Many voices from across the evangelical spectrum have all noted the same problem, which is that too many evangelicals in the pews are prone to believe and echo conspiracy theories. See here, here, and here.
However, while these critics, to their credit, note the problem—there doesn’t seem to be many theories as to why evangelicals do this, other than to agree it’s a problem. They point out the harm it does, but, again, not why the problem exists. Few seem to wonder why there is this bent, or readiness to believe the preposterous, to begin with. What are its origins?
I think one of the problems these Protestant/evangelical critics miss, is perhaps their own theology and history, which I think plays a key role in the very problem noted. While they may not hold to some of the beliefs or understandings I will address shortly, they belong to a tradition where these have had a significant and foundational influence as to the people in evangelical pews.
As an aside, growing up in evangelicalism (Southern Baptist), and looking back now, I would suggest that many who call themselves, “evangelical,” are in reality, fundamentalists. That was my experience although purely anecdotal. Regardless, in truth, there is not much separation between the two when it comes to core theology. It’s mostly a difference of sensibility, education, and culture. The problem, in my view, is that the core theology still contains the same problems for either. Thus, my critique is to both.
Here are some of the reasons I believe too many evangelicals/fundamentalists (E/Fs) are prone to believing conspiracy theories:
- Their view of the Bible. If the Bible is held to be true in the same way a science or mathematics textbook is “true,” then all sorts of folly is sure to follow. Such a view opens the door to doubting acknowledged experts, the academy, proven authorities, and accepted bodies of knowledge, if they disagree with or don’t support this groups’ interpretation of the Bible, whatever the subject matter. This allows E/Fs to dismiss or discount information they think contradicts the Bible (or their interpretation thereof). This in turn creates an openness to a belief in conspiracy theories, often the alternative explanation for whatever the issue might be.
- Their eschatology or understanding of the End Times. Any E/F growing up in the 70s, 80s, and even 90s can tell stories about pastors and leaders taking the book of Revelation and applying it to current world events. How they applied though is key. The assumption was always that whatever was being reported, no matter how mundane or banal, they knew the “true” meaning of the event, because they understood the book of Revelation. Thus, for example, any new technology pertinent to commerce was really about getting people to accept the Mark of the Beast (666), and any new helicopter the Israelis developed was really what the book of Revelation (9:7) described as locusts. This type eschatology, it turns out, is a gateway to believing conspiracy theories and frankly, all sorts of nonsense.
- Their past pastors, theologians, and leaders. For decades, E/Fs have followed and listen to a parade of people spouting conspiracy theories. Indeed, many were quite influential and revered. E/Fs bought their books, went to their conferences, and supported their ministries. From Hal Lindsey to Tim Lahaye, to Pat Robertson and many others, the E/F landscape is strewn with famous figures spewing conspiracy theories. These theories ranged from the identity of the anti-Christ, to the fear of Freemasons, the Rothschilds, the Illuminati, and a one-world-government. Long before the internet, so-called “fake news,” and QAnon, E/Fs were already believing in, and echoing, conspiracy theories. They are a ready-made audience for our present moment and current conspiracy theories.
These three reasons are hardly exhaustive. There are certainly others. For instance, one could cite the problems noted in books like this one. Additionally, a significant factor is the reliance upon conspiracy minded “news” platforms such as Fox News, One America News (OANN), YouTube, Right-Wing Talk Radio, and a myriad of internet black holes of unmitigated ignorance and misinformation.
However, notice a common thread through my three reasons? The first two reasons point back to the first.
As long as E/Fs continue to understand the Bible the way they do, this gullibility and lack of discernment as to conspiracy theories will probably abide. An understanding of the Bible as literal truth, or as something we should view like a modern science textbook or encyclopedia, has a tendency to form people prone to conspiracy theories. Why? Because the Bible is not that type of literature. It’s another reason E/Fs tend to be receptive to, and easily manipulated by, television preachers and political leaders (see our current moment).
Here is what I believe these evangelical critics are missing as they rightfully and courageously address this problem in their own camp: A key factor is the underlying theology, specifically a view of the Bible, and how E/Fs understand inspiration, authority, and beliefs like “Scripture alone.” Until they are willing to address those issues, the problem is sure to continue, as it has now, for decades.