Voices: Conspiracy theories reject critical thinking

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In the past week, two articles connecting Christians to the promulgation of conspiracy theories have been widely read and discussed.

First was an article from The Atlantic, “The Prophecies of Q” by Adrienne La France, which details the rising influence of QAnon, a right-wing conspiracy group that believes in a “deep state” plan that seeks to undermine President Trump and his supporters.

QAnon has shared and promoted widely discredited conspiracy theories from politically motivated murders, to pedophilia rings, to imminent military actions and arrests of prominent politicians. As The Atlantic article describes, these falsehoods are “propelled by paranoia and populism, but also … by religious faith. The language of evangelical Christianity has come to define the Q movement.”

Relatedly, in an editorial published by The Dallas Morning News, Ed Stetzer and Andrew MacDonald lament the gullibility of evangelicals concerning conspiracy theories: “Too often our evangelical community has been too easily fooled, and too much is inappropriately shared. At their root, conspiracy theories are illogical and embarrassing.”

Stetzer and MacDonald also seek to remind the church of the following: “Christian faithfulness begins with an honest self-assessment of how well we are living out our mission among our neighbors. Yet when we become known more for the conspiracies we are promoting than for the Gospel we proclaim, we have let some other identity define us.”

From birtherism, to pizzagate, to the “deep state” and COVID-19-related conspiracies, Christians increasingly have engaged in the belief in and spreading of conspiracy theories. Obviously, as already mentioned, these hurt the witness of the church. Why, then, are these conspiracy theories so enticing for Christians to consume?

The allure of conspiracy theories

The connection of political power with each of these conspiracies should not be ignored. Over the past 40 years, as the religious right has grown in political influence, political power has become an alluring temptation.

During the Richard Nixon administration, Chuck Colson often was responsible for hosting religious leaders during their engagements with the president and his administration.

In Faith in the Halls of Power, D. Michael Lindsay quoted Colson as saying: “When I served under President Nixon, one of my jobs was to work with special-interest groups, including religious leaders. We would invite them to the White House, wine and dine them, take them on cruises aboard the presidential yacht … Ironically, few were more easily impressed than religious leaders. The very people who should have been immune to the worldly pomp seemed most vulnerable.”

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Could the same thing be said today? Could the enticement of political influence lead some to embrace conspiracies that depict their enemies in the worst way?

Religion’s temptation

Certainly, in a democratic system, religious voices and influence are vital to provide reflection and feedback to legislation and governmental actions. Religious voices can and should play a role in our political process and legislative actions; however, too often, prominent religious voices have contributed to blatant partisanship and misinformation instead of the common good.

As Stephen L. Carter wrote in God’s Name in Vain: “The religious, like everybody else, are tempted by politics. Seduced by its efficiency. By its potential. By the good it can do … If history has taught us anything, it is that religions that fall too deeply in love with the art of politics lose their souls—very fast … When a religion decides to involve itself in the partisan side of politics, in supporting one candidate or party over another, it not only runs a high risk of error; it also, inevitably, winds up softening its message, compromising doctrine to make it more palatable to a public that might remain unpersuaded by the Word unadulterated … Too many religious groups, however, want to influence electoral politics—a danger not to politics or democracy but to faith.”

Michael Wear, in his book Reclaiming Hope, calls upon Christians to recognize the misapplied faith many have placed in the political sphere, writing: “Politics is causing great spiritual harm, and a big reason for that is people are going to politics to have their inner needs met. Politics does a poor job of meeting inner needs, but politicians will suggest they can do so if it will get them votes. The state of our politics is a reflection of the state of our souls.”

Conspiracy theories shortcut critical thinking

In some Christian circles, the support of a politician or tribe has led some to believe in false conspiracies that convince these circles that their political enemies really must be evil.

Populism and tribalism strangle critical thinking. This is tragic for the Christian faith.

In 1994, Mark Noll opened his book, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, with these words: “The scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of an evangelical mind.”

Noll’s book covered the anti-intellectualism prevalent in the white Evangelical church in America. Since its publication, many Christian institutions of higher learning renewed their mission to serve the body of Christ by calling us to strengthen our minds holistically, seeking to be excellent scholars and servant leaders. Perhaps we need to remind ourselves of this mission once again.

Through humility, pursuit of high-quality education can help produce Christians who will be equipped with the critical thinking skills necessary to recognize, ignore and debunk conspiracies, pushing back against the falsehoods that tarnish the witness of the church.

Rejecting populism, tribalism and anti-intellectualism through embracing the development of the Christian mind can assist in leading the Christian community to a place where conspiracies are rejected and the truth proclaimed.

Instead of being known for promulgating conspiracies, perhaps we once again can be seen as sharing the good news through the love of Christ.

Jack Goodyear is the dean of the Cook School of Leadership and professor of political science at Dallas Baptist University. The views expressed are those solely of the author.

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