By T.R. Robertson
I saw a comedy skit in 1970 that blew my adolescent mind. Two news producers were tasked with faking the Apollo 11 moon landing. They argued over whether the fuzzy picture made the story more believable or less. They laughed about other big events they’d faked over the years.
I knew it was only comedy, but it triggered a strong enough hiccup in my adolescent worldview that it stayed with me all these years. What if?
A 2015 CBS/Vanity Fair poll found 14 percent of Americans believe the moon landings were staged.
That same poll found 70 percent of Americans believe Lee Harvey Oswald did not act alone; 24 percent believe 9/11 was orchestrated by someone other than Islamic terrorists; and 20 percent are still convinced Barack Obama was born in Africa.
I have no polling data on the percentage of Christians who subscribe to conspiracy theories. Anecdotal data, however, suggests it’s not an insignificant number. My social media feeds lead me to think many Christians believe at least some conspiracy theories and are not shy about saying so.
This troubles me. Shouldn’t Christians, who should have a better grasp on truth than anyone, be experts at discernment?
Take Every Thought Captive
Paul says Christians will “demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:5).
Paul is describing an intentional, critical approach to examining the notions and ideas we consume. This requires applying principles of logic to judge each case against verifiable facts and against God’s truth.
Sadly, most Christians aren’t much better at discerning truth than the general public.
The underlying factor behind all conspiracy theories is the worldview of the people who believe them. An individual’s political, philosophical, and religious convictions tend to push them toward belief or doubt before any evidence is available. While they think they’re searching for truth, they’re actually just looking for whatever explanation best confirms their bias. They’re searching for an acceptable answer to that “what if?” question.
Rob Brotherton, author of the book Suspicious Minds, says, “The prototypical conspiracy theory is an unanswered question; it assumes nothing is as it seems; it portrays the conspirators as preternaturally competent; and as unusually evil; it is founded on anomaly hunting; and it is ultimately irrefutable.”
That definition certainly describes the complicated narratives of fringe theorists, but it also fits the burgeoning category of mainstream conspiracy speculations.
Hillary Clinton dragged conspiracy theories into the mainstream when, as first lady, she spoke of a “vast right wing conspiracy” against the Clintons. During the 2016 election, some of her opponents claimed she was part of a conspiracy of the global elite, aiming to advance a worldwide agenda.
One person’s “ridiculous” conspiracy theory is another person’s lifeline to understanding their world.
In the aftermath of the 2016 presidential election, many believed reports of the Russian government’s conspiracy to interfere in the American electoral process. Polls showed just as many Americans believed this story was part of a conspiracy by the Democrats aimed at discrediting the results.
It’s likely very few adherents to those opposing conspiracy theories actually dug any deeper to verify or disprove the conflicting scenarios. Social media studies have shown most people read only the headline of a news story, at most a paragraph or two. They see a headline and immediately share it with their friends without reading any further.
It’s easy to think conspiracy theories are something “those people” hold onto. But according to Brotherton, we’re all susceptible to conspiracy theories. Research shows nearly everyone has some feelings of paranoia, alienation, and powerlessness—three of the key indicators of a person prone to embrace conspiracy theories.
We live in an era when terrorism, high-tech surveillance, and bipolar politics dominate the daily news. It’s not surprising that a wide range of the population is open to accepting complex and unconventional scenarios to explain a world that seems increasingly out of their control.
Does it really matter if Christians get caught up in the same conspiracy theories as the rest of society?
The Truth Is Out There
First, Christians should be pro-truth, not post-truth.
Much of postmodern society already believes Christians are anti science, illogical, and closed-minded. They see us as gullible, clinging to myths.
There are solid biblical reasons to be different from the world. We’re a peculiar people, called out from the world. Jesus promised we would be despised for our differences.
The problem arises when we’re despised not for how we’re like Jesus, but for our stubborn allegiance to peripheral ideas that we’ve attached as addenda to biblical teachings.
We say we believe Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life. But we chase after the way of partisanship, the “truthiness” of postmodernism, and the lifestyle of seeing conspirators behind every rock. We’ve become as obsessed as the rest of our culture with mindlessly consuming and sharing whatever “news” fits our bias.
Such behavior calls into question our judgment about everything we say we believe. It’s not just about whether the particular conspiracy we’re sharing is actually true. It’s about our inclination to believe without verification, and the picture that paints of the standard of truth required for believing the gospel.
Postmodernism rightly teaches that each person views the truth through a unique filter. The father of lies encourages the world to push that concept to the extreme, accepting that your truth is as good as my truth, even if they contradict one another.
Christians can say we don’t accept that lie, but in practice our shallow approach to the truth tells a different story altogether.
Do Not Fear What They Fear
Second, Christians should not let fear rule their minds.
A biblical worldview could be described as a two-sided conspiracy theory. Satan has been conspiring to corrupt the world and God’s people ever since Eve bought into the serpent’s fake news about God’s duplicity. In opposition, God has been conspiring with the church to make all things work out for good for those who are called according to his purpose.
Too many Christians have become unduly focused on their fear of Satan’s half of that scenario. The undeniable shadow of the devil lurking in the background of every news story has led them to suspect evil men and organizations are intentionally manipulating events.
Slate.com portrayed the type of people who believe in conspiracy theories in a way that describes the perspective of many Christians: “The more you see the world this way—full of malice and planning instead of circumstance and coincidence—the more likely you are to accept conspiracy theories of all kinds.”1
But this is not God’s way.
“Do not call conspiracy everything this people calls a conspiracy; do not fear what they fear, and do not dread it. The Lord Almighty is the one you are to regard as holy, he is the one you are to fear, he is the one you are to dread” (Isaiah 8:12, 13).
Instead of being caught up in the conspiracies and fears of Satan’s realm, intentionally fear the Lord Almighty. Don’t let the adversary lure you into playing a part in his plans for fear-mongering and disruption. Boldly step forward in faith, looking for how you can be used by God to achieve his purpose and mission.
Our True Mission
Finally, Christians should stay on mission.
Politically, I’m not fond of conspiracy theories because they distract from real concerns. Instead of attacking problems, we’ve become a nation preoccupied with attacking each other.
More importantly, I don’t like conspiracy theories because they distract Christians from our true mission.
When the “Evangelical conspiracy engine” paints a lurid picture of some new conspiracy against religious freedom, what should our response be?
We could pass along the latest rumor without verifying it and huddle together to complain about how our rights are being gradually stripped away.
Or we could nod our heads in the knowledge that Jesus predicted this and move on with the business of being salt and light in what has always been a hostile world.
When the news feed tells us that 9/11 was a CIA plot, school shootings are faked by the antigun lobby, and the Ebola epidemic was started by greedy drug companies, what should the response of Christians be?
We could panic. We could become more politically militant. We could get into arguments with our coworkers.
Or we could nod our heads as we remember Matthew 24, where Jesus predicted there would be false leaders and rumors of wars, and that lawlessness will increase. But he also said we should ignore those misdirections and endure to the end, focusing instead on proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations.
“And then the end will come” (Matthew 24:14).
Now that’s a conspiracy theory that can change the world, if only we keep our heads about us and stay on message.
T. R. Robertson is a supply chain analyst at the University of Missouri in Columbia.