SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — After more than a year of going to church virtually, Monique Allen struggles to explain to her asthmatic daughter why people in their congregation of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints don’t wear masks to wear. Allen said she taught her daughter that wearing a mask is Christian, but now she worries that her child will feel like an outsider.
Church leaders recently have made their strongest statement yet urge people to “limit the spread” by getting COVID-19 vaccines and wearing masks, but Allen said she fears it still isn’t enough to convince the many families in her town who refuse to wear masks and have succumbed to misinformation about vaccines.
Members of the faith commonly known as the Mormon Church remain deeply divided over vaccines and mask-wearing despite consistent guidance from church leaders as the highly contagious delta strain of the coronavirus spreads.
About 65% of Latter-day Saints who responded to a recent survey said they are accepting vaccines, meaning they have received at least one dose or plan to go too soon. Another 15% identified as hesitant and 19% said they would not get the vaccine, according to research this summer from the Public Religion Research Institute, a polling organization based in Washington, and Interfaith Youth Core.
The survey found that 79% of white Catholics and 56% of white Evangelical Protestants were identified as vaccine acceptors.
Allen, a church member living in Wisconsin, is a contingent fearing that fellow members who refuse to be vaccinated are letting their political views take the place of their loyalty to a faith that largely prioritizes unity and obedience.
The message she shared with her 8-year-old daughter is that “of course Christ would wear a mask, of course he would be vaccinated because he is a loving person,” she said. “And that’s the only way you can do these simple things for people these days.”
Other church members are angry that their leaders won’t let them decide on vaccines and masks. The Utah-based religion of 16 million members worldwide is one of many religions struggling with how best to deal with the lingering effects of the pandemic.
Departments on masks and vaccinations in Latter-day Saint faith appear to be following political lines, with conservative members hesitating, said Patrick Mason, an associate professor of religion at Utah State University. Mason said the church’s rift is indicative of a larger pattern in the United States of political ideologies shaping people’s religious obligations.
“The common perception of Mormons and Mormonism is that when church leaders speak, church members listen and do as they are told,” Mason said. “This has sometimes shown how conditional that loyalty can be.”
The Latter-day Saint faith was among the first to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic. In March 2020, Church leaders suspended all Church meetings and closed temples. The church also has held three consecutive major conferences remotely since the pandemic started. The biennial conference usually brings about 100,000 people to Salt Lake City in two days.
Many faith leaders have expressed support for vaccinations, including Church President Russell M. Nelson, a former cardiologist who received 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 does not require vaccinations. Masks are mandatory in classrooms and all indoor areas where social distancing is not possible.
The church also demands that American missionaries serving abroad be vaccinated.
Regarding masks at services, top church officials have said it is up to bishops to encourage people to follow local public health guidelines.
In mid-August, they went so far as to release a statement urging members to get the vaccine, which they described as “safe and effective.”
Among other denominations in the US, faith leaders have diverged widely in the way they address the issues of vaccinations and mask-wearing. To a large extent, there has been vocal support for getting vaccinated — including from top leaders of conservative bodies such as the Southern Baptist Convention and the American Conference of Catholic Bishops.
However, some Catholic prelates and evangelical pastors have sharply criticized the vaccine campaign and masking mandates, and others have shied away from addressing these issues for fear of angering some congregation members.
An August AP-NORC survey found that among white evangelicals, 51% are at least somewhat confident that the vaccines are effective against variants, compared with 73% of Catholics, 66% of white Protestants such as Presbyterians and Lutherans , 65% of the non-white Protestants and 67% of the religiously unaffiliated.
Some Latter-day Saints have accused those who promote anti-vaccine rhetoric of apostasy, a term associated with wickedness and describing when people turn away from Church principles.
Kristen Chevrier, co-founder of a Utah-based health freedom group that advocated against vaccines, said the church should not be involved in health choices, and she is concerned that 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 oppose vaccines are apostates. She quoted the Church’s history of encouraging members to seek their own personal revelations from God.
“How can we say there is one blanket statement that applies to everyone, regardless of their personal disclosure,” says Chevrier, who is based in American Fork, about 30 miles (50 kilometers) south of Salt Lake City.
Many members have expressed concern on social media that pro-masks and pro-vaccine sentiments are not shared by all regional church leaders, with some describing their experiences as “bishop roulette.”
Unmasked bishops in a church in Idaho read the statement of the highest church officials to the congregation, but only a few chose to wear masks.
One member, Marie Johnson, said she was disappointed that so many in her community have heeded misinformation on social media rather than church leaders’ continued calls for vaccination.
“You can find something on the Internet to support any position you want to take,” Johnson said. “Why choose the side that your faith leader isn’t with?”
But some churches began to resume masking practices even before the leaders made their statement.
A church in Salt Lake City is encouraging vulnerable people to attend meetings virtually and sent a message to congregation members in early August recommending that everyone wear masks and get the vaccine.
“Our faith leaders have been so consistent from the beginning,” says Søren Simonsen of Salt Lake City. “And to hear people say, ‘This is a hoax, it doesn’t matter, it won’t affect us,’ when millions of people have died, it’s heartbreaking.”
Eppolito is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a national, not-for-profit service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on classified issues.