As new variants of COVID-19 emerge, they have been given names like alpha, beta, and delta. The latter one, which is largely responsible for the upward spikes now occurring in parts of the Midwest and South, could perhaps instead be dubbed the “evangelical variant” as many conservative Christians who often self-identify with that term refuse vaccination. And as churches become hotspots again, delta deaths risk drowning out the witness of hymns and sermons.
White House chief medical advisor Anthony Fauci called the delta variant “the greatest threat in the U.S. in our attempt to eliminate COVID-19.” His fears appear justified. Early research suggests it is 60% more transmissible than earlier strains that shut down the nation for much of 2020. Thus, some communities are seeing more COVID hospitalizations today than during the pre-vaccination winter season.
This contagious variant puts churches at grave risk. Consider the massive outbreak from a church camp in Texas, with more than 125 youth and adults already testing positive this month — and hundreds more exposed and potentially infected. Pictures captured people riding unmasked on buses from church to camp.
Or think about what happened at a Baptist church that I will leave nameless. COVID protocols for Vacation Bible School that church leaders advertised to families were disregarded. The “outdoor” VBS included inside sessions with kids and adults packed closely together. Everyone there not vaccinated was supposed to wear a mask. This proved a tall order, given that the ones refusing vaccines now were often also likely the same people who flouted mask wearing over the past year. But one would at least hope we could trust church VBS workers to follow the honor code rules. Alas, no.
Lamentably, a church staff member (and perhaps others) infected with the virus helped at VBS while maskless, sparking a local cluster of cases. Numerous kids were infected, with at least one being briefly hospitalized. A couple of previously-vaccinated adults even got mild cases — a reminder that while the vaccines are still really good at stopping severe symptoms, the delta variant is causing more breakthrough COVID cases among vaccinated individuals.
Some who refuse vaccinations argue that getting the shot is an individual choice, so get jabbed if you want but the decision is yours alone. This is a remix of the problematic rhetoric about masks that putting one on was up to each person. Of course, that missed the point. My mask was (and is) worn to protect you, and your mask would protect me. Similarly, my vaccine helps keep me healthy, but it also prevents me from endangering others.
The individualistic claim about vaccination is wrong for another reason. Not everyone is eligible for a vaccine. Specifically, children under 12 remain uninoculated. By refusing vaccinations, people not only put themselves at greater risk but also endanger young children. At this point, the words of Jesus come to mind: “It would be better for them to be thrown into the sea with a millstone tied around their neck than to cause one of these little ones to stumble.” Somehow, this lesson was not part of the curriculum at that VBS.
Those remaining unvaccinated in the present also put the future at risk. New variants, even more contagious and lethal than the delta one, could emerge. Thus, this ignorance and selfishness aids and abets a biological crime. The virus can only evolve if there are (unvaccinated) bodies to host it.
If everyone 12 and older eligible for a vaccine had already gotten one, we would find the virus nearly wiped out in the United States already. An Associated Press analysis of all U.S. COVID cases in May found that 98.9% of those who were infected were unvaccinated. And since vaccinated individuals accounted for only about 150 of the more than 18,000 deaths that month, that means about 99.2% of all deaths were among unvaccinated people.
All deaths are tragic. These deaths are particularly so. As Arkansas Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson argued in June as his state saw a new surge amid one of the lowest vaccination rates in the country: “It is sad to see someone go to the hospital or die when it can be prevented.”
As a Southern Baptist, Hutchinson was particularly talking to his people. Southern Baptists and other White evangelicals continue to lag behind in vaccination rates. As Steve Edwards, CEO of CoxHealth hospital system in Springfield, Missouri, told CNN, the new delta spike of cases in his region is fueled primarily by vaccine hesitancy among rural communities, people without a college education, and White evangelicals.
This means that as the delta variant rampages through our communities, it will often show up for Sunday worship or VBS as unvaccinated people gather for unmasked, indoor worship. In recent weeks, I have heard stories of pastors and church leaders dying from COVID after they skipped out on getting a vaccine. The trauma of this moment will live on for years with their families and churches.
We should be better than this. Rather than putting our children and our neighbors at risk, we should be leading the way in thanking God for modern medicine. Rather than advancing conspiracy theories and fake news, we should be people of the Truth. We should be sharing the Good News, not COVID.
All of this makes me wonder if the evangelical variant of our faith has mutated to the point where it often no longer looks like Jesus.