Do People “Follow the Prophet” When it Goes Against Their Ideology? A Quantitative Analysis of Vaccines in Utah

I’ve had a sense for a while now that people tend to exaggerate the influence of the Church on Latter-day Saint and Utah politics. Its influence is important to be sure, but some have this image that half of Utah is ready to jump when 50 North Temple Street says jump, and I’ve always thought it’s more complicated than that.

Case in point, was there a discernible bump in vaccinations in Utah after the Church officially endorsed getting the COVID vaccine?

I looked at the total number of vaccinations administered by state across time in Utah and nearby, non-LDS states (Colorado, Utah, Kansas, New Mexico, and Montana) from the CDC data. I looked at two dates in particular: when President Nelson received the vaccine and posted about it on Facebook (January 9, 2021), and when the First Presidency officially endorsed receiving the COVID vaccination (August 12, 2021). The first date was so close to the beginning of the data (and at a time when vaccinations were not very available anyway) that I’m not putting a lot of weight on that one.

Also, I’m on the record as being very anti Utah=LDS, but in this case we simply don’t have vaccination status/affiliation time-trend data that I’m aware of, so the other half of Utah may be watering down an LDS effect. In the graph below (apologies for its size. For some reason the JPEG isn’t playing nice with WordPress so I had to shrink it down) everything in orange is Utah after President Nelson received the vaccine. (And yes, I know that there are points in the data where the running sum illogically dips lower with time; I hand checked those and it does look like a data quality problem on their end). Everything in red is Utah after the Church officially endorsed the vaccine. As you can see, while the total number of vaccines administered did increase, these were generally in concert with pre-existing trends, and such trends were also seen in other, non-LDS states. So again, while there may be some small “Follow the Prophet” effect that we’re not picking up here because the Latter-day Saint population is watered down by non-Latter-day Saint Utahns, on the face of it it doesn’t look like official letters read over the pulpit have a huge effect.

This in turn has implications for a perennial favorite of the blogosphere: what social issue the blogger thinks the Church should address in the next general conference. I think this is a favorite precisely because of this perception that the Church can easily sway the politics and ideology of its members through the general conference bully pulpit, but I actually doubt that’s true, or at least that it’s that simple. If Elder so-and-so had a talk about why no-kill animal shelters are great, animal rights types would cheer for a few news cycles, but in the end I doubt we’d actually see much of an increase in the use of no-kill animal shelters. I suspect the Church has more influence on, say, Utah state legislators, but I just don’t think official positions do much to change deep-seated ideologies at the individual level, be they conservative or liberal.

*****Wonk start

I was thinking about maybe turning this into a journal article about the influence (or lack thereof) of religious elites, and I tried to do a formal, simple difference-in-difference test, but the results were very sensitive to which set of states were used as the controls, as well as the timeframe used (one month before and after, two months before and after, etc.). DID is typically used for time-trend rates, not totals, but in theory I don’t see why the same analysis wouldn’t work for the latter.

It quickly became apparent that formally testing for a “Follow the Prophet” effect with the precision and rigor demanded for a formal, peer-reviewed context the would take more time than I have as somebody with a day job, but informally the graph, I think, shows that the effect, if it does exist, is not huge. But for what it’s worth the difference-in-difference code is in my Github here, although it hasn’t been thoroughly quality checked, so caveat emptor if anybody is interested in picking up the baton.

****Wonk end




21 comments for “Do People “Follow the Prophet” When it Goes Against Their Ideology? A Quantitative Analysis of Vaccines in Utah

  1. Data sets from randomized control trials, analyzed by medical professionals doesn’t look promising for those who participated in the mRNA gene-therapy experiment, which was expected to mitigate flu-like symptoms of SARS-Covid virus (see many of these data analyzed by medical experts on YouTube: “Drbeen Medical Lectures,” “Dr. Hong’s Pharmacy Classroom,” “Merogenomics,” “Vinay Prasad MD MPH”).

    I complied with the experiment and regret it, based on the many data available. I don’t regret, however, the idea of “following the prophet,” even if it turns out that my decision was wrong. Two reasons:

    First, in a global church, I think we need to be able to discern “signaling.” There are, and will continue to be, times when the Church will need to signal to other churches institutions and governments a show of unity—even where there may be disagreement or even doctrinal conflict. War, for example, is such a case—we wouldn’t expect Church leadership to explicitly denounce Russians or Ukrainians for the actions of military industrial complexes or transnational corporations, who profit from inciting conflict—even if we know that Christian Nations and Brothers ought not to reduce to bloodshed. So we’ve got to leave room for the possibility that there will be times Church leadership is signaling to worldly institutions, and there will be times when the Church will be signaling to membership. It won’t be easy to tease these apart, but at least by leaving an open interpretation, we can avoid division and hard feelings among members.

    Second, Church leadership depends and relies on information from outside experts. This is a vulnerability that cannot be avoided. Brigham Young sent Walter Murray Gibson to Hawai’i, and Gibson divided the Hawaiian saints, stole resources and land from the Church, and made havoc. Was Brigham uninspired? Did Brigham lack prophetic discernment? I don’t think so. Brigham did the best he could with the people and resources available to him; when the damage was done by Gibson, Brigham immediately dispatched priesthood to clean up and reorganize the mess.

    We are reminded that “the very Elect” may be deceived. We read in in the scriptures cyclical themes that repeat as a consequence of natural men in the face of history, “…for thy merchants were great men of the earth; for by thy [pharmakeia] were all nations deceived” (Revelation 18:23). President Nelson is called of God, his spirit resonates goodness and love. It is our responsibility to consider whether or not various messages are directed to membership or to the institutions of the world. Had President Nelson taken a neutral position on the experimental mRNA gene therapy for SARS virus flu-symptoms, the world would have made an enemy of the Church. It is up to us as members to seek the best information—in the case of medical science, double-blind randomized control trials and not news outlets or social media.

  2. I agree with you that the influence of Church leaders is a lot more complicated in Utah than is often portrayed. Interesting post.

  3. This is a tough question to address with this particular sequence of events. As noted in the post, Pres. Nelson personally endorsed vaccination at a time before most people were eligible to receive vaccination. That personal endorsement by Pres. Nelson seven months before the official endorsement by the church severely reduced any possible “follow the prophet” boost after August 12. Most who would be swayed by the endorsement of the church August 12 were already swayed by Pres. Nelson’s endorsement January 9. I guess the question being asked is “Were vaccination skeptics or hold-outs who did not follow Pres. Nelson’s lead later influenced by an official church endorsement?”

  4. I am not an anti-vaxer but there was no way I was going to get in line on a new drug rushed to market without a “thus sayeth the Lord” type statement. I am not going to follow the doctor president without knowing from whom he was speaking for, medical or God.

    I also made the mistake of looking up the vax history when the bird flu (could have been swine) was an issue. Same thing happened….need drug now…gov wanted everyone to take it…pharma said remove liability and we will rush one….majority of the first in line for the new drug died so they nixed the drug and got lucky that the bird/swine flu went away.

    A close friend of mine “followed the prophet” and has issues still today from the vax. Now he is questioning following. I am sure there are lots of stories of members that “followed” that the vax saved their life too. I have wondered if Hinckley or Monson would have made the same statements not being in the medical field?

    I get that I am not “traditional” in my thinking as a member so when the letter came out I did not take it as an official church endorsement and felt bad for those that did. I saw members getting the vax that really didn’t want to but only did because the fear of not following the suggestion by the pres. Not sure that is a good culture to have.

  5. “I guess the question being asked is “Were vaccination skeptics or hold-outs who did not follow Pres. Nelson’s lead later influenced by an official church endorsement?””

    That’s right. In a sense I guess this is a test of “latter of the law” vs. “spirit of the law.” In terms of the spirit the Church was clearly pro-vaccine, so this in a sense how much the official imprimatur matters. Of course, as REC911 points out, even official statements have different tiers of authoritativeness, maybe if it was framed explicitly as a revelation that would have had a discernible impact. Of maybe not.

  6. The state of Utah published vaccination info, which I followed both before and after the August letter. It showed that the counties with high concentrations of Latter-day Saints had significantly lower vaccination percentages than the counties (Salt Lake and Summit, for instance) with higher concentrations of non-LDS. My area of Utah County had abysmal vaccination rates. In other words, “Follow the Prophet” is a catchy song and a platitude, but most Latter-day Saints don’t live it very well. They are influenced more by political disinformation than by prophetic pleas.

  7. I think the way to do this–if it can be done–would be to get county-level data for both vaccination and church membership (or a proxy like number of chapels). Then you’d have a lot more variation to work with and a lot more precision. I’d suggest also controlling for the % voting for Trump in 2020 as a measure of political ideology. I don’t think DiD is the way to go, as there isn’t much of an event–the Church was clearly pro-vaccine from the beginning. Regression seems more promising (dealing with serial correlation as needed). The question is, did counties with a high LDS population have a higher vaccination rate than you’d expect based on their level of support for Trump (and maybe other factors)? But this is almost certainly too big a project to do on top of a day job and family, which is too bad because I’d love to see the results.

    Does anyone really think it’s a coincidence that the first doctor-prophet was leading the Church during the first pandemic where modern medicine could really make a difference? But the fact that the Lord wanted a doctor as prophet during the pandemic tells us something about doctors as well as about prophets. Clearly the Lord thinks President Nelson’s medical knowledge and advice is useful. But it also suggests that a doctor prophet would handle this situation better than a non-doctor prophet. Prophets are not puppets, and I’m sure a lot of what the Lord does is make sure he has the right people in the right places at the right times. (That also means the Lord started preparing for the COVID-19 pandemic in 1985, when President Nelson was called to the Twelve.) Look at President Oaks’ recent output and it’s pretty clear why the Lord wanted a lawyer and constitutional scholar in the First Presidency right now as well. All of which does make me wonder what circumstances might call for a fighter pilot-prophet. :)

  8. I 100% want to follow the prophet, and I did encourage my high-risk parents to get vaccinated when the mRNA therapies first came out, though I did not coerce them into that decision. I do regret that encouragement, because one of them had a bad reaction and a subsequent heart attack simultaneous to a Covid infection, which nearly killed them and affects their health to this day.

    Once the vaccines became more widely available and more data started coming in, given my family’s history of heart problems that have led to several premature deaths, I and my brother chose to opt out. I had already had a very mild case of Covid, and my parents were now (theoretically) immune. Also, I have previously had bad reactions to flu vaccines, so my family’s doctor advised against it. I do think that I did my best to follow the prophet, but personal revelation also played a role in this decision.

  9. @E.C.: If I recall correctly, it was President Oaks who said something along the lines of “General Authorities give general counsel.” You’re not disobeying the prophet when you follow the advice of your own doctor who knows your particular medical situation–I’m sure that’s exactly what President Nelson would tell you to do.

    I’m sorry to hear about your parents’ experience and hope they’ll recover in time. I know what it feels like to make a medical decision that seems like the right thing to do and then have it go disastrously wrong, though in my case it’s only myself that has to deal with the consequences. Having someone else suffer for it must feel much worse.

  10. A really interesting example just occurred. The church just denounced the guy behind the Sound of Freedom movie for misrepresenting his tie to Elder Ballard and engaging in in “morally unacceptable” behavior. Will this shake those who think children are being kidnapped all over the place and being human trafficked as claimed by this guy and widely believed by many?

  11. There was a recent article in the Atlantic about what happens when Americans stop attending their churches. Their politics don’t change- quite the contrary, they get more polarized without the moderating effect of being exposed to different opinions (generally). This lines up with what Jonathan Haidt has said- people chose their religion based on their politics, not the other way around. I don’t think pronouncements over the pulpit sway many people, and I agree that it will be especially interesting if Tim Ballard runs for Senate after being denounced by the church.

  12. @ T.M. Overley: Sorry, for some reason your comment got stuck in the filter.

    @Steve: I thought the exact same thing when I heard about Tim Ballard. I don’t think Utahn’s love of Tim Ballard is as deep-seated as their vaccine skepticism, so in this case I think the Church’s statement did probably torpedo his senate campaign, but I might be wrong.

    @Moss: Bingo. Some people have this simplistic view that religiosity=Trump, when a big part of his core are non-attending Evangelicals.

    @RLD, @Bert: If anybody knows where there’s county-level vaccination data (with FIPS codes, preferably) off the top of their head (the official dashboard has above-county levels), I could do a simple and easy correlation/scatterplot between that and percent LDS per the 2020 Religion Census.

  13. You might get a better test case in the 2024 election – will there be a decrease in party-line voting? There’s a direct conflict between ideology (of whatever kind) and church counsel.

    I think, though, that the model of “prophet say, people do” is wrong (and I think you’re also skeptical of it). Prophetic statements do make a difference, but incrementally, and over time, and as one element of multifaceted persuasive efforts.

  14. I agree. Prophetic counsel has made me a softer political conservative than I might have been otherwise. It has also made me a rather staunch social conservative. That said, some folks might say that I’ve not understood the counsel or that I’ve taken it too seriously or not seriously enough–depending on where the criticism originates. Even so, I hope the net effect of allowing prophetic counsel to work in our lives is that regardless of our political bent we become more Christian. And given that I still have along way to go in becoming a true Christian I’d hate think of where I’d be with that inspired counsel.

  15. Would work? I’m traveling for a conference, so I haven’t downloaded it to look.

    I’m not expert on the science of vaccines, but I will offer two observations on scientists: 1) Most medical doctors are not scientists. Confronted by something new, they need to follow the science just like everyone else–and some don’t for more or less the same reasons as everyone else. 2) Scientists are people, so King Mosiah’s insight about people applies to them:

    “Now it is not common that the voice of the people desireth anything contrary to that which is right; but it is common for the lesser part of the people to desire that which is not right; therefore this shall ye observe and make it your law—to do your business by the voice of the people.”

    The general consensus of the experts in a field won’t always be right, but it’s much more likely to be right than the claims of a small minority. Especially when it aligns with prophetic counsel!

    Being a member of the Church certainly prevented me from becoming an orthodox liberal, particularly on social issues. (On the other hand, I will keep voting for a Zion society with no poor among us.) But it has especially prevented me from buying into the contempt for the other side that has become the norm in our politics–I know very well that a lot of good people vote differently than I do! What’s kind of fun is watching conservatives move into my ward, where an awful lot of people do vote the way I do, and discover the same thing from the opposite perspective.

  16. A lot depends on how one interprets the letter. The letter both urged vaccination “to provide personal protection” and also called for everyone to follow “the wise and and thoughtful recommendations of medical experts and government leaders.”

    Unless all medical and government recommendations are deemed to be wise and thoughtful, then a careful reading of the letter authorizes (perhaps even requires) individual discernment regarding what medical recommendations to apply in individual circumstances.

    To assert that all (or most, or even some) members who chose not to take the vaccine preferred a political commitment or other prejudice over a prophet’s call is an unwarranted and unsupported presumption. Some followed the prophet by getting vaccinated. As demonstrated by others’ comments above, others followed the prophet by conducting their own independent research and concluding, on an individual basis, that the vaccine was not appropriate for their circumstances.

    I strongly disagree with the premise that choosing to vaxx or not vaxx can stand as a proxy for following the prophet.

    The letter followed the established pattern of giving good general advice, or teaching correct principles, and letting individuals govern themselves. Specific revelation was not asserted in the letter and, frankly, is not necessary for the letter to have been useful for a variety of both institutional and individual purposes. I am confident both that faithful members accounted for the general advice in making their individual decisions, even if they decided not to get vaccinated, and that more members would have been vaccinated if Pres. Nelson or other Church leaders had affirmed that God directed everyone to be vaccinated instead of using the prophet’s office and experience and Church authority to “urge” vaccination. Since neither Pres. Nelson nor any other authorized Church leader ever commanded or stated that God commanded vaccination, we do not know what the response would have been if God had directed his prophet to command all to be vaccinated. I suspect such direction would have been treated by faithful members like tithing or following the Word of Wisdom. But I don’t know that for certain, and neither does anyone else. I also do not know how declining to issue the letter would have been correlated with observed vaccine hesitancy. Unless you have a tool that discloses individual reasons for choosing to get vaccinated, or not, you do not have the necessary data to correlate individual commitments to follow the prophet with vaccination, even in the aggregate.

  17. Rather than concluding that evidence suggests that members only follow the prophet when the prophet suggests ideas consistent with the members’ political or other prejudices, I prefer to think that the response to the letter demonstrates that many church members are determined to think for themselves.

    Which is consistent with the doctrine of personal revelation, the power of individual testimony, and the principle of common consent.

  18. And also, perhaps (don’t want to put words in someone else’s mouth) consistent with the OP.

    I’ll go back to not commenting now.

  19. Thanks RLD! I ran the numbers and the correlation, while negative, is weak (-.29) and not significant (p=.17) for percent of county having had at least one COVID vaccine by 12/05/2021 (sort of pulled at random). Kind of simple, but on the surface it doesn’t look like there’s an association between percent LDS in the county and percent receiving vaccines. Of course, the effect would have to be quite large for us to detect it at this sample size…

    census <- read_excel("Location/2020_USRC_Group_Detail.xlsx", sheet="2020 Group by County") vac<-read.csv("Location/COVID-19_Vaccinations_in_the_United_States_County.csv") census <- subset(census, `Group Name` == "Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints") census <- subset(census, `State Name` == "Utah") vac<-subset(vac, Date=="12/05/2021") vac_relig <- merge(vac, census, by = "FIPS") print(cor.test(vac_relig$Administered_Dose1_Pop_Pct, vac_relig$`Adherents as % of Total Population`))

  20. I’m not surprised you’re not seeing much: even if the effect of being LDS on an individual’s probability of getting vaccinated were big, what you’ll see in county-level vaccination data is that times the proportion of the county that’s LDS (usually a pretty small number). And if we assume that conservatives are less likely to get vaccinated and the LDS population is more likely to be conservative, that could give a negative correlation even if the direct effect were positive.

    Definitely a case of “We can’t reject the hypothesis that there’s no effect using these data” rather than “We now know there’s no effect.”

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