Conspiracy Theories Are Part of the DNA of Evangelicalism

by John Ellis

I’ve stopped being surprised when new acquaintances[1] steel their gaze, purse their lips, and then begin their forthcoming monologue with, “Did you know ….?” Those monologues have “taught” me all kinds of things about Dr. Fauci, the Clintons, sex trafficking of children, the global elite and their place in the “swamp,” CRT, election rigging, etc.[2] While no longer surprised, I continue to be saddened by the amount of conspiracy theories emanating from those who profess to follow King Jesus. Looking back, and upon further reflection, though, I shouldn’t have been surprised to begin with.

As a kid in the 80s, I paid attention to the adults around me. I listened to what they said and watched how they responded to current events. The John Birch Society was lauded by many of my authority figures, some of whom were even members of the radical conspiracy theory-charged organization fighting to keep America a “Christian nation.” Farther along on the spectrum of weirdness, I once sat through an entire week of revival services at the church my dad pastored in which the main theme was how UFOs are demons and a vast government conspiracy is hiding the intensifying spiritual battle signifying that I wasn’t going to go to college because of the Rapture and, more importantly, “you’d” better join the fight because otherwise “you’ll” end up like one of the virgins left outside.[3] As the 80s closed, I was taught conspiracies about the AIDS epidemic. Throughout my childhood and teens, the mining of newspapers as well as the evening news for clues about how to better interpret Daniel’s 70 weeks and the over-the-top apocalyptic imagery used in the Revelation to John was a near constant in the sermons, Sunday school classes, and much of my Christian school education. In 1990, when Saddam Hussain invaded Kuwait, it was trumpeted by pretty much every adult I knew that the Rapture was imminent – as in, sometime in the coming weeks.[4] And like many of you, I read (and listened to the audiobook version of) This Present Darkness. I could add many other things to the above list, as, no doubt, could many of you.

So, as an adult, I shouldn’t have been surprised. But for years, I allowed myself to believe (needed to believe) that the evangelical world of my adulthood was more sophisticated and had more biblical fidelity than the fundamentalist world of my youth. What I failed to realize (or refused to recognize) is that conservative evangelicalism is fundamentalism, but with better Bible translations and worse music. In all the ways that really matter, they’re the same. It’s the mostly unessential externals in which they differ.[5] For me, though, 2016 and the rise of Donald Trump began to rip away the blindfold I had willfully tied around my eyes. I’ve written more about that elsewhere, and I’m not going to get into that here. The pertinent question is why am I bothering people with this? Why an article about evangelicals and conspiracy theories?

Well, mainly, if not solely, because one of my good friends, with whom I have a standing weekly phone call that would probably make a good podcast, wants next week’s phone call to be about evangelicals and conspiracy theories. I’m happy to oblige. That, of course, has caused my brain to turn, and writing helps me organize my thoughts. In fact, this morning, I didn’t get far into the book I was reading before I was triggered to think about this topic. As my thoughts grew, I decided to compose a Facebook status intended to be a secret-yet-public note to my phone call friend in order to help prime the pump for our upcoming phone call. Unfortunately, that Facebook status got out of hand. Thanks to the fact that I do not have an editor, I am free to turn unwieldy Facebook statuses into “bad” articles. What follows is what I was going to post on Facebook. While it’s too long for Facebook, it’s really too short (and too unargued) for an article. Hence, explaining everything that you’ve just read: I needed an introduction. It still needs a body and a conclusion, but that will probably be embedded in my upcoming phone call which, if I’m being honest, will relieve an existential need I feel to write a better, more fleshed out article. For now, and maybe only now, I offer you this:  

The latter half of the 20th century saw the rise (ramping up, really) of a weird yet highly influential syncretism between triumphalist postmillennialism (city on a hill manifest destiny type stuff) that flowed from American evangelicalism’s heritage inherited from the Puritans of the 17th and 18th centuries and the apocalyptic doomsdayism stemming from the invention of pretribulation rapture eschatology in the 19th century[6]. The result has been a type of Manicheanism that embraces conspiracy theories. The Arkansas Project and the films of Patrick Matrisciana (to cite two examples) took the baton from Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority and amped up the crazy (with the continued, even crazier, undercurrent of things like the John Birch Society). Add in the Hegelian “end of history” belief articulated by the Republican party after Soviet Union’s collapse and the need for a new “bogeyman,” if you will, emerged. Demonic forces began to be seen within the cultural wars. The enemy was no longer storming our gates from the outside; the enemy was now viewed as among us storming the gates from the inside. A sharp “us versus them” narrative previously directed against the Soviet Union and Soviet-styled global “communism” was redirected. Now in American evangelicalism, you’re either on God’s side or you’re on Satan’s side and your politics is evidence of whose side you’re aligned with and fighting for. The war is cut and dried, and nuanced ethics have been discarded – or really, any ethics that aren’t in subservience to a consequentialism that is shaped and controlled by ethics of inarticulacy are rejected. In the minds of the adherents, which is a large percentage of professed evangelicals in this country, this war is building to its penultimate crescendo. It’s imperative to be on the right side – God’s side; and it’s partially and importantly imperative because “we” don’t know what’s going to happen if “we” fail to do our bit – which is a very important bit within this narrative. Christology has been discarded for the sake of modernist epistemologies. Leaning on their own understanding (rationalism and all that it entails), and in combination with their largely unknown/unaware Manicheanism, salvation for conservative (white) evangelicalism is found in allegiance to a worldview. The god of Christian nationalism is an ideal that was birthed during the Enlightenment from a variety of seeds sown between the 300s AD and, I don’t know, let’s pick 1637. And it’s a contra-biblical ideal. An anthropocentric worldview. Unmoored from submission to King Jesus meaning, by extension, a disconnect from biblical ontologies and Kingdom ethics, conservative (white) evangelicalism is prone to being willfully deceived – “Why, yes, we can build a tower that reaches to God,” or “God didn’t really say that will happen if you eat the fruit. At least, He didn’t really mean it; it’s a test involving a secret code, of sorts. Do you know the secret code? Let me tell you about it.”

Believing that truth/Truth is something that is discovered by us (“do your own research” is one of the mantras of QAnon) is an ideological synonym for believing that truth/Truth is created by us. Conspiracy theories become the playground for those who believe that they are called to do actual battle with the forces of evil and who have also submitted themselves wholly to the epistemological expressive individualism of Enlightenment definitions of autonomous liberty/freedom. Conspiracy theories are part of the sacred texts for Christian nationalism. Conspiracy theories are (maybe) an inescapable reality for conservative evangelicalism. It’s part of their DNA.

Epilogue: I understand that some may find my tone insulting and unhelpful. Likewise, I understand that my failure to provide any support for my “accusation(s)” will be reason to ignore and/or dismiss what I’ve written. Fair enough. However, if you’re willing to look past my “bad” writing and insulting tone, I will be more than happy to engage you in conversation about this …. However, I prefer these type of conversations to happen in person. If you live in the Orlando area, that works out well for you. If you don’t live in the Orlando area, it still works out well for you because all of y’all eventually visit here anyway. Just let me know, I’ll be happy to sit down and talk about this (or really, anything else) with you.

Soli Deo Gloria

[1] Some of whom will probably read this article, and, yes, I’m talking about you.

[2] Sex trafficking is a serious issue and it’s beyond unfortunate that conspiracy theories like QAnon have hijacked it for their own illegitimate and dishonest purposes.

[3] I have a good memory, but for the longest time I doubted my memories of that week of revival at our church. I mean, come on! That’s too crazy, right? Nope. About two years ago, I checked with my eldest sister who was a high school upper classwoman at the time. She confirmed that my memory was correct.

[4] For my previous blog, I wrote an article about how the handwringing, worry, and even fear of the adults in the face of the Rapture happening in the next few weeks played into my atheism. I mean, if they really believed the Bible was true and God is who He says He is, they’d be super-excited about it all. I concluded that even they didn’t really believe what they said they believed.

[5] Oh, no worries, I am very aware of the indignant protestations from both my fundamentalist friends and my evangelical friends at this point. It is essential to their preferred expressive individualism that the differences are noted and marked, and the conclusion drawn that they are not, in fact, the same. Sorry, y’all, while I acknowledge that my accusation is unargued/unsupported in this article, I stand by it in full confidence. While this isn’t proof, y’all need to think about this – when the “world” uses the word fundamentalist, they mean conservative (white) evangelicals, too. Likewise, when they use the word evangelicalism, they mean Christian fundamentalists, too. Sit and stew in that for a bit.   

[6] Apocalyptic doomsdayism wasn’t invented in 19th century in the West, of course, but for the purpose of my thoughts, some specific social imaginaries at work in contemporary conservative (white) evangelicalism are essential to note.

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