This is an interesting, but frustrating survey in that it doesn’t tell us much about what kind of conspiracy theories these folks find circulating in their churches. I’d guess they mean things like Q-Anon, Krakenolotary, covid-denialism and the like, but the survey didn’t get into that, so we can’t say.
They’re not just on friends’ and family members’ Facebook pages or weird corners of the internet.
About half of all Protestant pastors in the United States say they’re hearing conspiracy theories in their churches, according to a study released Tuesday (Jan. 26) by LifeWay Research.
The study found 49% of Protestant U.S. pastors report they frequently hear members of their congregations repeating conspiracy theories they’ve heard on various issues affecting the country.
It’s also frustrating that this recent survey can’t be measured against previous regular surveys asking the same question, because while the substance of these conspiracy theories has morphed over time, I doubt they’re any more or less prevalent in white Christian congregations than they were 30 years ago when xeroxed copies of ugly urban legends about Procter & Gamble were being passed around, mostly at churches.
More frustrating is the timid formulation of the question: “Do you frequently hear conspiracy theories from church members?” rather than “Do you frequently hear church members bearing false witness against their neighbors?”
Because that’s what circulating “conspiracy theories” means, in biblical terms. And that terminology is clarifying, helping us to avoid the unhelpful misdiagnosis that views this problem as a matter of “gullibility” or of poor media literacy in the age of social media.
Note that the commandment “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor” doesn’t concern itself with whether the bearing of false witness is maliciously deliberate or the result of mere ignorance. It doesn’t suggest that such ignorance would be relatively benign or exculpatory. It simply states that we are morally responsible for the truth of any witness we bear against others and does not allow for any separate sub-category of spreading “innocent” false accusations.
Which brings us to my final frustration with this survey and with the host of other articles and essays reporting on the popularity of conspiracy theories in white churches, namely the lack of any meaningful prescription for this disease. When the problem is framed as “most pastors frequently hear conspiracy theories from church members,” the response tends to be one of impotent bewilderment. Gosh, this seems bad, but whatever can we do? At best, there’ll be a rehashing of the not-very-helpful advice offered in all those How to Deal With Your Drunk Uncle at Thanksgiving Dinner stories, none of which provide any hope that your Drunk Uncle will ever change or be saved.
Recognizing that the problem is not “misinformation” or even “disinformation,” but “bearing false witness against our neighbors” suggests an actual path of action. If members of the congregation are “frequently” violating the commandment, then you preach the commandment. Over and over. You call for repentance.
I came across a good example of how this is done from an unexpected source — a short clip of a gamer on Twitch that circulated on Twitter. I don’t know that world and I don’t know anything else about “negaoryx” apart from this video, which went viral due to her appropriately nuclear response to a sexist troll. That’s the first 1:15 or so of the video:
99% of the time, I ignore trolls and ban them. 1% of the time, I do this: pic.twitter.com/Nvt307S1De
— negaoryx (@negaoryx) January 26, 2021
What I want to highlight here is the final 30 or 40 seconds, in which she shifts gears to a call for repentance and the promise of liberation it holds, even for sexist cat-calling trolls:
You don’t like hearing that because someone’s holding a mirror up to you and it makes you uncomfortable, because you know you, and you know the parts of you that are good. So in your heart you have to come up with a narrative that makes you feel better about the fact that somebody’s asking you to confront the parts about yourself that you hate the most. And me telling you, “You’re not joking” is me asking for you to hold yourself accountable to be a better person. Because you’re not right now. And I’m sorry if that’s hard for you to hear because you think you’re the hero of your own story, but you’re a footnote in everyone else’s.
As an extemporaneous rant produced while simultaneously mastering a video game, that’s really quite wonderful. And it’s an excellent example of what I mean by responding to the bearing of false witness with a call to repentance.
She addresses the guy’s conscience directly, calls him to account to it and to others, and then acknowledges the severe difficulty of repentance — of heeding that still-living conscience — when it’s easier to retreat into a fantasy construct of self-identity that muzzles and ignores and dismisses what his conscience is telling him. All of that is a kindness. After her initial devastating mockery, she extends this guy the respect and dignity he didn’t earn by reminding him that he knows better and can always choose to be better. It a harsh kindness because it involves the honest recognition that his current version of himself isn’t one that even he himself can be happy about, but that’s accompanied by the hope that actual happiness is still possible for him through repentance.
The flipside of that, of course, is the honest recognition that happiness will be impossible for him without that repentance.
So if you’re a pastor who “frequently hears” members of your congregation bearing false witness against their neighbors, here’s a good template for your next sermon. Or for your next three sermons. And don’t worry — you’ll still get six days to polish and practice that sermon and you won’t have to preach it while playing a video game at the same time.