The Problem with Conspiracy Theories
Conspiracy theories were always a problem for Jesus. It’s why the Bible he read, what we call the Old Testament, was clear. God hates it when people use false information to stir up trouble in the community.
Conspiracy theories about Jesus were ubiquitous from the beginning, even before his birth. Herod assembles chief priests and scribes to ask about this child who was to be born. Using scripture as the basis, a common trait of conspiracy theorists, they told the king this is “the Messiah.” Herod is so frightened by their theory that he was willing to kill all the newborn of Israel to make sure this Messiah did not live.
The word “messiah” was a conspiracy theory unto itself.
Conceptions of Messiah varied between political and transcendental, notions of changes the Messiah would bring to government, righteousness, and Torah. Different people had different reasons for being either fearful or joyful about the potential that this child was the Messiah.
When Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do they say I am,” the answer varies. Conspiracy theories abound throughout Palestine. Some said he was the resurrected John the Baptist. Maybe he was a reincarnation of one of Israel’s troublemaking prophets, Ezekiel or Jeremiah. There had to be a conspiracy behind this man who openly defies Sabbath law, calling himself “Lord of the Sabbath.” By the 12th chapter of Matthew, Jerusalem’s worried religious leaders openly conspire against Jesus.
They witness him cure a demoniac and spread another conspiracy theory. This must be, they said, the work of Beelzebul, the ruler of the demoniacs. Jesus responds with a warning against conspiracy theories. They are, he said, divisive. “Every kingdom divided against itself is laid to waste.” Jesus warns, “a house divided against itself will not stand.”
That was when, Mark’s Gospel reports, Jesus’s family came to get him because his adversaries were saying “He is nuttier than a fruitcake” or words to that effect. He says those spreading such rumors were a ‘brood of vipers.” Jesus confronts them. “How can you speak good things, when you are evil? Out of an abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.
“The good person brings good things out of a good treasure, and the evil person brings evil things out of an evil treasure. I tell you, on the day of judgment you will have to give an account for every careless word you utter; for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.”
My dear fellow Jesus followers, we live in a house divided against itself where careless words and falsehoods are becoming the norm. And it’s not politicians alone doing the worst damage. Politicians will always do what politicians do. But, there are elements of Christianity leading the effort to divide not only our country but the church itself through the acceptance and spread of lies and conspiracy theories.
And God is not happy about it. In Proverbs 6:12-19, it is written that QUOTE: a troublemaker and a villain, go about with a corrupt mouth, winks maliciously with his eye, plots evil with deceit in his heart and stirs up conflict.’ END QUOTE
Unaccustomed as we are connecting God’s name with the word “hate,” there it is in the Bible. Proverbs 16 QUOTE: There are 6 things the Lord hates, 7 are detestable to him: haughty eyes, a lying tongue, hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that devises wicked schemes, feet that are quick to rush into evil, a false witness who pours out lies and a person who stirs up conflict in the community.” END QUOTE
Scripture is clear. God hates false witnesses who pour out lies and stir up conflict. Yet, a poll by the Christian research organization Lifeway Research found that more than 45% of protestant pastors hear congregants repeating conspiracy theories about national events.
Today, more Americans believe the core conspiracy theory advocated by QAnon than belong to mainline Christian churches. More American believe the QAnon claim that "government, media, and financial worlds in the U.S. are controlled by a group of Satan-worshipping pedophiles who run a global child sex trafficking operation," more American believe that than the total numbers of Americans who are Mormons, Jews, Muslims, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Atheists, and Agnostics combined.
Let me repeat that. Today, more Americans believe QAnon conspiracy theories than belong to mainline Christian churches.
Only evangelical Christians number more than QAnon believers, but here’s the kicker. How odd that those who read the Bible literally have been most open to the false conspiracy theories dividing our country. One of every 4, 25%, of evangelical Christians believe the QAnon’s claim that Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, Joe Biden, and Anderson Cooper, among other notable figures are kidnapping, and sexually molesting children before killing them and drinking their blood.
Among the January 6th insurrectionists, QAnon supporters and white supremacists carried crosses through the Capitol Building and prayed for the success of their insurrection. Signs and flags declaring JESUS SAVES could be seen alongside Confederate flags.
And all of this nuttiness is spilling over into the pews and pulpits of America’s church.
Rhema Bible College, an Oklahoma seminary, teaching the Bible as the literal, inspired word of God, is an example of how conspiracy theories have become a part of spreading God’s word among some of our brethren. This evangelical seminary recently hosted one of the loudest of the conspiracy theorists, an attorney who represented the former president in his claims of election fraud. Lin Wood’s speech mirrored a revivalist sermon.
“Every lie will be revealed,” he proclaimed. “They are killing our children; send them to jail. Put them in front of the firing squad. They are committing acts against humanity. The penalty for an act against humanity is death. Take them out,” he bellowed to a cheering crowd of Christian seminarians, people who will soon be preaching to others.
I don’t preach this to be political, but to sound the same warning Jesus issued 2000 years ago, for this is not just a problem in American politics but one that has infected our churches.
It is not only conservative Christians. QAnon has infiltrated other faith groups as well; 15 % of white mainline Protestants, 18 % of white Catholics, 12 % of non-Christians, 11 % of Hispanic Catholics and 7 % of black Protestants are buying what QAnon is peddling.
As Ed Stetzer, an evangelical pastor and executive director of the Wheaton College Billy Graham Center, Rev. Stetzer said, “QAnon is a train that runs on tracks that religion put in place.”
It’s not only churches. It has infected our schools where conspiracy theories are employed to make it illegal in some states to teach the truth about the history of racism in America while those who espouse the conspiracies demand the schools teach a form of white supremacy that teaches American exceptionalism and Christian nationalism.
Indeed, conspiracy theories are dividing the house in a way that will ultimately destroy us as Jesus warned.
When people believe the lies about Jews, Jews are attacked and beaten in the streets, synagogues become mass shooting sites. When people believe the slurs about China and COVID-19, Asian Americans are brutalized. When people believe the lies that immigrants are taking our jobs, smuggling drugs into the country, that they are rapists and terrorists, children are yanked from the arms of their mothers and put in cages.
When people believe the nonsense that there is a “gay agenda” to recruit their children, Transgender human beings are murdered. The trouble stirred by the lies is real and often deadly.
What we’ve seen in the last 4 years is an undermining of Christianity that started decades ago. In the early days of the so-called “Moral Majority,” conservative Christians found that messages delivered from pulpits were unsuccessful in persuading the flock to move to the right on gay rights, women’s rights, segregation, abortion and other cultural issues. Literal Biblical claims did not move the needle.
Their radical aspirations gave birth to Christian nationalism. They used the political process to elect candidates who would impose their narrow views of morality. They still ran aground because politicians who mouthed the right words failed to follow through, judges were guided by the constitution and not their version of the Bible. It was then that so many conservative Christians began imagining that the only explanation was the existence of a vast conspiracy.
We’ve been warned against false prophets. Jesus understood the threat they posed to genuine faith. God didn’t call us to be easily fooled. Gullibility is not a Christian virtue. Believing and sharing conspiracies does not honor the Lord, but takes us farther from the teachings of Jesus into a world where a brood of vipers rule with a dark agenda.
Yet now we are dealing with a new flood of conspiracy theories that are undermining our democracy, destroying our Republic, and dividing the church. And the Bible says God hates it. So, what are Christians to do?
Three things. Know the truth. Tell the truth. Live the truth.
Jesus said, “"Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.” The sword of Jesus is the truth. Henry Louis Gates said, “Conspiracy theories are an irresistible labor-saving device in the face of complexity.” END QUOTE We have to work to find the truth. We each have a responsibility to be well informed, to know the truth about the matters that are being hotly debated in the church, in your families, and among your friends.
When I heard a woman on TV compare Marjorie Taylor Greene to Jesus Christ, I decided we cannot be shy about naming names. Turn away from media sources known to lie and distort. According to an NPR poll, among those respondents who say they most trust far-right news organizations: Four in 10 (40%) agree with QAnon’s conspiracy theories.
To know the truth requires that we know those who don’t tell the truth. Name names. Mike Huckabee. Franklin Graham. Sean Hannity. Tucker Carlson. Laura Ingraham. Mark Levin. If you are quoting them or believing them, or others like them, you are out of line with God and Jesus. Period. They are who the word of God and the teachings of Jesus warned you about. People who the Book of Proverbs described as false witness who “pour out lies and stir up conflict in the community.”
If you’re unhappy that I didn’t name other news outlets, I want to be clear. There is a difference between those with whom we disagree AND THOSE WHO LIE TO US.
So, know the truth. AND tell the truth. When Jesus said he came not to maintain the peace, but came with a sword, he was telling us not to go along to get along, but that his followers must be willing to challenge the lies that threaten the church and the community, to risk friendships to lovingly correct those who spread the conspiracy theories.
It will mean treading the muddy, deep waters to drain the swamp, to coin a phrase. The swamp is such a good analogy. Its surface is calm. Its surroundings can be beautiful. But there are venomous snakes and deadly alligators just below the surface. When you tell the truth to those who don’t know it, you are exposing those snakes and gators. You are draining the dangerous swamp.
Know the truth. Tell the truth. Live the truth. It’s what Jesus said would set us free. Theologian Kathleen Norris said conspiracy theories are the last refuge of those who have lost their natural curiosity. Don’t let go of the natural curiosity God gave you to search out the truth.
Let it be known among everyone that you value the truth and that, like God, there are six things you hate, seven that are detestable to you: haughty eyes, a lying tongue, hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that devises wicked schemes, feet that are quick to rush into evil, a false witness who pours out lies and a person who stirs up conflict in the community.”
Now is the time for all who call themselves Jesus followers to come to the aid of their church and their country by living his words. “The good person brings good things out of a good treasure, and the evil person brings evil things out of an evil treasure.” Jesus said, “On the day of judgment we will have to give an account for every careless word we utter; for by our words we will be justified, and by our words we will be condemned.” AMEN