White evangelicals are more likely to change their behavior to battle COVID-19 through messages emphasizing the Christian doctrine of "love thy neighbor," according to a new study by researchers at the University of California-Riverside.
Although the study examined evangelicals' behavior only about masks, the study's authors say the findings can be used to persuade skeptical evangelicals about vaccines, too. A Pew Research Center poll released in March showed that 45 percent of white evangelicals say they definitely or probably would not get the COVID-19 vaccine.
"Our research is relevant to vaccines: messages that align with values can change attitudes in ways useful to mitigating the toll of the COVID-19 pandemic," said study author Jennifer Merolla, a UCR professor of political science.
The study – published in the journal PNAS – involved interviews with 1,500 evangelicals in determining which message was most effective in persuading them to wear a mask. Messages that "align with an individual's values are more likely to move attitudes toward positions an individual would not normally support," the study said.
Participants were divided into three groups. One group was given a religious message "equating mask use with loving your neighbor," while a second group was given a message by Donald Trump "saying mask use is patriotic," according to the study. A third group, the control group, received no message.
According to the study, white evangelicals in the study who received the "love they neighbor" religious message were significantly more likely to be persuaded to believe that masks are helpful compared to the control group.
Similarly, the Trump-patriotic message also boosted support for masks among white evangelicals in the study – but only if they were Republican.
Overall, the religious message was more helpful than the Trump-patriotic message, the study found.
"Value-consistent messages carry the potential to change attitudes in ways useful to mitigating the toll of the COVID-19 pandemic," the study concluded.
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Michael Foust has covered the intersection of faith and news for 20 years. His stories have appeared in Baptist Press, Christianity Today, The Christian Post, the Leaf-Chronicle, the Toronto Star and the Knoxville News-Sentinel.