WASHINGTON (RNS)—A day after President Joe Biden announced sweeping policy changes to continue to address the COVID-19 pandemic, one of his administration’s top health officials said he doesn’t expect widespread use of religious exemptions to get around them.
Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, also acknowledged Sept. 10 he is “a bit” frustrated with fellow evangelicals who have hesitated or refused to get the vaccine, even as the delta variant has led to an average of more than 1,000 U.S. deaths a day.
Collins said he hopes the “much more muscular requirements” will make “a big difference” in reducing the number of unvaccinated Americans, noting the country needs to vaccinate at least five times the 800,000 who are being vaccinated daily in order to overcome the variant.
Among the new policies is an “emergency rule” Biden said the Labor Department will develop to require U.S. businesses with 100 or more employees to mandate their staffs are fully vaccinated or show weekly they have tested negative for COVID-19.
Collins spoke to Religion News Service about how that rule might affect religious organizations, how clergy can help congregants view vaccinations and how part of his “calling” is to encourage religious groups to work to end the pandemic.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Love your neighbor and get vaccinated
President Biden said on Thursday that “this is a pandemic of the unvaccinated,” and you have urged your fellow evangelicals to get vaccinated as an “opportunity to do something for your neighbors.” But studies have shown white evangelicals are among the most resistant and hesitant toward the COVID-19 vaccine. Does this make you frustrated with your fellow believers?
Well, to be honest, it does a bit. But I’m also trying to be sure I’m listening carefully to what the concerns are because I don’t think lecturing is probably the best way to get people to change their minds.
It is odd because evangelicals generally believe strongly in this love-your-neighbor principle. And we do know if we want to get this terrible pandemic to come to an end, it’s going to require all of us to get engaged in getting immune, and the best way to do that is with a vaccination.
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And by vaccinating yourself, you’re also providing protection to the people around you who are depending on you not to spread that virus to them, particularly people who are immunocompromised from cancer or organ transplants or kids under 12 who can’t be vaccinated yet.
There have been some reports of pastors with near-death experiences with COVID who have changed their mind about their resistance to the vaccine at that point. Is their example what it might take for some people to roll up their sleeves?
I think every person’s got a somewhat different threshold for what it’s going to take. It’s often somebody they trust, who’s willing to talk with them, listen to the concerns—much of which are fed by conspiracies on social media that basically don’t have any truth to them but are troubling if you’ve heard them several times—and then basically get the confidence of that person that the evidence really is in favor of this. And that, for somebody who’s a believer, this is what you could call an answer to prayer.
If we’ve all been praying to God to somehow deliver us from this terrible pandemic, and what happens is these vaccines get developed that are safe and effective, well, why wouldn’t you want to say, “Thank you, God” and roll up your sleeve?
As the new announcement by the administration was made Thursday, a senior administration official told reporters there’ll be “limited” exemptions for federal workers for religious reasons. Do you know what that means or could you give an example of what that might be?
I think every agency is going to have to figure out exactly how to interpret that. I would say if people are going to say there’s something special about COVID-19 vaccinations that require even more religious exemptions than you would have for a flu vaccine, they’re going to have to explain why that is.
Somehow COVID-19 has taken on this big concern, this cloud of uncertainty, that it doesn’t deserve. And it’s been approved now by the FDA in full approval. If people are planning to do the religious exemption, (they’re) going to have to really come through with a coherent argument about why that applies in this place.
Religious organizations that have more than 100 employees—I would imagine they would generally be expected to follow this mandate and have people vaccinated or have a weekly negative COVID test. Could an organization like that get a wholesale exemption for all of their employees?
I would have a very hard time imagining how that could be justified, given the importance of getting everybody protected against this. And to do this wholesale, it’d be hard for me to understand how that would apply. What would be the basis of that? I can’t really come up with a good example of how that fits.
‘The truth will set you free’
For months, you and other people in the administration have talked about faith leaders of various perspectives as being “trusted partners” in the efforts to get people vaccinated against COVID-19. Has that approach shifted, or do you think those efforts haven’t worked as well as you had hoped?
Oh, I think they have worked in many individual circumstances. I do think faith leaders have been in a tough spot. And some of them, even though they’ve come around, personally, to the view that the vaccine is something they want for themselves and their families, they’ve been reluctant to raise it amongst their parishioners because of the fear this might be divisive.
I’m hoping we’ve now reached the point where the evidence is so strong—where we see people dying around us—that those faith leaders will decide it’s worth taking the risk to get some pushback. To basically say, folks, let’s look at the truth of this. The truth will set you free.
And what role in general, other than what you’ve said, do you see ahead for the involvement of faith leaders, with the new rules the president has announced?
Well, no doubt they will be asked whether this is a violation of personal freedom. And I hope pastors listening to that will listen carefully, but also remind us as Americans freedom is about rights but it’s also about responsibilities.
I cherish my freedom as an American. I’m proud of my country. But I know I’m not free to go out and get drunk and get behind the wheel of an automobile.
There are limits here, in terms of what that freedom implies and those responsibilities, for a pandemic, kind of kick in and they have for decades. Go back to when we had smallpox that was killing people across this country more than 100 years ago, or polio.
When you have those circumstances where it’s not just about a person, it’s about the whole community, then we all have a shared responsibility. And I hope pastors will feel comfortable reminding people of that, and Christians especially ought to resonate with that, since we’re all known for our ability to reach out, our determination to take risks to help other people. Here’s a chance to do exactly that.
Evangelicals not a homogeneous group
Circling back to the question about evangelicals and hesitancy, or resistance. Are there misconceptions about white evangelicals and the COVID vaccine and shifts, perhaps, in their attitudes about them that people may not realize?
Well, it’s certainly a mistake to try to imagine white evangelicals are this highly homogeneous group. There’s lots of different people who fit into that particular description of a faith tradition. I’m one of them, but I’m probably a little different than somebody you might meet in a typical white evangelical church in Mississippi. But I think what we share as believers is this commitment as followers of Jesus that we want to share that good news with other people.
And here’s a chance to share the good news in a different way. I don’t know that it would be fair, though, for me to try to generalize whether white evangelicals, as a group, have come around. Some certainly have. Some are still pretty resistant.
Are you still continuing to speak to religious groups as you have from the National Cathedral to webinars with evangelicals, or is that part of your work more complete?
No, I am willing to speak to any religious group at any time about this. This is part of my calling, I guess, as a scientist who’s also a believer. So I’d be delighted to find opportunities to do that any day, every day.