When I was in college and seminary, my professors were always sounding the alarm over the postmodern condition, warning us that the loss of a central guiding “worldview” in America would produce culture wars in which every group and cultural identity would spar with each other, fighting for greater control of the public sphere. Then would come, I suppose, the collapse of “western” civilization and maybe even of democracy itself.
They were always harping on “the loss of truth,” by which they meant that without privileging one epistemological framework (Christian theism) above all others, civilization as we know it would crumble in much the same way that the ancient Roman Empire did in the 5th century C.E. The irony there is that the Christian church probably played a role in the demise of that empire, after which point they themselves became the dominating force in European life for a millennium.
People sometimes call this period the “Dark Ages” because scientific and social progress came to a near standstill in Europe for as long as the church ran things. Why search for new knowledge when everything you’re supposed to know has already been revealed from on high, amirite? But I’m getting ahead of myself.
In the good old days, the culture wars were fought over things like feminism, teaching evolution, homosexuality, birth control, and school prayer. The church declared itself Protector of the Unborn, and they were on a mission to rid the world of pornography, rap music, and rock-and-roll. Today, however, evangelical Christians fight the good fight by refusing to trust public health officials and by calling on civic leaders to let our more vulnerable citizens die off so that we can get haircuts and can get back to having regular church meetings again. What happened?
The culture wars went and jumped the shark.
Physicians, Heal Thyselves
Back when the Roman Empire fell, the enemies were invading tribes. In our day, our professors warned, it would be the liberals and secular humanists infiltrating the ranks of higher education with their insistence that there are no absolute truths, only competing social groups, each one pushing their own central narrative onto everyone else in an attempt to grab power from those who have more than they do. Dishonorable mention was always reserved as well for Hollywood and for any other producer of pop culture who capitalizes on our primal appetites, which are always competing for our greater attention.
But then something fascinating happened. The culture wars most definitely occurred, racking up both gains and losses on both sides. But then they took a deadly turn in the last few months during the appearance of a global pandemic. Even today, as public health experts implore people to shelter-at-home and wear masks when they must go out, white evangelicals where I live are mocking the whole process, demanding we return to life as normal because they are convinced this is all much ado about nothing.
It turns out that the church itself has emerged as the most vulnerable cultural group in the country when it comes to being misled about what is happening, distinguishing between what is real and what is made up. Today, it’s us soft-headed liberals who are out here reading up on current science and technology, and it is we who are on the front lines of digital media trying to prevent global disinformation campaigns from saturating our daily lives.
But what of the church? They’re the ones finding it the most difficult of all to figure out what is actually true and what is not. They fall for “fake news” and poorly constructed conspiracy theories faster than any other group in the developed world because they were so thoroughly taught to distrust any source of information that isn’t on a (very short) pre-approved list.
What my professors forecasted about the outside world came true…but in the evangelical church more than anywhere else. Truly fascinating.
So far, the least upsetting response to the pandemic I’ve seen from evangelical friends and family is that of escapism, reminding each other that we’re all going to die anyway and Jesus is coming back for a big factory reset so it’s okay if you can’t figure out who’s telling the truth and who’s not. Don’t pick sides at all. Just keep your eyes on the prize of the afterlife, a coming kingdom in which everyone will know the truth and lies won’t even exist.
I suppose this is better than the full-fledged “mask truther” response which argues that evil overlords are seeking to enslave us all, either by forcing us to wear masks as a symbol of our mindless obedience or else by subjecting us to vaccinations that will actually kill us all. Maybe the shots will contain microchips or something that will be the mark of the beast! So many ways to make this work, I can’t keep up anymore. Fear is truly a renewable source of energy.
We are suffering from a crisis of trust, and the church isn’t helping to make things any better. They are in fact the ones who seem the easiest to fool. So much for the promised spirit of discernment.
The Easiest to Fool
Take the presidency of Donald Trump for example. More than any other group, white evangelical Christians are responsible for enabling the rapidly escalating executive powers of a casino developer and entertainer with a penchant for Playboy playmates and a long history of legally questionable business endeavors. Next week the Supreme Court will be asked to decide whether or not his financial records should even be subject to the same laws as the rest of us now that he is president, and white evangelicals seem to have already made up their minds: He is God’s man for the hour, and no one should touch God’s anointed. I wish I were joking.
Why are evangelicals the least insightful of all groups about Trump’s moral and commercial failings? And why are they, like him, also among the most vulnerable of all to misinformation campaigns on social media? I would argue that faith in the transformative power of the Holy Spirit inhibits the church’s character judgment, rendering them easy prey for even the most incompetent of villains.
Consider the barrage of misinformation I’ve seen shared by religious conservatives in my social media feed since we first learned that COVID-19 was about to shut down the whole world. First, they were told by President Trump and by radio host Rush Limbaugh that this was nothing more than a seasonal flu that would soon go away on its own. Incidentally, even though 80,000 Americans have now died because of this virus, the president is still insisting it will just go away even without a vaccine, contrary to every single thing his own health experts have been saying for weeks.
Around that time, religious conservatives in my feed also began sharing articles parroting the president’s insistence that this whole thing was just a hoax invented by his political enemies in order to hurt his chances for re-election. Things will be just fine and everyone should go about their normal business. Then in a matter of a few weeks they were repeating his insistence that he always knew this would be a pandemic and that he actually knew it was a crisis long before anyone else did.Then came the conspiracy theories. Somehow this virus is at once both “nothing to worry about” and a “deadly weapon” created by China or some other perceived enemy in order to kill us all. Soon people began blaming new technologies like 5G towers for making the world sick, and then it was only a matter of time before theorists began pointing to the usual suspects in every popular conspiracy: the billionaires.
First, they claimed that Bill Gates created the virus itself to help reduce the global population (always a favorite), then they suggested he ordered for it to be created so that he could sell us all a vaccine that would either kill us, brainwash us, or else it would contain a tiny microchip in order to track our whereabouts at all time. Don’t people realize our phones do that already?
Soon the anti-vaxxers chimed in, and just this past week our social media spaces were overwhelmed by a video that went…well, viral…claiming that retroviruses already present in our DNA were being triggered by our flu vaccines. Those of us with religious conservatives in our lives spent the better part of three or four days sharing article after article by credentialed experts in infectious diseases debunking dozens of false claims in the video, but it feels like our efforts were ultimately wasted.
Our efforts seem lost on them because no matter how many fake news stories and YouTube videos we pick apart for them, there will always be another and another because they refuse to connect the dots in order to see the underlying problem here: Their usual sources of information are consistently unreliable.
How can this disease be both fake and also a weapon created by an enemy country? That doesn’t even make sense. Where is their sense of internal contradiction? It turns out humans aren’t naturally very good at detecting logical fallacies, and critical thinking is a skill that must be developed and honed over time and experience.
You would think that a subculture so committed to Truth would find it easier to detect lies and inconsistencies, but you’d be wrong. They have decided that nobody can really know anything for sure anyway, there are no such things as neutral facts, and all each group can do is offer their own self-serving perspectives. Does that sound familiar?
Related: “How Faith Breaks Your Thinker“
Churches say they encourage critical thinking and “following the evidence wherever it leads,” but they only mean that when it leads people back into their club. Any line of inquiry which undermines a core tenet of their faith becomes invalid by default, and suddenly continuing down that path indicates a moral failing on the part of the questioner.
A Learned Helplessness
I’ve been keeping my eyes peeled for the whistleblowers among evangelicals, for the ones calling them out for forgetting who they are…or at least who they claimed to be before they sold their collective souls to a glorified snake oil salesman. So far, this list is very short. And while they are diagnosing the problem better than others in their community, they seem to offer no other course of action except to “have faith.”
Ed Stetzer, who heads up Wheaton College’s Billy Graham Center, argues that gullibility shouldn’t be a virtue for Christians, and I appreciate his sentiments. But he has met the church before, right? Is he addressing the same subculture I am seeing, a community whose entire lives are to be guided by faith?
Sadly, Christians seem to be disproportionately fooled by conspiracy theories. I’ve also said before that when Christians spread lies, they need to repent of those lies. Sharing fake news makes us look foolish and harms our witness.
He’s absolutely right about that. Why would anyone believe what the church says about ancient stories if it can’t even distinguish between fact and fiction today? He makes an excellent point.
But he doesn’t have much more to say after that. He doesn’t call out the president or any particular news sources as unreliable, nor does he point his readers to any alternative source of news save for his church consulting site for helping churches retool for ministry through this period of social distancing. At one point he even appeals to the church’s implicit trust of President Trump, reminding them that if these conspiracy theories were true, he would have to be in on it, too.
But trusting the word of authority figures over actual evidence is precisely what put the church where it is on this gullibility spectrum, and Stetzer never puts his finger on that because he can’t. Fully engaging in this line of critique could undermine his people’s trust in other things, like the core claims of the Christian faith.
As an evangelical Christian, you are taught that it’s not up to you to decide what’s real and what is not because you are too broken, too sinful to make that call for yourself. In the end, true believers must resign themselves to following the lead of others. Pastors are the shepherds and the rest of them are the sheep. It’s a kind of learned helplessness that’s been drilled into them from the time they first learned to walk.
Christians have been taught from birth to believe that, as another writer on Patheos put it, “There’s a secret evil plot at the center of reality.” At its core, the Christian narrative features an evil supervillain, a final boss who must be defeated before we can move on to the next level. It’s no wonder they so quickly fall for conspiracies. They are trained to look for them everywhere while also being taught not to trust anyone outside of the church because any one of them could be an unwitting minion of an evil overlord.
The culture wars may have been started in an attempt to divide and conquer the American public square for the advancement of the kingdom of God, but they have fallen into the hands of charlatans and geopolitical adversaries bent on splintering us all into tiny manageable pieces, each quarantined into their own separate reality bubbles, blissfully unaware of how cut off from reality they have become. And the church is no exception.
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