The Present American Crisis and the Sinful Nature of Conspiracy Theories

The Present American Crisis and the Sinful Nature of Conspiracy Theories
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But I tell you that for every careless word that people speak, they will give an account of it on the day of judgment.  – Matthew 12:36 (NASB)

“You are not to say, ‘It is a conspiracy!’
Regarding everything that this people call a conspiracy,
And you are not to fear what they fear or be in dread of it. Isaiah 8:12 (NIV)

America is plagued by conspiracy theories (CTs) now more than at any time in its history. The internet, Facebook and the fracturing of our political structure have led to this lamentable situation. Millions of Americans have come to believe in the Qnon CT that many children are abducted and abused for sexual and satanic purposes, and that somehow Hilary Clinton is in the midst of this. President Trump has generated multiple CTs to negate his loss in the 2020 election, and his CTs are now believed to be true by almost 70% of Republicans.

Let me start by trying to define what conspiracy theories (CTs) are. They come in many varieties, but in general they are attempts to understand the world, or some negative aspect of it, through false or incomplete knowledge. Often CTs are generated by combining a negative event with pre-existing suspicions against some group or person. [1]

One especially tragic and sinful CT occurred over five hundred years ago.  In the midst of Europe’s bubonic plague (1347-1351) a rumor spread among Christians that the plague was caused by Jews who “poisoned the local wells” in an attempt to exterminate Christians. This lie spread rapidly, and mobs all throughout Europe gathered up Jews by the thousands and burned them at the stake without any trial or evidence other than their suspicions. Many of the Jews who survived were looted of their goods and exiled out of “Christian” Europe into Islamic Spain and other places. Awful. This corporate event was both a sin of slander and of murder – a mega “careless word.” CTs about the Jews would continue to circulate for centuries, reaching their climax in the Nazi holocaust.

At the root of most CTs is an unbiblical assumption that history and current events should be understandable and go mostly one’s way. If it does not, it is the result of a specific cabal of evildoers, usually within one’s midst, who make things go wrong. The Bible teaches to the contrary: mankind is universally afflicted with sin, and this results in sinful, foolish and selfish choices by all peoples, which further results in the “wrongness” and chaos of normal history – that is, history without God’s intervening grace.

The book of Judges spells this out quite clearly. When the Israelites forsake God and turn to foreign gods all hell breaks out (literally), and the Israelites are severely oppressed. But when they repent the Lord sends a “judge” to lead them back to the Lord, and peace returns – until they fall into idolatry again and the “wrongness” of history falls upon them once again via various invaders and oppressors. This simple pattern is retold in the books of Kings and Chronicles. 2 Chronicles describes the tragic end game of this cycle, the fall and destruction of Jerusalem and its temple. For the Jews, nothing could have been more “wrong” than that. But the Temple’s destruction was not a conspiracy by disgruntled Jews betraying their own people, rather God used the Babylonians, who were doing the usual empire building thing, as His instrument of punishment.

The Lord, the God of their ancestors, sent word to them through his messengers again and again, because he had pity on his people and on his dwelling place.  But they mocked God’s messengers, despised his words and scoffed at his prophets until the wrath of the Lord was aroused against his   people and there was no remedy.  He brought up against them the king of the Babylonians,[a] who killed their young men with the sword in the sanctuary, and did not spare young men or young women, the elderly or the infirm. God gave them all into the hands of Nebuchadnezzar.  He carried to Babylon all the articles from the temple of God, both large and small, and the treasures of the Lord’s temple and the treasures of the king and his officials.  They set fire to God’s temple and broke down the wall of Jerusalem; they burned all the palaces and destroyed everything of value there. (2 Chronicles 39:15-19)

But back on modern CTs, let me describe a conspiracy theory I saw generated firsthand back in 1974. Background: At the time Israel had just fought and won the Yun Kippur War. It started as a joint attack on Israel by Egypt and Syria, and for the first days it went badly for Israel. The Israeli Army and Air Force counter-attacked and pulled a victory from almost certain defeat (and possible extermination of the Jewish state). In the middle of the war Israel almost ran out of ammunition and other vital supplies, and President Nixon organized a massive and costly airlift to resupply the Jewish armed forces and enable them to continue their successful counterattack.

This airlift greatly angered the Arabs, and led by Saudi Arabia, they organized a boycott of the US and refused to sell us their petroleum. At the time, the U.S. was heavily dependent on Arab oil to supplement its domestic production. The Nixon administration was forced to quickly put into effect various fuel-saving programs, including lowering the speed limit on highways to 55 mph (most Americans old enough remember this).

At this time a colleague at my job site, Bob (not his real name) went to visit relatives in Louisiana, and there observed a large local refinery, and tankers in the port offloading oil (probably from Venezuela or Nigeria). On his return he told me the oil shortage was bogus and a plot by oil executives to “jack up the price of gas. There is plenty of gas out there.”

He saw was a large refinery still operating, but of course he had no access to the details of whether it was working at limited or full production.  More importantly, he could not see at the same time the millions of cars in the US refueling at hundreds of thousands of gas stations, nor did he have any way to calculate if the refinery could supply all of America’s needs (of course not).  But he felt sure he had the truth and felt that he was a pretty good and wise person while the oil executives greedy and evil – a cheap way of self-esteem and a slander on gas executives. Now of course, some gas executives are greedy and sinful, as in any group, but it is not true that they created the shortage. Note the sequence: Bad situation (higher gas prices and low speed limit), a suspect group (oil executives) and voila, an instant CT and its attached speculative slander – the “careless word.”

Earlier, when I was a high-school teacher at Atlanta public school (1970-1973) and taught at a predominantly African American school, I heard several conspiracy theories from the students. One was that Nixon (a Republican) was not really elected by a majority of the American people, but the Whites had stolen the election. Like Bob, they based their CT on their immediate experience. Where they lived everyone or almost everyone was African American and voted Democratic. By extrapolation, Nixon could not possibly have gotten enough votes to win.

They also believed a CT that has now gotten wide traction. The moon landings were faked and never took place. This was partly driven, I believe, by their observation that none of the astronauts or supporting scientists ware African American, and therefore the event was of little interest to them. This was not a harmless CT. I noted that none of them had any special interest in space science, unlike white kids of the era. Becoming a good scientist usually starts young, “with fire in the belly” for some interest, and the CT about the moon landings cut that off, at least in space science. I have wondered how many more African American space scientists there could be now had that CT not developed. There was an element of speculative slander here too in so far as this CT created an imaginary group of high-ranking NASA officials who did not have the integrity to say that the moon mission was not possible, and therefore created a photographic studio to fake the landings, etc.

But before I go further, let me say that not all CTs are false, although most are. I personally hold to one CT: that the US government, in concert with other governments, is withholding information on UFOs and our continuous observation by extra-terrestrials. I hold this opinion from speaking to various persons who have seen UFOs, including my brother decades ago, and by using the normal skills of historical investigation, i.e., does the person have a gain or interest in inventing such an observation or experience?  There may also be perfectly good national security reasons as to why the government does not want us to know about UFO, and so I make no negative judgements on this issue.[2]

At the current moment, we Americans, and especially evangelical and charismatic Christians, are being afflicted by a host of CTs that make us seem foolish to non-Christians for their wild improbability. This is unfortunately not new to American conservative Christians. In the 1960s there was a right-wing group called the John Birch Society, made up of mostly white evangelical Christians, who believed that practically everyone except themselves were communists or communist sympathizers, including, President Eisenhour. They also believed that the fluoridation of drinking water was a Communist plot to poison Americans. They were quickly infiltrating into the Republican party.

This CT based group was ironically neutralized by a real conspiracy, a group of Republican leaders including Senator Barry Goldwater and the influential editor of the National Review, William Buckley. They met secretly to brainstorm a counter to the Society’s CTs, as they knew the continued spread of the John Birch Society within the Republican Party would destroy it. The Republican leaders developed a successful campaign of writings and lectures to expose and discredit the Society.[3]

A decade earlier (1940s) a widespread CT arose among Republicans that Franklin D. Roosevelt (Democrat) knew about and somehow orchestrated the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. This still reverberates in some web sites. The “wongness” here was the defeat at Pearl Harbor, and the available suspect was President Roosevelt who was hated by many Republicans for his social welfare politics. The truth is the attack on Pearl Harbor was well-planned and masterfully executed by the highly trained and professional Japanese Navy. In fact, their expertise in carrier operations surpassed that of the American Navy in the first year of the war.[4]

In the hours preceding the attack, the codebreakers in Washington deciphered the Japanese attack message. They attempted to radio the message to Pearl Harbor, but the Army shortwave radio did not have contact with Pearl Harbor (as happened periodically) and a relay telegram had to be sent instead. It arrived while the attack was in progress. There was an element of sinful pride in this event. The Army officer at the message center did not allow his subordinate to go the naval shortwave station to try to get through. Why should their short-wave radios be better?  They actually had clear communications. All this is accurately told in the movie “Tora, Tora, Tora” (1970).[5]  But a CT about Franklin Roosevelt was more satisfying to Republican partisans than recognizing the skills of the Japanese Navy. The CT’s “careless word” slandered Franklin D. Roosevelt as it converted a suspicion into a historical fact.

Sadly, many conservative Republicans have continued to sprout CTs against Democratic presidents.[6] During the presidency of John F. Kennedy there was a CT that he would bring in a “United Nations Army” to disembark in the United States as a prelude for allowing the Communists to take over.[7] The “wrongness” event that added fuel to this was the bungled Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba. The CTs theorists believed it was purposely bungled by Kennedy to allow the Castro government to survive. This is a common element of CTs, that the event results in history are purposely planned, rather than the product of poor plans, the counterplans of the enemy, or the bungled execution of good plans, etc.[8]

A recent CT that was given wide credence in the Southwest several years ago by many conservative Republicans. It dealt with an Army war-game called Jade Helm 15. War exercises have been held since in the U.S by the Armed Forces since it began mobilizing for World War II. General Eisenhower (then a Colonel) was a staff office in the “Battle of Louisiana” (1940) when that state was “invaded” by two American Armies. The Louisiana residents warmly welcomed the roughly 400,000 soldiers, who were often graciously billeted in private homes without cost. It was the last big exercise before the real war, and important lessons were learned, including the need for independent armored divisions.

But back to Jade Helm 15 CT. The surprising aspect of Jade Helm 15 exercise is the reaction of many sincere Christians who saw this event through the eyes of a far-right CT. They were informed, or rather misinformed, by right-wing anti-Obama web sites, and talk radio commentators such as Alex Jones. The CT affirmed that Jade Helm 15 was a preparation for the invasion of Texas by politicized U.S. Armed Forces task force. The ultimate intent was the disarming and arresting of those Texans opposed to the Obama Administration. Part of this CT included the belief that certain vacant Wal-Marts would be used by these elite forces as prisons for the arrested Texans. In fact, some Texas Walmarts were closed for renovation. Some other “evidence” for this theory was the fact that the Jade Helms 15 exercise maps have Texas labeled as “enemy territory.” Indeed, Eisenhower had a similar map with parts of Louisiana labeled as “enemy.” That’s part of what you do in a training exercise.

The public briefing about Jade Helm 15 by the U.S. Army information officer turned nasty. The CT believers called the officer a liar, and that he was hiding the “true intent” of the exercise. The CT believers credited the soldiers participating as true patriots but, “They are merely following orders. What is under question are those who are pulling the strings at the top of Jade Helm 15 back in Washington.”[9]

But possibly the worst element of this CT incident was that it has been given partial credence by the governor of Texas, Greg Abbott. He ordered the Texas National Guard to “monitor” the various Armed Forces units that are taking part in the exercise.[10] He could have been a statesman and gone on TV to assure the Teas public that this was a legitimate and necessary Army exercise. Rather he chose to pander to the fears of his constituency.

The elements of this conspiracy theory, like many others, are illogical and ludicrous. This irrationality was hidden in the believer’s mind by the accumulated distrust, disdain and fear of the Obama administration. This pattern of suspended logical thinking is another of the marks of a CTs.

Let me take more time to deconstruct this particular CT. A majority of Texans disapproved of the Obama Administration. Using “back of the envelope” figures, that comes to perhaps 10,000,000 Texans who seriously disliked or distrusted Obama. That is a whole lot of “opposition” to disarm and herd into various Wal-Marts. Especially given that Texans are among the most heavily armed segment of the American population, with untold numbers of assault rifles, etc., and who communicate with each other via cell phones. Our Special Forces and Seals and other anti-terrorist units contain some of the best soldiers in the world, but 1,200 against 10,000,000 is not possible except in action hero comic books.

Officers and non-commissioned officers of all branches are educated, as part of their training, to disobey “illegal orders.” I remember instructions on this in my Army days. We had a film showing an imaginary incident in which an officer instructed his sergeant to force prisoners to march in front of his platoon to set off mines in a suspected minefield. That is against the Geneva Convention and the order by the officer was an illegal order. Our class was shown how to disobey such an order. The Armed forces still do that type of instruction.

No American officer would have obeyed the “mother and father” of all illegal orders—to arrest American citizens even if such an insane order were given. This CT/careless word was a slander to President Obama and indirectly to the American officer corps, but believed by many conservative Evangelical Christians. Again, a suspicion becomes a fact, overrides common sense, and continues as slander – the careless word.

Currently, an incredible bundle of CTs of the Q-non movement which would have us believe in a world-wide conspiracy to abduct and abuse children tied into the Clintons.  A pizza parlor frequented by the Clintons and many Democrats in Washington DC was supposed to be a center of its activity. One of the devotees of this CT was so incensed at the thought of innocent children being kidnapped and sacrificed that he went to the pizza parlor and shot up the place looking for a secret passageway to enter and free the captive children.  All he found was a supply room. He is now serving four years in prison for armed assault.[11]

The current presidential election has brought a whirldwind of CTs and careless words. To my knowledge, never in American history have CTs been invented by a president. Trump claimed there were various illegal or immoral mechanism that enabled the Joe Biden to win the election, from dishonest election officials, to voting machines rigged to skew the votes for Biden, and outright stealing of ballots, etc.  Trump claimed he really won the election.

This essay cannot expand the time and space to counter the CTs Trump put forward except in the most general of terms. Certainly, there will arise a cottage industry of books, serious and trivial, factual and conspiratorial, to deal with the subject. I will focus on what the President said and did concerning the election is Georgia. That is my state of residence and in the past I served as a poll worker and saw first-hand the care and impartiality with which votes were handled.

On November 5, as votes were still being counted, but indicated his defeat, Trump he gave speech detailing why he really won and that the election was a fraud. His base argument was that the returns on the first night indicated he had won by “a lot,” but by the morning that was reversed. Therefore, something was amiss. About Georgia he said:

Likewise, in Georgia, I won by a lot — a lot — with a lead of over — getting close to 300,000 votes on Election Night in Georgia. And, by the way, got whittled down, and now it’s getting to be to a point where I’ll go from winning by a lot to perhaps being even down a little bit.[12]

The pattern of election returns that was established since the 1980’s held in this election. The rural vote (heavily Republican) comes in early and gives an overwhelming majority to the Republicans, but the dense inner-city vote takes longer to count and is posted later. This was exacerbated this year by the fact that Trump discouraged mail-in ballots so that the persons who did use mail in votes in Georgia were mostly democrats in the cities.

Ultimately, the pattern was almost identical to the 2016 election which Trump had won. The difference in the swing states (and Georgia) was that many suburban voters who had voted for Trump in 2016 were now fed up with his rude and unpresidential manner and switched votes. I personally believe that had Trump been as controlled and civil in his first debate with Biden as he was on his second, he would have won the election.

Trump’s CTs about the election were immediately accepted as facts by his faithful followers. To the contrary, the counts, now run by a majority of Republican appointees, have systematically rejected Trump suits as rumor and unsubstantiated claims. His handpicked friend and supported Attorney General Barr, similarly, found no cause to affirm the claims of widespread fraud.

In Georgia, Trump’s CTs about the Georgia forced the votes to be recounted three times, with no significant differences after all recounts. He then reviled the Republican Governor and the Republican Secretary of State of incompetence and disloyalty for not forcing a change of vote. This was slander on two men who had supported Trump, been loyal Republicans and been men of integrity. Lastly, Trump reviled the Supreme Court judges, now made up of a majority of Republicans, two of which he picked, as “lacking courage” for not supporting his claims. All of these are serious, sinful slanders and “careless words” on people of integrity who acted on evidence that contradicted Trump’s CTs.

It seems that part of the motivating energy that has driven the Evangelical Trump supporters to believe his lying CTs has been the demographic issue. The African American students of my high school teaching days could not believe that Nixon had won because no one they knew voted for him.  So also, White Evangelical Republicans live in predominantly White areas, go to churches that were predominantly White and conservative in outlook, and rarely associate with people who would vote for Biden. This leaves a “gut” feeling it could not possibly be true that Biden could have won.

But Trump’s reviling tweets and statements against the public officials who contradicted him were not unexpected, as he has made a habit reviling by tweets or comments towards anyone who opposed him politically. The Christian pastors who have steadfastly supported Trump have failed on this as a sin issue. To revile someone is considered by St. Paul as a major sin

Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor [a]effeminate, nor homosexuals, 10 nor thieves, nor the covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers, will inherit the kingdom of God. (1 Cor 6:9-10 NASB)

Evangelical pastors have largely given Trump a pass on his reviling, partly because the sin of reviling is not often preached against. It has taken many by surprise. American politicians have been mostly polite, at least until current decades. I believe this was due to the religious atmosphere of America created in 19th Century which brough in the Methodist-Holiness revival and “Victorian” moral sensibilities. Public reviling in the form Trump uses was practically unheard of among politicians before Trump.

We now have a tragic situation, unprecedented in American history: a large minority of Americans holding to destructive CTs surrounding the recent election and its supposed falsehood.  As of this writing 75% of Republicans believe Trump’s claim that he was cheated out of being reelected. This has been made possible by the fragmentation and tribalization of news enabled by the internet and Facebook, and multiple cable networks. Since Fox news did not bow to Trump and tow his line on about the election, many Evangelicals have switched to the outlandishly partisan, reality denying, Newsmax network for their source of news.[13]

In the past Americans have read partisan newspapers which gave different slant on the news, but basically shared a core of public facts. But now we have a CT driven faction of the population that will not entertain or listen to any source other than their own, and feel free to compose their own reality based on wishes and suspicions.[14] There are now no Republican figures with the authority and smarts of Barry Goldwater and William Buckley to say, “Stop this foolishness.”  As a result, millions of Christians continue to participate in Trump’s slanderous, “careless word” accusations, as in the “cowardliness” of the Supreme Court justices, or the dishonesty of vast numbers of election officials.

In my book on false prophecies influencing the 2016 election, On Discerning Trump’s Character and Presidency, I suggested that some of the prophecies suggesting he may have been chosen by God to lead America for a season may have been correct in part.[15] The major failure was that of Evangelical pastors, and especially the pastors immediately close to Trump, and who had his attention like Kenneth Copeland and Paula White. They functioned as fawning court prophets described in 2 Kings 22, agreeing with all of his policies and never contradicting him when he reviled others and needed reproof. Biblically, the office of prophet (or preacher) demands that both affirmation and reproof be given as needed, as for instance when Nathan reproofed David for his murder and adultery. Thus, Trump was never given the impetus to change his rude, reviling ways and remained as narcissistic and bullying at the end of his administration as at the beginning.

The chorus of mega-church pastors and TV evangelists predicting Trump’s victory in the 2020 included the major charismatic opinion formers of the nation. However, one major Christian minister, Ron Cantor, had predicted (like Micaiah in front of the court prophets) that Trump would lose the 2020 election because the Evangelicals had made him into an idol, and that needed to be broken.[16]  As of the writing of this essay, when the electoral college already confirmed Biden as President elect, several of the TV pastors and evangelists are still proclaiming and prophesying that Trump will take the oath of office by the hand of God, not Biden. January 20th will be an important day for Evangelicals to examine how and why they fell for the false prophecies. Hopefully they will have the courage to both reflect on how this discernment failure happened and to publicly repent that their pastoral office became so contaminated with partisan CTs and sinfully “careless words.”

[1] This essay if an upgrade of the basic theme I discussed in an earlier article, “The Sinfulness and Destructiveness of Conspiracy Theories,” Pneuma Review,

[2] For a fuller explanation see my UFO posting on this. “UFOs and Conspiracy Theories: A Christian Historian’s Reflections,” Pentecostal Theology, blog. Posted Oct 20, 2019.

[3] The conspiracy to counter the John Birch society was described by Buckley himself, who called it the “Palm Beach Conspiracy.” See his article, “Goldwater, the John Birch Society, and Me,” Commentary. Posted March 1, 2008. https://www.commentarymagazine.com/article/goldwater-the-john-birch-society-and-me/

[4] Providentially, the Japanese lacked in-dept resources to replace their losses, and after their huge losses at Midway could not field a first-rate naval air arm.

[5] A similar event happened during the largest naval battle of World War I, the battle of Jutland. English codebreakers intercepted and deciphered where the German fleet was going, but the message remained in the pocket of the commanding officer of the British deciphering group and never made it to the fleet. He was not court marshaled because of his superior social connections.

[6] I have wondered why specific CTs are not as common among the radical left. I believe the reason is that the radical left is heavily influenced by Karl Marx, and his ideology was basically one huge CT based on evil being generated solely by the bourgeois and capitalists.

[7] Coverage of this brief conspiracy theory episode is found in the blog posting by Paul Matzko, “Jade Helm, Operation Water Moccasin, and Conservative Conspiracy Theories,” which includes a photo-copy of Utt’s letter. Posted May 6, 2015. http://paulmatzko.com/jade-helm-operation-water-moccasin-and-conservative-conspiracy-theories/

[8] Buckley, “Palm Bach.”

[9] See this on video: http://www.occupydemocrats.com/watch-paranoid-texas-lunatics-harass-an-army-colonel-with-texas-takeover-conspiracies-2/

[10]  Robert Wilonsky, “Chuck Norris, Greg Abbott still sweating U.S. military’s Texas takeover (and Wal-Mart’s secret tunnels?)” Dallas Morning News, May 5, 2015. http://trailblazersblog.dallasnews.com/2015/05/chuck-norris-and-greg-abbott-continue-to-fret-over-military-takeover-of-texas-and-wal-marts-secret-tunnels.html/

[11] Gregor Alsch, Jon Huang and Cecilia Kang, “Dissecting the # PizzaGate Conspiracy Theories,” New York Times. Posted Dec. 10, 2016.  https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2016/12/10/business/media/pizzagate.html?searchResultPosition=1

[12] Test of Trump’s Nov 5th speech, from the offocal White House site: https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefings-statements/remarks-president-trump-election/

[13] Hannah Allam, Right-Wing Embrace Of Conspiracy Is ‘Mass Radicalization,’ Experts Warn NPR. Posted December 15, 2020. https://www.npr.org/2020/12/15/946381523/right-wing-embrace-of-conspiracy-is-mass-radicalization-experts-warn?utm_source=npr_newsletter&utm_medium=email&utm_content=20201216&utm_term=5033944&utm_campaign=news&utm_id=39669706&orgid=

[14] In my childhood the only thing equivalent to the current reality denying news sources of the right was the local communist party press, which for instance labeled the Hungarian Revolution (1956) as instigated by “fascist bands.”

[15] William De Arteaga, On Discerning Trump’s Character and Presidency: A theological Reflection on How False Prophecy Influenced American Politics, (Amazon: 2020) 89-90.

[16] Creg Keener, “When Political Prophecies Don’t Come to Pass,” Christianity Today, Posted Nov. 11, 2020. https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2020/november-web-only/political-prophecy-false-bible-scholar-trump-election.html

William DeArteaga

William L. De Arteaga, Ph.D., is known internationally as a Christian historian and expert on revivals and the rebirth and renewal of the Christian healing movement. His major works include, Quenching the Spirit (Creation House, 1992, 1996), Forgotten Power: The Significance of the Lord’s Supper in Revival (Zondervan, 2002), and Agnes Sanford and Her Companions: The Assault on Cessationism and the Coming of the Charismatic Renewal (Wipf & Stock, 2015). Bill pastored two Hispanic Anglican congregations in the Marietta, Georgia area, and is semi-retired. He and his wife Carolyn continue in their healing, teaching and writing ministries. He is the state chaplain of the Order of St. Luke, encouraging the ministry of healing in all Christian denominations.

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