How well do we really understand conspiracy theories?
Did you know a bad theory can land followers of Jesus in jail? Consider Edgar Maddison Welch. In 2016 he laid down his weapons and surrendered to police outside Comet Ping Pong, a pizza joint in Washington, D.C. He and many others believed Hillary Clinton used the basement there to run an international child sex ring.
Welch drove almost five hours from his home in North Carolina to rescue the boys and girls. Imagine his shock when he discovered Comet Ping Pong had no basement and that it was only a pizza place. Thankfully no one was injured when he fired his rifle in the restaurant.
Welch, regarded in his town and local church as a faithful Christian, was sentenced to four years in prison. How could he have gotten so caught up in tangled conspiracy theories that seemed to him so relevant to being a Christian in our fallen world?
You might want to reply, "Everybody knows conspiracy theories are false! And they have nothing to do with Christian religious beliefs and religious life." Well, not so fast.
The leading scholars who analyze conspiracy theories (Matthew R. X. Dentith, Joseph Uscinski, Kathryn Olmsted, for example) contend they are not false simply by definition. In other words a conspiracy theory could be true. Think of Watergate and Richard Nixon as a case in point.
Both true and false conspiracy theories are important because they can lead to tragic realities. Ask Edgar Maddison Welch. Or consider how unfounded views about Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction led to the invasion of Iraq.
Granted, there are many conspiracy theories that make virtually no impact on the daily lives of most people. Whether rock star Kurt Cobain was murdered by the CIA or killed himself (the common view) is one example. Likewise, the theory Adolf Hitler is still alive and living in Brazil does not shake economic stability in our nation or individual bank accounts.
However, other theories can have huge personal and social consequences. Think of the human grief and anger over denial that the 2012 killings at the Sandy Hook Elementary School really happened. False conspiracy views about Covid-19 have led to some great calamities, both medical and financial.
While not all conspiracies impact Christian faith, some do.
The most obvious examples for me right now are from a book I just finished editing, Evangelical Civil War (Equal Time Books). This book is about the extreme divisions among evangelical Christians worldwide over Donald Trump. Conspiracy theories play their part in all sides of these nasty divisions. For example, check the internet for disputes about Russian collusion, Obamagate and all things related to QAnon. (There is even a new church devoted to using teachings from QAnon to interpret the Bible.) These are real and powerful conspiracies for many Christians, whatever their political views.
Conspiracy theories increase in times of chaos and uncertainty. Instead of simply ignoring conspiracy theories, we are wiser to educate ourselves about them.
Misconception: Conspiracy theories are a recent phenomenon enabled by mass media.
Fact: While nothing spreads wild theories like Twitter and Facebook, historians have tracked conspiracies throughout history. Even ancient Athens had its share, as Joseph Roisman has shown.
Misconception: Conspiracy theories are usually right-wing creations.
Fact: Conspiratorial opposition to fluoride in drinking water has been rooted occasionally in left-wing politics. Likewise, liberal media regularly advance conspiracy theories against evangelical Christians.
Misconception: Conspiracy theories are mostly American.
Fact: Conspiracies exist over the March 11, 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan. The recent explosion in Beirut has led to huge conspiracy theories throughout the Middle East.
In our uncertain and conspiracyprone world today, Christians have all the more reason to "test the spirits" (1 John 4:1). This means taking time to sort through claims, examine opposing views and have reasonable skepticism along the way (like the Bereans of Acts 17:11).
In the face of lies, half-truths and propaganda, Christians can trust the Holy Spirit to help us discern and ask God to give us wisdom. And we can take comfort in the time-tested, rock-solid truths about Jesus – more than enough to anchor our lives on.
James A. Beverley is research professor at Tyndale University. Find more of these columns at www.FaithToday.ca/ReligionWatch.