Vaccinations as 'living sermons'
Welcome to the first edition of North Carolina Religion Roundup: faith and vaccines, Mark Robinson and more.
Happy Saturday! Thanks for reading the first edition of North Carolina Religion Roundup, a newsletter meant to highlight major religion news and trends in the Triangle and greater N.C.
My name is Hannah. I’m an education and local government reporter at The Chatham News + Record in Chatham, N.C. and a M.Div. student at Duke Divinity School. And as you might’ve guessed, I am really interested in religion and how it impacts people’s lives and decision making.
A bit more on how this newsletter is going to work: I will send out biweekly(ish) newsletters that will include a compilation of religion coverage from around the state, with the occasional original reporting from yours truly. I was inspired to start this newsletter after hearing about the idea from a journalist who co-started a similar newsletter in Colorado, Have Faith, Colorado, in June 2021. Unfortunately, most local organizations no longer have full-time religion reporters on staff, meaning a lot of important local stories can easily get missed. My hope with this newsletter is to connect broader themes by compiling religion stories from across North Carolina in one central place.
Thanks for following along, and please reach out with any thoughts or feedback!
In Story to Follow, I take a look at how faith communities are communicating about vaccines.
In Deep Dive, I examine the context behind Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson’s tirades on critical race theory and LGBTQ people. (The Story to Follow and Deep Dive sections this week both feature stories that have been in the news cycle a while, but I wanted to present them as religion stories specifically. Future editions will chronicle more recent news.)
And In a Nutshell, I include a list of religion stories to keep an eye on.
But first, some helpful context on religion in North Carolina.
About 77% of North Carolina adults identify as Christians, according to the Pew Research Study’s Religious Landscape Study, compared to 70.6% of adults nationally. Religious North Carolinians of non-Christian faiths make up 3% of the state; 1% are Jewish and less than 1% are Muslim, Buddhist or Hindu. Fifteen percent identify with no religion in particular, 3% are agnostic and 2% are atheist. The graphic below shows the breakdown of religious identity in the U.S.
My hope with this newsletter is to document news from a variety of religions and faith traditions. Less than 1% of the state is still a lot of people, and a lot of important stories. Still, I will be relying heavily on existing coverage. While I will also be looking at newsletters and websites from faith communities to try to account for potential gaps in coverage, it’s very possible I will miss things. That said, I’d love to collaborate with any journalists, readers or people of faith interested in contributing in any way to this project.
Story to Follow: Vaccinations as ‘living sermons’
Faith-based vaccine exemptions circulated widely in the news last month, joining the high rates of vaccine resistance among white evangelicals to paint a grim picture of how Christians are responding to the pandemic. While it’s true that some Christians are seeking religious exemptions, it seems few workers are actually getting exemptions, religious or otherwise. It’s also true that white evangelicals are one group in the U.S. most likely to be vaccine resistant, but Latino Catholics are among the most vaccinated of religious groups, with 86% receiving at least one dose. (Among white evangelicals, 57% are partially vaccinated.)
Faith-based vaccine approaches work with some people who hesitate to get vaccinated, according to a July report from the Public Religion Research Institute, a nonpartisan group that studies the intersection of religion and public life and Interfaith Youth Core, a nonprofit focused on interfaith cooperation. Last month, Gov. Roy Cooper wrote a letter to state faith leaders encouraging them to strengthen community vaccination efforts. Nearly four in 10 vaccine-hesitant Americans who attend religious services at least a few times a year (38%) said one or more faith-based approaches would make them more likely to get vaccinated, the PRRI report said. A majority of Hispanic Protestants who are vaccinated and attend religious services (54%) said one or more faith-based approaches encouraged them to get vaccinated, according to the report, and 44% said one or more faith-based approaches would make them more likely to get vaccinated.
In Chatham, I spoke with pastors from various Christian traditions in August about their vaccination communication. While some white mainline churches were encouraging congregants to get vaccinated and even hosting vaccine clinics, efforts were largely led by Chatham’s Black and Latino churches. Not only did those churches encourage congregants to get vaccinated, but pastors told me they met in groups and one-on-one with those with vaccination fears/concerns. Some churches hosted Zoom events with local health officials to help answer any remaining questions from their congregants concerning the vaccine. And as of Sept. 1, the Chatham County Public Health Dept. had hosted nine vaccine clinics in Chatham, primarily with African American and Hispanic churches. Other clinics were hosted in partnership with other community and health organizations.
“Our call is to love our neighbor, and the best way right now that we can love our neighbor is to wear masks to help keep one another safe,” Brent Levy, pastor at The Local Church (a progressive, predominantly white church), told me at the time. “And we have been vocal proponents of vaccinations on Sunday mornings as well. We believe, too, that when people are vaccinated that we’re one step closer to being able to fully be who God wants us to be as a community.”
“You think I give good sermons?” another pastor, Father Julio Martinez, of St. Julia’s Catholic Church (80% Hispanic), said. Since the beginning of the pandemic, he’s seen a large population of vaccine-hesitant congregants get vaccinated. “No, the real sacrament through all of this has been the way our people have taken care of each other. And I have been lucky enough to see those living sermons.”
The point? Positive vaccination news among faith groups also warrants public attention. Not only in the interest of balance, but because these efforts are making a real difference in the number of vaccine-hesitant people willing to get vaccinated. Here’s more on religion and the vaccine you should check out:
“Religious exemptions for COVID-19 vaccine not likely to stand up in court, says attorney,” by WCNC Charlotte
“Vaccines and tamales: NC pharmacists bringing COVID shots to farm workers, families,” by the News & Observer, with a look at efforts by the Episcopal Farmworker Ministry in Dunn
More on the Episcopal Farmworker Ministry in this May article by Southerly: “N.C. has vaccinated over 13,000 farmworkers. Advocates are making it happen”
And on efforts by other religious communities:
The Islamic Association of Raleigh hosted a free vaccination clinic with Wake County DHHS last February, according to its website. Prior to the clinic, the mosque released videos on its YouTube page discussing the vaccine and sharing testimonials from vaccinated people on its Facebook page. The mosque also linked to a Q&A with Anthony Fauci by the American Muslim Health Professionals.
Rabbi Fred Guttman, rabbi emeritus at Temple Emanuel in Greensboro, and congregant Robert Wineburg wrote an article in the Union for Reform Judaism calling on “synagogues and communal institutions (to) play a significant role in getting our neighbors vaccinated.” The temple “strongly encouraged” congregants to get vaccinated in an update on its website.
Deep Dive: Mark Robinson and separation of church and state
OK, as a bit of housekeeping, I want to clarify: the deep dive section will not be a comprehensive or long look at an issue. Rather, it’ll feature something prominent in the news cycle that has more context than is (mostly) being reported.
Up this week is Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson and his push to ban critical race theory and his recent comments likening LGBTQ people to filth.
Robinson was a vocal supporter of House Bill 324, a bill ultimately vetoed by Gov. Cooper but that included new rules for teaching about race and history. Supporters of the bill, like Robinson, said it would guard against the “indoctrination” of students. Those who opposed the bill, including many educators, notably, saw the bill as more of a ban on “Portions of American History That May Make White Students Feel Uncomfortable.”
Robinson, who is Black, has consistently rebuked such criticism as not accounting for the indoctrination students and teachers face. (For what it's worth, CRT scholars say CRT is not being taught by the vast majority of teachers in schools. And many schools still teach incomplete or inaccurate historical accounts of subjects like slavery, the murder of Native Americans and the civil rights era.)
Earlier this month, Robinson also stood by his statements demeaning the transgender and LGBTQ community — among which comments he said, behind a pulpit, that the transgender rights movement is “demonic” and “full of the anti-Christ spirit.”
What does all of this have to do with religious trends in North Carolina? Well, Robinson is a conservative Christian who also aligns himself with the American Renewal Project, a movement seeking to end the separation of church and state. Though no group is monolithic and not all conservative Christians believe the same, Robinson is not just some outlier or extreme Republican who holds these beliefs. Notably, Republican lawmakers did not join Democratic lawmakers in calling for Robinson to resign, even if they haven’t publicly made similar statements.
In short, Robinson’s comments, while seen as extreme by many, do represent views held by many people — viewing America as a Christian nation which should uphold a heterosexual, hyper-masculine ethic. I recommend checking out this interview with Kristin Kobes Du Mez, author of “Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation,” to learn more about the context behind such beliefs.
From the interview: “…Historically speaking, what evangelicals mean by ‘family values’ always comes down to white patriarchal power. If you go back to the 1960s and 1970s, during the emergence of the religious right, you see that the issues they originally mobilized around were the authority of white parents to make choices about their children in light of racial desegregation efforts, and the assertion of traditional masculinity against both feminism and antiwar sentiment in the Vietnam era. What links these things together is the assertion of white patriarchal authority.”
Important to note: Though Robinson is a Christian, other religious leaders were among those calling on him to apologize and meet with faith and community leaders or else resign.
“Any person who chooses to be a leader of humankind, by seeking election to public office, knows that their words and their actions have the power to make life better or worse for the people they serve,” said Rev. Vance Haywood, pastor of St. John’s Metropolitan Community Church in Raleigh, according to a News & Observer report. “Those words and those actions can even put the lives of people at risk.”
(I spoke with Rev. Haywood back in April 2020, about his LGBTQ-affirming theology and church, which you can read here if you’d like.)
In a Nutshell:
Not all the stories listed here will be written explicitly as religion stories, but I’ll include them if I think they point to a religion story to follow.
Christian Schools Boom in a Revolt Against Curriculum and Pandemic Rules (A national look at how pandemic protocol and CRT debates are impacting enrollment at Christian schools from the New York Times. It would be fascinating to see if this trend holds up in NC…)
Amid continued fallout concerning sex abuse scandal, leadership resignations and racial reckoning at the Southern Baptist Convention, some Southern Baptists are dropping ‘Southern’ from their names. The Baptist State Convention of North Carolina, which cooperates with the SBC, includes 77 local Baptist associations and about 4,300 churches. (More to come on the SBC and N.C. in future editions.)
Me & My Muslim Friends, a podcast by WUNC exploring faith and culture in Muslim communities. The latest episode explores the perspectives of Black Muslims and their experiences of racism.
From Religion News Service on a Cary church: Amid a boom of plus-sized churches, one Catholic church wants to keep it small
Seven-story tower to complete Hindu temple in Cary
Guilford County jury case overturned after judge voices views on race, religion
Faith leaders roll out to help Afghan refugees find new homes in NC
Virginia pastor pitching an entertainment venue scammed NC church out of $370K, feds say
How God Calls Us to Protect and Advocate for the Earth [Opinion, by Sister Rose Marie Tresp, a nun with the Sisters of Mercy from North Carolina]
Raleigh historic church upgrades to solar panels after 150 years
On Duke Divinity professor and Durham author Kate Bowler: Kate Bowler’s Second Memoir Grapples with Faith, a Cancer Diagnosis, and a Culture Obsessed with the Power of Positive Thinking
If faith leaders want to reach Gen Z, meet them in the streets [Opinion]
Answer Man: Why are there so many different Baptist churches in Asheville?
That's it for this week's edition of North Carolina Religion Roundup.
Thanks for reading. Until next time. And in the meantime, I gladly welcome any tips, feedback or news you think I haven’t included but should in future editions. — Hannah