Dan Darling was the consummate evangelical insider, until he wasn’t. Over the years, he has run the communications shop for several big-name Christian organizations, most recently the National Religious Broadcasters, or NRB, an association of more than 1,000 Christian radio hosts, television producers, and other media professionals. But at the end of August, he was fired. In an opinion piece for USA Today and later on Morning Joe, Darling shared why he had chosen to get vaccinated against COVID-19, and argued that vaccination reflects the Christian value of loving one’s neighbor. Darling’s statements violated guidance from the NRB’s CEO, Troy Miller, instructing staff to “stay neutral,” Miller wrote on social media. By going on national television to speak positively about the vaccines, Darling had shown “willful insubordination,” his termination letter said, according to Religion News Service.
From the outside, this HR drama is a little puzzling. Darling, who is also a pastor, frequently talks with the media and writes books. His call to action on Morning Joe was relatively mild: He urged his fellow Christians to talk with their doctors about whether vaccination is right for them. But as a parable about the anxieties of the evangelical world, Darling’s ouster is instructive. It shows how politicized even public-health topics such as vaccination have become within certain evangelical circles, and how afraid evangelical leaders are of alienating their base.
I talked with Darling a few days after he left the NRB. Our conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Emma Green: Why were you fired from the NRB?
Dan Darling: It appears I was let go because of a misunderstanding about me talking about my experience getting the COVID-19 vaccine in USA Today and on Morning Joe. I felt like I didn’t violate any company policies. The organization had publicly touted the vaccines in marketing materials. There had been some informal conversations with a few staff members about the NRB official position being one of neutrality, but there was no instruction for me not to talk to the media.
Even if neutrality was the policy, I only shared my own experience with the vaccine and why I got it. I also tried to understand the hesitancy of people who were not ready to get the vaccine—I tried to be deferential to them. My instruction was not “Go get the vaccine,” but “Go talk to your doctor and make the best decision for yourself.”
Green: The guidance to “stay neutral” is an interesting formulation, right? It suggests there’s a pro and a con, one side and the other, that there’s a middle ground. But that doesn’t feel exactly right when it comes to the scientific evidence behind the safety of the vaccines. There aren’t really two equal sides. What does it mean to stay neutral on vaccination for COVID-19? And why would that be a value for a Christian organization?
Darling: I think my former employer was well meaning. They’re trying to not have division among members and among Christians, and that’s a worthy goal. The neutrality is less in litigating the facts about the vaccines and more in having a position of saying, “This is a decision you have to make with your doctor.” When you think about neutrality, it’s trying to have the right tone and understand people’s hesitancies and fears, and letting people make decisions rather than browbeating them.
Green: I’m sure you saw the statement that the CEO of the NRB, Troy Miller, put out on social media after the news broke about what had happened with you. One of the things he wrote was, “Is it wrong for the CEO to expect his employees to help build coalitions, not fracture them?” Do you think it is truly serving members of an organization like the NRB and all of the members’ listeners and viewers to stay silent on a topic as big as the COVID-19 vaccines?
Darling: He’s a friend and he has a big heart. I think he was well intentioned. He really wants to promote unity around the Gospel. What I would say is, I don’t actually think the vaccine is that divisive of an issue. If you look at studies, a large percentage of evangelicals have gotten vaccinated. The narrative that evangelicals are disproportionately hesitant isn’t really true.
Green: It sounds like you were trying to say something you think is true: Evidence says the vaccines are safe. You could frame that as a form of witness—theoretically, part of being a Christian is telling the truth. Do you feel like not backing down on speaking truthfully about the vaccines is a demand of your faith?
Darling: I was trying to use my platform to share the truth. You’re right that Christians should be people of the truth—not just that Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life, but also the truth about what is real. The question is: How do you get the truth to people? We live in a time where information is coming at us from all over. It’s not necessarily that people don’t want to believe the truth.
Green: The NRB has lots of different kinds of members, but a subset of them are largely focused on conservative politics. Some conservative radio and television hosts have been spreading misinformation about COVID-19 and the vaccines—like Phil Valentine, the Nashville radio host who made fun of those who were getting vaccinated and later died from a coronavirus infection. Why does the conservative media ecosystem incentivize that kind of reaction to something like the COVID-19 vaccines?
Darling: I want to defend our members. The members are great. They are doing amazing things to spread the good news of the Gospel around the world.
We’re all tempted to let our politics shape our faith. But this is not happening in a vacuum. In the last several decades, institutions at every level have failed us, whether it’s the Church, the government, or even media. There are perverse incentives toward the extremes on the left and the right—to demonizing, to conspiracy, to all that. That’s how you build an audience. That’s how you gain a following. But I actually don’t think most people want that. A lot of evangelicals are not trafficking in this extreme stuff. They’re trying to go about their lives—taking the kids to school, going to church on Sunday, and helping their neighbors.
Green: You’re a guy who’s spent his life trying to share a positive message about what evangelicalism stands for, rather than catapulting yourself headfirst at 100 miles an hour into the culture wars. And yet everything you’re describing sits at odds with the situation you’re in. You just got fired because you went on television to talk about vaccines. Clearly, evangelical institutions are sensitive about politics and seeming like they’re too far to the left, don’t you think?
Darling: The reactions I got—emails and calls—were overwhelmingly supportive. If there was any negative reaction, it was that I wasn’t hard enough on people who were hesitant. We’re talking about a fringe group that is sometimes really, really loud. I just think this is a misunderstanding among friends.
Green: What I’m grappling with is this: How did we come to this place where, for some subset of the evangelical world, people reject the COVID-19 vaccines; they reject any kind of mask mandate; they reject the need for social distancing. Where does that come from?
Darling: It’s one thing to believe the vaccines are safe and appropriate. It’s another thing to have a reasonable disagreement about how we should approach a global pandemic. I’ve had my own questions about the most appropriate restrictions. We’re in a fraught time, with a global pandemic, racial tension, political division, and mistrust in institutions. Our information is siloed, so we can choose news based on what we want to hear. This is a problem on the left and the right. It’s just a perfect storm.
But Christians have an opportunity to be different, to say, “I know there are incentives to be extreme. I know there are incentives to cancel. But we’re going to be the kind of people who value those who disagree with us.” That’s what we have to work toward.
Green: You’re putting a very positive spin on the culture of evangelicalism for a guy who just got fired from an evangelical organization.
Darling: I’ve been an evangelical my whole life. Evangelicals have been good to me. Evangelical institutions have shaped me. That doesn’t mean we’re all perfect, or we don’t have issues, which we do. But for the most part, evangelicals are people who love Jesus and love their neighbors and want to do good in the world. I don’t want people to be formed and catechized by the bad headlines.
Green: I know you are just as acquainted as I am with the stereotypes about white evangelicals and how those get played out in the context of COVID-19. Are you grieved by that aspect of things? People from outside your world seeing the worst version of what evangelicals stand for and assuming that’s what the faith is all about?
Darling: I disagree with most of the narrative about evangelicals. But we do need to grieve that our disagreements are in public. We need to grieve the scandals. We need to grieve the abuse we see. We can model what forgiveness, reconciliation, and justice look like. We can use this moment as an opportunity to live out our faith quietly in ways that honor the Lord. We need to recover this idea that you can be both courageous and civil. You can stand strong in what you believe but also not dehumanize the people you disagree with.