some of your Christian friends have been pushing about COVID?”
“This group is a sanctuary for those taking a stand in the Christian community against anti-vaccination, anti-masking, and covid denialism. Non-Christians are also welcome.”
In the first few weeks, dozens of Facebook users joined each day. The group, which now has 632 members, is a daily menu of posts from fed-up evangelicals, Catholics, mainline Protestants and a few atheists.
“Recently, my Christian mom has doubled down on believing that doctors are evil, medicine is poison and is a money-making scheme,” one man posted on October 3. “She feels her faith alone and her right relationship with the Lord is adequate. She is adamant to say that the vaccine is an admission of doubt, and her prayer of faith will protect her.”
Posters are frustrated that even the sight of major Christian figures urging vaccines, ranging from Pope Francis to evangelist Franklin Graham, isn’t enough to deter the holdouts.
“I lost some of my very closest friends to QAnon,” said Kristen Park, 46, a member of the group and the wife of a career military officer in Washington, D.C.
“One of them stopped speaking to me immediately during the pandemic because I trusted experts and science,” she said. “As for the Bible teachers I trusted for many years and thought knew God so well, I can’t now understand how they can hear God and believe such insanity.”
She once used to listen every day to people like Messianic Jewish talk show host Sid Roth, who posted last year on Twitter that “Coronavirus Was Created to Destroy Trump,” and Bill Johnson, lead pastor of Bethel Church, a charismatic mega-congregation in Redding, California.
“I thought they heard God, but now I am wondering if I am hearing Him,” she said. “We’re not hearing the same person.”
Although Mashal’s group concentrates on evangelicals and a subset—Pentecostals and charismatics—it’s actually the anti-religious “nones” who are the least vaccinated, according to Ryan Burge, a researcher and political science professor at Eastern Illinois University.
In data released last May, he said that 62 percent of evangelicals polled had been vaccinated compared to 47 percent of the “nones.”
“If this data is accurate, that the media needs to be turning the spotlight a bit away from evangelicals and toward the vast swaths of America that is young and secular,” Burge wrote for Religion Unplugged .
But it’s conservative Christians who are constructing a false narrative, Mashal says.
“In my home region, in most churches I used to hang out at, you get this intense slew of people telling you the government is taking away our rights and they are persecuting Christians,” she said. “When churches were first being shut down, they were shutting down mosques too. It was not persecution of Christians, it was public health.”
There are some Christians who are convinced, though, that government mandates for vaccination are a test run for a future world dictatorship that will eventually usher in the Antichrist. Floating about Twitter and YouTube is a video of an August 29 sermon by Bethel’s Bill Johnson where he described how the world has been on “a slow steady march towards a one-world government” for the past 40 years.
“I’m not saying we’re close to it,” he added. “I am saying we are closer than we’ve ever been.”
He then referred to the “mark of the beast;” a sign referred to in the New Testament Book of Revelation 13:16-18 as a mark, received on the right hand or forehead, that allows people to buy or sell in exchange for allegiance to a satanic “beast.”
“With the mark of the beast, you can’t buy or sell or do business,” Johnson said. “And without a vaccine, they don’t want you to buy or sell or do business. Now, I’m not opposing vaccines. I’m just saying this is an interesting dress rehearsal for a bigger issue in the future.”
Erica Ramirez, director of applied research at Auburn Seminary in New York, said Johnson’s stance is typical of American Pentecostalism’s fascination with the book of Revelation’s portrayal of a future demonic world leader.
“Their framework is that empire and global powers have to be dealt with before the rise of the Antichrist,” she said. “They are anticipating global domination. To us, the United Nations looks like a good thing. To them, they worry how centralized organizations will promote one-world logic.”
“So, their sense is that the corona vaccine is a new version of a nefarious global agenda— within which they anticipate being scapegoated. They see the media as having underreported damage from last year’s Black Lives Matter protests, for example, and feel by comparison spotlit as vaccine resisters. This is all, for them, rising action leading to confrontation.”
More severe rhetoric out of the Biden White House is cementing those fears, she added, leading anti-vaxxers to dig in their heels harder.
Craig Keener, a professor of biblical studies at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky, who identifies as a “pro-life charismatic evangelical,” said he has “real problems” associating the vaccine with the Antichrist or mark of the beast.
“No one in the West is demanding that Jesus’s followers renounce Jesus or worship a false god before we may take the vaccine,” he wrote in an August blog post . “No one has announced plans to mark whoever has had this or any other vaccine. If someone does, that mark might be a diabolical scheme, but that would not make the vaccine itself diabolic.”
Instead, he believes that pastors should be protecting congregants against the “false prophets” who oppose the vaccine.
“Given the much higher mortality of the unvaccinated and the higher proportion of opposition to the vaccine among some conservative Christians, it appears to me that antivaccination propaganda is killing a disproportionate number of conservative Christians,” Keener wrote. “For shepherds called to care for the welfare of their flock, that has to be a matter of grave concern.”
Joey Paul, 44, a member of Mashal’s Facebook group from Ottawa, says the “mark of the beast” terminology has made its way into Catholic circles as well and that his pastor has led the way. He left his longtime Canadian parish, St. Mary’s/Our Lady of Good Counsel in January because he felt its leader, the Reverand Mark Goring, was playing fast and loose with biblical interpretation.
“He plays both sides of the fence and is attracting around him a lot of anti-vax people and COVID deniers,” Paul said. “It’s very subtle but significant…He’s had some videos about “recognizing the mark of the beast” that could be read to mean vaccines for an anti-vaxxer. A lot of people supporting him there feel they are a persecuted minority.”
Paul is one of several people in the Facebook group who felt pushed out of their anti-vax churches.
“It has really hurt,” he says. “I was there for 25 years; I helped teach catechesis to adults and children; my kids were all baptized there, we were there for a long time.”
One of the members of the Facebook group is a higher-up in the Christian publishing business who says he’s surrounded by clients, authors and customers who preach COVID denialism. It’s difficult to change their minds, he explains, because many distrust the media and live solely within “an evangelical denial ecosystem” that began with distrusting earlier reports on global warming and fossil fuels.
“They’re saying that, ‘in the past, vaccines that took 10-20 years to develop and you’re saying you got one in two years? That’s impossible,'” he said.
“There’s an entire culture in Christianity of you can’t trust anyone but the people in your church. They’ve been taught for decades everyone is lying to you.”
He asked: “If COVID can be healed by simple prayer, why aren’t teams of intercessors going into the ICUs and laying hands on them and healing them? That is a fair and valid question.”
At one point, Mashal asked the group if they would allow in an anti-vaxxer simply for the purpose of debate. She got an overwhelmingly negative response.
“In this group, people are craving a sanctuary,” she said. “They say: ‘We deal with friends, family and church members all the time. We need a place to recoup.'”
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