The Rev. Karen Booth is a graduate of Drew Theological School and an ordained elder in the Peninsula-Delaware Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church. She is the author of “Forgetting How to Blush: United Methodism’s Compromise with the Sexual Revolution.”
UM Voices is a forum for different voices within the United Methodist Church on pressing issues of denominational concern. UM Voices contributors represent only themselves and not IRD/UMAction.
Lately, I’ve had a number of difficult online discussion about our global pandemic with some people who see the world very differently than I do. I noticed that when the give-and-take began to break down, some of them defaulted to their favorite conspiracy theory. If I countered, my opinion was dismissed as, at best, uninformed.
End. Of. Discussion.
Though I have a fundamentally skeptical nature, it almost failed me thirty-five years ago when I came close to converting to Mormonism. Quite vulnerable at the time, I wanted to believe the non-Christian principles the LDS missionaries taught me. Instead, I learned that nicely packaged falsehoods can be seductive and that comfortable “echo chambers” could prevent you from discovering the truth.
So, when I come up against anything that appears to be a conspiracy theory, I usually just ignore it. But I couldn’t do that when two YouTube videos started making the rounds among my Christian friends.
The first one is a splashy production called “Plandemic.” It features a discredited scientist named Judy Mikovits, whose main agenda seems to be generating fear of vaccines and undermining the trustworthy reputation of national health experts, especially Dr. Anthony Fauci. The conspiracy theory underpinnings are obvious: “they” are out to get her and folks like Bill Gates are out to get all the rest of us. More importantly, many of her health claims – wearing a mask will activate the disease or beach sand will miraculously boost immunity and prevent or cure it – are not only silly, they are potentially quite harmful.
Mikovits background and the video’s spurious claims have been revealed and debunked so many times (see here, here, here and here), that I’m not going to spend any more space on that effort. Regardless, the video has been viewed over eight million times and Mikovits’ accompanying book is now the number one seller on Amazon.
Even though the second video (a sermon entitled “Is This Coronavirus the End of the World?”) has only half a million views, I think it’s actually more of a concern. At least one of the statements I fact-checked is an outright lie (either that, or the preacher didn’t read the article he cited), others are misunderstandings/misapplications of geopolitical terms like “liberal world order,” and the majority (5 out of 7 pages in his sermon notes) are a mishmash of Bill Gates, Big Pharma and other “globalist” conspiracy theories. He even acknowledges that it’s a “Conspiracy Theory Prophecy” sermon himself.
As a result, it contains little scripture. His only pastoral application implies that Christian believers should reject Gates-sponsored “mark of the beast” vaccines, possibly including one for COVID-19. It’s the same message as Plandemic, just packaged with a Christian veneer. (For a theologically solid answer to the coronavirus prophecy question, check out this sermon by David Jeremiah.)
The popularity of these videos raises significant questions. Why are conspiracy theories appealing? Is believing in them compatible with biblical faith? How should believers respond to their prevalence in our culture, especially during this time of global pandemic?
Before attempting to answer, it is important to clarify a couple things. First, it’s helpful to distinguish between “true” and “false” conspiracy theories. People do plot together to take harmful or illicit action. Tobacco companies hid research linking cigarette smoking to cancer; celebrities and college recruiters did conspire together to get privileged kids admitted; a Russian operative did infiltrate the NRA. In like fashion, some current theories may ultimately prove to be true, if and when facts come to light. China’s responsibility in the global pandemic is a case in point. But false conspiracy theories are primarily based on lies, verifiable misinformation that has little to no basis in reality.
Second, belief in conspiracy theories is a non-partisan phenomenon. After the Iowa caucus debacle, some on the liberal end of the spectrum saw conspiracy theories everywhere.
Which leads back to the first question: what, then, is the appeal?
Cultural observers offer their explanations (see here, here and here.) Our brains are genetically wired that way; making sense of patterns in our world helps us to survive and thrive. Connecting the dots also gives us a comforting sense of power or control over our environment, though too may dots – information overload – can leave us feeling confused and fearful instead. (Conspiracy theories feed on that confusion and fear, playing on emotions rather than appealing to reason.) Wanting to belong, especially to an “insider” group, a basic mistrust of authority, and the desire to place blame can all make us susceptible to conspiracy theories as well.
How does any of this square with biblical Christian faith? In my opinion, not much at all.
Here is a fact: we live in uncertain times. The coronavirus that causes COVID-19 is called “novel” for a reason. It was unknown to science before December and health experts are learning something new about it almost every day. As the Forbes article I linked to above puts it, people tend to “seek alternative realities as some sort of … ‘soothing balm’” when that reality becomes too overwhelming.
Back in the day, “alternative realities” meant that the Kings of Judah preferred to listen to the “soothing balm” of lying court prophets instead of the word of the Living God. Today, it is believers who rely on false conspiracy theories. Either way, it is a form of idolatry that repudiates the sovereignty of God. As Matt Chandler wrote in a piece for Christianity Today: While we are finite and frail, God is infinite and all-powerful. While to us it may seem like the world is spinning out of control, God doesn’t panic. There’s no triage in heaven.
If only on a practical level, when we share health claims that we have failed to fact-check, they have the potential to harm or even kill people. Plus, doing so demoralizes the millions of health care providers who are on the front lines. On a spiritual level, we’re bearing false witness, which is a sin. Continuing to do so risks “hardening our hearts” to the point that we can no longer discern truth from lies.
Satisfying our “belonging” needs in this way can easily devolve into an “us vs. them” approach to life, which is antithetical to a Church that strives for unity. It can also feed into the prideful seduction of “insider knowledge.” This was a key draw for the cults of Gnosticism, and still is, I would argue, for Mormonism as well. And if we perpetuate a worldview that cynically mistrusts almost all authority, how can we hope to convince a watching world to trust and submit to the authority of Jesus and His Word?
Finally, it undercuts our Christian witness. How can we wonder out loud whether House Bill H.R. 6666 is the “mark of the beast” and then expect anyone to take us seriously when we talk about the resurrection? I agree with Christian brother, Ed Stetzer: believers need to repent from spreading false conspiracy theories and then confront and correct those who continue to do so.
Bottom line: Sharing fake news makes Christians look foolish, dishonors our Lord and harms our witness.