With claims of a “plandemic” and other conspiracy theories swirling, the need to communicate accurate, trustworthy information about the coronavirus is becoming more crucial.
Leaders like Ed Stetzer have called on Christians to be discerning in what they believe and share, worried that promoting false information “can end up harming others and … hurt your witness,” as he wrote on his CT blog The Exchange.
So where are believers looking for information on the spread and risks of COVID-19? Recent survey data indicates that white evangelical Protestants’ go-to sources don’t always line up with the rest of the population.
While a majority of both evangelicals and the population overall believe public health officials have gotten a lot right in their response, evangelicals are more confident in the Trump administration’s response and less confident in the media than non-evangelicals are, according to a Pew Research Center survey conducted last month and provided by the Roper Center.
Evangelicals were more divided over how the media has covered the pandemic, with 60 percent saying it was covered well and 40 percent saying it was not covered well. (Among the rest of the population, the split was closer to three-quarters and one-quarter, respectively.)
Overall, white evangelicals were more likely to believe that the severity of the COVID-19 threat had been exaggerated by a range of sources.
Around two-thirds of white evangelicals said the news media had greatly or slightly exaggerated the risks posed by COVID-19. Just under half (44.5%) said the same of Democrats in Congress.
Almost two thirds of white evangelicals, though, believe that President Donald Trump’s response to the coronavirus has been “about right.” They are more confident in the president’s response than in any other group’s, including public health officials like those with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Just 3 in 10 respondents who were not white evangelicals think that the president’s response was “about right.”
In comparison, the group that the general public thinks has “gotten it about right” is public health officials, with nearly two-thirds (63.9%) approving of their messaging. Non-evangelicals were almost twice as likely to say that the media had covered the outbreak properly (42.4%) compared to white evangelicals (23.7%).
Evangelicals’ perceptions of COVID-19 responses are related to where they seek information about the pandemic.
The Trump administration was named by white evangelicals as the source they would most likely rely on as a major source of news. That was followed by national news networks and local news outlets. Public health officials were the fourth most consulted source.
For the rest of the population, national news ranked at the top, followed by public health officials and local news. Compared to non-evangelicals, white evangelicals were less likely to turn to state elected officials like governors for pandemic information.
Looked at broadly, white evangelicals express a greater skepticism of the news media than the general public. Two thirds believe that the news media has exaggerated the risk of the coronavirus. They also express less confidence in public health experts to accurately convey information about the pandemic (53.6% versus 63.9% of the rest of the population).
Politics is a factor. Since most white evangelicals align with the Republican Party, they are inclined to take a more positive view surrounding Trump and a more negative view toward sources like Democratic lawmakers and the media, which Trump frequently criticizes.
The politicization of the virus is something that public health officials were concerned about during the early stages of the outbreak. Before the current coronavirus outbreak, survey data indicated that political ideology was a bigger influence on coronavirus concerns than faith. As I wrote in mid-March: “Politically conservative Protestants who attend church frequently are far less concerned with a major epidemic. …”
If people are receiving conflicting messages and cannot agree on the severity of the coronavirus, slowing its spread and finding a cure could prove to be much more difficult.
Ryan P. Burge is an instructor of political science at Eastern Illinois University. His research appears on the site Religion in Public, and he tweets at @ryanburge.
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