Black Protestant Clergy Are Effectively Encouraging Vaccines

10:19 minutes

Woman being vaccinated.
Young woman getting a vaccine. Credit: Shutterstock

For many people in or adjacent to the Christian faith, Christmas is one of the only times of year they go to church. But even though attendance has changed during the COVID-19 pandemic, millions of people in the U.S. still attend church in person or virtually at least once a month.

Research from the Pew Research Center has found that some of these regular church attendees are much more likely to be vaccinated against COVID-19, compared to people who only attend a few times a year. The study found that this was the case in historically Black Protestant churches—in large part because clergy members in these churches are much more likely to encourage members to get a COVID-19 vaccine.

Joining guest host John Dankosky to talk through this data, and the role historically Black Protestant churches play in public health education, is Greg Smith, associate director of religion research at the Pew Research Center in Washington, D.C, and pastor Gil Monrose, leader of the Historic Mount Zion Church of God in Brooklyn, New York.

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Segment Guests

Gil Monrose

Gil Monrose is the leader of the Historic Mount Zion Church of God in Brooklyn, New York.

Greg Smith

Greg Smith is the associate director of religion research at the Pew Research Center. 

Segment Transcript

JOHN DANKOSKY: This is Science Friday. I’m John Dankosky. It’s the most wonderful time of the year. Yes, the holiday season. But the truth is for a lot of Christians, Christmas time is one of the only times of the year that they go to church. Pastors, of course, wish this wasn’t the case, but now we’re learning something interesting about regular church attendance that might be connected to health.

In historically Black Protestant churches, regular attendees are much more likely to be vaccinated than people who show up to church a few times a year. Here to help me break down this data about religion and vaccination is my guest. Greg Smith is associate director of Religion Research at the Pew Research Center based in Washington, DC. Greg, welcome to Science Friday.

GREG SMITH: Thank you for having me.

JOHN DANKOSKY: Why don’t you walk us through this data about religion and COVID vaccines? What did you find?

GREG SMITH: Well, I think maybe the first thing to note is that there are differences across religious groups in rates of vaccine uptake. At the low end, we have white evangelical Protestants. They are less likely than people in many other religious traditions to have been vaccinated. At least, that’s what we found in a survey we conducted in August.

Fewer than 6 in 10 white evangelicals, in fact, in that study said they had received at least one dose of the vaccine. By contrast, among Catholics, among those in the Black Protestant tradition, among people who say they have no religion, the religiously unaffiliated, among all those groups, we found vaccine uptake at 7 in 10 or more. So there are religiously based differences in vaccine reception for sure.

JOHN DANKOSKY: And this idea of regular attendance in church is actually a really important piece of this. How exactly did you determine who is a regular attendee and not?

GREG SMITH: What we see is that among members of the historically Black Protestant tradition, people who say they attend religious services regularly, that is to say at least once or twice a month, they are actually more likely than other members of the historically Black Protestant tradition to have been vaccinated.

In fact, among members of the historically Black tradition who attend religious services at least monthly, 8 in 10 have been vaccinated compared with just 6 in 10 members of that tradition who attend religious services less often. That finding, that connection between higher rates of religious attendance and higher rates of vaccination is really only evident within the historically Black Protestant tradition. We don’t see that in evangelical churches or mainline Protestant churches or Catholic churches.

JOHN DANKOSKY: Does the data give you any hints as to why these historically Black Protestant churches are different in this regard?

GREG SMITH: We can’t say for sure, but there are hints. I think chief among those hints is that people in the historically Black Protestant tradition say that their clergy have been encouraging people to get vaccinated at higher rates than what we see in other religious traditions. In fact, 2/3 of churchgoing members of the historically Black Protestant tradition say their clergy have encouraged people to get vaccinated. And we see far lower levels of clergy encouragement with respect to vaccination among other religious groups. So I think that’s one key hint to what’s going on.

JOHN DANKOSKY: And are you learning anything else about that? I mean, is it because their pastors are just so convincing that this is something that they should do?

GREG SMITH: There’s a couple of things we can to point to. One is that people express high levels of trust in their clergy to provide this kind of information among all American churchgoers, not just those in the historically Black Protestant tradition. Among All-American churchgoers, 6 in 10 people say that they have at least a fair amount of confidence in their clergy to provide guidance about what to do with respect to the vaccine. Now that’s lower than the share who have a lot of confidence in their primary care doctor.

But it’s on par with the share who say they’re confident in public health officials like those at the CDC. And it’s higher than the share of churchgoers who say they have a lot of confidence in local elected officials or state elected officials or even the news media. So that’s part of it. Clergy are looked to as a source of guidance on these matters.

I think another factor here with Black Protestants in particular is that if we look back to surveys we did earlier in the pandemic, we were seeing that Black Protestants were a little bit slower to return to in-person religious attendance compared with other groups, even though on average, Black Protestants are a highly religious group, more religious on average than members of many other religious traditions. And I think that, in turn, was consistent with other surveys that showed that racial and ethnic minorities were being hit harder by the pandemic than other groups. So I think all of these things come into play.

JOHN DANKOSKY: Greg Smith is associate director of religion research at the Pew Research Center based in Washington, DC. Greg, thank you so much for your time and all of this great data.

GREG SMITH: Thank you again for having me. I appreciate the opportunity.

JOHN DANKOSKY: As we heard from Greg, part of what sets historically Black Protestant churches apart is that pastors are likely to encourage churchgoers to get vaccinated. One of those pastors is my next guest. Pastor Gil Monrose is leader of the historic Mount Zion Church of God in Brooklyn, New York. Pastor Gil, welcome to Science Friday.

GIL MONROSE: Thank you so much for having me. Glad to be on.

JOHN DANKOSKY: So what role do you play for your parishioners when it comes to COVID-19 education?

GREG SMITH: Yes, I think that for us, it’s also not just a theological question, but also a conscious question. So my role is to give confidence to let folks know that if your conscience dictates one or the other, the church has had to stand with you. But also you have to consider your family, your medical choices, and how do you see yourself in the larger context of health in where you live and to make the decision based on, again, your conscience. And so our role is to make sure that we can guide them through the process.

JOHN DANKOSKY: So tell me about your strategies for encouraging vaccination for people who may be hesitant, who may come to you and say, I don’t believe that I should be vaccinated.

GIL MONROSE: Yeah, so you have to walk it with a fine line. What I’ve said is that I’m vaccinated, and I think that we have been taking vaccinations all of our lives. And so this is, to me, I was like this is nothing new to the experience of health. And so therefore you can be rest assured that it is something that you’re making a decision that could improve your health, right? And so don’t feel that you are doing something that is so detriment to yourself, to your body, that physically, you feel that you’re doing something wrong. So encouragement, my encouragement to those who are hesitant is that we need to take a look at how in history we have been taking vaccines before. And it’s nothing new to us.

JOHN DANKOSKY: So you’re giving people a bit of a history lesson, but you’re also asking them to follow their conscience. It sounds to me, Pastor, that in the end if they were to ask you, what should I do, Pastor Gil, myself, you would tell them follow your conscience, but get a vaccine.

GIL MONROSE: For the most part, yeah. You can follow your conscience, but at the same time, I think the vaccine is something that because there’s no medical procedure or medicine that we know of that is thought to be perfect, but we know for sure that it has its benefits. And so I would say to them to make sure that yes, if your conscience is really leaning, I am here to help walk you through those feelings because don’t forget that someone’s spiritual journey doesn’t really come to a climax overnight. And our role as faith leaders is to be with the peoples or that individual faith, not necessarily in medical procedure.

JOHN DANKOSKY: The data that we’ve been talking about here, was it surprising to you that regular church attendees were more likely to be vaccinated than those who attend church only once in a while?

GIL MONROSE: Yeah, I thought that that was very striking, but also, too, on the flip side, when I was thinking about it again, we have seen that even people who wanted to come back to fellowship and to worship– and I think that that was one of the driving forces. It was being said, the quicker you get vaccinated, the more that you can rejoin in fellowship and in worship because really and truly, God did not make us to be separated like this. And so all throughout the Holy scriptures, we see there is a touching, there is a hugging. There is just an embrace. And so I think that people wanted to get back into worship. So I am thinking that it would make sense, knowing that information.

JOHN DANKOSKY: So that’s really interesting. People who are more inclined to come to church more often feel that that’s a big part of their lives, that that community is a big part of who they are. And so the vaccination in that way is a way for them to get back to that communion.

GIL MONROSE: Yeah, yeah, and to me, that’s what it is. People wanted to get back to worship or God. People wanted to connect with family and friends. The church really is about people, as I’m speaking exclusively about that. It’s about people. And people, again, wanted to be in touch. They wanted to be back again into the live music, back again into the worship, back again hearing the clapping and the tambourine and the music and hearing the preacher live and direct. And so that was definitely a draw to get the vaccination.

JOHN DANKOSKY: This kind of public health education that you’re providing, is it part of a larger tradition within Black churches?

GIL MONROSE: So I think for us is that we’re always looking for equality across the board. And when you had looked at initially, looking at the numbers, you saw that the affluent communities were receiving the vaccination quicker than the poor communities. And so as a church, we always have to be mindful in the faith community and the Black church that we wanted to fight for equity, about the same information that was given to those in a different zip code is the same information that will be given to the people in which we serve.

JOHN DANKOSKY: Pastor Gil Monrose is leader of the historic Mount Zion Church of God in Brooklyn, New York. Pastor, thank you so much for sharing some of your time with us. And please have a wonderful holiday.

GIL MONROSE: Thank you, and stay healthy.

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