Why battling conspiracy theories is not just for lefties

History doesn’t repeat, but it does rhyme. That’s almost a quote from Marx, but actually it’s Mark Twain.

And rhyming has broken out in the Christian sphere with the advent of QAnon, a complex set of conspiracy theories. Eternity has reported on how QAnon theories have gained ground in the church, even with strong Bible teachers, and we noted the gnostic character of conspiracy theories.

To understand how the rhyming works you’ll need a bit of right-wing history.

The John Birch Society was once a potent force in conservative Christian circles in the US. It was driven to the fringes of conservative thought by William F. Buckley, founder of the National Review magazine – which came to be a major force in right-of-centre politics and, these days, is not particularly enamoured with President Trump.

But the John Birch founder Robert Welsh and Buckley started as friends. Here’s what happened according to Buckley’s biographer Alvin S. Felzenberg:

“While both Buckley and Welch lamented the military and diplomatic setbacks that befell the United States in the early years of the Cold War, they disagreed as to the causes. Buckley attributed policy outcomes such as the stalemate in Korea, Soviet occupation of Eastern Europe, Soviet acquisition of nuclear weapons, the Communists’ victory in China’s civil war, and the success of Fidel Castro’s Communist revolution in Cuba to misguided policies and lack of resolve among Western leaders.

“In 1961, he [Robert Welch] estimated that 50 to 70 percent of the United States was ‘communist controlled’.” – biographer Alvin S. Felzenberg

“Welch considered them the result of Soviet penetration into the highest echelons of the U.S. government. In 1961, he estimated that 50 to 70 percent of the United States was “communist controlled.”

Increasingly, Welch advised Buckley that he neither liked nor appreciated Buckley occasionally disagreeing with him on certain matters.

“They had different takes on the impact Boris Pasternak’s novel Doctor Zhivago would have. Buckley thought it would set back the Communist cause. Welch thought it to be a piece of Soviet propaganda. Welch took it upon himself to advise Buckley that Henry Kissinger, a young Harvard academician whom Buckley had proposed be named to the board that would assess the effectiveness of Radio Free Europe, was a Communist.”

Welsh was carrying on the conspiracy theory conservatism that Senator Joseph McCarthy had turned into an art form during the 1950s, which ended when he took on the US Army, alleging it had been infiltrated. McCarthyism “has since become a byname for defamation of character or reputation by means of widely publicized indiscriminate allegations, especially on the basis of unsubstantiated charges.”

(Alger Hiss had been famously exposed as a communist agent working in the State Department in 1950 – an allegation that is still debated. But McCarthy “found” reds under every bed.)

Welsh named his society after a young missionary killed by communists in China.

“He set as its mission countering Communist influence throughout the United States,” Felzenberg writes. “In November 1958, Welch sent Buckley and several others a typed copy of ‘The Politician’, a manuscript he had written. He had numbered each copy and asked that recipients return it to him after they had read it.”

“The work’s most startling conclusion was that Soviet penetration of the United States extended deep into the White House and that one of the USSR’s principal agents was none other than the president of the United States. Dwight Eisenhower, he concluded, was a “dedicated, conscious agent of the Communist conspiracy,” writes Felzenberg.

“He also identified as Communists who took their orders from Moscow Eisenhower’s brother Milton, then president of Johns Hopkins University; his secretary of state, John Foster Dulles; Dulles’s brother, Allen, then director of Central Intelligence; and former secretary of state George Marshall, among others.”

Buckley and Welsh finally fell out in 1961, during the Kennedy presidency when it became clear that the conspiracy theorists were so powerful that they might take over the Republican presidential campaign of Goldwater. At the risk of losing the conservatives who funded National Review, Buckley attacked Welsh and the John Birch Society accusing them of publishing “such paranoid and unpatriotic drivel.”

In 1961 … at the risk of losing the conservatives who funded National Review, Buckley attacked Welsh and the John Birch Society accusing them of publishing “such paranoid and unpatriotic drivel.”

Writing about the Goldwater extremists, an ex-communist Richard Hofstadter captured a political truth in a famous essay entitled “The Paranoid Style in American Politics“.

“I believe there is a style of mind that is far from new and that is not necessarily right-wing. I call it the paranoid style simply because no other word adequately evokes the sense of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy that I have in mind,” Hofstadter wrote. “In using the expression “paranoid style” I am not speaking in a clinical sense, but borrowing a clinical term for other purposes. I have neither the competence nor the desire to classify any figures of the past or present as certifiable lunatics.”

“In fact, the idea of the paranoid style as a force in politics would have little contemporary relevance or historical value if it were applied only to men with profoundly disturbed minds. It is the use of paranoid modes of expression by more or less normal people that makes the phenomenon significant,” he wrote.

From the vantage point of 2020 one can only applaud Hofstadler’s analysis.

Was the 2016 election really about an email server? The desire to find the key to events in some mystery that supports a theory of dark and secret forces is alive again. The Coronavirus is the creation of the deep state – the shadowy figures that really run the world; the hysteria surrounding the pandemic is part of a plot to hurt Trump’s reelection chances; corrupt world leaders are secretly torturing children all over the world; the malefactors are embedded in the deep state, but Donald Trump is working tirelessly to thwart them. (From a survey of QAnon by Adrienne LaFrance in The Atlantic.)

This paranoid style of politics, whether right-wing or left-wing is sadly un-Christian.

This paranoid style of politics, whether right-wing or left-wing is sadly un-Christian. A desire to be special, to possess secret knowledge is the basis of an ancient heresy, Gnosticism. There’s a vacancy for a new William F. Buckley to rescue conservative politics from the new John Birchers. To rescue Christianity from being identified with fringe movements. Maybe a range of them, occupying different parts of the spectrum.

And yes there are conspiracy theories from the left, chief among them that society is Fascist and that violence is justified in overthrowing an oppressive system. And then there’s intersectional post-modernism that, in its extreme forms, represents a new authoritarianism. Not a conspiracy theory, just critical theory.

But the Christian response to conspiracy theories should be different to secular society, where scorn and “cancelling” is a common response to people who think differently

We don’t get to “Other” other Christians. We are not joined together as Christians because we think the same on vaccines/climate change/US politics/critical theory/racism. We are joined together as Christians because we are united in Christ. We have been joined together in his death and resurrection. We will share eternity together.

Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, describes Christianity as being full of “unwanted solidarities”.

Right winger or left winger, greenie or climate change skeptic, our fundamental reality is in Jesus.

Perhaps the best argument against getting deep into QAnon, making any political cause your main life event, even obsessing over anodyne things like gardening, is that we actually have something even more important going on. We are part of the great drama that will outlast any of the current theories or obsessions of secular society.