Conspiracy theories are frequently shared in Protestant churches across the U.S., according to a LifeWay Research report published January 26.
Nearly half (49%) of Protestant pastors agreed with the statement, “I frequently hear members of my congregation repeating conspiracy theories they have heard about why something is happening in our country.”
Of those who agreed, 13% strongly agreed and 36% somewhat agreed. By comparison, 20% somewhat disagreed, 26% strongly disagreed and 5% were not sure.
White pastors (50%), male pastors (50%) and those in congregations with attendance above 250 people (61%) were most likely to agree.
The survey of 1,007 Protestant clergy was conducted via a combination of phone interviews (502) and online surveys (505). The overall margin of error is plus-or-minus 3.4%.
Good Faith Media reached out to several Protestant clergy and denominational leaders for their reaction and response:
“Conservative Christians are often drawn to conspiracy theories because they feel superior to their culture, trust simplistic and binary interpretations, and want to make sense of the inexplicable,” said Molly T. Marshall, retired president of Central Seminary in Shawnee, Kansas.
“There is a certain Gnostic desire to hold knowledge that others do not have, and the need for belonging to a tradition that ‘guarantees’ certainty keeps the true believers in the fold,” she said. “This is a problem as ancient as the early Thessalonian Christians, some of whom were perpetrating the apocalyptic conspiracy that Jesus had already returned. That time, as now, calls for wise and sober truth-telling from congregational leaders.”
“Sadly, Christians are not immune to the allure of conspiracy theories, as one can see by perusing social media,” said Lee Spitzer, retired general secretary of the American Baptist Churches USA. “In response, I would encourage pastors to forthrightly and with tact refocus the attention of their members to more constructive and positive responses to the challenges facing our nation.”
“One cannot represent the truth of the Kingdom of God by relaying spurious fantasies,” he said. “I am reminded of Paul’s pastoral advice to Timothy, who served in a church where some members were enticed by controversies and ‘meaningless talk’ (1 Tim. 1:6). He advised this leader to ‘have nothing to do with irreverent, silly myths. Rather train yourself for godliness’ (1 Tim. 4:7, ESV).”
“White evangelical churches opened themselves up for this tragedy of political gullibility,” said Dan Day, a retired pastor and divinity school professor, and the author of two Nurturing Faith Books, Finding the Gospel (2020) and Seeking the Face of God (2013). “By concentrating only on a personal ‘Jesus and me’ salvation we spiritualized our faith and, failing to see our social obligation, we neglected to mold public virtues like respect for truth, veneration of justice and good neighborliness.”
“Conspiracy theories thrive within our churches because in our teaching, we typically neglect the political/social wisdom within ancient Israel’s history and prophetic literature,” he said. “This leaves our members ill-prepared for faithful responses to developments in the public square. We have been, and needlessly remain, politically naïve.”
“Lots of pastors have been caught off-guard, but shouldn’t be, for conspiracy theories go all the way back to the conversation in the Garden with the serpent’s half-truths playing on anxiety and fear,” said Bill Tillman, coordinator for the Center for Congregational Ethics. “There is fear all about – preachers can’t change many minds with only a several-minute presentation on Sundays and that’s bothersome, when their congregants have access to 24-hour talk radio, or TV news or other media which either promote or originate conspiracies that play on people’s fears.”
“Preachers need to adapt to additional pedagogies that help people identify the holes in their souls that are being filled by sensationalism and fear driven ideas,” he said. “For instance, the Apostle Paul moved in the Roman Empire culture calling for a character forming Gospel in and for one another. Transformation, not transaction, was the goal of how he taught witnessing and conversion.”