The Profit of Paranoia

The Profit of Paranoia May 30, 2023

Today we welcome a guest post from Jared Stacy, who is a PhD candidate in Theological Ethics at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland. His research focuses on evangelicalism in the United States, right-wing politics, and neo-orthodox theology. Previously, he pastored in the United States both in New Orleans and near Washington D.C.. Currently, he lives in Scotland with his wife, Stevie, and their three kids.

When I tell people I’m researching conspiracy theory and white US evangelicalism, the reactions land all over the map. Sometimes, I hear their pet conspiracy theory—“did you hear the one about…?” I also catch flashes of pain. I assume they betray that hidden but heavy burden that many of us carry these days, of fractured relationships with family and friends over vaccines, elections, and insurrections. Other times, people get right to their point: “so…was there a second gunman on the grassy knoll in Dallas?”

What interests me is how evangelicalism—a house I grew up in, studied in, served in—has been such a hospitable host to conspiracy theory throughout its history. Why is it that at any point of evangelicalism’s 300 odd year history of “evangelicalism” in the United States can you find conspiracy theory? Whitefield’s Great Awakening preaching was used to diffuse the white paranoia of slave revolts. Fundamentalism’s doomsday dispensationalism interfaced with the antisemitic Protocols pamphlets. Cold War revival rhetoric promised salvation from communist infiltration. Conspiracy theories always find a door.

To be clear, conspiracy theories aren’t an evangelical problem, alone. They’re a part of the American psyche, not unrelated to our love of individualism, to our political anxieties over tyranny, and our social anxieties over race and gender. Evangelicalism has interfaced with this American life. No culture is hermetically sealed from the currents of history or from contact with another.

This is why it’s helpful when thinking about how evangelicalism and conspiracy theories hang together to reflect on how evangelicals have responded to political chaos or social anxiety in their history. In many cases, evangelicals draw from theological resources to construct an imagination, one that can interpret the chaotic and anxious elements which both confront the American life, but also emerge from it. So what I’d like to do is offer an example, one that’s helped me.

In 1966, Christianity Today readership clashed in a debate over the place of far-right politics in the new evangelicalism. This clash helped me understand the way evangelicalism and conspiracy theories hang together in American life. It also led me to some surprising theological claims.

The controversy started with an advertisement featured prominently on the back of the January 7 CT issue. The ad was for “The Conservative Book Club”. Featuring a bold text endorsement from the 1964 GOP nominee for president, Barry Goldwater, the club offered new members a free book that promised to expose the hidden dangers of liberal society. The ad also gave a sample list of titles which subscribers could order, if they chose. The titles included a book claiming to expose the liberal complicity with the JFK assassination. Another on how liberal social policies took away freedom.

The first round of letters to the editor expressed a mixture of shock and disappointment. As one reader claimed, the bookclub “is a front for the John Birch Society”. That Christianity Today, the flagship evangelical magazine, would be associated with politics, let alone the radical Birchers, was scandalous to some readers. The Society was the vanguard of far-right conservatism.

There’s little doubt historian Richard Hofstadter had Birchers in mind when, in 1964, he conceived of the “paranoid style” in American politics. He also observed that the greatest carrier of the paranoid style was the evangelical spirit. In his new history of the Society, Matthew Dallek argues Birchers in many ways prefigure today’s MAGA capture of conservatism. Dallek describes Birchers as: “defenders of radical individualism [who] mobilized an estimated sixty thousand to one hundred thousand white, upwardly mobile, change-fearing, mostly Christian, often suburban men and women, who united to defeat a set of common threats and reclaim a moral universe that they believed underpinned their own social, spiritual, and economic well-being” (Dallek, Birchers, 19). It’s hard to miss how easily this description can be transferred to the “war on woke” that plays well with white evangelicalism in 2023.

The Birch Society was founded by business magnate Robert Welch. He named the organization after Baptist missionary John Birch, who was killed in the immediate aftermath of World War II by forces aligned with Mao in China. Welch grew the Birch Society by a combination of business acumen and a powerful host of conspiracy theories.

The Society was at first secretive. It spread through Welch’s business contacts, including J. Howard Pew who contributed to Bircher materials and financed Christianity Today itself. Soon, individual conversations became invite-only seminars, where Welch shared his grand conspiratorial narrative that communism had infiltrated the deepest elements of the American State, even President Eisenhower himself. The claim Ike was a communist tarnished the reputation of the Birch Society, but Welch never recanted.

The Society soon outpaced executive Rolodexs and invite only seminars. It expanded through books, pamphlets, and eventually franchised community chapters. Now, Birchers began to stage public campaigns—billboards, letter writing, protests— notably calling for the resignation of Chief Justice Earl Warren. Warren had presided over the desegregating of schools in Brown v. Board of Education. Birchers interpreted this as an obvious turn towards communism. The campaign against Warren put Birchers on the map as what Dallek refers to as a “Fifth Column” in US Politics.

How did Birchers “fit” within the new evangelicalism that Christianity Today claimed to champion? In matters of financing, there was the direct link we’ve already mentioned: J. Howard Pew was an associate of Robert Welch and the financier of Christianity Today. But the question was still a live one for readers of Christianity Today.

In successive issues, it published letters from those who disagreed with the criticism and defended the Birch association/accusation. “All it did” one letter argued, “is prove Christianity Today and the book club agree on advertising, not politics.” And at any rate, the reader added, “it’s not a front from the JBS Society…as a member I would know.” This Bircher felt at home in the new evangelicalism. Perhaps they had no reason to feel unwelcome while seeing advertisements for political book clubs and the occasional op-ed from J. Edgar Hoover.

This little spat in the pages of Christianity Today illustrates one of the many ways conspiracy
theories, and the political movements which host them, have hung within evangelicalism. Today, studies continue to show a widespread embrace of conspiratorial ideas (some associated with Q-Anon) by evangelicals. In general, attempts to answer and “fix” the relationship between evangelicalism and conspiracy theories usually heads right to the heart of purported misshapen beliefs, like dispensationalism or dominionism, or the anxiety of persecution narratives and ascendant political power. In a sense, we perform a fact-checking operation.

Mark Noll has taught us all to beware of the evangelical mind, or lack thereof. But what about evangelical mammon and conspiracy theory? In 1966, a reader from Christianity Today, an avowed Birch member, argued that economic interests can be held separately from political endorsements and (implicitly) theological claims. The pragmatism of capitalism made it possible (in their mind) to advertise without any question of partisanship or theological endorsement. That claim is possible in entrepreneurial capitalism. In our neoliberal age, it doesn’t hold. The Conservative Book Club from 1966 survives into 2023. Today, it is a part of Salem Media Group. Salem is a media conglomerate which also owns nearly 100 radio stations around America. Its stations broadcast a mix of Christian music and Conservative talk radio. Salem hosts the Charlie Kirk Show, Dennis Prager, Eric Metaxas, and others. Many of the hosts on Salem have either denied or remained agnostic on the results of the 2020 election.

We shouldn’t be surprised at the potency of Q-Anon or Stop the Steal when a Top 40 CCM song can be set alongside claims election fraud. That economic arrangement operates as a theological claim as it trades on theological authority, and invites theological fidelity. Conspiracy theories hang in an evangelicalism you consume as a commodity. “Doing your own research” isn’t radical individualism playing out in the democratized internet, it’s more the algorithm driving neoliberal selves deeper into its own logic with the capture of profit. This helps us see how evangelicals have had a hand in constructing an enterprise that not only legitimates conspiratorial anxiety politically, but profits from it, economically.

The rationale of neoliberalism, according to theologian Kevin Hargaden, is both political and economic, and trains us to forget whatever cannot be commodified or commercialized, even our very selves. The idea conspiracy theories are merely a rational error is woefully short of the scale of the problem. The anxieties and chaos which fuel our politics is inseparable from the market. In an op-ed this week, David French tackled the issue of confusing masculinity with maturity. Senator Josh Hawley responded on Twitter by plugging his book on masculinity: “buy the book that enrages the Left!” The ideological capture of our public discourse by neoliberal logic short-circuits the work of cultivating common ground.

Paranoia has long been a feature of the politics associated with evangelicalism. But let’s not forget that paranoia is also profitable. The logic of capitalism, that invisible hand, provides plenty of plausible deniability to anyone who wants to maintain the claim that economic partnership and theological endorsement are two separate things. We often miss this when it comes to confronting the reality of conspiracy theories within evangelicalism. We often go to great lengths to address conspiracy theory and disinformation by appealing to rationality. But you can’t fact-check the bottom line. Is just is. And that “givenness” is what theology takes issue with. An evangelical history filled with conspiracy theories, and marked by all sorts of political and social anxieties, intiates a sort of apocalypse that reveals just how determinative Jesus’ theological claim can be for anyone with ears to hear: “You cannot serve God and mammon.”

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