Lockdown a time for conspiracy theories

The other day, yes, a few days before Lockdown 5 descended on Melbourne, I found myself playing tennis with a woman who regularly joins us for a game at our local club. I knew she was an art therapist with a new age spirituality, a teetotaler and very environmentally sensitive. But this day, I asked her a question that erupted explosively on the court. And, boy, did her response surprise me and the other two we were playing against!

I asked her whether she was planning to get vaccinated. Her face immediately darkened, and she looked at me, shocked. Absolutely not, was her reply. She told me that the last frontier of sovereignty was her body and her career was about to be lost when no jab, no job comes in. She got very emotional, saying she felt like she was now in Nazi Germany, and she was a Jew.

Would that this was just a few crazy New Age practitioners. But it has infected my tribe of evangelicals.

I should have gone back to serving, but I asked who was the modern Hitler, in her mind? It was variously Bill Gates, the World Health Organisation, Hollywood pedophiles and Government leaders – including German Chancellor Angela Merkel – who were all secret eugenicists using Covid and now the vax to control and depopulate the world. They were the powerful controlling elite aiming at world government. Those of us who trusted the fake news could not see it. But she and, curiously, Donald Trump could see it.

She is a lovely, intelligent woman, a fine tennis player, not a Christian, but her response left me processing how did she become to believe all this. And how deeply threatened she felt given just one innocent question caused her to become so visibly upset? I gently pushed back, saying that I believed Covid was real and that I had friends dying of Covid in India for lack of an oxygen tank. I also deeply believe they deserved access to the vax.

I didn’t tell her I lead Micah Australia, running a campaign called End Covid for All which is trying to get more vaccines into poor nations.

Later on, I kept wondering: how did she get here? I don’t exactly know. Almost certainly, it would be the websites she reads and trusts. I doubt she would welcome me pointing out that unlike the ‘fake news’ that she loathes, her sites are not fact-checked, and there is no Media Council where you can lodge a complaint. But worse than just being unaccountable, these sites have colonised the ‘conspiracy mindset’ and have millions of followers who have bought into them. Most conspiracists are deeply fearful that no leader is listening, and so their future is bleak. They are considering fleeing to the bush. They are not reachable by normal reason and discourse. They just know.

Would that this was just a few crazy New Age practitioners. But it has infected my tribe of evangelicals. Gina Ciliberto has written an article in the latest Sojourners magazine ‘When Conspiracy Theories come to Church‘, (Disclosure: I serve on the Board of Sojourners). She quotes Lifeway research that indicates that 49 per cent of pastors “frequently hear members of their congregation repeating conspiracy theories they have heard”.

The conservative American Enterprise Institute in January echoed this claim by saying 27 per cent of white evangelicals – the most of any religious group – believe as ‘completely’ or ‘mostly’ accurate the nonsense QAnon trafficked that Donald Trump was fighting a global ring of child traffickers linked to the political left. By comparison, only 15 per cent of all Americans believe the same theory.

My tennis friend would be loosely on the left as would, in Australia, many of the green alternative lifestyles in Byron Bay, the New South Wales coastal town where anti-vaxxers often locate themselves. In the US, though, these powerful conspiracists are seen as the sinister powerful right. They believe Democrats, Socialists and Liberals are out to close churches and subvert God’s chosen nation. Donald Trump was going to seize power, execute the Liberals and expose pedophile rings.

Ciliberto’s piece interviews pastors who have been forced out of their congregations for questioning these conspiracies.

Rev Josh Gelatt, lead Pastor at Cascades Baptist Church in Jackson, Michigan, was one. He recounts “lovingly” reminding his congregants that a conspiracy theory has no place in our minds and hearts as believers. But when he read a passage from Isaiah that mentioned justice, a handful of congregants stormed out during the Bible reading. Justice is a trigger worked signifying the Left, or Black Lives Matter (BLM). Gelatt was called a secret communist who wanted America to be run like communist Mongolia.

The dominant picture of Jesus in Revelation is the lamb that was slain and conquers by suffering love.

I understand the attraction to think that there must be a small, powerful cabal pulling the strings of politics, media and history and that they are so organised and so powerful that they can pull the wool over our eyes. A global pandemic inflames conspiracy thinking as its causes, by definition, remain shrouded in mystery. I understand that we evangelicals who have read the Book of Revelation seek to unlock the meaning of who is the Beast who all the world will worship. We are as susceptible as New Agers to a good mystery and a riveting conspiracy theory.

What troubles me is that the Jesus of the Gospels who loves nonviolence and predicts his own suffering becomes, in the evangelical minds, the blood-stained warrior with a sword in Revelation. Remember that despite those allusions, the dominant picture of Jesus in Revelation is the lamb that was slain and conquers by suffering love. The message is fear not, even in persecution, as God wins through suffering. He absorbs evil and violence. He is not the Trumpian warrior that evangelicals want to see defeating the Beast, which happens to turn out (in their minds) to be Black Lives Matter or climate change activists or the gun control advocates of the Left.

We are indeed in challenging times. Times made much worse by the proliferation of online media and commentary. And challenging times allow for all sorts of theories to fester and spread. The Church needs to cradle truth and love as its standard for belief and model for behaviour.

Tim Costello is a senior fellow of the Centre for Public Christianity.