(RNS) —It is a difficult time to be a pastor. An election year, national racial unrest and a global pandemic each called into question the ministry’s usual methods. Overall, many church leaders are facing the traditional post-holiday harvest season with severe burnout.
But there is another challenge that the pastors I have spoken with say is increasing in their flocks. He takes the power of a new religion that divides the churches and hurts the Christian witness.
Mark Fugitt, senior pastor at Round Grove Baptist Church in Miller, Missouri, recently sat down to count conspiracy theories his church members are sharing on Facebook. The list was long. It included claims that 5G radio waves are used for mind control; George Floyd’s murder is a hoax; Bill Gates is tied to the devil; masks can kill you; the theory of germs is not real; and there might be something to Pizzagate after all.
“You don’t see it just once,” Fugitt said. “If there’s something published, you’ll see it five to ten times. It is sure that it is intensifying. “
The rise of QAnon
Conspiracy theories – the grand narratives that seek to prove that powerful actors secretly control events and institutions for malicious purposes – are not new to the United States. But since 2017, a sort of conspiracy theory, QAnon, has merged into online forums and created millions of believers. “To watch QAnon is to see not only a conspiracy theory, but the birth of a new religion,” Adrienne LaFrance wrote in Atlantic in June.
Named after “Q,” who posts anonymously on the 4chan online bulletin board, QAnon alleges that President Donald Trump and military officials are working to expose a “deep state” pedophile ring with ties to Hollywood, the media and the Democratic Party. Since its first mention about three years ago, the theory has attracted followers looking for a clear way to explain recent disorienting world events.
Once the fascination of far-right commentators and their followers, QAnon is no longer marginal. With the support of Trump and other elected officials, he has gained credibility both on the web and in the offline world. In Georgia, one congressional candidate called Q a “mythical hero” and at least five other congressional candidates from Illinois to Oregon have expressed support.
One researcher saw a 71% increase in QAnon content on Twitter and a 651% increase on Facebook since March.
QAnon shared by the faithful
Jon Thorngate is the pastor of LifeBridge, a non-denominational church of about 300 people in a suburb of Milwaukee. Over the past few months, he said, its members have shared “Plandemic,” a half-hour film that presents COVID-19 as a lucrative ploy by government officials and others, on Facebook. Members also circulated a now banned Breitbart video that promotes hydroxychloroquine as a cure for the virus.
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Thorngate, one of the few pastors to publicly report among those who called QAnon a real problem in their churches, said only five to ten members actually post the videos online. But in conversations with other members, he has realized that many more are open to conspiracy theories than those who publish.
Thorngate attributes the phenomenon in part to the “death of expertise” – a distrust of authority figures that leads some Americans to underestimate long-established measures of skill and wisdom. Among some church members, he said, the attitude is, “I’m going to use the church for the things I like, ignore it for the things I don’t like, and find my own.” truth.
“This part for us is concerning, that nothing seems overbearing at the moment.”
Lack of confidence in sources of truth
For years in the ’80s and’ 90s, American evangelicals, above almost any other group, warned of what would happen when people abandoned absolute truth – which they located in the Bible – by saying that the idea of relative truth would lead people to believe that anything that confirms their own inner intuitions.
But suspicion of big government, questioning of the scientific consensus – on evolution, for example – and rejection of Hollywood morality and liberal elites have taken hold among Millennial Christians, many of whom feel politically alienated and beaten up by the mainstream media. These are natural targets for QAnon.
There is no precise data on the number of Christians who marry QAnon. But Ed Stetzer, executive director of the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College, noted that distrust of traditional news sources “may fuel a penchant for conspiracy theories.”
A 2018 Billy Graham Center poll found that 46% of self-identified evangelicals and 52% of those whose beliefs called them evangelical “strongly agreed that the mainstream media was producing false information.” He also found that regular church attendance (at least once a month) correlated with the belief that the mainstream media was promulgating false news (77 percent versus 68 percent of those who attended less regularly).
Conspiracy theories affecting the church
Jared Stacy said the spread of conspiracy theories in his church particularly affects younger members. The college and young adult pastor of Spotswood Baptist Church in Fredericksburg, Va., Stacy, said some older members are sharing Facebook content that links the coronavirus to Jeffrey Epstein and secret pedophile networks. He says his job and that of other pastors is to teach that conspiracy theories are not where Christians should find a basis for reality.
“My fear… is that Jesus will not be co-opted by conspiracy theories in a way that causes the next generation to throw Jesus out with the bathwater,” Stacy said, “that we may not be able to separate. the story of the resumption of our country from the story of the kingdom of Jesus.
Others fear that theories will become grounds for further mistrust. “Young people are leaving church because they see their parents, mentors, pastors and Sunday school teachers spreading things that even at a young age they can see through,” Jeb Barr said. , Senior Pastor of the First Baptist Church of Elm Mott outside Waco. He said conspiracy theories are “extremely prevalent and getting worse” among his online church networks.
“Why would we listen to my friend Joe… who tells me about Jesus who also thinks that the Communists are taking over America and exploiting a pedophile ring in a pizzeria?” … Why would we be believed?
But Barr and the other pastors I’ve spoken with are reluctant to conduct church members on social media. Instead, they try to teach broader principles. “Christians are supposed to be agents of hope, peacemakers; the Bible says we are not to be quarrelsome, ”Barr said. “We must not be the ones to spread fear, division and anger. “
Barr also teaches critical thinking and encourages his members to read “boring news”. He will recommend credible sources of information.
Fighting conspiracy theories
But teaching media literacy isn’t enough, precisely because QAnon thrives on a narrative of media cover-up.
Fugitt said it is not effective to tell conspiracy propagators that what they are sharing online is wrong. “No one joins a sect. I don’t think anyone shares a conspiracy theory either because they believe it’s the truth. Rather, he tries to address the dehumanizing language of QAnon theories that equate some people with evil. History is full of examples of where such language can lead.
“I can’t hate another person, but damn it, if I can make them less than human, it’s the Crusades, it’s Jewish persecution throughout history, it’s the racial issues that are there. to the.”
In a difficult political time, pastors I spoke with feared that attacking QAnon, by addressing politics directly, would divide the church.
QAnon as religion
But QAnon is more than a political ideology. It is a spiritual worldview that co-opts many Christian sounding ideas to promote verifiable false claims about real human beings.
QAnon has characteristics akin to syncretism – the practice of mixing traditional Christian beliefs with other spiritual systems, such as Santeria. Q explicitly uses verses from the Bible to urge adherents to stand firm against evil elites.
Charismatic Indiana-based church hosts two-hour Sunday services showing how Bible prophecy confirms Q’s messages. Its leaders are calling on the congregation to stop watching mainstream media, even conservative media, in favor of channels YouTube from QAnon and the Qmap website.
And this has life and death effects: it hinders the work of organizations fighting against sex trafficking. The FBI linked him to violence and threats of violence. And its followers minimize the threat of COVID and thus put the lives of others at risk.
The early Christians struggled against syncretism in the form of Gnosticism, which mixed elements of Greek philosophy and Zoroastrianism with Christianity, emphasizing the good-evil spirit-flesh division as well as secret divine knowledge (Greek : gnosis is “knowledge”). The early church fathers such as Irenaeus and Tertullian fought against Gnostic ideas, rejecting them as heresy.
In an age when church leaders have to host a digital church and try to virtually meet the needs of members, the thought of adding “fight heresy” to their to-do list can seem overwhelming. But a fundamental call of church leaders is to speak the truth in love. It is not to like to allow impressionable people to be deceived. It is also not liking to allow them to spread lies and slander to others.
“Conspiracy theories thrive on a kind of cynicism that says, ‘We see a different reality that no one else sees,'” Stacy said. “Paul says take every thought captive – tackling conspiracy theories is part of that job.”
Katelyn Beaty is a former editor-in-chief of Christianity today and the author of The place of a woman. The opinions expressed are those of the author alone.