What about fundamentalism draws so many people to belief in conspiracies? I’ve watched my family and the church members I grew up with fall headlong into beliefs that defy reason. And their version of “truth” seems to be further and further away from reality.
I don’t have a direct answer but I do have a thought on it. Black and white thinking tends to make a person venerable to believing conspiracies. Fundamentalism as a whole seems to promote very black / white thinking. People within fundamentalism have been told to trust their leaders at face value, and science and history can and will be discarded if they are deemed to go against the bible.
I mentioned in a past article that within my education I was taught the the bible is the most reliable source of ancient history. And even though biblical scholars have found that there are many times were the historical account in the old testament varies widely from what is mostly likely historically accurate. Multiple authors have tried to bring a more nuanced reading of scripture into fundamental circles, but they are often rejected or labeled as heretics.
For examples look at individuals like Rob Bell and Peter Enns. Both of which tried to point out inconsistencies in scripture (as read by fundamentalists), and yet still find a way to redeem the bible as whole. Learning and reading from the bible in a way that acknowledges the complexity but still finds truth and meaning within it.
Science is also treated in a similar way. With individuals like Ken Ham and Kent Hovind making wild claims about science, but intertwining them in a way that makes an individual commit to the idea that these ridiculous claims are essential to proving the bible as a whole is trustworthy.
All of these claims are absorbed into a fundamentalist believer’s faith. With an outright rejection of any differing in opinion from any of these points. There is very little room left for nuance and compromises in discussion. The Bible is clear, in their eyes, and these points are essential to their faith as a whole. What is known to be true can’t be challenged.
I’ve seen that often leaders within fundamentalism will take advantage of this type of thinking. A situation becomes very black / white when in reality it’s complex and multifaceted. For instance, when I spoke with my ex-pastor regarding illegal immigration he refused to see anything from an immigrant’s point of view. In his eyes they broke the law and deserve to be kicked out and treated poorly because of it. They were only here in the US with bad intention. And in order to protect his family and other American’s he felt they they deserved a heavy level of force and aggression against them.
I’ve also spoken with my mother about numerous abuse scandals with the evangelical community. Ravi Zacharias stands out in my mind. The idea parroted back to me was always that a man that did that much good could not have done any of those harmful things. The victim suddenly becomes the one doing harm. The victim is the one making the accusation against a holy and righteous man of god.
The idea that a person can do both good and evil is hard for an evangelical to comprehend. The deeper a person is within fundamentalism the harder it seems to be for someone to be able to recognize this. Often this type of mentality slowly makes it into ideas of politics and social issues. Within modern Evangelical American politics Joe Biden is the embodiment of evil, and Trump becomes this perfect savior. When evidence come forward suggesting otherwise it’s dismissed.
These chosen “good” leaders then present their version of truth. Which if a person is only thinking in good and evil that present “truth” is accepted at face value. A people or demographic is decreed to be be evil or against the powers that are coded as “good” and it’s accepted. What were these groups in my childhood? Communists, pro-lifer’s, LBGTQ+ people, illegal immigrants, and even the democratic party as a whole. No discussion or nuance was needed their ideas, history, or beliefs were enough to make them a force of evil to be opposed. Simple lines were drawn in the sand and Christians (evangelicals) were given a common enemy to fight.
The more I’ve listened to the conspiracy videos I’ve been sent by my family members the clearer is it that same wording and common enemy is presented, often accompanied by religious overtones. Phrases like, “The enemy is attacking your Christian values and ideas.” The goal of these conspiracies is to “overthrow your Christian government” and to “take away your religious freedoms.” And these conspiracy videos close with prayer to protect god’s people, and prayer to destroy the plans of those who want to do the work of Satan.
These conspiracies are presented as being evil and the work of Satan. And the people “exposing” these conspiracy theories are presented as being workers of god. One of the most recent videos I was shown was of someone that considered this her ministry for god. With the splash image using a logo with Romans 8:28 on it playing before the video. “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.”
The way scripture and theology are warped and added to these conspiracies makes it hard for many fundamentalists to resist. The evil in the world has been revealed to them and they need not confirm or second guess it. And I think it goes without saying that the more a person accepts a conspiracy as truth the harder it is for them to change their opinion. Truth has been revealed and now, in their minds, they have a great evil to face. The evil that manipulates the world and makes it such a wicked place.
The complexity of the world has been removed. It is now simplified as a faceless evil vs. the people of god. If a country acts in bad faith or causes the death of their citizens it is viewed as the world of Satan and the hidden worldwide figures that support him. The US is now painted as this good nation founded in the name of god that is being “corrupted” by these forces of Satan. Good vs. Evil the lines in the battlefield have been drawn. All you have to do is support the “good” people and right will win in the end. And god will give you the power to do so.
(I fully realize I’m writing this from a narrow point of view. And I realize that there are a large number of conspiracy theorists that are completely non-religious. My interaction with conspiracy theories and those that propagate them has been heavily shaped by my family and their descent into conspiracy. My other interactions with conspiracy have also been friends and church members from evangelical congregations. This of course gives them a heavy bent towards conspiracy theorists that share their evangelical values.)
However, It’s still hard for me to watch people I love get slowly pulled into conspiracies. Conspiracies that have warped their sense of right or wrong. To the point of my parents openly cheering Putin on as he slowly conquers Ukraine – because they have been told that Ukraine is an evil leftist state. Or their disregard for the health and wellbeing of others all throughout the pandemic. All because they were told the true evil of that time was “liberals taking away your bodily autonomy.” Evil has been reshaped and used as a weapon, and it has been effective. They still claim to hold to their Christian values, but it is truly conspiracies and lies that now shape their minds and morality.
Pastor’s and teachers within fundamentalism need to be careful with their words. Supporting and pointing their congregations towards problematic teachers and politicians like Marjorie Taylor Greene or Madison Cawthorn leads to poor results. Parishioners are taught to respect and trust their leadership, and will trust that they are being guided in the right direction. Leaders need to be respectful of that trust and not misuse it.
Individuals also have their own responsibility to stay aware of who they are listening to and trusting. Not simply reading something from a friend or teacher in the church and passing it on. Misinformation is easy to spread and is often designed to get a person to react and quickly share it. Double check that something is true before sending it on or believing it. I know fact check checking and “fake news” are a bit of a hot topic now. But there are still a lot of news sites and fact checking sites online that have a reputation for being trustworthy.