Christians and Conspiracy Theories

“Just because I’m paranoid,
doesn’t mean they are not after me”

     (AND/OR)

“Just because it’s a conspiracy theory,
doesn’t mean it’s not true”

This article’s focus is deliberately narrow: to explain to myself and perhaps to others how it is that so many politically and theologically conservative Christians entertain so many conspiracy theories. Following are a discussion of what’s so bad about Christians being conspiracy-theory prone, a definition of “conspiracy theory,” a short list of conspiracy-theory candidates, and a two-prong argument to explain the Christian proclivity.

The Christian Label and its Discontents

Several years ago I stopped calling myself a Christian, but not because I stopped believing in Jesus. On the contrary, I love Jesus but was being weighed down by the cultural and historical baggage of Christianity and the label “Christian” (initially a word meaning “little Christ”). More than ever, I’m glad I no longer need defend the indefensible baggage many Christians tote around, one of the largest and most perplexing bags being the one packed with conspiracy theories.

That said, many of my friends do call themselves Christians and in varying degrees tote the conspiracy baggage. Many are untroubled by all this baggage and do an admirable job holding onto their faith in Jesus and being kind to their neighbor. While these Christians may be power lifters, they are doing a great injustice to the gospel with its commitment to truth.

It is perhaps one thing to toy with a conspiracy theory. Pick it up, examine it from all sides, poke it gently, watch it patiently, and set it down carefully, as you might set down a grenade. It’s altogether different to weave it into one’s world view so much so that it becomes inseparable from one’s Christian faith. Soon, your unbelieving neighbors will think that faith in Jesus is tantamount to faith in fact-less, scapegoating theories—the kind of things Jesus came to dispel.

These Christians trust science and statistics to keep them alive while flying in jet airliners, yet they doubt scientific and statistical methods in other quantifiable matters, such as vaccinations and elections. If these Christians wonder why their message about Christ goes unheeded, they can find part of the answer in the fact that they often reject purely rational explanations to purely rational events.

Because I love these friends and respect them deeply in many ways, I am troubled. Yes, I admit, I am allergic to conspiracy theories in general. Years after the World Trade Center towers were demolished by jet airliners (something graphically displayed on newsreels and even more vividly on certain foreign newscasts)—years after this, I spent about an hour of my life listening to an engineering professor at the University of Colorado explain how the catastrophe was an inside job of the U.S. government. He argued that it wasn’t the airliners and their fuel that wreaked havoc, but that it was explosives planted within the twin towers themselves that were detonated simultaneously with the airliner collisions. Listening to his argument, my allergy got that much worse.

The source of this aversion? We live in a world filled with demonstrable problems, some manageable if not tractable. Some here to stay. Given the known needs of this world, who has time to invent new, imaginary problems, parading them around in their hypothetical clothing? I can identify one type of promulgator: those who want to distract us from the real, manageable problems.

Seeing Christians buy into conspiracy theories, however, cuts much deeper than the general fare of conspiracy theorists. Why? Christians claim the highest standard of truth by being followers of Jesus, who, under interrogation by Pontius Pilate, said, “My kingdom is not of this world. . . . In fact, the reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me” (John 18). Follow that with, “Howbeit when he, the Spirit of truth, is come, he [the Holy Spirit] will guide you into all truth . . . .” (John 16)—and you have raised the bar for truth telling extremely high, so high that endorsing few malicious fables undermines one’s authority to mention the truth.

So this article is my theory on why many Christians latch onto conspiracy theories. It is my attempt both to understand them and to disabuse them of the current trend that I would characterize as, first, conflating the kingdom of heaven with a nationalistic fervor, and, second, grabbing whatever is offered to maintain a belief that this amalgam of nationalistic politics and faith is viable.

Conspiracy Theory: Defined

A fairly standard definition of “conspiracy theories” is “explanations for important events that involve secret plots by powerful and malevolent groups.”[1]

That definition stacks an increasingly improbable set of conditions. Important events abound in this life (birth, death, scientific advances, weather catastrophes, and the list goes on a long way). Those motivated by secret plots are fewer (wars, homicides, assassinations, and the like), limiting the number of events greatly. But those orchestrated by powerful and malevolent groups (not solitary actors) are sparse. Only two come to mind:

  1. 2007 sub-prime mortgage deals; those who saw it coming early were no doubt regarded as conspiracy theorists—and, yes, those packaging the mortgages were malevolent[2];
  2. the 1969 murder of Black Panther Fred Hampton; for years suspicions that the FBI intended to kill him were regarded as conspiracy theories, but recently the murder has been proven to have been orchestrated and covered up by senior FBI officials[3].

The missing term from the definition is “improbable.” Almost any instance of corruption, taken abstractly, qualifies for the definition as quoted: significance, plotting, and malevolence being the key ingredients of political or corporate greed. But conspiracy theories are highly improbable. They add the zing of the unexpected: the U.S. government destroys its own buildings, five-hundred years of astronomy had the singular goal of fooling the planet about its own shape, the U.S. government knew of the impending bombing of Pearl Harbor but turned a blind eye, knowing that the event would justify entering World War II (the hawks’ dream).

In typical conspiratorial fashion, the malevolent groups are numerically very small relative to the masses they deceive: a few Jews poison the Christian wells in the 14th century, a subset of the U.S. federal agents plants explosives in the Twin Towers, NASA counterfeits a moon landing. Even with the flat earth, the people who are actually in on the lie (and not naively perpetuating it as the average science teacher might) are a minuscule clan. It is hard to come up with many valid examples of significant events orchestrated through secret plotting by malevolent groups. The rest remain theories of a conspiracy.

Before suggesting a theory that explains why a formidable group of Christians are susceptible to conspiracy theories, here’s a ranking of potential conspiracies, from least conspiratorial to greatest, with an unscientific ranking number assigned to each (I thought the conspiracy enthusiasts would appreciate that). One can quibble over any particular assignment, but the overall direction can only be challenged by a card carrying conspiracy theorist:

Conspiracy
Theory
Rank Reasoning
covid19 was developed in a Chinese laboratory: 0 It would require no more than a mistake in allowing a virus to escape. Wuhan has a virology lab. In addition, a BBC team attempting access to a copper mine where potentially infected bats dwell met with several obstacles. Currently, a team of scientists from WHO have finally been allowed into Wuhan where they have discussed the rational and irrational theories with Chinese scientists.
The Chinese intentionally released the virus: 1 It’s more likely to release it in some other country; or at least among the Uyghurs, whom the Chinese government consistently oppress; but the Uyghurs reside about 1,800 miles away from Wuhan.
Masks and social-distancing are unnecessary: 2 Unnecessary to have a good ol’ time, true, and if the government is conspiring against good times and cosy church meetings, then, yes, there’s a possible conspiracy here; however, massive evidence indicates that masks and distancing are efficacious—the more meters/feet, the better; the higher the mask quality, the better[4]
covid19 vaccines are ineffective/unnecessary, or as one of my Christian friends wrote me when I said I was waiting to get vaccinated: “Don’t get vaccinated! There are so many things wrong with that!”: 3 The same Christians who believe there’s a devil who is seeking to “kill, steal, and destroy” (John 10) align themselves against the one medical advance that provides a way to stop the destruction and thus are are siding with their enemy, ignoring the vaccines’ documented efficiency[5]; the conspiracy? medical scientists, worldwide, offer an ineffective solution, thus keeping citizens in a perpetual state of frustration?
The vaccine involves nefarious elements: “the virus is a coverup for billionaire Bill Gates to implant trackable microchips into people . . . [or] Dr. Anthony Fauci, the head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, helped plan the coronavirus pandemic for his personal benefit”:[6] 4

Well, this has all the ingredients:

  • important event
  • secret plot
  • malevolent group
  • weird and improbable

The November 3, 2020 presidential election was won by Donald Trump but the results were rigged against him: 4 This particular theory had violent outcomes; it assumes only Democrats would behave fraudulently, whereas Republicans would not (forgetting things like Watergate and the Iran-Contra affair); was preceded by months of the then Republican President sowing seeds of doubt about the integrity of mail-in ballots (I know, I followed him on Twitter, and it struck a strange note considering my state, Colorado—as well as the President himself—has used mail-in ballots for years without scandal); flatly ignores the fact that many Republican election officials and judges—some appointed by the Republican President—stood by the election results and against the accusations of significant fraud (hence, the zing factor).[7]
QAnon—a secret cabal of Satan-worshiping, cannibalistic pedophiles is running a global child sex-trafficking ring and plotting against former U.S. president Donald Trump, who has been fighting the cabal: 4 Where does one begin? The theory began on 4chan, which is probably a site few of its Christian adherents would want to spend much time. QAnon is the father to the stolen election conspiracy theory and has left a trail littered with violence.[8] If one isn’t deterred by the lack of evidence or the sheer creepiness of its origins and propagation, perhaps one would question some of its notable adherents (such as Rep. Marjorie T Greene who is busily dancing between recanting without apologizing). Like medieval and Nazi accusations against the Jews, QAnon finds itself in bad company.
The earth is flat 4 To name only the marquee players, every astronomer and geographer for the past five centuries would have been in on the hoax of a round earth, a hoax that serves no actual purposes except to confuse and to give its adherents the pleasure of being privy to esoteric knowledge. Every astronaut and jet pilot who has seen the spherical earth would have to lie or be deceived. The moon landing (which enjoyed views of the spherical earth) would need its own conspiracy theory to be debunked (oh, it has several!). The flat earth is one conspiracy whose improbability heavily outweighs its malevolence, thus ending this list on a happier note.

So Why Do Christians Entertain Such Theories?

“The New Testament includes several passages that warn against false teachers and express frustration that the earliest Christian communities are so easily taken in by lies. That this has been an ongoing problem since the beginning, for almost 2,000 years, makes me almost suspect that the people who are attracted to Christianity tend to be people who are attracted to any old nonsense that makes them feel like they have been given privileged knowledge” (a friend’s introduction to an article on Christians and QAnon)

     (AND/OR)

“You have the right to your own beliefs but not to your own facts” (a friend on the phone)

As mentioned earlier, I do not care if someone quibbles about the validity of any given conspiracy theory listed above. And, while I’m making concessions, readers can cite the Steel Dossier as a Democratic conspiracy theory. Not a Democrat, I’m a man without a party. No, it’s not a particular theory that interests me. What strikes me as problematic is the trend among Christians who cling to conspiracy theories. The inclination smacks of a population who have found themselves fighting a losing battle and are seeking out any ground that they can call their own because in some way it protects their interests.

One further element scandalizes this Christian attachment to conspiracy theories: originally, it was the early Christians who were targets of—rather than adherents to—conspiracy theories. Initially, they were accused of moving the grave stone and stealing the body of Christ, with the result that they could promote a hoax of his resurrection. This theory was followed by accusations by the Romans of cannibalism, incest, and a lack of patriotism. Christians, along with Jews, should know how easily accusations can be manufactured whenever national power is threatened.

There are other explanations for this conspiratorial phenomenon.[9] Mine comes from a fairly intimate exposure to conservative Christians, the bulk of whom are Evangelicals.

The first prong of the argument suggests that conspiracy-prone Christians have blurred the difference between believing the impossible and assuming the improbable, between accepting an article of faith and getting caught up in hearsay, between believing in the unseen and trusting in the unlikely. The second prong argues that a heightened sense of being ignored and attacked has caused such Christians to reduce their information sources to an incredibly narrow list, putting them at the mercy of their pastors, peers, and a thin array of reports.

On one hand, by definition Christians have learned to believe things that cannot be proven and are scoffed at by “the world” of nonbelievers. Jesus insisted that some kind of childlike trust must be present if a person is to enter the kingdom of Heaven. Christians often interpret this to encourage a “fool’s wisdom” that accepts (as I do) the grand article of faith that Jesus rose from the dead.

However, many Christians blur the distinction between the impossible and the improbable. Christ rising from the dead is impossible. Either it was a miracle or it didn’t happen. Conspiracy theories, by contrast, require no miracles. They require the least likely chain of events to unfold in a way that fools the entire world except for those who adhere to the theory.

On the other hand, Christians feel increasingly alienated culturally and intellectually in America. No doubt, there are fundamentalist Christian values that are irreconcilable to the mainstream culture and media in America. There are matters that I hold in embargo, with a self-declared moratorium until something makes sense. But the alienation that many Christians sense extends to matters of science, historical fact, and verified investigative journalism. This alienation is often coupled with a nostalgia for the past, as if things were not always rotten in Denmark, as if most of the world hasn’t already been suffering beyond imagination, as if the seven deadly sins were new arrivals on this earth.

The alienation isn’t only a matter of disputing alleged facts produced by modern discourse, but of seeing modern discourse as necessarily part of a satanic scheme to deceive Christians, to undermine their faith, and to deprive them of the lifestyle they value. While Evangelical Christians are truly lacking religious influence in American society, they think instead that they are losing religious liberty.[10]

Because something coming from the liberal press is a priori unreliable, they are not even exposed to potentially true information that runs contrary to what their world of church and peers teaches them. Their sources of information grow even narrower as their definition of “liberal press” grows broader. It used to be CNN that was liberal, while Fox news was accurate. Now Fox has been moved to the left, leaving very few vetted news sources to rely upon. Ad hoc reports, along with a large dose of social media, define the horizon of political and scientific information. In the extreme, healthy skepticism is replaced by rampant irrationality.

The result of the overgeneralized trust in the unproven coupled with the wholesale dismissal of vetted secular information sources is that many Christians assume if something cannot be proven it is true while at the same time assuming that sources that are fact-checked are necessarily false. This position makes them particularly vulnerable to conspiracy theories.

And that’s my theory on Christian conspiracy theory.

The way out? The obvious thing is to pay attention to a variety of sources, domestic and international, biased both in one’s favor and biased against. As Paul said, “Try all things; hold fast to that which is true.” If the spirit of truth truly lives in each Christian, there should be a resounding confidence that truth will rise to the top of one’s consciousness, while spurious theories will fall away. It’s a discipline to tune into a variety of sources. Even for me, although I go where most Christians and secularists fear to go. Now that Parler has been disabled, one of my go-to places for the point of view of Dinesh D’Souza and others has vanished. (Parler is back up for browsers but not on iPhones even if one has the app.)

The real way out, for the Christians this article addresses, is to listen to Christ. He ends a parable (that no one fully understands) with an unforgettable statement: “the children of this world are in their generation wiser than the children of light” (Luke 16:8). Whatever that means, it must have something to do with children of light coming up short concerning wisdom. Not only did Jesus say to be as innocent as a dove, but also to be wise as a serpent. It’s inconceivable to imagine Jesus saying so many things voiced by Christians…things that flatly contradict his life and teachings, including his insistence that his kingdom is not of this world.

To close, I urge everyone to land on the right side of history in these matters. But I’ll let Isaiah have the final word:

This is what the Lord says to me with his strong hand upon me, warning me not to follow the way of this people:

“Do not call conspiracy
everything this people calls a conspiracy;
do not fear what they fear,
and do not dread it.

The Lord Almighty is the one you are to regard as holy,
he is the one you are to fear,
he is the one you are to dread. (Isaiah 8)

 

____Footnotes____

[1] From “The Psychology of Conspiracy Theories”, by Karen M. Douglas, Robbie M. Sutton, and Aleksandra Cichocka; available on that page in HTML and PDF format (12/27/2020).

[2] See The Big Short (the book or the film) for an example of a far-fetched theory that proved true. Yes, the world economies were jeopardized by a secret plot (“let’s package junk mortgages in collateralized debt obligations so that we can profit from insolvent products”) by a group of powerful people (who thrive on Wall Street).

[3] The Assassination of Fred Hampton: New Documents Reveal Involvement of FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, a broadcast on Democracy Now! The defense laywer, Jeff Haas, discusses how the new information unearthed by historian Aaron Leonard has now confirmed what was once only a theory.

[4] These conclusions are based upon a meta-analysis (an analysis of 172 observational studies) in the Lancet, June 1, 2020: Physical distancing, face masks, and eye protection to prevent person-to-person transmission of SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19: a systematic review and meta-analysis.

[5] One example, the Moderna vaccination, obtained 94.1% effectiveness in preventing symptomatic covid19. Two key paragraphs:
“The trial began on July 27, 2020, and enrolled 30,420 adult volunteers at clinical research sites across the United States. Volunteers were randomly assigned 1:1 to receive either two 100 microgram (mcg) doses of the investigational vaccine or two shots of saline placebo 28 days apart. The average age of volunteers is 51 years. Approximately 47% are female, 25% are 65 years or older and 17% are under the age of 65 with medical conditions placing them at higher risk for severe COVID-19. Approximately 79% of participants are white, 10% are Black or African American, 5% are Asian, 0.8% are American Indian or Alaska Native, 0.2% are Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander, 2% are multiracial, and 21% (of any race) are Hispanic or Latino.”
“From the start of the trial through Nov. 25, 2020, investigators recorded 196 cases of symptomatic COVID-19 occurring among participants at least 14 days after they received their second shot. One hundred and eighty-five cases (30 of which were classified as severe COVID-19) occurred in the placebo group and 11 cases (0 of which were classified as severe COVID-19) occurred in the group receiving mRNA-1273. The incidence of symptomatic COVID-19 was 94.1% lower in those participants who received mRNA-1273 as compared to those receiving placebo.”

[6] Quotes from American evangelicals and the resistance to COVID vaccines, published by Deutsche Welle.

[7] Concerning the Republican election officials, see It’s Official: The Election Was Secure, which also includes statement from the FBI and the DOJ.
Concerning the judges, see The last wall’: How dozens of judges across the political spectrum rejected Trump’s efforts to overturn the election, The Wallstreet Journal, Dec. 12, 2020.

[8] QAnon has become Pizzagate writ large, both having the effect of enlisting believers who are willing to commit violent crimes convinced they are protecting the innocent (always a good inroad to violence). See QAnon: a timeline of violence linked to the conspiracy theory in The Guardian, October 16, 2020. If The Guardian is not to one’s liking, Fox News is ready to explicate some of the violence in QAnon conspiracy theory enters politics: What to know.

[9] This article, When it comes to conspiracy theories, is Christianity part of the problem or part of the solution? from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, overlaps in several places with my conclusions. Less directly, On Evangelical Conspiracy Theories, written by a black Evangelical woman, provides a confessional passage where she explains how she was indoctrinated to vilify Democrats and valorize Republicans even when the stereotypes mapped poorly to reality.

[10] David French, former attorney, current senior editor of The Dispatch, and 2nd Amendment advocate—yes, in some ways a conservative Christian—makes this distinction between the current plenitude of Christian liberty and the paucity of Christian cultural power. Whereas liberty is constitutionally provided, cultural power must be earned. The Christian failure to span the racial divides—still at work in American churches—prevents solidarity among racially disparate Christians. The article, at the same time, acknowledges times when Protestants in America rose to the occasion. See The Case for Religious Liberty Is More Compelling than the Case for Christian Power, published July 12, 2020.

Publishing Info

This post was first published on: Feb 7, 2021 at 21:13. If this article is significantly updated, the publication date beneath the title may change in order to bring current posts to the top of the directory.

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