Is Religion Driving Vaccine Refusal? Or Is It Just Partisanship?
New Data Sheds Some Light on Views of Vaccines in a Post Covid World
Sometimes, I really love Twitter. Here’s why:
I would have had no idea that the General Social Survey added a little question battery to the 2022 wave that focused specifically on vaccines. That’s obviously super relevant given how COVID-19 made lots and lots of Americans think deeply about vaccinations, mandates, and the like.
During the middle of the pandemic (August 2021) I wrote a piece for Religion Unplugged about the high level of vaccination rates reported by evangelical Protestants on some survey data that I had acquired. Obviously, that went against the dominant narrative that conservatives were the ones who were the most skeptical about the vaccine.
So, this new data from the GSS can give us an additional datapoint about the intersection of religion and vaccination in a post-COVID world. One caveat to keep in mind: the first release of the 2022 GSS data does not contain a variable about religious affiliation, so I’m not able to ascertain how evangelicals feel about the subject, but I do have religious attendance. That’s not a perfect proxy, but it’s the best that I have.
I really like the way that the new GSS questions are phrased because they are not specifically about COVID-19, but vaccine mandates for children, which seem to be an emerging flashpoint in recent years.
The question asks if parents should be able to refuse the MMR vaccine for their kids. Among those who never attend religious services only 21% agree with that statement, while 60% disagree with it. Among those who attend services weekly or more, 30% are in favor of vaccine refusal while 44% oppose the idea. Clearly there’s less support for mandatory vaccines among the most religiously active. But the difference is not a huge one.
There are also two more questions in the 2022 GSS in that vaccine battery. One is the statement, “Vaccines are important for children to have.” It’s fair to say that support for that statement is incredibly high across the board. In fact, for almost every attendance level less than 5% of folks disagree with that one. Even among weekly attenders it’s just 3%. That’s pretty overwhelming evidence that huge swathes of America still think vaccines are a key part of public health.
However, the statement “vaccines are safe” gets a much more tepid response. Among never attenders only 71% agree with that statement. In fact, agreement hovers between 70-75% for attendance levels of monthly or less. It’s important to note that very few people disagree that vaccines are safe, but lots of people seem to be on the fence on the question.
That’s especially the case with weekly attenders. Nearly one in three of them do not agree or disagree with the statement, “vaccines are safe.” In contrast, just 62% agree with that position - easily the lowest of any attendance level.
But isn’t religious attendance just a proxy for political partisanship? Republicans tend to go to services more frequently, while Democrats are less likely to be religiously active. So, let’s test that in a pretty simple way by cutting the data by both partisanship and religious attendance on that first statement about the ability of parents to refuse the MMR vaccine.
Okay, things are starting to come into sharper focus now. Republicans, generally speaking, are more supportive of optional childhood vaccines at any attendance level compared to Democrats. But among Republicans, there’s clearly an increase in vaccine refusal as religious attendance starts to rise. For Democrats and Independents its hard to discern a clear pattern. In fact, for Democrats its yearly attenders who are the most favorable to optional vaccines for children.
But there are better tools in our toolbox to test something like this - namely regression. So I put together an interaction between partisanship and church attendance and included controls for age, gender, race, education, and income. This model will help us understand which factor is actually doing the work of driving vaccine refusal. The results are surprising.
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