North Texas televangelist Gloria Copeland, a member of President Donald Trump’s evangelical executive advisory board, told her followers last week that they didn’t need flu vaccinations because Jesus already “redeemed us from the curse of the flu.”
“Well listen, partners,” Copeland said in a video recently posted to the Facebook page of Kenneth Copeland Ministries, which she runs with her husband. “We’ve got a duck season, a deer season, but we don’t have a flu season. Don’t receive it when somebody threatens you with ‘everybody’s getting the flu!’ We’ve already had our shot . . Jesus himself gave us the flu shot.”
The video, which was first reported by left-leaning news outlet Right Wing Watch, was posted on January 31 and has 140,000 views so far. The Copeland’s Facebook page has 1.5 million followers.
Medical experts might disagree with Copeland. According to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s website, “an annual seasonal flu vaccine is the best way to reduce your risk of getting sick with seasonal flu and spreading it to others.” And Dr. Jennifer Shuford, Infectious Disease Medical Officer with the Texas Department of State Health Services, wrote in December that getting the vaccine “is the most important thing you can do right now to help protect yourself from influenza.”
Copeland’s claim comes amid one of the deadliest flu seasons in years. The most updated flu-related death count in Texas is 2,897, according to the Department of State Health Services, and that figure is likely to rise as the agency processes most of the death reports from January. This season’s outbreak has hit North Texas especially hard, prompting temporary closures of several school districts. According to the Dallas Morning News, there have been 54 flu-related deaths in Dallas County so far this season, which generally starts in October and extends to May. In Tarrant County, a 51-year-old in Fort Worth had to have both of his feet and nine fingers amputated after falling into flu-related septic shock, and in nearby Parker County a 37-year-old elementary school teacher died of complications from the flu.
This isn’t the first time Copeland family has been caught in the middle of the vaccination debate. In 2013, the Eagle Mountain International Church in Newark—founded by the Copelands and run by the their daughter Terri Copeland Pearsons—drew national scrutiny after a measles outbreak in Tarrant County was linked back to members of the congregation. Twenty-one people contracted measles after a person who caught the virus overseas visited the “vaccine-skeptical” megachurch. Sixteen of them were unvaccinated, while the others may have been vaccinated but didn’t have any documentation.
After news of the measles outbreak spread across the nation, the church quickly hosted vaccination clinics and denied that it was anti-vaccine, issuing a statement attempting to reassure the public that Kenneth Copeland Ministries “believes in, and advocates the use of, medical professionals.” But the church’s position on vaccination has proved to be far more ambiguous. In a sermon following the measles outbreak, Pearsons encouraged congregants to get vaccinated, but added, “if you’ve got this covered in your household by faith and it crosses your heart of faith, then don’t go do it.” A former member of the church told the Associated Press in 2013 that many congregants felt that vaccines were frowned upon within the Copeland Ministries. “To get a vaccine would have been viewed by me and my friends and my peers as an act of fear that you doubted God would keep you safe, you doubted God would keep you healthy,” she said. “We simply didn’t do it.”
According to the Associated Press, Kenneth Copeland—the family patriarch—expressed skepticism of vaccinations on a televised broadcast in 2010. “I got to looking into that and some of it is criminal,” Copeland said during the broadcast. “You’re not putting—what is it, Hepatitis B—in an infant! That’s crazy. That is a shot for a sexually transmitted disease. What? In a baby? You don’t take the word of the guy that’s trying to give the shot about what’s good and what isn’t. You better go read the can or read the thing—find out what’s going on there and get the information on there because I’m telling you, it’s very dangerous the things that are happening around us all the time.”
Texas has emerged as a major vaccination battleground, home to an “anti-vax” movement that has blown up in the two years since former doctor Andrew Wakefield, who now lives in Austin, released a widely discredited film that falsely claimed vaccines were linked to autism. Texas parents are increasingly opting out of having their children vaccinated. In 2003, 3,000 parents opted out of immunizations, while in the 2015 school year a whopping 45,000 non-medical exemptions were granted, according to the Houston Chronicle.
As for this particular stance on vaccination, some Facebook commenters on Gloria Copeland’s video were upset by the implication that, if they’d come down with the flu, their faiths must not be strong enough. The Kenneth Copeland Ministries Facebook page was quick to reply:
If you get the flu, it does not mean you didn’t believe hard enough. If you get the flu, Jesus can help you overcome it. But many people go around expecting to get the flu, and declaring things like, ‘It’s flu season, and I always get the flu.’ When you believe with your heart and speak words of faith in the flu out of your mouth, it’s an open invitation for the flu to come in. Life and death are in the power of your tongue ( Proverbs 18:21). So, instead of believing and speaking that the flu will come on you, you can exercise your faith and believe and speak that it will not. If however, you do get the flu, you can overcome it.
Copeland Ministries followed by including a link to a blog post on the church’s website called “Scriptures to Help You Stand Strong Against the Flu.”