UM Voices

by Karen Booth


Guest Writer

Conspiracy Theories COVID-19

May 14, 2020

Conspiracy Theories, COVID-19 and Christian Faith

Karen BoothThe 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.


27 Responses to Conspiracy Theories, COVID-19 and Christian Faith

  1. Derek Ramsey says:

    If “Sharing fake news makes Christians look foolish, dishonors our Lord and harms our witness”, then this article should be retracted, as it contains a misleading combination of truth and fiction.

    • Creed Pogue says:

      Care to specify?

      • Derek Ramsey says:

        To what end? Should I expect an ordained elder and theological school graduate to accurately evaluate scientific claims? No, but the resulting propaganda isn’t good either.

        This is not an appropriate context to debate science. I’ll list a couple misleading or false statements without commentary. Follow the link to “Debunking “Plandemic”” and then the links under section 9.

        “All evidence so far points to the fact the COVID-19 virus is naturally derived and not man-made. If you were going to design it in a lab the sequence changes make no sense as all previous evidence would tell you it would make the virus worse. No system exists in the lab to make some of the changes found.” — Nigel McMillan (Menzies Health Institute Queensland).

        “The factual analyses unambiguously confirm that this is a naturally occurring virus. When we reduce the distance between the natural world and the human world, when we leave so little space for wild animal and plant species, we encourage viruses that are natural to other species to be transferred as human beings and situations like this.” — Morgan Gaïa (Pasteur Institute)

        There are others, but if you can’t see the problems with these two, you won’t be able to understand why this article should be retracted.

        • Karen Booth says:

          At the time those two Plandemic debunking statements that you cited were made, that was the general consensus of the scientific community. If that ever changes, I will happily retract those links or correct that part of the blog post.

          I don’t want to argue science, either. But since my concluding arguments were largely theological in nature – actually the whole point of the post – I believe my faith background and training serve me well.

          Might I ask what your background is?

          • Derek Ramsey says:

            “I don’t want to argue science, either. ”

            Excellent. As noted—”If I countered, my opinion was dismissed as, at best, uninformed”—this is a rabbit hole best avoided.

            “At the time those two Plandemic debunking statements that you cited were made, that was the general consensus of the scientific community.”

            Consensus does not make truth. Consensus can change. You recognize this by the stated willingness to correct the article if necessary. By contrast, truth is constant: not determined by consensus.

            The McMillan and Gaïa quotes are explicit truth claims—shown by the use of “All” and “unambiguously”—that brook no argument. They dismiss contrary evidence. No rather, more critically, they reject that any contrary evidence even exists. They are claims of absolute certainty, the hallmark of propaganda.

            It is much easier to shed uncertainty on a complex, absolute truth claim than it is to prove it. One need only provide a single contrary piece of evidence (and it doesn’t take huge intellect or expertise).

            Contrary evidence does exist and its merits have been widely discussed for months, including in mainstream media sources. But, you don’t even need to examine the evidence. A careful reading of the McMillan quote shows that it is self-contradictory.

            “Might I ask what your background is?”

            By profession, software engineer. By education, science and mathematics/logic (both hard and applied). By interest, theology.

        • Philip says:

          How convenient Mr. Ramsey! You call into question to claims which you consider to be ridiculous, but provide no evidence to support your assertion. Instead you insinuate that any of us who disagree with you must be of inferior intelligence to you. Very amusing. It also draws attention to another appeal of the conspiracy theory: pride. Conspiracy theorists like the feeling of having superior knowledge of an event, which is somewhat understandable. They enjoy screaming “open your eyes!” and referring to majority of humanity by insults like “sheeple”. Like the child in the schoolyard who prances around chanting, “I know something you don’t know!” we humans relish the feeling of being on the inside and knowing the dark terrible truth others are too dumb or afraid to see. That is the temptation of the conspiracy theory.

  2. Lynn Malone says:

    While I have great respect for Rev. Booth, and especially her well-written book, I try to go a little easier on the CT’s simply because our “governing authorities” have done little to allay public doubts. Seriously, 500 people can gather at Home Depot, Lowe’s, Target and Wal-Mart, but the mom & pop coffee shop on the corner creates a hazard in spreading COVID-19? A person can buy men’s clothing at Wal-Mart, but the local haberdasher is a threat to the community? Wait? What? Churches are non-essential, but liquor stores are? Oh, and you mean Dr. Fauci and the Surgeon General said we didn’t need a mask until we did need a mask. The logical inconsistencies in the essential/non-essential business proclamations, the confusing health “guidelines” issued by government entities and the purely partisan political responses in red and blue states only fuel “what if” questions, and “what if” questions often lead some to develop their conspiracy theories. I am definitely a “what-if’er.” I don’t, however, consider myself a CT (have never shared an article that I believed to be overtly CT in nature, but my willingness to question the “experts” has gotten me labeled as one. But, oh well, I’m just a cynical old man, so what do I know?

    • Karen Booth says:

      Thanks for the thoughtful response, Lynn Malone.

      I do agree with you that “our ‘governing authorities’ have done little to allay public doubts.” But I suppose I’m willing to “cut them some slack” here (more, obviously, than I do those that spread false conspiracy theories) because of the this virus being so new.

      I think just about everyone is “figuring it out as we go along,” so I’m not too shaken when infection models are modified or politicians change their minds about things. (I do, however, dislike it when they lie, backpedal or make excuses.)

      I consider myself somewhat of a “what-ifer,” too. Which is why I read, listen to and watch a variety of news sources and not just partisan echo-chambers. It’s also why I have a penchant for science fiction!

      Thanks for the kind words about my book. I appreciate it.

  3. Stetzer’s article cited is horrible. He denied lab creation was even possibility. Then Christianity Today secretly edited the article without explaining the change. Check out Janet Mefferd’s destruction of Stetzer: https://twitter.com/JanetMefferd/status/1250990304867614720

    • Derek Ramsey says:

      “He denied lab creation was even possible.”

      As did McMillan, Gaïa, and others.

      Even the highly confident, peer-reviewed March 17 Nature Medicine article “The proximal origin of SARS-CoV-2” is not definitive:

      “Although the evidence shows that SARS-CoV-2 is not a purposefully manipulated virus, it is currently impossible to prove or disprove the other theories of its origin described here. [..] we do not believe that any type of laboratory-based scenario is plausible”

      The links in this article undermine its bottom line.

      • Karen Booth says:

        From the intro to the article in Nature that Derek cited: “Our analyses clearly show that SARS-CoV-2 is not a laboratory construct or a purposefully manipulated virus.”

        I don’t know. Sounds quite definitive to me. Perhaps it would help if commenters actually linked to their citations so we could all fact check.

        https://www.nature.com/articles/s41591-020-0820-9

        • Derek Ramsey says:

          Yes, their view is quite definitive in the inductive sense, based on evidence and implied probability. Thus, they stated a clear belief that a laboratory-based explanation was implausible, not impossible. It allows debate to continue. That’s science.

          Completely denying it as a possibility in the deductive sense—as did Stetzer, McMillan, Gaïa, and others—is unwarranted: a bald-faced lie. It is ‘Fake News’. It is meant to end debate. That’s propaganda.

          To use a theological analogy, this is like atheists who claim that there is no evidence for God. Not weak evidence. Not insufficient evidence. No evidence. Yet, there is much evidence in support of God that many find compelling, but they’ve rejected all of it. If we accept the validity of this level of intellectual rigor, then God is no more than a conspiracy theory.

          • Karen Booth says:

            It appears I’m going to have to ignore my previous statement that I’m not going to argue science with you, Derek Ramsey. And for anyone else wondering what my qualifications are for doing so … an undergrad major in biology, a major in communications with 50+ years of writing and public speaking and the ability to read and understand most well-worded scientific papers.

            In other words, enough to know that the paper you cited does not at all support your claims. The authors (including Ian Lipkin, one of the scientists that discredited Judy Mikovits’ chronic fatigue research) conclude in several places that unique genomic features of the novel coronavirus indicate it “is not a laboratory construct,” “is not the product of purposeful manipulation,” and that they “do not believe that any type of laboratory-based scenario is plausible.”

            The only origin “possibilities” they allow for are natural selection in animals before jumping to humans (they list several potentials), or natural selection in humans after the jump has been made. The short snippet you quoted in response to Alan Atchison above refers to these two options.

            So, your cited article actually confirms the two from my blog post with which you took issue. It strengthens their and my arguments, rather than weakening them.

            On a personal note, I wonder why you decided to go on the attack in your first comment and thereafter chose to be really snide in your responses to me, especially in questioning my qualifications.

            If you’d hoped to bait me, I suppose you’ve succeeded. But unless you want to respectfully discuss the theological points I made, I am now finished with the science arguments.

          • Derek Ramsey says:

            “So, your cited article actually confirms the two from my blog post with which you took issue. It strengthens their and my arguments, rather than weakening them.”

            I must confess that your comment perplexes me. The article I cited argues for a natural causes explanation much better and more honestly than the ones cited in this article. Did you think I was arguing for a laboratory-based explanation? I have not done so, as that would require a science argument. Rather, I am against overconfidence, propaganda, and lies. If my immediately previous comment does not make that completely clear, then I’m at a loss for how else to say it.

            “If you’d hoped to bait me”

            I did not. My goal was to point out that the links in the article support propaganda and lies, which is a deeply important theological point.

            “On a personal note, I wonder why you decided to go on the attack in your first comment”

            But I’m not attacking. The cited links include propaganda. Pointing that out is a criticism, yes, but it is not a personal attack. It was especially important to do because the ‘bottom line’ cuts both ways.

            “thereafter chose to be really snide in your responses to me”

            This was not my intention. It is difficult to communicate through an impersonal, text-only format. I hope you believe me, but I understand if you don’t. Perhaps you could delete my comments if you don’t find them constructive?

    • Karen Booth says:

      Alan Atchison, yes, it is true that Ed Stetzer changed his recent article in Christianity Today about conspiracy theories. But neither Janet Mefferd (who I have personally met and respect), nor you, nor I know the reason that he did so. Perhaps he realized his statement was too harsh or not the way he wanted to word it. Both the original and revision say essentially the same thing.

      FYI, Stetzer (whom I have also met and respect) was writing about the danger of false conspiracy theories years before Covid-19 hit the scene. Here’s a link to one of his articles from 2017: https://www.christianitytoday.com/edstetzer/2017/may/christians-repent-conspiracy-theory-fake-news.html

  4. David says:

    If you accept evolution, then you know that from time to time new diseases will arise and this is the natural order of things. Those who reject science have to come up with other means of explaining things.

  5. Dr. Lee Cary says:

    This article is akin to the rants of Greta Tintin Eleonora Ernman Thunberg, the Swedish environmental child activist currently hyped by those invested in “Global Warming,” oh wait, now it’s “Climate Change.” (I live in Texas where the saying is, “Wait two hours, and the weather will change.”)

    It is overtly hubristic for someone to pontificate on matters concerning which one has no valid claim to expertise. Which is what the author of this piece does, in spades.

    The author writes: “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.” Fact is, Mikovits adamantly denies a bias against vaccines. And, she holds both the professional and academic credentials to qualify as an informed pundit on the subject – be her right or wrong. Those are credentials which the author clearly does not possess.

    As for “conspiracy theorist” – that the cheapest ad hominin slam on the planet. If someone holds a theory counter to the critic, then it must derive from one who tends toward a conspiratorial explanation of events. History is replete with “conspiracy theorists” who, over time, turned out to be right.

    No offense, but this is a seriously vacuous post.

  6. Rebecca says:

    The mime for the last week on the web has been about the “right wing covid virus conspiracies” and Alex Jones and the “horrible, crazy” ex-government scientist mentioned above.. The author of this article sounds no different than the talking heads in the main stream media. How does this help conservative Christians, hmm?

    • Karen Booth says:

      “The author of this article sounds no different than the talking heads in the main stream media.” Thank you for the compliment, Rebecca.

      I hope to help thoughtful conservative Christians. Is there anything particular in my blog post that you’d like to discuss?

      • Rebecca says:

        I’m sorry, I didn’t see your reply until now. To quote an unknown blog poster “There comes a time when planned and programmed agendas for taking down America and all national sovereignty are past obvious.” This corona virus panic is just another battle in the war started by the Left to take over America, and you are either unaware of the plans of the Left, even though they have written thousands of books on the subject and have thousands of websites , or more likely, you are on the Left. What is it you hate about America? Is it just President Trump and his followers or is it free market capitalism, conservatism, and real Bible based Christianity?

  7. Karen Booth says:

    I am not sure about the commenting policy here on Juicy Ecumenism, or whether or not blog authors are even expected to respond. Nevertheless, I want to publicly apologize for my role in shutting down discussion. I did expect pushback, though admittedly not in the form it took. But that does not excuse my responding with anger and sarcasm myself. I am sorry for doing that.

    Having calmed down a bit – and also after being convicted through my pastor’s sermon this morning – I would like to try to respond to some unaddressed concerns or issues raised by both Derek Ramsey and Lee Cary.

    One of the most important, I think, is the idea that someone without a professional scientific background should not even presume to comment on anything having to do with the science or research surrounding the coronavirus and Covid-19. Dr. Cary even claimed that my doing so was somehow vacuous, in other words mindless and showing a lack of intelligence.

    I might say the same about his reporting on LGBT outsider influence in the life of the Church. (https://juicyecumenism.com/2019/01/22/lgbtq-agenda/) After all, I spent over eight years researching that topic and connecting the dots in my book that is referenced below. And I broke the news in the United Methodist Church at least seven years before Dr. Carey ever mentioned it. (https://goodnewsmag.org/2012/01/outsider-influence-over-homosexuality-at-general-conference/)
    Does that mean I know more about it than he does? Perhaps. Does that mean he has no right to an informed opinion or that I and others should disregard out-of-hand whatever he has to say? Of course not. The same holds true, I believe, for those who wish to address false scientific information about the coronavirus.

    Dr. Carey also accused me of calling people “conspiracy theorists,” which he believes is an ad hominem slur. However, I never did that. I intentionally focused on the IDEOLOGY and THEOLOGY of conspiracy theories and of the need to distinguish between those that are – or may turn out to be – true and those that are patently false. May we not discuss ideas without others leaping to the conclusion that name-calling has occurred? If not, how can we address any troubling issue?

    I’m not sure I completely understand nor can I clarify Derek Ramsey’s concerns. Yes, I did thought he was referring in his initial comments to Mikovits’ claims that the coronavirus was lab made and/or released. That WAS the focus of the two sources he first cited. And it was also the point being made in his third citation, as well. If he was asserting otherwise, I missed that in the back and forth of our comments.

    I think I understand his rationale about “propaganda” – that since scientific knowledge is usually in flux, it is a form of propaganda to make absolute claims. I would not agree with that entirely since the common understanding of the term is derogatory in nature. Regardless, I would still argue that the overwhelming consensus at this point is that the novel coronavirus is naturally occurring. (Here’s an article by Dr. Francis Collins that explains the findings in layman’s terms: https://directorsblog.nih.gov/2020/03/26/genomic-research-points-to-natural-origin-of-covid-19/)

    And I sincerely do wonder what buttons are being pushed and why no one is willing to address the theological issues that were raised. If there’s some sort of essential good in conspiracy theories, then by all means let’s hear it. But please don’t disparage my character or intelligence while doing so, and I’ll try to give you the same respect.

  8. Karen Booth says:

    I first want to publicly apologize for my role in shutting down discussion. I did expect pushback, though admittedly not in the form it took, but that does not excuse my responding with anger and sarcasm myself. I am sorry for doing that.

    Having calmed down a bit – and also after being convicted through my pastor’s sermon yesterday – I would like to try to respond to some unaddressed concerns or issues raised by both Derek Ramsey and Lee Cary.

    One of the most important, I think, is the idea that someone without a professional scientific background should not even presume to comment on anything having to do with the science or research surrounding the coronavirus and Covid-19. Dr. Cary even claimed that my doing so was somehow vacuous, in other words showing a lack of intelligence or mindless.

    I might say the same about his reporting on LGBT outsider influence in the life of the Church. (https://juicyecumenism.com/2019/01/22/lgbtq-agenda/) After all, I spent over eight years researching that topic and connecting the dots in my book that is referenced below. And I broke the news in the United Methodist Church at least seven years before Dr. Carey ever mentioned it. (https://goodnewsmag.org/2012/01/outsider-influence-over-homosexuality-at-general-conference/)

    Does that mean I know more than he does? Perhaps. Does that mean he has no right to an informed opinion about it or that I and others should disregard out-of-hand whatever he has to say? Of course not. The same hold true, I believe, for those who wish to address false scientific information about the coronavirus.

    Dr. Carey also accused me of calling people “conspiracy theorists,” which could be an ad hominem slur. However, I never did that. I intentionally focused on the IDEOLOGY and THEOLOGY behind conspiracy theories and the need to distinguish between those that are – or may turn out to be – true and those that are patently false. May we not discuss ideas without others leaping to the conclusion that name-calling has occurred? If not, how can we address any troubling issue?

    I’m not sure I completely understand nor can I clarify Derek Ramsey’s concerns. Yes, I did think he was referring in his initial comments to Mikovits’ claims that the coronavirus was lab made and/or released from there. That was the counterpoint of the two sources he first cited. And it was also the point being made in his third citation, as well. If he was asserting otherwise, I missed that in the back and forth of our comments.

    I think I understand what he was saying about “propaganda” – that since scientific knowledge is usually in flux, it is a form of propaganda to make absolute claims. I would not agree with that definition, at least not from the common linguistic understanding that is derogatory in nature. Regardless, I would still argue that the overwhelming consensus at this point is the novel coronavirus is naturally occurring. (Here’s an article by Dr. Francis Collins that explains the findings in layman’s terms: https://directorsblog.nih.gov/2020/03/26/genomic-research-points-to-natural-origin-of-covid-19/)

    And I sincerely do wonder what buttons are being pushed and why no one is willing to address the theological issues that were raised. If there’s some sort of good in conspiracy theories, then by all means let’s hear it. But please don’t disparage my character or intelligence and I’ll try to give you the same respect.

  9. Rhonda L Witt says:

    I appreciate the reminder that it is important for Christians to refrain from spreading wrong information. That is very true. On the other hand, when it comes to conspiracy theories, this covid/lockdown stuff checks every box. I would like to not be so drawn to conspiracy theory, but it seems to be getting harder and harder to deny.

  10. Stu Mountjoy says:

    Thank you for your article, a friend of mine is in a quarantine hotel, has had ONE swab for covid-19, and yes, she does honestly believe that Bill Gates is chipping everyone! I wondered if it was right to somehow go from Billy Graham, to Conspiracy Carol?

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