Conspiracies seem to have gained significant traction in American evangelical communities in recent years. While it may be tempting to understand their popularity as a one-off, historical moment, a closer look at American evangelicalism reveals a different picture.
We need look no further than the innumerable doomsday predictions proliferated by American evangelical giants for startling evidence: the end of the world would come in 1982 or 2007 — Pat Robertson, 2000 — Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins (Left Behind authors), 2000 — Jerry Falwell, 2000 — Jonathan Edwards, and many more. These are just a few of the household evangelical names who believed that there was no way you and I would exist as we do on the earth today. Any outside observer would look on incredulously at the gullibility of American evangelicals.
However, what ties these seemingly nonsensical predictions together is something that runs deeper: the belief that one person, with their own individual reading of Scripture, could make a meaningful and authoritative prediction on something as earth-shattering as the end of the world. It’s not the ludicrousness of their beliefs that ties conspiracists together, but rather their belief (and ours) in their individual authority to speak. As a people, we tend to assign blame to individuals caught up at the heart of controversies. And yet, what if that very tendency — to individualize blame and praise — is what lies at the core of the specific brokenness in American evangelicalism?
This deeply-held belief in the value of individuals, which is not held in a vacuum but rather a value held against the value of institutions and communities, has touched virtually every aspect of our society and indeed, our faith. The structure of our storytelling belies this truth: person vs. person, person vs. self, person vs. nature, etc. Our central conflict always features a person, singular. Not family, community, class, or even gang. We are a nation that fiercely defends individual liberties, even when those liberties clash with public safety and health as we have seen with COVID. Echoes of personal responsibility linger in any political conversation, ranging from social benefits to gun control, and allow us to absolve ourselves of any responsibility when someone like us — whether we share the same gender, race, or religion — has fallen from grace. Pastor who sexually and spiritually abused church members? That was their personal sin. President who regularly abused and mocked marginalized people? That’s just their individual personality.
The uniquely American fixation on personal salvation and a personal relationship with God, bolstered by alter calls and revival meetings, can be traced back to the Protestant divorce from church institution and the Great Awakenings of the 18th and 19th centuries. We revel in stories of Martin Luther taking on the corrupt Catholic Church; he is our free-thinking David hurling his 95 theses against the tradition-bound Goliath. As the American church, and as a nation, we overly distrust institutions and overly trust individuals.
Church that centers the individual
This is evident in the very way we order our church services: For almost all (but especially, white) evangelical churches, the clear focal point is the sermon. We begin with the wind-up, perhaps consisting of quiet time and singing, and then comes the main event. The pastor is introduced to the scene, the congregants settle back into their chairs to take their notepads out, and the preaching begins. The soliloquy goes on for 15 or 20 minutes and can last as long as 45 minutes to an hour if you have a particularly exuberant pastor. As much as a pastor may implore audience engagement, the sermon is essentially a one-sided affair. Then comes the wind-down, with some reflection time to think about how we might be able to apply the message to our own lives, ending with some more singing and sometimes the taking of communion. For the truly committed, you may even talk about the sermon at your weekly small group. Is it really a surprise, then, that pastors are pedestaled by their congregants, and evangelical churches are known for their pastors and even the pastor’s preaching style, rather the collective nature or actions of its congregants?
Our pastor-worship comes at the cost of other priorities the church could otherwise focus on: service to community, community-based decision-making, fellowship centered around communion, and engagement in rich theological conversations. Rather than sequestering the sharing of our experiences to an optional small group on a random day of the week, imagine if small group-style sharing became the focal point of our Sunday meetings. Or what if the communal acceptance of grace and forgiveness of sins as represented in the Eucharist became the center of our services, the way it is for many Catholic masses?
The church service structure matters because it signals to us what is important: individual reflection and thought, centered around another individual’s thoughts and reflection. We may share our individual experiences, but we rarely think to subject our life experiences to the authority of historical or communal interpretation. My interpretation of Scripture is what counts, as well as my personal relationship with God. We embrace our lack of tradition, believing God is “timeless” and meets us where we’re at, while snubbing Catholics for their masses steeped in tradition. Cultural and historical study of Scripture is sacrificed at the altar of personal reactions to Bible passages as we look for confirmation bias. It is this core notion of self-interpretation that feeds the American evangelical embrace of conspiracy theories.
Primed for conspiracy
Conspiracy theories thrive on anonymity and barraging individuals with a deluge of falsehoods sewn together to form narrative so consistent, so all-encompassing, that even educated, otherwise very rational people begin to believe in them. They exploit how individually siloed we have become in our online worlds and specialize in exploiting algorithms, ones that tech giants designed for effective marketing, to push the same story repeatedly. The moment you jump into a conspiracy rabbit hole, you are pounded by supposed facts that are just too consistent to be coincidence. Never mind each supposed fact could be an outright falsehood. Never mind the billion other facts that are not drawn into this conspiratorial narrative. Never mind the lack of authentication of anything — after all, who authenticates but the institution? The moment we decided that ultimate truth can be and ought to be decided by the individual was the moment we lost to conspiracy theories before they ever arrived.
If our problems had to do with individual bad apples, the solution is manageable. We punish corruption and crime where we find it. However, if our problems are systemic in nature, and blame is not so easily assigned, where can we turn to for help? As tempting as it is and continues to be to lay the blame squarely on our former president, the past four years uncovered what large swathes of America really believe; we are not merely a people that happened to be led astray by a deviant ruler but rather, a people primed by our culture and theology to be led astray.
Toward a more communal lens
I propose that we look more closely at Scripture and look to our Asian heritages for some pointers. When reading Paul’s letters, I cannot help but be struck by how oddly aggressive and public he is when naming specific sins and controversies. He calls out several groups: some in the church have chosen sides in petty theological debates, some have slipped into sins that even people outside the church would be shocked by, and others brag about their suffering or accomplishments. This feels very strange to me as someone who grew up in an American church that taught me sin was to be dealt with privately between myself and God. Sin is personal and it ought to be dealt with personally, with penitent prayer, a few moments before bed cataloging how I could have done better that day, my bedroom transformed into a personal confessional booth.
But the sin that Paul calls out and the manner in which he calls it out? It is uncomfortable. I wonder if Paul writes boldly and publicly to the church because sin was not seen as just a personal failure, but a corporate one. And if there’s something amiss in our personal lives and beliefs, maybe the role of the church is to step in. I wonder what it would be like if, rather than asking pastors to address conspiracy theories from the pulpit, we could ask church members to hold each other, to graciously and unrelentingly bring people back from the brink of conspiracy. I wonder if the answer lies in looking to how communally-oriented society is in our Asian cultures.
One example is in the lending practices in many Chinese communities. For most Americans, buying a home is a single person or single family venture. However, when my mom bought a house, we did not go to a bank but rather our family. She borrowed money from her mother (who borrowed money from other friends and family), and even reached out to the family of my dad, who she recently divorced, for loans. To American financial norms, mixing family and money is a sure-fire recipe for disaster, and there is no lack of horror stories. And yet, it is commonplace for many Chinese families. There are many obvious upsides — not paying interest, reinforcing familial bonds — but I suggest that the subtle and perhaps most important one is the moderating effect of community. No relative would help fund a massive mansion, given our income from a small Chinese restaurant. But nor would they allow us to live in poverty. That is to say, the very process of involving community in decision-making can curb excesses on both extremes.
Imagine if we applied this framework to our thought lives. These past few years have taught us that extreme ideologies in American politics have real, painful, heart-wrenching impact. Rather than allowing our political beliefs to form in isolation and be prone to conspiracy, imagine if we brought our deepest held ideologies to the light. Imagine if we held each other accountable, if we truly had a stake in each other’s thought lives. I do not mean to suggest we should never hold a belief that is contrary to popular opinion; mob mentality and false beliefs can abound in communities as well. However, I am suggesting that the American evangelical proclivity to conspiracy is deeply rooted in its culture of individuality and we would benefit greatly by incorporating community into our decision-making.
Learning to submit our beliefs to the interrogation of our peers, both present and historical, is an inherently Christian practice. Nothing could be more arrogant than to believe that God has revealed more about the Ultimate Truth About Everything to you individually than to the entirety of humanity that has lived before you. And yet, that is how we approach our spiritual lives when we refuse to read deeply and listen humbly to the billions of Christians who have experienced God before us.
This lens — of community over individuality — is in fact a very old lens. It is the lens of those who lived with Jesus, and in some ways, it is the lens of many of our Asian ancestors. It is a lens that sees individual triumph and sadness as but a thread in the grand tapestry of our familial history, that holds onto bonds across time, distance, and language. It is a lens that de-centers the “I” and centers the “we”. It is a lens that understands unless we all thrive, none of us are truly alive. My destiny is intricately woven with yours, and I cannot let you go because it would mean letting myself go.
Truly seeing through a communal lens means that I cannot simply choose to cancel relationships, although we should and ought to give ourselves space when we need it. Seeing through a communal lens allows me to absorb the gut punches that are my church aunties’ conspiratorial Facebooks posts. By not severing relationships entirely, as may be custom in an individual framework of “I only let you in my life if I like you and agree with you completely”, we also allow space for the transformation of those relationships that might not otherwise happen.
Seeing through a communal lens gives me hope: that though truth may be delayed and rerouted and jammed up, truth will bring us together. And if not small, individual truths, then the Big Truths — the Truths of who we are, the purpose of our lives, and who God is. Because God came not to save you, or me, but to save us.