A recent New Yorker article by editor Michael Luo, “The Wasting of the Evangelical Mind,” examines the problem of many evangelical Christians believing in political conspiracy theories. The article touches on the January 6 Capitol invasion, QAnon conspiracy theories, election fraud claims, and Covid-19 vaccine skepticism. Luo argues that this “unusual gullibility” among evangelicals is traced to the emotional, anti-intellectual roots of evangelicalism in the era of religious revivals known as the First and Second Great Awakenings, citing the works of Richard Hofstadter and evangelical historian Mark Noll. While correct in some parts of his analysis, Luo is wrong in others, particularly regarding conspiracy theories.
I agree with the points Noll made in The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind about anti-intellectualism and emotionalism among evangelicals—and the situation has not improved since its publication in 1994—but Luo’s thesis is flawed in its unexamined assumption that evangelicalism is unusually prone to acceptance of conspiracy theories. Starting with that assumption, all that is needed is an explanation of how this state of affairs came to be. But a careful observer of the modern world notices that many groups are willing to believe that they are threatened by conspiracies. We need to explain this widespread phenomenon before examining any special place occupied by evangelicals.
A Feeling of Powerlessness Leads to Conspiracy Theories
My thesis is largely psychological: When people experience a loss of control, when they see changes around them that they dislike but cannot seem to prevent, they gravitate toward the idea that some cabal is engineering these bad outcomes behind the scenes. Take any group that feels powerless in society. Blacks popularize theories such as the invention of the HIV/AIDS "epidemic" by the CIA in an attempt to kill off black people. The Muslim world abounds in conspiracy theories. After the 2005 bombing in the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Sharm El Sheikh, local workers feared the loss of their jobs in tourism. Soon, the rumor spread that the attack was a “false flag” operation by Israel to harm the Egyptian economy. In other Muslim countries, another conspiracy theory developed later, claiming a false flag operation by the Egyptian government itself (motive not explained). In fact, the bombing was part of a chain of attacks that has gone on for more than a decade in an openly avowed effort by Islamist radicals to damage the Egyptian government by reducing foreign tourism. Whenever the presidency changes hands in the United States, there is an uptick in conspiracy theorizing among the voters of the losing party, who suddenly feel relatively powerless. Poorer people in general also seem to swallow conspiracy theories.
I became aware of the connection between the feeling of powerlessness and conspiracy theory gullibility in studying American history. Every economic panic or stock market crash was accompanied by claims that “they” (some shadowy cabal) had engineered the crisis for private benefit. It seems obvious that large economic forces are beyond the control of the common man, yet greatly affect his life. This is the recipe for a feeling of powerlessness and a willingness to believe in conspiratorial explanations.
In the recent globalization of the economy, the feelings of powerlessness have worsened. Some Arab nations get upset at Western support of Israel in the 1973 war and retaliate by leading the OPEC oil embargo. Gasoline prices skyrocket. Your life is affected by forces beyond your control. In response, a conspiracy theory develops that automotive engineers had invented a carburetor that would make a heavy 1960’s “muscle car” get 50 miles per gallon, but oil companies had conspired to suppress this invention. The theory also existed in 100mpg and 200mpg variants. Considering that a carburetor merely controls the mixture of fuel and air being injected into an engine, and numerous precise computer-controlled fuel-injection systems have been tested for the effects of different mixtures, including experimentation by after-market “tuners” who are outside the control of automobile or oil companies, with no such breakthroughs discovered, the theory is preposterous. But I have heard the theory from intelligent and highly-educated people, which belies the claim that anti-intellectualism is at the root of belief in conspiracy theories.
One note of pessimism: The feelings of impotence in the face of economic globalization probably will worsen for the foreseeable future, and conspiracy theories about both politics and economics will grow rather than lessen.
The situation is not helped by the existence of actual conspiracies. If we define a conspiracy as any effort combining two or more people to achieve a nefarious outcome, then a large number of common crimes are conspiracies. If we limit ourselves to collections of powerful organizations such as corporations, then all special-interest political lobbying that harms interests other than the interests of the lobbyists would be classified as a conspiracy; such actions are commonplace. But they tend to be visible rather than hidden. It is no secret that certain corporations lobby for more immigration in order to reduce your wages and increase their profits, for example. But we usually reserve the phrase conspiracy theory for alleged large-scale efforts that are covered up and hidden from our view. Somehow, the purveyor of the theory has discovered the plan and yet it remains hidden from the rest of us. People who feel impotent are willing to believe that the creator of the conspiracy theory is doing them a service by unmasking the plot.
Additionally, a significant related psychological phenomenon is the human tendency to seek scapegoats. Rene Girard has written about this subject at length, and how God perceived our needs and provided the original "scapegoat" in the Mosaic law (Leviticus 16:8-10), upon whom the nation could project their guilt and relieve the burden that leads to scapegoating. Later, Jesus Christ became the ultimate scapegoat, which should remove all such burdens. But people who do not understand the gospel deeply continue to seek scapegoats. It is easier to think that some small cabal somewhere is to blame for our troubles than to think that human willfulness in general is to blame, let alone accept blame for our own failures.
How Does Evangelicalism Relate to Conspiracy Theories?
The culture war has been steadily lost for decades, and the feeling of powerlessness is a natural outcome for evangelicals, leading to conspiracy thinking. Christians need to accept more of the responsibility for what they have allowed to happen instead of looking for cabals to blame. The church has been weak and ineffectual and has not even taken a stand for truth in its desire to be more popular. Churches took for granted that the schools and the culture at large would assist in the moral formation of our children, and they became weak at countercultural formation. When the culture changed, the church was not prepared to be a countercultural force, and began to seek political victory instead. After failing to accomplish much in the political realm, the church has still not learned how to disciple its own members, including its own children. We should start there, not with conspiracy theories or scapegoating.
For the New Yorker editor, somehow evangelical Christianity is uniquely susceptible to belief in conspiracy theories. He is incorrect on that score, but our response should not be defensive. We should get our house in order. Yes, we should fight against anti-intellectualism, but the triumph of emotion over reason is a defining aspect of our culture and is not peculiar to evangelicalism. Beyond that battle, we must fight to become the kind of countercultural movement that can truly be the leaven in the bread, the light shining to the world. When we partner with God to proclaim and live his truth, we will leave behind feelings of powerlessness and have no attraction to conspiracy theories.
Big Tech censorship has been expanding beyond just Conservatives… Christians are next!
While many of us have been warning about the coming persecution of Christians, I don’t think any of us thought that it would be ramping up so quickly. While we are luckily not facing physical persecution yet, such as beatings or death, we are facing censorship, deplatforming and even jail time in some instances. These are just the birth pangs of what is coming next.
While we still have a voice here at The GateKeepers, we are doing everything that we can to bypass the algorithmic walls put up by Big Tech and the Social Media companies like Twitter, Facebook and YouTube. Our videos used to get thousands of views across all of our platforms, while now they are being throttled and hardly getting distributed at all. An added wrinkle is that, while our video content is seeing lower views, traffic to our website has never been higher. Over the past year we’ve seen a 700% increase in traffic, and it’s been amazing to experience this kind of growth. Because of this, we’ll be launching GKTV very soon, hosting all of our shows exclusively on our platform.
While The GateKeepers started out as nothing more than a blog for me to post my articles relating to concerns within Christianity, it has now expanded into a full-fledged Christian podcast network featuring fifteen shows, a publishing company that has published three books over the past year and we are now hosting conferences on a regular basis. We’ve seen the addition of contributors to The GateKeepers such as Denise McAllister, Pastor Cary Gordon, Pastor Ken Peters, Dr Mike Spaulding, Dr Bobby Lopez and many other amazing Christian leaders. Our lineup of shows has expanded, as well, featuring shows such as The Shining Light Podcast, Conversations with Jeff, The Big Brown Gadfly, Battlefront: SouthGate and The Verum Monitae Report with Dr Mike Spaulding, in addition the the several other shows we also carry on The GateKeepers.
Everything that we do is for the purpose of expanding Biblical Christianity through the preaching of the Gospel, the exposition of God's Word and confronting error where it pops its ugly head within the Church. We are mission-focused first, and then we use technology, books, resources and events to accomplish and further the Gospel and Biblical theology.
While we’ve seen some amazing growth and expansion, we are also working hard to make this be a long-term play, and with that comes with how to fund our work here. I’ve intentionally not turned The GateKeepers into a non-profit organization because I don’t want to become beholden to the government, and I also don’t want to be focused on sending out fundraising letters constantly begging for money like most non-profit ministries do.
Instead, we have our online book store, are hosting online conferences and have our Plugged In membership program. Right now we are funded exclusively through these three different avenues. We are especially excited about our Plugged In membership, as this brings so much added value to you as a thank you for supporting our work here at The GateKeepers.
Becoming a Plugged In member provides access to the weekly episode of The GateKeepers Podcast, the monthly episode of Connected, free access to all of our online conferences, the recordings from previous online conferences and 30% off in The GK Store. If you would like to support us by becoming a Plugged In member, click here.
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