Evangelicals and the Big Lie

Evangelicals and the Big Lie January 20, 2021

I and others have been talking a lot about how conservative Evangelicalism has been training congregants to embrace conspiracy theories. Do you know what the #1 predictor is of someone’s likelihood to embrace a conspiracy theory? Whether they’ve previously embraced a conspiracy theory. I’ve talked about this before as I’ve tried to do what little I could to argue against internet misinformation promoting things like young-earth creationism and Jesus-mythicism. Holding completely implausible views about the past can seem like something so minor and insignificant when there are such pressing concerns in the world. But I’ve said before and am even more persuaded now, that the big danger of seemingly minor conspiracy theories is that they train you to embrace the ones that can lead more directly to loss of life.

What I haven’t addressed thus far, however, is another aspect of conservative Evangelical training that has prepared them to be Trump supporters and QAnon conspiracy theorists. I am referring to the long history of conservative Christians being willing to forget or ignore the fact that they have been lied to previously, and trust the same sources yet again.

James Dobson is and should remain the go-to example of this. As Hemant Mehta pointed out in a recent post on his blog, Dobson predicted all kinds of terrible things would happen as a result of Barack Obama being elected. The few things that were not hysterics that proved false are things that are good for many and, however much conservative Evangelicals may not like them, they are not harmful to them unless they consider the inability to harm others to be an unacceptable infringement of their rights. His predictions proved false, yet here he is making predictions about what will happen under Biden. The list is every bit as laughable, and yet he is still respected and believed by disturbingly large numbers of people. Other relative newcomers offer the same kinds of nonsense, and have their followers nonetheless in much the same way. Republican politician Lauren Witzke provides this example:

And what can one say about the ludicrous notion that liberals shoot up schools in order to generate support for gun control?

I wonder whether biblical inerrancy plays a foundational role in this overall culture that trains people to forget they have been lied to. I don’t mean in this context the way that doctrine was developed to foster the belief that slavery was moral, which has been jettisoned as immoral by individuals and groups who nonetheless use the Bible in the exact same way to justify patriarchy and homophobia. I mean the very way biblical inerrancy is maintained. One is shown that some purported errors in the Bible are not really errors, that some contradictions can be harmonized quite easily. One is trained to assume this to be true and/or try to make the case for it in all subsequent examples, no matter how clearly the evidence in those instances might point to genuine mistakes or contradictions. In the same way, finding plausible ways of considering a politician’s minor lies to not be lies trains one to be willing to assume the same is true of their bigger and most blatant lies. Biblical infallibility and Trump infallibility need not go hand in hand, but the fact that they are justified using similar methods is not irrelevant.

People have been talking about Donald Trump and the “big lie,” a phrase connected with Nazism in Germany in the 20th century. Hitler’s view of the “big lie” does not fit what we see in the United States at present. On the contrary, the default view behind QAnon conspiracy theorism is the belief that politicians and “the government” is this inhuman and perhaps unhuman other that is inherently untrustworthy. They are eager to microchip everyone (as though, if microchipping people through vaccines or other injections were a viable technology, some governments would not already be doing that, and as though they don’t have a much more feasible means to be tracked with them most of the time in the form of their phones). This too has been fostered in conservative Christian circles that have turned the Book of Revelation’s references to the ancient Roman world into implanted microchips and other things not actually found therein. And what exactly is a “satanic microchip” anyway, and how does it differ from the ordinary kind?

There is a lot of research on conspiracy theories. But conspiracy theorists won’t trust what the psychologists and scientists say or what the “mainstream media” reports about it. And yet their trust isn’t where they think it is. It isn’t in Jesus, since they have made him in their own image. Their trust isn’t in the Bible, since the Bible itself is not allowed to challenge their doctrine about the Bible. Ultimately they choose which liars to believe. They choose which people (scientists, scholars, journalists, etc.) to believe are lying no matter how much evidence supports what they say, and which people to believe even though they have lied in the past. Ultimately the ultimate authority of the conservative Evangelical is their god, which is their own selves. If they don’t like what a preacher says, they will seek out others. They end up in a community of the likeminded, and bullying and other forms of pressuring are so much the norm that when someone does start to engage in critical examination of their own motives and values, they may remain in the community nonetheless to avoid the cost of ties being cut if they were to reveal their changed thinking. It is ironic the extent to which individualism creates conformist communities in this manner.

Ultimately everyone saying “wake up, sheeple” will reject those they previously gave all their credence to if they stop saying what they want to hear. Fox News, Mike Pence, Mitch McConnell have all gone in the minds of some conservatives from being reliable to being part of the “deep state” or at least traitors. That’s what makes images like the one on the above left seem to make sense and be meaningful to those who inhabit this worldview. It is a culture of individual self-centeredness in which everyone either works together to reinforce the biggest lie of all–that “we” are right about everything that matters, all the time–or otherwise you get expelled. That being ostracized from the community is such a big deal to these self-righteous individualists is another irony, one that shows that what they claim about themselves, individually and communally, is not in fact an accurate description when it comes down to it. While they vary in size, and the extent of mixture with partial truths, in the end it is all lies, all the way down, from top to bottom.

And so as painfully poignant as the meme on the right is in one level, on another it is off target. The meme echoes the slogan one hears from conservative Christians at Christmas. And yet Christmas is a holiday created not by Jesus but by human beings wishing to honor him. Yet Jesus’ own example shows an openness to recognizing faith in Gentiles, whom he never castigated because they don’t recognize the God of Israel as the only God even though, if they lived among Jews, they too might benefit from having the Sabbath off. “Yahweh is the Reason for the Sabbath” is not something Jesus said, much less asking his followers to celebrate the day of his birth and demand that others also celebrate it and do so for the same reason. And so, even though it is less catchy, Jesus is merely the excuse for the treason. (I’m sure I’m not the only one who noticed the real reason shining through in the way the insurrectionist who led a prayer in the Capitol kept emphasizing God’s white light.) Using Jesus as a justification and an excuse for treason, for militancy, and for discrimination is blasphemous.

Unfortunately few if any of the liars that conservative Christians choose to pretend are truth-tellers will confront them with these painful truths, that they support charlatans and betray Christ. They will simply choose to believe that what I say here is a lie, and what affirms them in their assumptions and prejudices is truth. When one approaches life that way no one, not even the words of Jesus or the prophets of ancient Israel, is likely to get through. Yet as a follower of Jesus who believes in repentance and redemption, I must continue to hope nonetheless. It’s what Jesus would do. But it isn’t just a matter of faith. There is always the possibility that those who embrace conspiracy theories will do what they do to the information and authorities they choose to reject, namely examine them closely and not trust them without sufficient evidence.


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