As some Oklahoma churches push vaccines, others sow misinformation, doubt
EDMOND — Paul Blair says he doesn’t have a stance on whether his congregation should receive a COVID-19 vaccine.
The 58-year-old cancer survivor is convinced he doesn’t need the shot. And he tells members of Fairview Baptist Church that it’s up to them to decide if they need it.
But when Blair, a former Oklahoma State and Chicago Bears offensive lineman and two-time unsuccessful Republican legislative candidate, stands in the pulpit on Sunday mornings, he leans into what he really thinks about the virus that has killed about 14,000 Oklahomans and 750,000 Americans.
On several occasions, Blair has said Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious-disease expert, should be jailed or end up in hell.
He has raised unfounded and disproven conspiracy theories, including one that the virus was man made and Bill Gates and other billionaires are using the virus as a population-control device.
He has even suggested that the worldwide vaccine push is a precursor to the apocalyptic “mark of the beast” mentioned in the book of Revelation.
“Most of what we’ve seen these past two years has been intended to scare us into sacrificing our freedom,” Blair said during a sermon this month. “And what we’ve been told is not true. We know this virus as man-made and if they made this one, they can make the next one.”
As concerns about the Omicron variant have fueled a renewed push by health experts to encourage vaccinations or boosters, the role that religion and church leaders have on vaccine acceptance has been put in the spotlight.
Numerous studies have found that white evangelical Protestants, more than any other religious or demographic group, have resisted the vaccine.
And in Oklahoma, home to one of the country’s largest evangelical populations per capita and one of the nation’s lowest vaccination rates, the issue is taking on increased relevance — especially as Omicron cases have dramatically spiked across the country.
Only 52.8% of Oklahoma’s population has been fully vaccinated, according to theMayo Clinic. That’s the 13th lowest rate in the country and far below the state’s goal of reaching at least 70% of the population protected.
In a country, and state, already divided over the politics of the vaccine and who should be required to receive it, faith-based groups are also split. And what religious leaders have to say, or not say, could help determine the trajectory of the virus.
“In the case of COVID vaccines, we know that doctors and medical professionals are of course the experts,” said Natalie Jackson, director of research at the Public Religion Research Institute. “But it bears out in the numbers that religious organizations and religious leaders are also in people's trust circle and there is considerable attention to what respected religious leaders say.”
While many churches have sponsored vaccine and testing drives or encouraged their congregation to get the shot, an Oklahoma Watch review of dozens of hours of publicly available sermons from a number of churches found some have directly or indirectly pushed misinformation, conspiracy theories and doubts about the vaccine.
And an even larger group has largely stayed away from the topic altogether with seldom mentions of the pandemic or vaccines during church services.
Jackson said her research shows that this follows what is going on across the nation.
“There are some religious leaders out there saying vaccination is a good thing, but there's also that very loud minority saying don't do it and the real big sector that is just not addressing it at all,” she said.
Views about the vaccine vary largely between religious groups and subgroups.
A study from the Public Religion Research Institute in June found only 56% of evangelical protestants said they had gotten vaccinated against the coronavirus or would get the vaccine as soon as possible. Other white Christian groups were much more vaccine acceptant, including 74% of white mainline Protestants and 79% of white Catholics. Additionally, 75% of religiously unaffiliated Americans say they have gotten vaccinated or will get vaccinated as soon as possible.
A follow-up study from the nonprofit research group released in September found a strong link between the urban-rural divide and vaccination rates (with more rural areas having lower vaccination rates). But it concluded that counties with greater shares of white evangelical Protestants have lower rates of vaccination.
Meanwhile, it found counties with more religious diversity, a greater share of white Catholics or more religiously unaffiliated Americans — an increasingly common groupalso referred to as the “nones” since they don’t subscribe to any specific religious belief — have seen higher vaccination rates.
Heidi A. Campbell, a professor at Texas A&M University who studies media and religion, said vaccine hesitancy among evangelicals can be intertwined with politics, specifically the Republican Party.
“One of the key narratives within evangelicalism is that (they) are not of this world and are in this kind of war or battle,” she said. “It’s about authority, it’s about control, it’s about loss of power.”
Among the churches where COVID-19 or vaccines is rarely discussed, at least during their weekly Sunday sermons, is Guts Church, one of the largest Christian congregations in Tulsa.
Billed as a “church for people who don’t like church,” Guts doesn’t require a dress code, features lively music processions and was among the first churches that invited Gov. Kevin Stitt to speak after he took office in 2020.
“Pastors talk to me all the time about how are you navigating this, meaning how are you navigating the pandemic, it’s real easy, we don’t talk about it,” said Guts Church Pastor Bill Scheer during a sermon this spring. “I think you have enough information on it and that you don’t have to come here and get more information about the virus.”
He and others have preached a message advocating not worrying or fearing the disease — something that stands in contrast to the repeated warning and calls to action from the medical community over the past two years.
“Look I’m not making light of it, I get it’s a virus,” Scheer said during a sermon in January. “But there is no way mankind should be gripped with the fear it grips us with. … That’s the question, is God the healer, is God the provider? If you are trusting anything other than him, it’s a lie. It’s interesting, all we need is the presence of God.”
At Tulsa Victory Church, which drew scrutiny for hosting a large, indoor concert with little mask-wearing as COVID cases were spiking last fall, Pastor Paul Daugherty made light of the virus in recent months.
After jokingly referring to the delta variant as the "American Airline variant" during a sermon in August, Daugherty acknowledged the virus is “powerful.” But without talking about specifics, he said many are overreacting to it.
“I think our world is bowing down to this virus with such a spirit of fear,” Daugherty said. “And I just want to dethrone it from our hearts and I want to dethrone every idol that has lifted itself up.”
Daugherty went on to say the church, rather than a vaccine itself, is the way.
“We have the real vaccine, we have what they’re looking for: We have the cure and it’s love, it’s the love of God,” he said.
At Tulsa’s Living Rivers Millennial Church, Pastor Paul Brady shared a similar message in July, just as the state’s COVID-19 cases began to rise again.
Brady, who founded the church with his wife after moving from Northern Ireland, claims to have “a strong apostolic and prophetic anointing,” according to the church’s website. State Sen. Jake Merrick, R-Yukon, who has pushed for laws to ban abortion and block vaccine mandates, is a former pastor at the church.
“How many things can we get people to be afraid of,” Brady asked during the July sermon. “And it’s not just going to be just one vaccine, it’s going to be another vaccine and another vaccine and another vaccine and another vaccine.”
Brady went on to raise questions on the virus’ origins and even praised one member of his congregation for forgoing cancer treatment because they “were going to put little chips in her body.”
And while not pointing to specific conspiracy theories, Brady like other pastors repeatedly said they are just raising questions. During one sermon, he was telling a story on how incredulous it is that there are vaccine stations in malls or at airports.
“Now it doesn’t matter if you are for or against (vaccines),” he said. “But I can tell you something’s going on.”
But there have been very different messages shared with congregations such as Oklahoma City’s First Church of the Nazarene.
The church, located just south of Lake Hefner, has hosted numerous vaccination drives and their leaders have put the importance of being vaccinated at the forefront of their message.
“We believe that God heals through science and that this is good science,” said Rev. Aaron Bolerjack, the executive pastor for the church. “It’s not just protecting us as individuals, this is how we love our neighbors too during a pandemic.”
Rev. Shannon Fleck, executive director of the Oklahoma Conference of Churches, said it can be difficult for church leaders to navigate the pandemic in a way that doesn’t turn off a portion of their congregation.
Still, church leaders need to be the “moral lens” of our society, she said, which to her means teaching a biblical message focused on caring for others.
“It’s vital to remember that Jesus was all about protecting the vulnerable and making sure people are cared for with love and respect,” she said. “A lot of the arguments around the vaccine are centered around personal liberty issues, and I just don’t think Jesus would be on board with that.”
Several local churches have also pushed the vaccine, particularly in predominantly Black and Hispanic communities that have historically not been as trusting of vaccines.
Voice of Praise Baptist Church, located just east of the State Capitol, partnered with the Oklahoma City-County Health Department earlier this fall to host a COVID-19 vaccine event. Though Jackson, with Public Religion Research Institute, said experts are still studying the impact that religious leaders have on vaccine acceptance, there are signs some messages are working.
The institute found many faith groups have become less hesitant over the past several months. This includes the percentage of Black Protestants saying they have or plan to get the vaccine increasing from 49% in March to 74% in November.
Further complicating the issue has been the national debate over government and private businesses’ vaccine mandates.
At the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City, the Catholic church has taken more of a middle ground. While it strongly has encouraged its congregation to get vaccinated, it has not pressured those who have moral objections since fetal cell lines — cells grown in a laboratory based on aborted fetal cells collected generations ago — were used in testing and production on the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines and the manufacturing and production stages of the Johnson and Johnson vaccine (but none of the vaccines contain any of the fetal cells).
In a letter from Archbishop Paul S. Coakley to the congregation, he wrote that “whatever the source of reluctance, the fact remains that a person may not act against their conscience.” Coakley wrote that he still encourages vaccination and stated that the church is not “anti-science.”
“We’ve tried to steer people toward reliable information and our bishop has been vaccinated,” said Diane Clay, director of communication for the archdiocese. “But ultimately it’s up to each individual to make that decision for themselves.”
If it wasn’t for the white cross with “Jesus is the Way” written horizontally and vertically, it would be easy to miss Grace Community Church.
Housed in a nondescript building in Elgin, a town of about 3,250 located 20 minutes northeast of Lawton on Interstate 44, about 100 congregants, politicians and others came together for a one-day conference titled, “Mandating Mask and Vaccines: By Whose Authority” one Friday night in October.
The underlying message during the four-hour event was that individuals shouldn’t follow government requirements if they have a moral opposition to vaccines.
In Romans 13:1-2, for instance, the Bible says, “obey the government, for God is the One who has put it there. There is no government anywhere that God has not placed in power.”
That authority is not absolute and parishioners should follow their conscience even if it means violating laws, said Brett Baggett, a minister at a reformed Baptist church in Muskogee, who spoke during the conference.
“God commanding us to obey civil magistrates does not mean we obey them without any exception,” said Baggett, pastor of Ekklesia Muskogee. “We obey them only as long as they’re submitting to their master.”
Dusty Deevers, a pastor at Grace Community, called the vaccine a “mathematical equation” where governments are pushing it under the cover of utilitarianism — the doctrine that actions are right if they are useful or for the benefit of a majority.
“And these were the same equations, the same moral principles that were used in the 19th and 20th centuries to immunize the society against becoming infected with bad genes, Jewish genes, low IQ genes,” he said. “Utilitarianism does not submit to God’s authority. It is ruled by man’s mind and man’s interpretation of numbers.”
Deevers went on to compare vaccine mandates to the Nuremberg Code, a set of principles for medical experiments on humans established after World War II after Nazi doctors were charged with conducting forced medical experiments on concentration camp inmates. Fact-checkers have repeatedly debunked these claims since unlike then, the COVID-19 vaccine is not experimental medicine as it has been approved by numerous federal studies and has received FDA clearance.
“You do understand what road this is heading down,” Deevers said. “If they can force you by utilitarianism to take a jab for a disease, they can force you to do it to protect you from people whose IQ is lower than yours or people whose skin color is different than yours. And they’ve done it over and over.”
In Oklahoma, the intersection between politics and religion can be crowded.
From Gov. Stitt declaring a national day of prayer and fasting in response to the pandemic last December to Jackson Lahmeyer, a Tulsa pastor and U.S. Senate candidate, offering to sign religious exemptions for those who don’t want to take the vaccine, politics often doesn’t stray far from the religious realm.
With Oklahoma suing the Biden Administration in five separate lawsuits to block various government vaccine mandates and House Republicans backing a special session to try to prevent private business mandates, the rhetoric around vaccines has been heightened.
While Stitt and many Republican lawmakers have stated they are not opposed to the vaccines themselves, others have helped spread misinformation.
During the one-day conference at Community Church of Elgin, State Sen. Warren Hamilton, R-McCurtain was among the current and former state lawmakers invited to speak.
In addition to calling the government vaccine mandates unconstitutional, he falsely stated that the “so-called vaccine” contains aborted fetal tissues, suggested vaccine injuries were far higher than reported and put himself at odds with consensus of the medical community, including the Oklahoma State Department of Health, by saying the vaccine is “neither safe nor effective.”
“If you call yourself a Christian and you can square injecting yourself with the remains of murdered people, I’d say you’ve got some self reflection perhaps you need to do,” Hamilton said after repeating the false and debunked claim that vaccines contained aborted fetal tissue.
In late November, Edmond’s Fairview Baptist Church hosted a “Covid 19 Myth Busting Town Hall Meeting.” Over the course of two hours, two speakers shared a presentation full of debunked or unverified medical advice, including that natural immunity is preferable over the vaccine (another claim that has been debunked) and suggesting there is a way to “flush” out or cure a person from the vaccine.
Following the talk, State Sen. Nathan Dahm, R-Broken Arrow, who is also running for U.S. Senate, told the crowd to spread the message.
“People are being inundated with false narratives from the media, from the news,” Dahm said. “You are going to have to get the information out there … so you have to volunteer the information, you are going to have to do it on social media — even if you get banned — you need to text message, you are going to have to send out emails, you are going to have to use every means possible.”
Blair, the pastor at Fairview Baptist Church, in an interview with Oklahoma Watch said he still doesn’t think his church is giving out bad advice. He said that’s because he hasn’t seen the toll the virus has taken, saying that his congregation has by and large been immune to the serious or deadly effects of the virus, so far anyways.
“If we were seeing people all over Edmond just rolling over sick and it was that contagious like it was some kind of movie disease, then, by golly, we might want to do some crazy extreme measures,” he said. “But I’m just saying it’s up to each individual to make a decision for themselves.”
In Edmond, a city of nearly 100,000, state Department of Health data shows that 282 citizens have died from the virus and nearly 26,000 have tested positive. As of Friday, 592 of those cases were still active.
Oklahoma Watch, at oklahomawatch.org, is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that covers public-policy issues facing the state.