Majority of Mormons Buck Leadership's Push For Masks, COVID Vaccine

Members of the Mormon church are still divided when it comes to the COVID vaccine and wearing masks although church leadership continues to advise members of the dangers of the Delta variant and its spread.

Leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints recently released a statement imploring Mormons to get the vaccine and wear masks to "limit the spread," but many members on board with the health advisory worry it isn't enough to persuade other members who refuse to wear masks and believe the vaccine misinformation they see.

According to a survey from the Public Religion Research Institute, a polling organization, and Interfaith Youth Core, about 65 percent of Latter-day Saints said they were pro-vaccine and had received or planned to receive at least one dose. Fifteen percent said they were hesitant, and 19 percent said they would not get vaccinated.

The same survey revealed 79 percent of white Catholics and 56 percent of Evangelical Protestants identify as pro-vaccine.

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below.

Mormon Church
Members of the faith widely known as the Mormon church remain deeply divided on vaccines and mask-wearing despite consistent guidance from church leaders. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints President Russell M. Nelson speaks during a news conference on June 14, 2021, in Salt Lake City. Rick Bowmer/AP Photo

After more than a year of attending church virtually, Monique Allen has struggled to explain to her asthmatic daughter why people from their congregation of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints don't wear masks. Allen said she's taught her daughter that wearing a mask is Christlike, but now she worries her child feels like an outcast.

Allen, a church member living in Wisconsin, is among a contingent who fear fellow members who refuse to get vaccinated are allowing their political views to supersede their loyalty to a faith that largely prioritizes unity and obedience.

The message she's shared with her 8-year-old daughter is that "of course Christ would wear a mask, of course he would get vaccinated because he's a loving person," she said. "And that's the only way you can take care of people these days is doing these simple things."

Other church members are upset that their leaders aren't letting them exercise their own decision-making about vaccines and masks. The Utah-based religion which has 16 million members worldwide is one of many faiths grappling with how best to navigate the pandemic's lingering effects.

Divisions on masking and vaccinations in the Latter-day Saint faith appear to be tracking along political lines, with conservative members being more hesitant, said Patrick Mason, associate professor of religion at Utah State University. Mason said the church's divide is indicative of a larger pattern in the United States of political ideologies shaping people's religious commitments.

"The common perception of Mormons and Mormonism is that when church leaders speak, church members listen and do what they're told," said Mason. "This has revealed sometimes how conditional that loyalty can be."

The Latter-day Saint church was one of the first to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic. In March 2020, church leaders suspended all church gatherings and closed temples. The church has also held three consecutive major conferences remotely since the pandemic began. The twice-yearly conference usually brings about 100,000 people to Salt Lake City over two days.

Many faith leaders have spoken in support of vaccinations, including Church President Russell M. Nelson, a former cardiologist who got the vaccine in January and encouraged members to follow his example.

Church-owned Brigham Young University in Utah has asked students to report their vaccination status but is not requiring vaccinations. Masks are required in classrooms and any indoor spaces where social distancing isn't possible.

The church is also requiring U.S. missionaries serving in foreign countries to be vaccinated.

Regarding masks at services, top church officials have said it's up to bishops to encourage people to follow local public health guidelines.

In mid-August, they went so far as to release a statement calling on members to get the vaccine, which they described as "safe and effective."

Among other denominations in the U.S., faith leaders have varied widely in how they address the issues of vaccinations and mask-wearing. To a large extent, there has been vocal support for getting vaccinated — including from top leadership of conservative bodies such as the Southern Baptist Convention and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

However, some Catholic prelates and evangelical pastors have been sharply critical of the vaccine campaign and masking mandates, and others have shied away from addressing those issues for fear of angering some congregation members.

An August AP-NORC poll found that among white evangelicals, 51 percent are at least somewhat confident in the vaccines to be effective against variants, compared with 73 percent of Catholics, 66 percent of white mainline Protestants such as Presbyterians and Lutherans, 65 percent of nonwhite Protestants and 67 percent of the religiously unaffiliated.

Some Latter-day Saints have accused those who promote anti-vaccine rhetoric of apostasy, a term that is associated with wickedness and describes when individuals turn away from church principles.

Kristen Chevrier, the co-founder of a Utah-based health freedom group that has advocated against vaccines, said the church should not be involved in health choices, and she worries people are being discriminated against based on their vaccine status.

Chevrier, who is a member of the faith, said she rejects the idea that people who are anti-vaccine are apostates. She cited the church's history of encouraging members to seek their own personal revelations with God.

"How can we say that there's a blanket statement that applies to everyone regardless of their personal revelation," said Chevrier, who's based in American Fork, about 30 miles (50 kilometers) south of Salt Lake City.

Many members have voiced concerns on social media that pro-mask and pro-vaccine sentiments aren't shared by all regional church leadership, with some describing their experiences as "bishop roulette."

Unmasked bishops at an Idaho church read the statement from top church officials to the congregation, but only a few chose to start wearing masks.

One member, Marie Johnson, said she has been disappointed that so many in her community have heeded misinformation on social media rather than church leadership's continued calls for vaccination.

"You can find something on the internet to support any position you want to take," said Johnson. "Why would you choose the side that doesn't include your faith leader?"

But some churches began resuming masking practices even before the leaders' statement.

One Salt Lake City church has been encouraging vulnerable people to participate in meetings virtually and sent a message to congregants in early August recommending that everyone wear masks and get the vaccine.

"Our faith leaders have been so consistent from the very beginning," said Søren Simonsen, of Salt Lake City. "And to hear people say, 'This is a hoax, it doesn't matter, it's not affecting us,' when millions of people have died, it's heartbreaking."