The unholy alliance between some Christians and a wholehearted embrace of conspiracy theories is a troubling one. It would be less troubling if one could argue successfully that it was just a particular quirk of a particular theory which appealed to Christians, but on the contrary it appears that something in the worldview of the conspiracy theorist generally holds a particular appeal to people of Christ.
Or course, I’m not suggesting that the majority of Christians are conspiracy theorists or vice versa, but that there is any significant overlap and that some Christians have chosen to use the cause of Christ to prop up these has prompted me to ponder what, if any, is the connection between the two world views.
As it turns out, there does seem to be a connection, but in this case it is the same kind of connection one finds between anything real and its counterfeit. There are things of the gospel we have learned to love, grown to need in our life and, if we, for any number of reasons, become disillusioned, weary, or even just inattentive to those things in Christ, we may be more apt to seek them wherever we can find them. Because we have tasted the good fruit of the Gospel, we are more apt to seek that fruit, and if we’ve grown even slightly suspicious of Christ’s ability to bring us those, then perhaps it positions us to more fully embrace the counterfeit, particularly if it can be dressed up to appear to be part of that Gospel we once so loved.
The writers of the New Testament warn us repeatedly to be wary of falling away from our first love, of being lured away from a simple devotion to Jesus, of becoming enamored of fine sounding arguments and theories precisely because the world, the flesh, and the devil are waiting to replace those loves with counterfeit loves.
(As an important note before we go further it must be clearly stated that when the NT writers speak of falling away from our devotion or first love this says nothing of Christ’s continuing faithfulness and enduring love. Though we may forget our devotion to Him, He never will forget us and His love remains as poignant and passionate as the day He endured the cross for the joy set before Him of our redemption and relationship with HIm. We’ll return to this thought at the end of this article, indeed as part of the solution, but upon this point there should be no confusion so I wanted to say it here as well.)
What we are seeing then is that the allure of the conspiracy theory lies in the same seductive and ultimately deceptive appeal that all idolatry has. Breaking free of idolatry requires recognizing three things.
- The seduction of the idol
- No one seeks an idol because they want to worship something false. Idolatry always begins as an attempt to find true divinity. The seduction is in the goodness of those things we seek. Recognizing what we are trying to gain from the idol is often a healthy first step towards repentance.
- The betrayal of the idol
- It is always and inevitably the nature of idols that the very thing we are seeking in them is the very area in which we are most poignantly betrayed by that idol, and yet even as it betrays us it continues to seduce us with promises of a future fulfillment. Solomon calls this chasing after the wind; when we catch it we are left holding only empty air.
- The freedom from the idol
- The solution to idolatry is always the same: to acknowledge the good we seek, to recognize the betrayal of that good and to return to a trust in God to provide what we wanted all along. Delight yourself in the Lord and He will give you the desires of your heart, as the Psalmist reminds us.
So how does this look specifically when it comes to the seduction of the conspiracy theory? I think there are four main allures for Christians in conspiracy theories.
The seduction of the conspiracy theory
- Truth: As Christians we have learned the power of truth. We have seen the fruit from a major shift in our worldview, as we recognize our powerlessness, our sinfulness, God’s love and Grace and authority in our life. The Gospel changed our view of things forever, revealing an underlying spiritual dimension we perhaps had never considered. Jesus said the truth will set you free and we are firm believers in those words. That kind of life changing enlightenment is powerful and for some, extremely emotional. Conspiracy theories hold out the same kind of thrill, of knowing something which changes your view of the world forever. After having been enlightened by Christ it is tempting to seek that feeling, that thrill of a world forever changed.
- Mission: As Christians we have also felt the fulfillment of a life with a purpose. To be on mission in a universal battle for good over evil is the stuff of heroism and fantasy and it is the reality of the gospel world view. Conspiracy theories seem to offer this too. For the true devotee, the theory is not just an intellectual argument about, for example, whether JFK was assassinated by a lone gunman or not, but is a call to arms to recognize and fight against the forces aligned to control us and our world. These forces are never benevolent and often of the most hideous evil. The opportunity to be Neo in the matrix is a strong allure in a world where so many of us feel insignificant and powerless. The drama of a conspiracy theory is oftentimes a more convincing sense of purpose than the often very mundane work that Jesus actually calls us to.
- Clear enemies: As Christians we are aware of the reality of evil. We understand that there are malevolent forces which seek to destroy and kill. In a world of so much pain and misery it’s useful to have clear enemies to direct our anger and desire for justice. God calls us to love even our enemies, but the allure of somewhere to vent our anger, our pain and our misery is a strong one. The promise that such hate is justified because evil is hateful is a promise we want to believe. The larger, more distant, more powerful and more hideous the evil the greater the justification.
- Control: Only people who are supremely unaware or foolish never feel fear. There is much to be feared in the world and the most fearful thing of all is our powerlessness in the face of scary things. Conspiracy theories hold out the promise that someone is in control. Everything that happens is engineered by humans somehow. And by being assured that humans are in control does this not mean that as someone who is fighting against these other humans, we ourselves are potentially even more powerful?
What many who have embraced conspiracy theories fail to realize is that like all idols, these seductions are illusions and that in reality the further one devotes themselves to these worldviews, the more betrayed one will be, finding that a clear and accurate sense of truth, mission, enemies and control is exactly what is sacrificed in worship of this idol.
The betrayal of the conspiracy theory
- Gnosticism:The Betrayal of truth. One of the earliest heresies to arise in the Christian church took its name form the greek word for knowledge, “gnosis”. Gnostics believed that what saved someone was not Christ but knowledge and only a specific elitist kind of knowledge. Enlightenment became both the path to spirituality and the proof of it. Only the right kind of people were worthy of enlightenment and you knew precisely who those people were because they were enlightened. For the rest of us our enlightenment can come only by trusting those who have been enlightened. Conspiracy theorists love to berate the uninitiated as sheep, or asleep, challenging them to stop believing what everyone else believes and instead believe what the theorist believes. It is always presented not as an invitation to logic or evidence, but as a “who do you trust” argument, in which trusting anyone other than the enlightened makes you weak, gullible and vulnerable. Jesus, on the other hand, offers truth which is inclusive and accessible to everyone. In fact, what we really forget is that when Jesus said the truth shall set you free, He didn’t mean a set of facts or even a new worldview. He meant Himself. Jesus is the truth. God is the center of the universe and this is the worldview change which matters.. The seduction of truth as our salvation leads us further and further from the truths which led us to true salvation in the first place. The conspiracy theory betrays us by leading us away from the truth of the person of Jesus and into an elitist view of the world where ostensibly we see the human conspirators at the center, but really it’s ourselves and our theories which become the center of the universe.
- Busybody: The betrayal of mission. As we descend deeper and deeper into the mission offered us by Conspiracy theories we find ourselves accomplishing less and even working against the very things we sought to protect and defend. We find ourselves spending our time and spinning our wheels on theories and plans which truly change no one for the better and do nothing to improve the lot of the oppressed, needy, or even ourselves. Some theorists will stop basic scriptural missional calls like, loving their neighbor, or providing for their family in favor of actions which are at best meaningless and at worst detrimental. Paul uses the word busybody to describe people who have embraced slander and gossip and the spreading of such disinformation to stir up trouble as their life’s work and encourages the church to find proper mission for such busybodies. The conspiracy theory betrays us by leading us away from true mission and into busy work which benefits no one, revels in gossip and slander, and sometimes causes great harm to the very mission we were seeking or at least to the legacy we desired.
- Justifying your hate: A betrayal of clear enemies. Jesus repeatedly makes the point that we are never justified in hating our fellow human beings. We are told to love our enemies, and in stories like the good Samaritan we are reminded that there is no justification for the hate we carry towards others. We are not called to decide who to love by choosing who is our neighbor, but we are are to decide who is our neighbor by choosing to love them. Conspiracy theories almost always end up being a way to justify our hate of those we want to hate. We do not truly hate them because of the crimes the conspiracy tells us they committed. We believe in the crimes the conspiracy tells us they are guilty of, because we want to hate them. This is why so many conspiracy theories reveal at their heart some antisemitism, or political preference or racism. Conspiracy theories which slander people we already love are just less convincing to us. In justifying our hate we often end up becoming the very things we are decrying in the members of the alleged conspiracy, turning specks into logs in order to justify the logs in our own eyes. The conspiracy theory betrays us by making us more like the enemies we perceive: spreading lies, slandering others, rumor mongering and justifying a level of hate we would never have believed possible in ourselves.
- Denial and powerlessness: A betrayal of control. The truth is that many conspiracy theories have as their starting point an inability to accept the reality of something which has happened which scares us. One of Martin Luther King’s friends reportedly said, “”There is no way a ten-cent white boy could develop a plan to kill a million-dollar black man.” Of course assassinations are not often done by intellectual powerhouses and most assassinations in our history have been simple straightforward acts of mundane evil, but the greater the man in our eyes, the harder it is to believe they could be brought down by something so basic. It is easier for some to believe in a conspiracy of overreaction, than in a virus which has killed 400, 000 of our fellow Americans. How many times in recent days have you heard people defend “stop the steal” with a simple, “there is no way Biden could have won.” In our attempt to gain control by investigating and fighting against a conspiracy, we are often just pushing aside the more obvious truths which frighten us: that we are not always in control, that sometimes no human being is in control. The conspiracy theory betrays us by leaving us feeling powerless, frustrated and afraid, unable to accept the reality in front of us, so full of denial we lose touch with reality.
What do we do about this? I don’t propose a solution for individuals who have embraced the worship of these false idols. Their repentance and restoration is perhaps best left to prayer and the work of the Holy Spirit. But I do propose a solution for the church, for future generations. The truth is that that the American church is reaping the fruit of what we’ve sown, or rather not sown for a while now.
We have occupied our time with things other than the one thing we’ve been called to do. We’ve pretended that we were designed or best suited for endeavors, which while, in many cases good things, were not the work for which the church exists. Many are now recognizing the unhealthy way in which evangelicals invested in politics as our hope for redemption of a culture, but the problem is not limited to either evangelicals or politics. The problem is not so much what we did invest in, but what we didn’t invest in. We focused on things we thought were part of our mission and neglected the most fundamental mission of discipleship.
The counterfeit loses its appeal in the face of the real. Consider our way back as something like this. I speak as one who faces his own complicity as a pastor of the last thirty years in these problems and who has not cracked the code at returning to effective discipleship but I believe as we recognize the need God will once again lead us to the fulfillment of our mission. God’s job is to preserve the church, ours is merely to serve it.
The freedom from the idol of conspiracy theories.
- Truth: As pastors and teachers, we too often elevated our opinions over scripture, shared our convictions over teaching people to develop their own, and replaced teaching people to read and understand scripture with telling people what we had learned from scripture. We taught them we were the experts and they needed to build their faith upon the backs of our own sometimes inaccessible understandings. We need instead to return to the communal discipleship of the New Testament where people are taught that devotion to Christ supersedes devotion to a particular leader or church and unity of faith is more important than unanimity of thought and behavior.
- Mission: We have somehow become so confusing, boring, and condemning all at once in our presentation of the Great Commission that the very purpose given to us by God to make disciples of all peoples has lost its allure to those who were once driven and excited by it. There is a true battle of good and evil, an incredible cosmic story of universal proportion and unbelievably high drama but it is fought in discipleship and not in politics or media or anything else. The church has become irrelevant and powerless in the eyes of even its members and has been replaced by missions seen as more sexy, dramatic and stirring. Part of the problem is that discipleship is seen as the task of the pastors, and not the members. Church members instinctively feel that our job is to disciple them, to feed them, so that they can then go do the really important work outside of the church. For Paul discipleship was a mission that every member of every church, every part of the body of Christ, was indispensably and excitingly part of. The building of the church does have consequences outside the church in politics, media and everywhere else, but it is the building of the church which has this impact and we too often send out saltless and lightless people to engage in a war they do not truly understand because the building of the church has been bypassed or misunderstood. For Paul things like loving your neighbor, caring for the poor, taking care of your family and minding your own business (his words) were inextricably linked to this incredible cosmic plan of redemption of the universe. We must return to the true mission and recapture the joy, enthusiasm and drama of this great mission such that no one should ever need to find excitement elsewhere.
- Love: Jesus could hardly be more clear. The law and the prophets are summed up in loving our neighbors as ourselves and in loving the Lord our God. Somehow in our push for holiness and obedience, have we forgotten how to teach people to love? Have we forgotten the importance of caring for those who need care, loving our enemies, and being inclusive in our vision of the gospel? I was not so long ago at a pastor’s conference where someone suggested we should be “unapologetically scriptural and also loving.” When did these two become in opposition? Isn’t being unapologetically scriptural inevitably being loving? It is an accurate thing to say that love in scripture is not the same as love described by Hollywood or culture, but that is not enough to say. Instead of talking about what love is not, we should be talking a lot more about what love is; and it should look a lot more like Jesus who repeatedly said that we should stop justifying our hate behind vengeance, and self righteousness.
- Submission and trust: Fear of not being in control is not something to be feared. It is a very rational and real fear. Instead of denying our lack of control we should embrace it, but such courage and motivation to do so can only be found in trusting the One who is in control. We, of all people on the planet, should be able to recognize the reality of the fall, the truth of pain and suffering, because we of all people know the master of the universe who is not only in control but also the epitome of love and wisdom and power. Some people are unable to come to the gospel because they are unwilling to face the first tragic realization of their own sin and wickedness. Those of us who have faced that and then experienced the solution to it through Christ should be able to face anything else going forward. As Paul says, if Christ is for us who can be against us? We must again return to teaching people submission and trust to a perfect and perfectly loving God, not making false promises of pleasant circumstances, but teaching the deep truths of real contentment and sublime joy in all circumstances.
In all this there is one more encouragement I would suggest for those of us who lead churches.
There is also in conspiracy theories, a community. A shared acceptance and belonging, almost a love, among those who fight the battle together against the forces they perceive to be allied against them. But that love is contingent upon agreement, upon a unanimity of thought which allows very little disagreement. Disagreement with a theorist brings rapid suspicion and judgement.
If this description could be used of your church, then it’s worth considering that Paul tells Titus that it is the Grace of God which teaches us to say no to ungodliness and yes to God. It is not law or guilt or fear or peer pressure, but Grace. In all efforts to disciple, this must be a truth we grapple with and not dismiss. If it is Grace which disciples, how do we make sure that grace is at the heart of our DNA as churches. What do we do which hinders that discipleship? What do we do which unlocks the power of Grace as well as the love?
Pastors and leaders, there is freedom in embracing the sole purpose of the church as discipleship.
Congregants and members, there is great empowerment in accepting the role of discipleship as one you participate in equally.
Church of God, Christ is the head of the church and He is leading us onward to greater truth, mission, love and trust.
Dave, that is so powerful and in all that I can understand, resonates and reverberates with the heart of God. I don’t know what to say except to repeat what you have already said. I will make good use of this.
Thank you so much John. It means a lot coming from you. I have been increasingly appreciating your endurance and constancy. Thanks for your faithful example and influence on so many.