Last week I told Yonat Shimron of Religion News Service that I was not surprised so many evangelicals are wary of taking the COVID-19 vaccine: “There’s a long history of anti-science within American evangelicalism…It goes back to the Scopes trial and evolution in the 1920s…”
In his recent column, Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson develops some of these thoughts. Here is a taste:
As the United States engages in the monumental task of vaccinating the vast majority of its population against covid-19, there are two main pockets of public resistance. One consists of African Americans, who are overcoming particularly horrible memories of medical exploitation and abuse. The other consists of White evangelical Christians, who are the most hesitant of any faith group. While 69 percent of Americans say they will definitely or probably be vaccinated, just 54 percent of White evangelicals say the same.
From a historical perspective, this is not particularly surprising. In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, evangelicalism was born as a revolt against elites. The Congregationalist and Anglican establishments required ministers to hold academic degrees, dress in proper garb and preach with controlled gravity. The Baptist and Methodist religious insurgents believed that ministers and exhorters were chosen through a direct, divine calling that could come to anyone. They regarded old-line clerics as arrogant, stuffy and even unsaved.
And the skepticism about elites did not stop with the clergy. In “The Democratization of American Christianity,” historian Nathan O. Hatch describes a populist revolt against the legal and medical professions as well. The Second Great Awakening in the early 1800s was accompanied by the rise of natural remedies and botanic medicine as an alternative to the norms of traditional medical education. One popular practitioner, Samuel Thomson, argued that Americans “should in medicine, as in religion and politics, act for themselves.”
From the mid-19th to the early 20th centuries, evangelicals developed a strained relationship with modern science. Geology revealed ancient fossils and an old Earth. Biology traced the course of human evolution. Cosmology attributed the beginnings of an expanding universe to a Big Bang. For many evangelical believers, the scientific description of reality did not look like the universe of their imagination. The scientific profession became an object of suspicion. And this distrust was only exacerbated by a resurgence of fundamentalism in the late 20th century.