Religion Unplugged

Christians and the conspiracy theories that helped fuel the Capitol mob

By Bobby Ross Jr. | Religion Unplugged

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Nearly 20 years ago, I wrote a column for The Oklahoman headlined “Internet deception runs wild.”

In that July 2001 piece, I highlighted the claim that an atheist group formed by the late “Madeline Murray O’Hare” had collected 287,000 signatures and was pushing to remove all Sunday morning worship service broadcasts.

“The good news is, the prayers have been answered — many times over,” I wrote. “Since the false petition related to the late Madalyn Murray O’Hair (that’s the correct spelling) began circulating in the late 1970s, the Federal Communications Commission has received more than 35 million signatures asking it to block her efforts.”

The cover of the Religion section in the July 21, 2001, edition of The Oklahoman.

Two decades after that column ran, well-meaning religious people’s susceptibility to conspiracy theories has not waned.

If anything, the rise of social media has made it worse. Much, much worse.

“This last year has just been one giant conspiracy theory about everything — the pandemic, the civil unrest, the election — and it all sort of culminated with this terrifying scene we saw on Jan. 6. That was an army of conspiracy theorists, pretty much,” Tea Krulos told Religion News Service’s Emily McFarlan Miller this week.

Krulos is the author of the book “American Madness: The Story of the Phantom Patriot and How Conspiracy Theories Hijacked American Consciousness.”

Last week, I referred to President Donald Trump — who has repeatedly claimed he won an election he lost by 74 Electoral College votes and 7 million popular votes — as the nation’s conspiracy-theorist-in-chief.

In the wake of the deadly Jan. 6 siege at the U.S. Capitol — egged on by Trump — a leading evangelical theologian told NPR this week that it’s time for a Christian reckoning.

“Part of this reckoning is: How did we get here? How were we so easily fooled by conspiracy theories?” said Ed Stetzer, executive director of the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College in Illinois. “We need to make clear who we are. And our allegiance is to King Jesus, not to what boasting political leader might come next.”

In a May 2020 essay titled “Christians Are Not Immune to Conspiracy Theories,” The Gospel Coalition’s Joe Carter traced the problem all the way back to Satan spreading lies in the Garden of Eden. Carter’s take remains a must read.

Read the full column.

This column appears in the online magazine Religion Unplugged.

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