A prominent Florida megachurch pastor has advised his congregants not to receive a COVID-19 vaccine, urging them to “believe in divine immunity” instead.
Guillermo Maldonado, founding pastor of the Miami-based King Jesus International Ministry and a loyal supporter of President Donald Trump, shared already debunked claims from the pulpit on Sunday about the vaccine altering DNA and being used to track people down.
The Pentecostal preacher imbued those conspiracy theories with religious significance by connecting them to his beliefs about the end of the world. Pointing to verses from the Bible’s Book of Revelation, Maldonado suggested that the coronavirus vaccine would help lay the groundwork for the coming of the Antichrist.
“Do not [take] the vaccine. Believe in the blood of Jesus. Believe in divine immunity,” Maldonado said in a bilingual sermon that was translated live and streamed on Facebook.
He also claimed God had warned him about a “satanic global agenda” that is trying to establish one worldwide religion and bring the Christian church under governmental control ― an idea that echoes decades-old conspiracy theories about a global elite secretly working to create a “new world order.”
“They want to stop President Trump because he’s against that agenda,” Maldonado said.
King Jesus International Ministry did not respond to HuffPost’s request for clarification.
The Miami megachurch is where the Trump campaign launched its “Evangelicals for Trump” coalition in January. The church reportedly received between $2 million and $5 million in forgivable loans under federal rescue legislation designed to help small businesses during the coronavirus pandemic.
Maldonado has become something of a celebrity preacher in certain Latinx evangelical circles, in large part because of his televangelism and his books. King Jesus International Ministry is believed to be one of the largest Hispanic churches in the country, attracting thousands to its services in pre-pandemic times. Its network is boosted by several affiliated congregations around the country ― and by the over 800,000 people who follow Maldonado on Facebook.
Members of Maldonado’s church will likely be influenced by his anti-vaccine teachings, according to Lloyd D. Barba, an assistant professor of religion at Amherst College and an expert on Latinx Christian communities.
“When a preacher with his stature mixes conspiracy theory with end time speculation and claims to have heard directly from God on social-political matters, it becomes exceedingly difficult for the faithful in the pews to discern between what is scripture, social commentary, political fantasy, and outright conspiracy,” Barba told HuffPost. “In fact, the parsing out of those elements is discouraged.”
In March, as local authorities across the country started to call for shutdowns to combat COVID-19, Maldonado faced backlash for suggesting that truly faithful believers wouldn’t be afraid to attend church in person.
The preacher’s more recent anti-vaccine statements reflect beliefs that aren’t necessarily fringe in Latinx evangelical communities, Barba said. Maldonado is part of the New Apostolic Reformation, a global movement of Pentecostal leaders who see themselves as a “remnant” destined to guide the world in the end times by advancing the establishment of the kingdom of God. The leaders seek to wield social and political influence to accomplish that.
Bible verses about the “mark of the beast,” which Maldonado pointed to in his Sunday sermon, warn Christians about a future where the Antichrist takes over the world economy and prevents people who don’t have that mark from buying or selling food. Some Pentecostals have long speculated that the mark of the beast would appear on earth as a vaccine or microchip designed for human implantation.
These beliefs prompt Christians like Maldonado to see compulsory public health measures as evidence of a scheme to advance a “one-world” government that will set the stage for Christian persecution during the end times.
Maldonado’s latest sermon fell shy of saying that the vaccine will be the way that the mark of the beast is administered, Barba said, but the preacher was alluding to such a possibility.
“Christians are supposed to do all they can to resist the mark of the beast (whenever that happens) and by extension should also resist any harbingers of it. That’s exactly what this vaccine symbolizes for Maldonado,” Barba said.
Maldonado’s approach to COVID-19 is also shaped by the prosperity gospel, a teaching that is “massively popular” among Latinx Pentecostals, Barba said. The prosperity gospel suggests that wealth and good health are signs of God’s favor. There’s an emphasis on divine healing and God’s constant protection ― even during a pandemic that has disproportionately impacted Latinx communities.
The coronavirus has proved to be a “pressure point” for this strain of evangelical belief, Barba said.
“The fact that they have not been able to control the pandemic in their own churches and in this country challenges the teachings of divine healing and control over the ‘evil’ elements in this world such as the virus,” he said.
Miami-Dade County, where King Jesus International Ministry is based, has seen more than 240,000 COVID-19 cases and nearly 4,000 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University’s coronavirus tracker.
The Florida Department of Health has recorded over 1 million coronavirus cases ― the third-highest case count in the country. More than 19,000 Floridians have died from the virus.