Leaders from government, academia, and the NGO sector explored the intersections of religion and diplomacy during the COVID-19 pandemic at a Georgetown University event on Tuesday.
The panel launched the 2021 Strategic Note on Religion & Diplomacy produced by the Transatlantic Policy Network on Religion and Diplomacy (TPNRD), a diplomatic forum hosted by the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs at Georgetown and funded by the Henry Luce Foundation.
“As COVID-19 vaccine rollout steps up, religious actors can play an important role in maximizing access to health care for communities globally,” says Judd Birdsall, TPNRD project director and Berkley Center senior research fellow. “Bridging religion and policy will remain critical as we work toward a post-pandemic world.”
Religious Actors and Vaccination
Religious actors have played both positive and negative roles when it comes to supporting public health guidance during the pandemic, according to the panel.
Katherine Marshall, a Berkley Center senior fellow who is leading work on Religious Responses to COVID-19, highlighted the varied approaches religious communities take to messaging on vaccination.
“Right now with vaccination, some of the misinformation is associated with religion, but the active effort to convey messages about health and vaccination has been a much more positive role,” explained Marshall.
Faith-based advocacy for COVID-19 vaccination is important, especially since members of some religious communities are resistant to vaccination.
“There are some very specific religiously linked concerns about what the vaccines are made of and the process,” said Marshall, who highlighted how politics and fear also shape vaccine hesitancy.
Advocacy on the part of religious leaders can help build trust in COVID-19 vaccination. As Marshall explained,
The evidence is that when religious leaders take a role and proactively reassure—even by having needles in their arms in public—that makes a difference in helping to overcome some of the resistance.
Bridging Religion and Science
The panel also emphasized the ethical imperative of supporting equity in COVID-19 vaccine rollout, a critical topic given global disparities in vaccine access.
“Vaccines don’t save lives—it’s vaccination that saves lives,” explained Dr. Jan Marco Müller, science and technology advisor to the European External Action Service. “We need to get vaccines into the arms of people.”
Religious communities can support equity in vaccine distribution by looking to past examples of policy collaboration between faith leaders and scientists. Müller highlighted the 2016 Paris Agreement on climate change as one such example, commenting,
In the negotiations for the Paris Agreement, the two most important documents that influenced discussion were the IPCC report, done by thousands of scientists, and the papal encyclical Laudato Si.
That kind of approach to bridging religion and science will remain significant in the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the panel.
“There’s one thing science and religion have in common in this pandemic: Both give hope to people,” said Müller. “It is very important that we marry the voice of reason, which is science, with the voice of heaven, which is represented by the religious groups.”
Faith engagement in the COVID-19 pandemic is not without its challenges, especially since the health crisis has contributed to forms of social and religious exclusion, according to the panel.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has tended to deepen people’s fears,” explained Azza Karam, secretary general of Religions for Peace International. “With the deepening of fear comes the lesser inclination to be more nuanced about difference.”
Karam highlighted how the rising fear of religious difference during the pandemic is tied to broader trends in faith and politics, commenting,
We might be getting into a space and into a phase—and this is what I see—where the religious is becoming the political tool of today and the polarization that is entailed is not going to stop at any particular border.
Despite the challenges facing faith leaders and religious communities, interfaith partnerships working to promote peace during the pandemic offer hope for the future.
“There is a more deliberate attempt on the part of some to try to counter these tendencies toward marginalization and alienation of certain religious groups,” said Karam.
With the challenge of religious inclusion looming large, the work of building trust between faith leaders and policymakers—like that supported by TPNRD—will remain critical during and beyond the pandemic.