The internet age has rapidly intensified the ability for conspiracy theories to spread across large populations of people, but why are Christians so susceptible to conspiratorial thought? Increasingly these grand narratives regarding the alleged machinations of nefarious figures are making their way into the mainstream of both American political life and American religious life.
BNG’s own Aaron Coyle-Carr recently delved into the fast-growing QAnon movement, which serves as a helpful case study for thinking about Christianity’s relationship to conspiracy. Its followers have recently secured nominations for candidates running for the House of Representatives and are increasingly creating tension within religious communities across the country.
Response to this article ranged from, “Why should I care about this?” to “Oh, my goodness, this is frightening.”
QAnon, for those unfamiliar, is a broad movement that follows an unknown individual or group of individuals that go by the name of “Q,” who “drop” cryptic information in online posts about a coming confrontation between President Trump and a secret cabal of Democratic politicians and Hollywood elites whom the movement alleges are pedophiles. Followers create and add other conspiratorial ideas to the larger conversation. They decode Q’s online posts and spread ideas about the dealings of this secret cabal around the world.
QAnon followers suggest that Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, Oprah Winfrey and even Pope Francis are molesting children and then killing and eating these children “to extract a life-extending chemical from their blood.” President Trump has described QAnon followers as people “who love our country” and as of yet has not denounced their ideas.
Katelyn Beaty of Religion News Service has described the movement as akin to a type of syncretic blending of “traditional Christian beliefs” with another spiritual system. Beaty explains that Q often uses Bible verses to encourage followers. A charismatic church based in Indiana has been showing “how Bible prophesies confirm Q’s messages.” Evangelical and charismatic Christians seem to have a great affinity for the claims Qanon peddles.
A history of conspiracy theories
Conspiracy theories are not inherently problematic or dangerous just because they are theories that have not yet been proved true. Watergate began as a conspiracy theory, for example, and after evidence mounted, it proved to be a theory that was fact.
The problem with conspiracy theories rests in the difficultly of proving them untrue. Conspiracy theorists are not interested in evidence that does not prove their belief untrue; rather they are principally concerned only with evidence that supports or continues their theory.
Twentieth century historian Richard Hofstadter described this penchant for conspiracy theories as part of America’s paranoid style.
“I call it the paranoid style,” Hofstadter wrote, “because no other word adequately evokes the qualities of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness and conspiratorial fantasy that I have in mind.” Hofstadter cited beliefs regarding the Kennedy assassination and fear of the fluoridation of municipal water supplies as examples of this paranoid style.
Hofstadter, however, relegates belief in conspiracy theories to a type of mental illness, typified among those individuals on the right wing of the American political spectrum. More recent scholarship suggests, however, that conspiratorial thinking is no respecter of the political spectrum. Republicans and Democrats, college-educated and noncollege-educated, and all racial groups are susceptible to conspiratorial thinking. Humans have a penchant to believe that big events necessitate big answers.
Your conspiracy or mine?
A 2014 article from the American Journal of Political Science suggests that while conspiracy theories are often understood to be radical or fringe beliefs, “nationally representative survey data provide a much more complex picture.” Researchers in this study found that at least “half of the American public consistently endorses at least one conspiracy theory.”
The study similarly identified two factors that contribute the possibility of accepting conspiratorial thinking. First, individuals who believe in supernatural or paranormal beliefs are more likely to endorse a conspiracy theory. Second, individuals who endorse a type of Manichean worldview that forces reality into grand narratives of good-versus-evil and right-versus-wrong are more susceptible.
Researchers found that at least “half of the American public consistently endorses at least one conspiracy theory.”
On the other hand, political ignorance, the study found, does not often correlate to conspiratorial thinking. While correlation does not necessitate causation, many Christian theological dispositions encourage and nurture both of these kinds of thinking.
Making the Second Coming a conspiracy theory
In many ways, one of the most enduring Christian theological beliefs resembles a conspiracy theory — the return of Christ. Again, conspiracy theories are not inherently problematic, and neither is a belief that Christ will return to earth.
While the Apostle Paul believed the return of Christ was imminent in the first century, it remains important to recognize how this doctrine has been interpreted over the past 200 years. Contemporary Christian communities have constructed elaborate systems that seek to predict and find evidence that supports their particular belief that Christ will return and usher in the end time in the not-so-distant future.
William Miller serves as a classic example of this predictive theological mode. Emerging out of the Baptist tradition in the United States, Miller became the leader of the Millerite movement in first half of the 19th century. He predicted Christ would return to and cleanse the earth on April 18, 1844. He was wrong. After re-examining his interpretations of the Bible, he adjusted the date to Oct. 22, 1844. He was wrong again, and the day became known as the “Great Disappointment” for Millerites who were eager and ready to welcome Christ’s return.
Miller’s “premillennialist” theological mode claimed Christ would return before a thousand-year reign of Christianity would take place.
Other Baptists like Walter Rauschenbusch advocated for a “postmillennialist” interpretation of Revelation in which Christ would return after a thousand-year reign of Christianity. From this theological perspective, Christians must now labor to bring about the kingdom of God on earth, and Christ will return at the conclusion of this thousand-year reign. Rauschenbusch saw the “Christianizing” or, in reality, the democratizing of various segments of society as signs that the kingdom of God was “always but coming.”
Still others proposed a metaphorical millennium.
These were the three primary ways of interpreting the end-times until the late 19th century.
Dispensationalism adds a twist
Echoing the interpretive strategy of Miller, the rise and popularization of what became known as premillennial dispensationalism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries created an intellectual seedbed for a Christian theological tradition primed for conspiracy theories.
“Premillennial dispensationalists turned the return of Christ into a grand conspiracy.”
By dividing history into eras or dispensations of God’s outpouring of the Spirit, dispensationalism offered up a theory to explain the charismatic elements of the Holiness movement. It proposed a respectability and a kind of science for interpreting Scripture and understanding the coming end of days.
Resources like the Scofield Reference Bible allowed Christians to search out connections between Bible verses with similar themes through “cross-references.” Reading Scripture and unlocking its secrets became an intricate quest as passages from one book of the Bible were sought to provide clues for understanding other passages.
Premillennial dispensationalists would come to popularize prophecy charts to explain the trajectory of human history. These intricate diagrams became tools to explain not only the present era, but where the world was heading. Adherents of this theological tradition came to look for biblical passages that explain contemporary society’s place in this grand narrative of human history.
Premillennial dispensationalists turned the return of Christ into a grand conspiracy.
How to help today
For congregations today battling conflicting conspiracy theories fomenting among their membership, finding common ground can be difficult or next to impossible. Chastising or shaming someone for their beliefs rarely changes someone’s mind and can have the effect of further entrenching the belief.
“Seek to help congregants understand their place in the wider world, particularly in a time when there is so much uncertainty.”
More effective strategies include affirming an individual’s curiosity and concern and attempting to redirect that curiosity and concern toward the simplest solution, not the most complex. Encouraging individuals to read non-sensational news sources serves as another aid. It is important to recognize also that even the best strategies depend upon proper timing for when an individual is willing to listen.
For Christian pastors, recognizing that the beliefs of grand narratives between good and evil cosmic forces battling against one another correlate and perhaps even fuel conspiratorial thinking may change how you communicate with you congregation. Emphasizing the more humanistic components of the Christian faith like Jesus’ call to love your neighbor as yourself may help defuse a theological mindset amenable to sensational conspiracy theories.
While it may be exciting to think about what lurks in the shadows and beyond our sight, remembering the physicality of our flesh is important. Gnosticism for all its emphasis on the spirit over flesh and a secret knowledge was found to be a heresy.
Seek to help congregants understand their place in the wider world, particularly in a time when there is so much uncertainty. Rather than locating congregants in a battle of cosmic forces, help them locate themselves in the local community — as difficult as that may be in times of physical distancing.
Such an approach cuts between partisanship during this time.
While QAnon adherents warn of a coming “storm” between Trump and a secret cabal of elites, Joe Biden and the Democrats warn of the battle for the “soul” of America. Such rhetoric is compelling, but in reality, we are describing an election. Make no mistake that it is a consequential election, but the country has no metaphysical soul.
The human mind has the capacity to create intoxicating and soaring stories that emerge from our experience, but we have to remember to ground ourselves in reality.
Andrew Gardner holds a Ph.D. in American religious history and is the author of Reimagining Zion: A History of the Alliance of Baptists.