In July of 2020, a church in my area opened its service with a video associated with QAnon. That video, which I watched along with the sermon, contained an amalgamation of conspiracy theories around the coronavirus, Black Lives Matter, and mail-in-voting. He followed his video with a political rant, with some Scripture sprinkled in.
The spread of conspiracy theories, particularly around the election, race, and the coronavirus, among Christians online and within churches has caused me and others to ask some soul-searching questions. I will explore three in this post:
First, are Christians inherently conspiracy theorists? Second, are Christians prone to conspiracy thinking? Third, what tools do Christians have to combat false conspiracy theories?
Are Christians inherently conspiracy theorists?
I’ve struggled with exactly how to set the parameters to this question. How does it differ from my section question – are Christians prone to conspiracy thinking? What I’m trying to get at here is whether there is something inherent within Christianity that makes followers of Jesus conspiratorial. In my second question, I will focus specifically on our cultural moment.
Why would Christians be inherently conspiracy-minded? The argument goes as follows: Christians believe in God, miracles, and the unseen world. That is, they believe things without evidence. Conspiracy theories thrive with a lack of evidence, just thin threads weaved together into a compelling story that brings meaning to people’s lives. Therefore, Christians (and other religious adherents) must be inherently conspiracy-minded.
I have two responses to this argument. First, the Christian faith is not a “blind leap into the dark.” God does not ask people to follow him without evidence. That evidence includes philosophical arguments, historical arguments (evidence for the historical resurrection), evidence for the reliability of the bible, evidence from church history, the nature of the created world, and personal experience. Different people find different arguments persuasive, but there’s no doubt reason plays a role in Christian belief.
Second, the argument relies on a bad (or insufficient) definition of a conspiracy theory. It assumes that a conspiracy theory is simply a story that is hard to believe. While that may be a part of a conspiracy theory, there’s more to the story. For this post, I will borrow Anna Merlan’s: “a belief that a small group of people are working in secret against the common good, to create harm, to effect some negative change in society, to seize power for themselves, or to hide some deadly or consequential secret” (Republic of Lies, 14).
While one can find examples of “small groups of people working against the common good” (Pharoah killing the Hebrew babies, officials conspiring against Daniel, Haman’s conspiracy against the Jews in Esther) these stories are not central to the theology of the Bible. Instead, they illustrate how to be faithful in the face of hostility.
In that light then, I don’t see anything within the Christian faith that makes Christians inherently conspiracy theorists. That conclusion appears to match the empirical data surrounding conspiracy theories, which vary widely in content and span cultural, political, and religious boundaries. I was surprised while reading Merlan by the broad range of American conspiracies and how many of them were shared by people of different faith.
Are Christians prone to believe conspiracy theories?
I can think of several reasons why Christians might nevertheless be vulnerable to conspiracy theories. The reasons are cultural, theological, and hermeneutical (our approach to reading Scripture).
First, let’s consider the cultural reasons. Merlan (quoted above) points out that conspiracy theories thrive in communities that feel disenfranchised or marginalized. They grow in communities that do not trust primary sources of knowledge or expertise. They spread most during periods of social upheaval. All of those describe well the state of the conservative Christian community right now.
While it’s a stretch to say that conservative Christians are marginalized in America, they are steadily losing cultural power – and that at an accelerated pace. Christians feel pushed out of and vilified by pop culture, academia, and even the NCAA tournament. The shift from viewing Christians as the “moral majority” to the villains is part of a broader social upheaval. Amid this upheaval, Christians see many of American’s cultural institutions as enemies, unlikely to represent Christian belief in a positive light. “MSM” frequently gets maligned. Christians see fact-checkers as mere tools of the broader establishment. No one can be trusted to tell the truth. This cultural mood predisposes many Christians to latch onto conspiracy theories that attack their cultural enemies.
Second, let’s consider a theological reason. Christians believe in an evil power, the devil, who influences the powers and authorities from “behind the curtain.” Most Christian conspiracy theories that I come across explicitly state that some human power has allied with (or been deceived by) Satan. [Edit: I’m not suggesting that Christians should abandon belief in Satan, not that such a belief necessarily makes us gullible when it comes to conspiracy theories. However, appeals to demonic forces are sometimes used rhetorically by those peddling conspiracy theories to gain traction in Christian communities.]
Third, some Christians read the books of Revelation and Daniel as codes that need to be deciphered through current events. Christians who read biblical apocalyptic literature in this way are always on the lookout for signs of the antichrist, the mark of the beast, or a one-world government that coincides with, or will bring about the great tribulation. I’m not referring here to mere premillennialism, but to the belief that Revelation was written to a future generation in a way that only that future generation would be able to understand. Those who read Revelation in this way almost always believe that they are a part of that future generation.
All of these factors predispose some Christians to believe certain kinds of conspiracy theories, especially those that are coded with spiritual language and malign their cultural enemies.
What tools do Christians have to combat false conspiracy theories?
I would like to propose the following non-exhaustive list of ways that Christians can be more discerning when it comes to conspiracy theories.
First, Christians should look to multiple, quality sources for their information. Not all sources have equal credibility. Look for unbiased sources, those that are not purely based on opinion or rhetoric, present the facts within context, and point to the source material. If you feel inflamed after watching a 5-second video clip, seek out the full speech to gather the context. Take the advice of Proverbs 17:18 “In a lawsuit the first to speak seems right until someone comes forward and cross-examines.” Cross-examine your favorite media outlet before reaching a conclusion.
Second, Christians should approach conspiracy theories with a base level of skepticism. We need to do this to combat our own biases which predispose us to believe them. Our biases cause us to agree with the premise (“politicians are evil and untrustworthy”) that warm us to their conclusion (“they created the coronavirus to bring about massive social control”). The premise may be true but we need to force the conspiracy theory to present the evidence that leads to the conclusion. Then we need to cross-examine the evidence.
Third, I would suggest that Christians re-examine the way they interpret apocalyptic literature. My basic premise is uncontroversial: The primary meaning of Scripture can be found in what the author intended it to mean. And, that author was writing to a specific audience who he thought could understand what he wrote. John wrote Revelation to churches in the first century. If we want to know what Revelation means, we should first ask what John meant to communicate to those churches. Here’s my more-controversial conclusion: If we need a current event – inaccessible to those readers – to be added to unlock or decode the text, we should be highly skeptical of our interpretation.
I can think of another reason why we should be cautious about reading Revelation this way: Centuries of Christians have believed they could decode its meaning. So far, they’ve all been wrong. One of these days someone might get it right, but I believe that will more likely be a “blind squirrel finds a nut” scenario than unique intellect or prophetic revelation. Jesus himself says, “But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father” (Matthew 24:36).
Finally, if conspiracy theories thrive in an environment of upheaval and fear then Christian communities can foster environments of security and hope. I’m not talking about winning a culture war, though fighting for religious freedom is one way to love all our neighbors. Instead, I’m suggesting that Christians draw on our rich tradition of finding hope and security in hostile and chaotic environments. Doing so will allow us to look up in worship to God and out in service to others and free us from inward gazing conspiratorial thinking.
[Postscript, 3/28] Scripture, when properly applied, contains important resources to help free people from false conspiracy theories. God has given us wisdom for discerning the truth (see the Proverbs). He calls us to love that truth and to expose falsehoods that distort reality and slander our neighbors. And, he gives us meaning and hope.
Here’s another nugget from Merlan’s compendium of American conspiracy theories: “The UFO mystery… expresses our secret longings for a wisdom that might come down from the stars in a new, improved, easy-to-use packaging, to reveal the secrets of life and tell us, at long last, who we are.”
Christians do not need a UFO mystery, or any other conspiracy theory, to bring meaning to our lives. God has given us everything we need in Christ.