Conspiracy Theories & Faith Groups

on April 6, 2021

(Here’s podcast.)

Tooley: Hello this is Mark Tooley, president of the Institute on Religion & Democracy and also editor of Providence: A Journal of Christianity & American Foreign Policy, with the pleasure today of conversing with Daniel Cox, who has the Study Center on, and my mind is going blank this morning, so Daniel will have to remind me of the name of his study center, which is a part of the American Enterprise Institute. It released a fascinating survey on the depth of conspiracy theories and faith in them among Americans, and especially among religious communities. So, Daniel Cox, thank you for joining this conversation.

Cox: It’s great to be here, and it is the Survey Center on American Life. We’ve only been around six months, so we’re new, but we’ve been doing, I’ve been doing, work at AEI for the past two years.

Tooley: Great. And your survey, released in February, got quite a bit of attention in terms of what I call “conspiracism” and its popularity seemingly among millions of Americans. Could you tell us a little bit about your results, and especially about the respective results among evangelicals, Catholics, and others?

Cox: Yeah. So, interestingly enough, this was a follow up survey to one that we did shortly before the 2020 presidential election. And at that point, we focused on a broader range of conspiracy theories relating to public health, from the anti-vaccine movement to the origin of the coronavirus in China, and then to a bunch of different political conspiracies as well, particularly ones that have been around for some time, like the birther conspiracy, the idea that Obama was not born in the US and therefore not eligible to be president, which is not true. And this follow-up one we did after the election, one of the reasons we felt the need to go back to this topic is because of what happened after the election with Donald Trump not conceding and a number of people claiming that there was widespread voter fraud. The claims that were made about who was responsible for the attack on the Capitol, there was a number of folks who were claiming that it was really Antifa, these weren’t Trump supporters. Again, which wasn’t true. And these false claims, these conspiracies have gotten some significant traction, and one of the better-known ones is QAnon and there’s like a sprawling number of ideas under that label, but one of the central pieces of it is this idea that Donald Trump has been secretly fighting this global pedophile ring, sex traffickers, who included prominent members of the Hollywood elite and liberals as well. And so, we found a significant number of Americans believing these ideas. A majority of Republicans, for instance, believe that there was widespread voter fraud in the 2020 election. We found a significant number of, I think about half, saying that it was Antifa that was primarily responsible for the violence at the Capitol. And about one in three believe in this idea of QAnon, that Donald Trump was fighting sex traffickers. The other thing that you mentioned is we found some really important religious divides as well, particularly among white evangelical Protestants. That they were sort of uniquely susceptible to some of these ideas. So, we ran an analysis after the first poll came out, and looking at among Republicans whether there were any differences by religion, and Republicans who identify as white evangelical Protestant were significantly more likely to believe these ideas than Republicans who weren’t. Republicans who were Catholic or mainline Protestant or who had no religious affiliation at all. So, there’s a really important religious dividing line, and yeah, that has received a considerable amount of attention.

Tooley: Is there any way from your survey results to decide whether these divisions are governed by religious beliefs or simply political divides?

Cox: I mean, I think there’s a lot going on here, and I think we didn’t really get into the theology and any kind of theological differences, whether that is playing a role. So, I can’t speak too much of that, but what I can say is the social environment between white evangelicals and others is very different. It tends to be much more politically uniform. And what I mean by that is white evangelical Protestants who are Republican are far more likely to be surrounded by people who are also Republican in terms of their social network. Their families, their friends have political views that really reflect their own, and that social environment is really different and much more conducive to believing in conspiracy. And this is true about both the left and the right. We looked at Democrats who were surrounded by other Democrats, Republicans surrounded by mostly other Republicans, and in both instances, these groups when not really exposed to different ideas, different political points of view, are much more inclined to embrace these kinds of conspiracies.

Tooley: And if you can recall off the top of your head, what were the results for belief in conspiracies among white evangelicals, versus white Catholics, versus other Protestants, versus Jews or other groups?

Cox: It varied on the particular case, so for instance, a majority of white evangelicals believe in the voter fraud claim. I think it was around one in three believing the idea of QAnon, and this is pretty consistent, we’ve seen in articles too that I think QAnon belief is more common among white evangelicals than other religious groups. But one of the I think really interesting things that we found was that, and this is maybe my own kind of preconception, but I think it’s a popularized one that people who believe in conspiracies are kind of socially isolated, they’re detached from community. And that’s not what we found. We found that people who are regularly engaged in community groups, who regularly attend religious services are actually slightly more likely to believe conspiracies than those that are not. So, this idea that at least I had in my head about what a conspiracy theorist looks like, you know, someone sort of tapping away in their basement at all at all hours and not really engaged in broader community life, that’s not what we’re finding, at least in this current crop of conspiracies. And this is true among religious groups as well. We looked at white evangelicals, and the folks that are attached to religious communities or they are formal members are slightly more likely to believe this stuff than others.

Tooley: Do you have any sense as to the main sources for conspiracy theories? Is it social media, is it a favorite website, is it word of mouth, email chains?

Cox: I mean, I think there’s a number of causes of this stuff, and I think that one of the first places we should look is the decline in trust in mainstream media. So for all of its faults, mainstream media has been a gatekeeper in the past, so like not publishing stuff that was demonstrably untrue. And when we’re getting our information from other sources, from reddit, from Facebook, from friends that we have and people we follow on Twitter or TikTok, that stuff is not vetted. And I think there’s a much greater comfort with this kind of peer-to-peer information and new sharing, and some of that’s good. You’re connecting with people and you’re engaging, but the problem is that there’s not the same kind of standards in place, and so people are getting erroneous information. They’re passing on conspiracies. And a lot of times they’re doing it without meaning to. This stuff seems like it could be plausible, and that’s really the kind of pernicious thing is this stuff seems like in some instances to be plausible. And it’s framed by this idea of like, “Oh, we’re just asking questions. Could this be true?” You know, could Hollywood elites be selling children into sexual slavery? Maybe. And I think if you’re far enough down the rabbit hole, things start getting really, really out there, and some of these ideas are really dangerous. In my own neighborhood in Washington, DC, we had a local pizza place that was basically attacked. We had someone come down here with an automatic weapon and went in there, because he thought that this pizza place was housing sex traffickers and children that needed to be rescued. And, of course, that’s not true, but I think we need to be really, really careful about these ideas. And they’re not just ideas. I mean, they can be translated into action if someone believes them fully.

Tooley: Now I’m forgetting the results on this point, but were white evangelicals more prone to conspiracy theories than were white Catholics?

Cox: Slightly more, yeah. And we reran some models looking at what predicts the belief in conspiracy theories, and it varies on the particular one, but some of the most important things were, at least the ones we looked at, were Republican identity, evangelical identity, and then again, this third thing which is really important, is the shape of your social network. So, having a lot of people whose attitudes reflect your own, that was a really important contributor in believing this stuff.

Tooley: And your survey would not cover this, but just based on your own personal historical knowledge, do you think faith in conspiracy theories right now is at a historic high in American history or is this part of an overall issue among Americans that must have been present with us in the 19th century or the early 20th century when the media would also have been extremely partisan and people would have lived in their own silos?

Cox: Yeah, this is a fundamental question and really important one, to what extent are we seeing an overall increase in conspiracy thinking in the US? And it’s hard to know. QAnon hasn’t been around, we haven’t been able to track belief in something like QAnon. The birther conspiracy goes back a ways, and we haven’t really seen that become more popular. I think it’s about the same people who believed it early in Obama’s presidency is who believes it now. And I think what’s really different now is the way that news information travels. It travels so much more quickly now than in the past. So, it’s not hard to get an idea out there and just have it go viral, despite the fact that it may not bear any resemblance to the truth. And so, I think the speed with which information travels, with which these ideas travel, is absolutely new. I think the decline in institutional trust, whether it’s the media, whether it’s the system of education, scientific-based knowledge, there’s all these institutions which are supposed to safeguard us against these unproven dangerous ideas, and I think that the decline of public support and trust in these institutions is a real problem. For me, one of the ways that we can combat this stuff is try to reinvigorate trust. Again, we know some of these institutions have significant problems, but how can we repair them, how can we reinstill support and trust in them among the public? I think that’s going to be key.

Tooley: Is it accurate to say that conspiracism exists across the ideological spectrum, and say if the election results had been different, would, for example, secular white people have been, who are perhaps the most Democratic demographic, would they have just as steadfastly believed in conspiracy theories about the election results they did not like?

Cox: I think there’s an element of motivated reasoning in all this. And in that previous poll, we asked whether people thought that Russian President Vladimir Putin had damaging information on Donald Trump, that he was somehow pulling his strings. And we found the majority of Democrats believed that idea, right. Again, not proven, not true. But a significant number still did. And we found that in that poll before we knew the results of the 2020 election, Democrats were more likely than Republicans to believe that there was voter fraud in the 2016 election, which they lost. Now, that’s I think where the similarities end, because I think, unlike the Democratic side, there was general acceptance of the election among Democratic politicians. You didn’t have Hillary Clinton going out the way Donald Trump did and basically saying this is corrupt, you cannot trust the results. And I think Donald Trump played a really significant role in all this. I think that if he had said you know what, the electoral process isn’t perfect, we’re doing a lot of vote by mail, but when we looked at all this, when we had people look at the results, we went through the legal processes, and there wasn’t any evidence of systemic fraud or malfeasance. That would have gone a long way. And I think that we wouldn’t have seen the same kind of belief in voter fraud that we did, and I think that those elites play a really significant role in the perpetuation of these ideas.

Tooley: So, it’s not your purpose to offer responses or solutions to conspiracy theory or conspiracism, but rather just inform us about their prevalence, but to your own mind, are there solutions to combating faith in expansive conspiracy theories, for example, could more be done within religious communities to rebut conspiracy theories?

Cox: This is a really important question, and a lot of the social science that looks at this is really good at describing the nature of the problem and not so good at providing solutions. The big thing that I’ve been stressing in my work is the importance of dialogue across the political divide. I wrote a piece last winter that suggested that Democrats and Republicans should actually be arguing more, not less. That in the spirit of give and take, back and forth, we learn the perspectives of people we disagree with. And even if we don’t agree, we can respect them. And I think when we don’t do that, it’s so much easier to demonize the other side. It’s so much easier to think that they’re an enemy, as opposed to just someone that we disagree with politically. That we have different ideas about the nature of policy solutions that are needed. And a lot of what’s driving this, too, is this idea of affective polarization, that it’s not just that Democrats and Republicans disagree with each other about policy, Democrats and Republicans don’t like each other. And they view each other as a threat a lot more. We found that in just the last four years, the number of Democrats or Republicans who viewed the other side as an existential threat increased really, really significantly. More than a double-digit increase over that period. And that’s really problematic, because again, when we aren’t talking to each other, when we stereotype each other, just talking, just having a conversation becomes more difficult because, in doing so, you can be accused of abetting the other side, right. Why would you be talking to this person whose party is going to ruin my way of life, going to ruin the country. And so, I think we’ve just got to get back to that, and I think in our personal lives, being able to talk with people, belonging to institutions where we have the opportunity to engage across party lines. And I think religion used to be one of those. And I think increasingly, along with other institutions, they’re becoming more politically polarized. And so, a lot of the churches that people go to now, whether it’s on the left or right, they tend to be politically similar. I think that congregants tend to have beliefs that aren’t being challenged. And so, I think to the extent that we can find places where politics is not the purpose there, but through the practice of faith, through our commitment to our local communities, maybe that’s the PTA, maybe it’s a bowling league, we get exposed to ideas that challenge us. And I think there’s some amount of discomfort there, but I think that’s great. I mean, I think we should try to be more uncomfortable. And I think when we are very comfortable with our political views, we never feel challenged. That’s when things can be problematic, quite frankly.

Tooley: Daniel Cox of the Survey Center on American Life at the American Enterprise Institute, thank you very much for a very informative conversation.

Cox: Thank you very much.

  1. Comment by Mark Cartner on April 6, 2021 at 8:07 pm

    You guys are losing me. Russiagate Dems in 2016 = MAGA in 2020? Good grief. Nice try, lumping legit election irregularities/fraud questions with nutty Q stuff. So sick of having my intelligence insulted. Don’t be so lazy. The establishment narrative is rarely if ever the truth anymore. Having a different take from the mainstream media on events does not equal a belief in crazy conspiracies. And remember, the establishment media BELIEVED the Russiagate election ridiculousness.

  2. Comment by Diane on April 7, 2021 at 12:02 am

    Thanks for this dialogue. I get news feeds from Newsmax, Fox, MSNBC, CNN, the Washington Post and Washington Times. There is bias everywhere, but every single time I turned on Fox News in the last twelve months, there was blatant lying.

    This conversation, however, reminds me of a very small, informal study (probably not terribly scientific at all, as I recall) on reading comprehension of very young children. It caught my eye several years ago – I found it interesting because my career was teaching reading to kindergarten and first grade students. At that age, young readers interpret literally much of what they read and what is read to them. That’s developmentally expected. One of the probing questions teachers ask in regard to comprehension is, “Do you think this story is make-believe or did it really happen (fiction or non-fiction)?” The children in the study were divided into two groups and were introduced to the same stories. One group of children was from families active in fundamentalist, evangelical churches. They had a strong biblical background of miracle stories. The other group had no religious training or biblical background knowledge.

    In determining whether a story was fiction or non-fiction, the faith-based group had difficulty. These children, well-versed in literal understanding of miracle stories, were more likely to identify a secular story about an elephant flying (just an example) as “true” instead of “make-believe”. The unchurched group did much better in determining which stories were make-believe and which stories reflected reality.

    Can’t help but wonder – and I could be very wrong on this – how it might be easier for evangelical folks to not be able to easily discern fact from fiction (conspiracy theories being fiction, or at least “plausible fiction” ).

    Just a thought.

  3. Comment by David on April 7, 2021 at 10:48 am

    Remember some years back when there was open speculation that Obama might be the Anti Christ?

  4. Comment by Gary Bebop on April 7, 2021 at 12:12 pm

    Why is the IRD running glosses like this as the proper nourishment of conservative Christian minds? This piece stinks of tendentiousness, the mold that regularly sprouts inside the mainline hothouse. And look at the limpets who attach themselves approvingly to what’s being served up!

  5. Comment by Phil on April 7, 2021 at 1:41 pm

    The susceptibility of many evangelicals to conspiracy theories and conspiratorial thinking probably has less to do with the particular beliefs of the evangelicals themselves, than their relationship to and exposure to outside influences and ways of thinking. As someone who formally identified as an evangelical Christian in high school, I remember a period in which I tried very hard to deliberately limit my exposure to ideas, media, or opinions that I felt ran contrary to my beliefs or particular brand of Christianity. I tended not to read or watch a lot of secular media, avoided making friends outside my religious circle, and generally shrank from religious or political debate that made me uncomfortable. I rejected evolution and other scientific ideas out of hand without even trying to understand what they were saying. I avoided artists or music that weren’t openly Christian. The result was a very closed-off worldview, but ironically one whose isolation made it more vulnerable to certain forms of irrational thinking. When a pastor on tv implied my government might be satanic or that there was some shadow organization like the Illuminati controlling things, it didn’t seem as far-fetched for some reason, especially if the idea was coming from someone I saw as inside my circle. Today I’m a progressive Christian and obviously believe in some very different things than I did before, but I still make a point to regularly expose myself to views and opinions contrary to my own. Otherwise I wouldn’t be commenting on a website like this. The greatest weapon against conspiracy theories I believe is nuanced thinking. Whether you identify as conservative or liberal, religious or secular, etc. I recommend making a point of trying to understand how people very different from yourself think and experience the world. Try to understand them on their own terms, rather than just accepting the image you’re given by those who think and belief as you do. You lose nothing from the experience, but can gain a lot.

  6. Comment by Theodore Miner on April 8, 2021 at 4:08 pm

    Much ado about some (possible) bad ideas that evangelicals have. Evangelicals are a powerless group as they have been removed from influential positions in governmental, educational, corporate and entertainment institutions. I am more concerned with the bad ideas of those who control these institutions and not evangelicals. The ruling elite have inflicted actual harm and not someone who follows Q.

  7. Comment by Star Tripper on April 9, 2021 at 11:18 am

    Conspiracy theory was a term manufactured by the CIA to denigrate anyone questioning the Warren Commission report on the JFK assassination. It has been used ever since to silence anyone and everyone. Sorry Mark but if you are trying to just calm everyone down and have them go back to sleep in the “land of the free and home of the brave” then you are doing a disservice to your readers.

  8. Comment by Rebecca on April 10, 2021 at 6:58 pm

    Behind every conspiracy theory is a little bit of truth. For instance, in Obama’s bio ( I’m paraphrasing ) he stated there was something not quite right about his parent’s marriage.
    And, no one has presented a legitimate BC of his to the public. As far as Q, there have been many instances of politicians being caught with child porn and in sexual situations with under age boys and girls. Plus, there’s all the human trafficking of children with nothing being done about it by the politicians. Then there are sites like this one: https://id2020.org/leadership regarding 2020 international IDs linked to vaccinations… As far as vaccines go and autism, another theory, the CDC says all sorts of childhood mental illnesses are on the rise and they don’t know why, and yet they aren’t investigating any possible links between autism and vaccinations.

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