May 17, 2020
A good friend of mine brought to my attention an article in the Dallas Morning News by Ed Stetzer and Andrew MacDonald titled, "Too many evangelical Christians fall for conspiracy theories online, and gullibility is not a virtue."
The article opens with a reference to St. John's Gospel in which Pilate questions Jesus. The authors of the article state that "Pilate asks Jesus about his identity and purpose," and after hearing the Lord's answer, a perplexed Pilate goes on to ask, "What is truth?" The authors then make the statement that "too many Christians on the internet sound like Pilate." This comparison of Christians to Pilate is made without the authors' providing a single example of a single Christian purporting to "sound like Pilate."
To provide some context, let's review the entire passage, John 18:29-38.
 Pilate then went out unto them, and said, What accusation bring ye against this man?We can see from the above passage that Pilate's initial questioning was toward the Jewish leadership regarding what accusation was brought against Jesus. The Jewish leadership wanted to put him to death; however, only Roman authority could execute a man, so they had to go Pilate. From the context of the passage, it seems that Pilate finds the matter of this itinerant preacher Jesus somewhat trivial. After hearing what Jesus says, Pilate responds, "What is truth?" The authors of the article presume that Pilate was perplexed. But how do the authors know that Pilate reacts out of perplexity? Perhaps Pilate's question is a dismissmal: "Oh, what IS truth, anyway?" After all the peoples of antiquity believed in many gods: the Greeks had their gods, the Romans their gods, and the Jews the one God. Perhaps it is more plausible to believe Pilate responded out of a sense of jaded religious subjectivism: everyone has their own "truth," so what is truth, anyway?
This point is important because authors use this pericope to open their article, and it is upon Pilate's supposed perplexity regarding truth that the authors' moral case ultimately rests. The authors use the perplexity of Pilate to argue that therefore Christians who espouse so-called conspiracy theories do so because, like Pilate, they are "perplexed" about the truth, or they don't understand the truth, or worst, they are contemptuous of truth.
Yet, as I will show, this article drips with condescension: "who are you, Christian, to believe a conspiracy theory?" The authors purport to be most concerned evangelical Christians, who "have been too easily fooled" and by whom "too much is inappropriately shared." But to assert that evangelicals are too easily fooled is to presuppose the gullibility or stupidity — or both — of their readers. Attitudes such as these are one of many reasons I left the evangelical movement for good in the mid-2000s. In short, the authors should know better.
The authors then claim that conspiracy theories are illogical. But this is a misunderstanding of the term. It is illogical to say that Oswald was alone when he killed Kennedy and that Oswald was not alone when he killed Kennedy. It's illogical to say that Bigfoot exists and Bigfoot does not exist — or that Martians landed on earth and Martians didn't land on earth. What's illogical are contradictions. But conspiracy theories are not illogical; they are either true or false. If they are provably false, then they are no longer conspiracy theories. What makes a conspiracy theory is the kernel of truth that seems to be embedded in it.
Interestingly the authors of the article invoke the sacrosanct concept of truth to open their piece but then abandon the concept of truth later on. Assuming these "Christians on the internet" are acting in good faith, the only two things that matter regarding sharing a conspiracy theory is whether one believes the theory to be true or false, and whether the theory is in fact true or false. Let's examine each of these cases one at a time.
First, if the Christian believes the theory to be true, and the theory is in fact true, then there is no harm in sharing the theory. In fact, sharing truth almost always constitutes a moral good.1 Only those who do not want their lies exposed would oppose the sharing of the theory, just as mould does not want to be exposed to sunlight.
Second, if the Christian believes the theory to be true, and the theory is in fact — or turns out to be — false, there is no moral culpability in sharing the theory but turning out to be mistaken. Remember, we assume good faith, not deliberate deception.
Third, if the Christian believes the theory to be false, and the theory is in fact true, he likely will not share the theory because he believes it to be false but he is not certain that theory is in fact false. People who act in good faith generally do not promote as true that which they believe to be false when they are unsure or do not know if it is in fact false.
Fourth, if the Christian believes the theory to be false, and the theory is in fact false, the Christian may promote the theory as false in the effort to persuade other Christians that the theory is false. But this is actually sharing truth (the truth of the theory's falsehood), so again, there is nothing wrong with that.
But these are the only four possibilities for Christians acting in good faith. Those Christians left, then, are those who do not act in good faith. Voila! The authors have added "deception" or "malicious intent" to the "stupidity" and "foolishness" of so-called "Christians on the internet." Again, all of this without bothering to cite ANY specific examples of specific Christians spreading specific theories — it's all just conjecture so far. There is less basis for this conjecture than for the conspiracy theories themselves. Those "Christians on the internet" for whom the authors seem to have unbridled contempt should be pretty upset by now.
The authors go on to assert that conspiracy theories are "gaining power in the church," (without providing any specific examples) and that they are "a headache we can no longer ignore." But perhaps what can no longer be ignored — the big headache, if you will — is that those in high ecclesiastical and other offices who for most of their careers have shaped the message are now losing control of it.
The authors claim that "it is rather distressing that three-quarters of evangelicals agreed that the mainstream media produces fake news compared to only 54% of non-evangelicals." Why is that distressing? After the 2016 election, what reason do we have to trust the media? The real issue is whether the media produces so-called fake news. "Fake news" is, of course, a euphemism for lying — lying about conservatives, lying about President Trump, or lying about other events du jour. In the old Soviet Union there was a joke that Pravda, the newspaper of the Communist party, was aptly named because there was no truth in it — as "pravda" is the Russian word for truth. Today's modern media didn't invent modern fake news. That title most famously (or infamously) goes to Walter Duranty, who in the early 1930s flat-out lied about famines in the Soviet Union — and won a Pulitzer Prize for it. Duranty occupies one slot on a lengthy list of fake newsers — two more examples suffice: Dan Rather's fabricating documents to support damaging allegations concerning Republican President George W. Bush's career in the military reserves, and more recently the the mainstream media's lie regarding President Trump's remarks on the Charlottesville "Unite the Right" rally a few years ago. The latter was, in fact, a textbook example of the mainstream media's favorite method of lying — taking a conservative's comments completely out of context and lying to America about what he or she said. The mainstream media are old hands at this.
The authors next argue that a Christian acting in good faith who shares a conspiracy theory damages the credibility of the Christian Gospel. In other words, the Christian who spreads conspiracy theories about say, a plot by the Obama administration and its FBI headed by James Comey to overturn a Presidential election, and when that didn't work, to overthrow the President himself, is actually damaging the believability of the resurrection of Christ. This argument appeals to emotion and insinuates that otherwise intelligent, reasonable people cannot distinguish between what is arguably bad but finite and temporal — the attempt to overthrow a President — and what is arguably the greatest miracle in history — the resurrection of Christ and the infinite good which this entails. Incredulously, the authors want us to accept that conspiracy theories or those who share them somehow wreck the credibility of that "great cloud of witnesses" down through the centuries whose lives are testimonies to the power of the resurrected Christ to change human souls.
The authors sanctimoniously declare, "Out of the same Facebook account cannot come professions of the risen Christ and accusations of #pizzagate...yet when we become known more for the conspiracies we are promoting than for the Gospel we proclaim, we have let some other identity define us" but they do not provide a single example of a Christian who has promoted #pizzagate in good faith while simultaneously knowing it to be false. Again, if there is no element of deception, there is no element of moral complicity.
The authors go on to say that, "before the crisis, we were shaped by our church, our friends and our spiritual disciplines, but now that we are stuck in our homes and disconnected, more of our inputs have been given over to these sources of division and conspiracy." No examples were provided. The authors seem to have a very low view of their audience.
The authors argue that
So if you've made it this far and find yourself getting angry, let's suggest one thing: Hit pause. One of the most tempting lies we tell ourselves is that our anger is righteous. We see it as justified because of the perceived wrongs of others or because we are standing up our faith. Yet, often, righteous anger becomes a mask for our own insecurities and outrage. It reveals that we have been knocked off mission.Not all anger is bad. Anger can be righteous. There are many examples of righteous anger in the Bible. Today, one can be — and ought to be — righteously angry at the Left and the mainstream media who stoked and fomented the fear, hysteria, and panic over coronavirus which has destroyed the most vibrant economy in the world, and displaced tens of millions of Americans. Righteous anger isn't a sin; instead, it's a virtue if it's properly acted upon.
The authors conclude by saying that we need to "care about truth." Yet, they take a derisively cavalier attitude toward truth regarding whether so-called "conspiracy theories" are true. After all, there wasn't a conspiratorial plot by Obama and his FBI to take down Donald Trump, was there? We could ask those whom the authors don't have time to condemn — the adulterous lovers Peter Strok and Lisa Page — because they're too busy castigating Christians on the internet. Or better yet, just check their text messages.
Ironically, while the irreligious Pontius Pilate allows Jesus a measure of presumption of innocence (by asking the Jewish leadership "what accusation do you bring against this man?"), the ostensibly religious authors of this article can't ascribe simple good faith to their Christian audience.
1 The rare exception might be a Catholic hiding Jews in Nazi-occupied France. In that case, sharing the truth with the Nazis about hiding Jews would make the Catholic an accomplice to murder.