Is it the right thing to do or mark of the beast?

Tabernacle Baptist Church

Palm Beach County residents line up outside of the Tabernacle Baptist Church in West Palm Beach on Jan. 16 for a COVID-19 vaccination event. It was sponsored by the Florida Department of Emergency Management and the Florida Department of Health.MEGHAN MCCARTHY/THE PALM BEACH POST/TNS

BY DAVID FLESHLER

SUN SENTINEL/TNS

FORT LAUDERDALE — At River West Palm Beach Church, Pastor Corey Erman stood in front of the congregation on Easter morning and denounced the “scamdemic” of COVID-19 and the “big, big, big con job” of testing and vaccines.

Turning to the question of vaccine passports, speaking over undulating keyboard music in a video posted on Facebook, he told the largely unmasked congregation to “say no to the mark of the beast.”

At Calvary Chapel in Fort Lauderdale, lead Pastor Doug Sauder is looking forward to getting his second vaccine dose Monday, saying he needs the protection. (“People don’t social distance from me. They give me hugs.”) But he’s well aware of the suspicion of the vaccine among many Christians.

“We actually did a Q-and-A at our church – is the vaccine the mark of the beast, the end of all time, the apocalypse, and we’re like, no, that’s absolutely not true,” he said. “It’s not in the Bible. We’re not going to state anything with authority that we don’t see in Scripture. If we don’t see it there, we’ll take the principles of the Bible and apply them to that modern circumstance and then pray for wisdom and love and unity.”

‘A perfect storm’

Few communities have been more divided over the vaccines than the sprawling expanse of Christian churches and denominations classified as evangelical.

Among religious demographic groups, White evangelicals were the most likely to reject COVID-19 vaccines, with 45% saying they would not get the shot, according to a February survey by the Pew Research Center. At the other end of the spectrum, the group least likely to reject the vaccine were atheists.

What experts call “vaccine hesitancy” has emerged as a significant obstacle in the fight against the disease, particularly with the rise of more transmissible variants of the virus.

“We could actually stop the variants in their tracks with the vaccines today if we got enough people vaccinated,” said Dr. Leslie Beitsch, chairman of the Department of Behavioral Sciences and Social Medicine at Florida State University’s College of Medicine.

“So, vaccine hesitancy allows those variants to emerge and might actually at some point select out a variation that will require further ongoing vaccination. So, it’s a potential for, in so many ways, a perfect storm.”

Embraced by clergy

The backgrounds of people considered vaccine-hesitant run across the political spectrum, he said.

“You have elements of the far left who are concerned about the pharmaceutical-industrial complex,” he said. “You’ve got evangelicals, you’ve got rural folks, you’ve got people of color.”

Although evangelicals remain one center of opposition, many pastors and their congregations have embraced the vaccines, seeing no conflict between science and the word of God.

“Glad to get shot #2 of the Moderna vaccine from the very kind team @VeteransHealth,” tweeted Pastor Jimmy Scroggins of Family Church in downtown West Palm Beach, where President Donald Trump attended Christmas Eve services.

At Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Fort Lauderdale, lead Pastor Rob Pacienza said he’s heard anti-vaccine sentiment in the broader Christian community but not among members of his church.

“I think our congregation has a pretty good understanding that belief in God is compatible with science,” he said. “We believe medical treatment is an extension of God’s common grace and really believe that throughout history Christians have understood and embraced that.

“Christians have founded hospitals, founded orphanages, taking in widows and the poor. This is what we do as the people of God. So, we would see a medical advance such as the vaccine as something we would embrace and celebrate, that the sovereignty of God has brought us this amazing gift.”

Anti-vaccine video

Not all evangelicals agree. Acts 2 Worship Center in Loxahatchee posted an anti-vaccine video on its Facebook page last month that was later removed by YouTube and labeled “False information checked by independent fact-checkers.”

In Tampa, Pastor Rodney Howard-Brown, who was arrested last year for violating COVID-19 restrictions in crowded services at The River Church of Tampa (charges were dropped), routinely retweets criticism of vaccines, such as posts against vaccine passports or that report allegedly poor health outcomes for vaccine recipients.

At King Jesus International Ministry in Miami, Pastor Guillermo Maldonado made international headlines in December when a video circulated in which he told the congregation the vaccine would prepare the way for the Antichrist and would “alter your DNA.” “Believe in the blood of Jesus,” he said. “Believe in divine immunity.”

Much of the anti-vaccine sentiment comes less from religious beliefs themselves than from the right-wing political convictions of many evangelicals, whose historic anti-elite outlook makes it easier to question the advice of scientists, doctors and political leaders, said John Evans, professor of sociology at the University of California, San Diego, and an expert on the relationship between science and religion.

“A lot of this is that White evangelicals tend to be conservative Republican Trump supporters,” he said. “They watch a lot of Fox News. And therefore, they will take on the perspective of Sean Hannity and Fox News and come up with some sort of religious rationale. But what’s really driving things is they’re conservative, Trump-style Republicans.”

Mark of the devil?

Dr. Charles Haddad, associate professor of community health and family medicine at the University of Florida, said he’s heard conspiratorial, anti-vaccine views from “ultra-conservative” Christian patients at his medical practice in Jacksonville.

“I’ve heard it’s the mark of the beast, it’s the mark of the devil, it’s inserted into you, and you’re going to be monitored,” he said.

For all patients opposed to the vaccine, he gives a similar speech. “What I say to them is, ‘Of all the advice I’ve ever given you throughout all the time I’ve taken care of you, this is probably the most important thing that I will tell you, that it’s important to get that vaccine,’” he said.

“Then I go through the risks and the benefits of what is known at this time. A lot of people say we don’t know what’s going to happen in five years or 10 years, and my response to that is, ‘Well, we do know what happens when you get COVID. A pretty good percentage of people die.’” 

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