‘The evidence is overwhelming’: NIH director pleads with evangelicals to get vaccinated

The director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) is pleading with the nation’s evangelical Christians to "look at the evidence" when it comes to getting vaccinated against COVID-19. 

Francis Collins spoke directly to American evangelicals and other religious communities during an interview with CNN anchor Jim Acosta on Saturday.

Collins, a well-known Christian, said the misinformation surrounding COVID-19 vaccines is creating a "truly heartbreaking" scenario where many of the deaths associated with the pandemic are those of the unvaccinated, specifically groups of people who seek religious exemption from getting their shots. 

"Let me make a plea right here that if you are a Christian, or if you're anybody who has not yet gotten vaccinated, hit the reset button on whatever information you have that's causing you to be doubtful or hesitant or fearful and look at the evidence," Collins said. "The evidence is overwhelming, the vaccines are safe, they're effective, they can save your life."

Across the nation’s deeply religious Bible Belt, the Southern region battered by soaring infection rates from the fast-spreading delta variant of the virus, churches and pastors are both helping and hurting in the campaign to get people vaccinated against COVID-19.

Some hold vaccination clinics and pray for more inoculations, while others have issued fiery anti-vaccine sermons from their pulpits. Though others are staying mum on the issue, something experts see as a missed opportunity in a swath of the country where church is the biggest spiritual and social influence for many communities.

A poll by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research in March showed that 40% of White evangelical Protestants said they likely would not get vaccinated, compared with 25% of all Americans, 28% of White mainline Protestants and 27% of nonwhite Protestants.

A few outspoken religious leaders have garnered crowds or media attention for their opposition to the vaccines, such as Tony Spell, who repeatedly defied COVID-19 restrictions to hold in-person services at the Baton Rouge, Louisiana, church where he is pastor. He has preached that vaccinations are "demonic" and vowed that the government will not "force us to comply with your evil orders."

But they appear to be outliers, according to theologian Curtis Chang, with the majority of ministers avoiding the vaccine issue so as not to inflame tensions in congregations already struggling with the pandemic and political division.

However, as significant numbers of Americans seek religious exemptions from COVID-19 vaccine mandates, many faith leaders are saying: Not with our endorsement.

Leaders of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America said last month that while some people may have medical reasons for not receiving the vaccine, "there is no exemption in the Orthodox Church for Her faithful from any vaccination for religious reasons."

The Holy Eparchial Synod of the nationwide archdiocese, representing the largest share of Eastern Orthodox people in the United States, urged members to "pay heed to competent medical authorities, and to avoid the false narratives utterly unfounded in science."

"No clergy are to issue such religious exemption letters," Greek Orthodox Archbishop Elpidophoros said, and any such letter "is not valid."

Similarly, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America issued a recent statement encouraging vaccine use and saying that "there is no evident basis for religious exemption" in its own or the wider Lutheran tradition.

The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York laid out its own stance during the summer, saying that any priest issuing an exemption letter would be "acting in contradiction" to statements from Pope Francis that receiving the vaccine is morally acceptable and responsible.

This story was reported from Los Angeles. The Associated Press contributed.