Last week, the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) released a survey showing that, despite prevailing belief, the rise in conspiracy theories in the United States is not stemming from social isolation and community disconnection. On the contrary, Americans most connected to local community groups are more likely to believe in conspiracies. This is particularly true among the political right and those who attended the January 6 “Save America” rally at the U.S. Capitol.
Notably, the AEI survey put forward that religious Americans may actually be more susceptible to conspiracy theories than their secular counterparts. For example, four in ten religious Americans surveyed who are part of local congregations believe in the “deep state”, while 25 percent of those lacking formal membership in a church or religious congregation feel the same.
Perhaps most significant was the statistic that, among major religious groups in the U.S., white evangelical Protestants demonstrate a greater tendency to embrace conspiracy theories. For instance, 27 percent of white evangelical Protestants believe the QAnon claim that Donald Trump has been fighting a group of child sex traffickers is either completely or mostly accurate, compared to 18 percent of white Catholics, 15 percent of white mainline Protestants, and 12 percent of religiously unaffiliated Americans who feel the same way.
The Trinity Forum, a Christian non-profit organization, welcomed David French, political commentator and senior editor of The Dispatch, to address this alarming trend from a Christian perspective. His recent book Divided We Fall explores this rise in conspiracy thinking, tribalism, and alienation that has been so prevalent in American society as of late.
“Americans have always kind of liked conspiracy theories… what I think is different now is not only a rise in the rate of belief in conspiracy theories, but also the meaning and importance to peoples’ lives and to their political lives,” asserted French.
He attributed this to the “perfect storm” of Americans increasingly clustering among those of like mind, on top of the incredible stress and isolation of the COVID-19 pandemic.
French insisted that conspiracy theories are falsifiable, complex, and widespread, and that they are furthered among those with “an intense sense of fear and animosity, along with distrust.” Therefore, the prevailing negative polarization and partisanship in the United States is the perfect breeding ground for conspiracy theories to grow.
This contributes to “a giant market for manufactured anger and manufactured distrust,” according to French. “We take the negative characteristics of our political opponents and define them entirely by those negative characteristics.”
While Trinity Forum president and event moderator Cherie Harder mentioned that one would hope Christians of all people would be inoculated against such conspiracy theories, evidence like the aforementioned survey shows this is not the case.
French pointed out the need for Christians to differentiate between earned distrust and manufactured distrust. Lockdowns on churches during the pandemic are an example of earned distrust, but it’s vital not to confuse such truly unconstitutional measures with manufactured distrust.
Conspiracy theories are often so hard to address because they often get layered together with a sense of community and purpose, French insisted. He used the example of President Trump supporters flying to DC for the January 6 protest turned insurrection.
“The burning purpose and meaning of their lives was to be there on that day and change history,” French stated.
As for solutions to this growing cultural phenomenon, French postulated that “the answer to conspiracy theories in the long term is in many ways building better institutions and building better communities.”
Moreover, as many of these conspiracies are spread online, we, too, must combat them online. When engaging online, we must “as best we can try to model the values that we seek to advance in American public discourse,” French insisted.
He recounted a recent example from his own life, having joined a Clubhouse room titled “David French: Based or Cringe” just last week. “There was a Clubhouse meeting room going on that was about me… I immediately found out that everyone in there hated me,” he said.
“For the next three hours, I sat in there and had a discussion, a conversation, with some people who really hated me online, but it was worth doing because what did I have? I had an actual conversation.”
Christians especially can — and should — play a special role in this amelioration. French said that he personally looks to two verses from Micah for guidance in navigating these issues.
Micah 4:4 states that “Everyone will sit under their own vine and under their own fig tree,” and it was one of George Washington’s favorite verses when writing and thinking about the republic.
“To act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God,” commands Micah 6:8. “These three interlocking obligations should guide our engagement in the public square,” concluded French.
The Trinity Forum’s online conversation with David French titled Faith, Fear, and Conspiracy can be watched in its entirety here.