Since the coronavirus pandemic began, clergy have been among prominent figures in the news and on social media discussing vaccines. Some have described them as “the mark of the beast” or an infringement on religious liberty, while others have framed the shots as a moral and religious duty. But a new survey out Friday finds the majority of regular churchgoers have heard little if anything, positive or negative, from their clergy about vaccines.

The survey by Pew Research adds new details about the complex role of religion in America during the pandemic.

Done during September, it finds that 61% of regular attendees – people who go to religious services at least once a month – have at least “a fair amount” of confidence in the religious leaders at their house of worship to provide guidance about coronavirus vaccines. That trust varies depending on the group. On the high end, 78% of people who go to Black Protestant churches say they have that confidence in their leaders while, on the low end, only 56% of Catholics say it. Sixty-one percent is about the same level of confidence churchgoers express in public health officials on vaccine issues, and higher than their faith in local officials (50%), state officials (49%) and the news media (41%).

However, while most regular attendees said they trust their cleric, 54% said that leader “hadn’t said much about the vaccine either way,” Pew found.

Among clergy who did say something, the vast majority – 39% – encouraged people to get a vaccine. Just 5% of people said their clergy had discouraged them from getting vaccinated, Pew found.

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And while the data doesn’t show causality, it shows a strong correlation between Americans who said their clergy had encouraged them to get the vaccine and the ones who did. Among attendees who said their clergy encouraged them, 87% told Pew they were at least partially vaccinated and 82% said they were fully vaccinated. Of those attendees whose clergy said nothing or discouraged them, 63% said they were partially vaccinated (58% fully).

Gregory Smith, associate director of research at Pew, said it was “striking” to him that so many regular attendees give clergy the same trust on a public health issue as they do to public health officials. “That’s their expertise,” he said.

Researchers have since March 2020 been studying the impact of the pandemic on various aspects of religious life, including in-person worship attendance and whether online spirituality would get a big, permanent boost.

While many thought the vaccines would provide a neat before-and-after dividing line to see the pandemic’s impact on congregations, the variants and vaccine age limits made that impossible. Many people remained worried about being in a crowded room with others for a long period.

Smith says the Pew survey doesn’t find clear evidence that the pandemic changed anything major when it comes to attendance, online or in person, in part because the pandemic continues and things are still in flux.

Among all Americans, Pew found that about 26% said in September that they’d been at a religious service in the previous month, a steady increase since 13% in July 2020. The percent who said they’d watched a service on line is at 28%, a steady decrease since July of 2020.

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“In general, one thing we can say from this new survey is that people’s attendance is returning to normal,” Smith said. Did the pandemic transform worship? “I think the answer to that is no.”

“What current data suggests is things are returning to normal, but they aren’t all the way back. Whether they ever will fully reach pre-pandemic levels remains to be seen. It’s very much still in flux. The pandemic is continuing to affect people’s religious habits.”

Cate Florenz, vicar at St. Matthew Lutheran Church in southwest Washington, D.C., said her small congregation is still about two-thirds virtual. People with children under 12 who can’t get vaccinated, and also some elderly people, are still watching from home. “We are cautiously peeking out” from the pandemic, she said.

Her denomination, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, has encouraged vaccinations as part of shared communal responsibility.

Pew found Americans generally are very ambivalent about the impact of religious groups and houses of worship on the pandemic.

Fifty-two percent of all adults, Pew found, say houses of worship and religious organizations “didn’t make much difference” when it comes to the way the country has handled COVID-19. The other half is pretty equally split between people who think the groups did more good than harm and those who think the opposite.

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In general, Pew finds that a slim majority of all adult Americans think religious organizations do more good than harm, and that they mostly bring people together (rather than pushing them apart). But attitudes are complicated. While 61% of regular attendees say they have at least “a fair amount” of confidence in their own religious leaders’ guidance on coronavirus vaccines, Gallup polls for decades have shown decreasing American confidence in “organized religion.”

In 2021, 37% of Americans told Gallup they had a “great deal” (19%) or “quite a lot” (18%) of confidence in organized religion.

Smith said a striking number in the Pew poll was the 70% of American adults who said houses of worship should stay out of political matters, up from 63% when Pew last asked in March of 2019.

There are gaps, with 54% of Black Protestants and 51% of evangelicals saying the church should keep out, compared with 74% of Catholics.

The Rev. Sarai Rice, of the 2,500-member Plymouth Church in Des Moines, said the pandemic has been an “incredibly difficult time” for pastors across the country because of divisions.

“Everywhere, ministers are leaving their parishes because it’s been so hard,” said Rice, who didn’t preach on vaccines because it was her sense that it wasn’t necessary, that everyone was very serious about masks and shots and distancing. “The pandemic is the most stressful thing I can imagine, and it just goes on and on. In our own congregation it’s felt like every six weeks we readjust.”

But Rice, who also consults with congregations, said the pandemic has brought inspiring changes in digital worship she predicts will be permanent.

“I don’t think there’s a clean picture, but that’s just where we are right now.”

Navigating the pandemic
(Jennifer Luxton / The Seattle Times)

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