I’m A Former Fundamentalist And We’re Approaching Anti-Vaxxers All Wrong

by Joseph K. Clark

Every day, I read another story about someone who refused to get vaccinated against COVID-19 and later regretted their choice. Or I read about spikes in cases and the “pandemic of the unvaccinated,” which has now become the pandemic for all of us again as mask mandates take effect in my hometown of New Orleans. 

The top-down, doom-and-gloom messaging will not make a massive dent in the minds of those who are vaccine-hesitant or downright recalcitrant. Here’s why: Humans are exquisitely gifted at distancing ourselves from bad news. We all know how to implement the defense mechanism of “it can’t happen to me.” And every day, I marvel at how we manage to mismatch our vaccine messaging to the audience for which it is intended.

Listen up before you tell me that the vaccine-hesitant person in your life cannot be reasoned with and that it’s not even worth trying. There is something that we haven’t tried yet, and I think it could work. 

We don’t need better vaccine messaging on social media. We need a grassroots movement of vaccine evangelists — people who lovingly share the gospel of Pfizer and Moderna.

I know because I am a former fundamentalist, the daughter of a Baptist minister who could preach the socks off any book in the Bible. He was that good. 

My father taught me how evangelism applies to the current problem: how to proselytize the many unvaccinated evangelicals whose hesitancy stems from their fundamentalist take on COVID-19. 


As a former fundamentalist, I have an inside window into how the “Jesus will get me a parking space and protect me from COVID (if it even exists)” mindset. But the approach I am recommending is not limited to right-wing anti-vaxxers. We have enough published research about COVID vaccine hesitancy to understand that no single barrier to vaccination exists. 

In the case of the current problem ― viral spread ― we have a perfect handle on both the situation and the good news. We know people are being damned to early death, long-term suffering, and losing loved ones. 

And we know the gospel. We also likely know at least one loved person who could be “saved.” Or, sadly, we don’t because we have disengaged from everyone who doesn’t play on our COVID team. 

Here’s a truth my dad knew about persuasion that any aspiring vaccine evangelist should heed: To get people to listen, you must foster a relationship with them. 

Because my dad loved the people he served, he listened to them. He spent time with them. He called strangers “friends.” My dad was warm and caring, whether witnessing on the street, visiting parishioners in homes, or caring for his flock. He connected with people and was as interested in their dramas, plights, and physical needs as he was in their eternal state. 

Here are the problems with our current vaccine messaging at the individual and societal levels. In our personal and public conversations, we shame: “If that’s what you believe, then you deserve to get COVID.” We demand: “Wear the damn mask.” We fearmonger: “If you think vaccine side effects are uncomfortable, try being ventilated.” And perhaps, above all, we have become exquisite at blaming mightily. Recently, Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey (R) heralded what many have been thinking from the mic: “It’s time to blame the unvaccinated folks, not the regular folks.”

At a societal level, being a vaccine evangelist means that those with a platform in a group where vaccine hesitancy is prevalent need to speak up. Evangelical Christian Les Steele did precisely that in this piece, “My fellow evangelicals, please accept the gift God has given us in the Gift of the COVID-19 vaccine.” (My daddy, who is vaccinated, by the way, could have written the piece.) We, the vaccine “saved,” are guilty of othering and ostracizing because we have science on our side.

It also means that government and public health officials can cue Jimmy Swaggart’s and Pat Roberston’s of the world and allow some emotion into their appeals. But dispassionate charms don’t move people. Love does. Data are needed.

On a person-to-person level, here’s what it looks like to bring an evangelist mindset to some of the most critical conversations of your life. 

First, we need a concrete way to call people to mind who we want to reach. When I was a Southern Baptist, I carried prayer cards with me everywhere I went. The names of people with whom I wanted to share the gospel were on those cards. 

Write down the names of those you care about. Spend some time sending love and compassion to them. Doing so helps you get right with yourself to approach them without being on the offense. 

Next, tend to the relationship you have with your loved one. It is only out of a connection that your words can land. Even if you think vaccine refusal is the biggest sin someone can commit right now (arguably, it is), embrace the “hate the sin, love the sinner” approach. It’s not about you. It’s about something much bigger than you. 

Next, when in conversation, open with a question, not a list of myth-busting vaccine facts. Try opening with, “I’m curious what you think about the vaccines for COVID-19.” Even if you already think you know, listen. And listen to what is underneath the words of your loved one. 

You might have two or three conversations like this where you actively listen and reflect on what you are hearing. You can say something like, “I care about that. Thank you for sharing.” Then leave the conversation alone and talk about anything else for a while.

When it is time to share the vaccine gospel, ask if it’s OK. This question is so important. Never once did my dad barges into a room and begin barking about sinners in the hand of an angry God. Instead, he would ask, “May I ask you a fundamental question?” If the person answered yes, he had a series of follow-up questions that would lead the person toward the big question of praying for salvation. 

Once you’ve shared what you want for that day, ask if you can talk more about this another time. Change is not a one-and-done proposition. You might need to share this gospel many times before saying, “May I schedule an appointment and go with you to get your vaccine?”

At its core, vaccine evangelism at every level is a call to embrace radical compassion. It’s saying, “I don’t care who you voted for. I don’t care how you feel about who I voted for or if you think the election was rigged by genetically engineered QAnon elves bred by Barack Obama and the not-really-dead Osama bin Laden in Hilary Clinton’s basement. The problem we are facing is bigger than our political differences. I won’t let those differences keep me from discussing this with you. Why? Because I love you, that love propels me to help you.”

That’s what a missionary does. Nothing less is called for now. Do you have a compelling personal story you’d like to see published on HuffPost? Find out what we’re looking for here, and send us a pitch.

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