LifeWay research is out with a new study that confirms something you already suspect: the American Church has a conspiracy theory problem. Well, it’s probably more accurate to say the country has a conspiracy theory problem. It wasn’t that long ago that now-private citizen Donald Trump was railing against a rigged election and inciting his fans to storm the U.S. Capitol — all as part of an utterly basis conspiracy. That whole incident is linked to QAnon, a rapidly spreading conspiracy that now can include several political leaders among its adherents. So, yes, conspiracy theories are a serious issue in this country. But the Church, allegedly a champion of the truth, is not immune from this particular issue.
49 percent of all U.S. Protestant pastors surveyed said, “I frequently hear members of my congregation repeating conspiracy theories they have heard about why something is happening our country.” 47 percent disagreed.
Now, there’s a major caveat to this study, which is that the survey doesn’t get into what conspiracy theories the pastors have heard about. In fact, it’s not entirely clear why we should take these pastors’ assessment of what is and is not a conspiracy theory at face value. Unfortunately, many pastors have spread false or misleading claims about COVID-19, election security and immigrants in recent years. Other pastors have been caught spreading baseless conspiracy theories about the intentions of President Joe Biden’s administration.
In Tennessee, where LifeWay Research is based, two prominent pastors have been caught spreading conspiracies in recent weeks. Pastor Greg Locke leads Global Vision Bible Church in Mt. Juliet, and has devoted nearly the entirety of his Twitter presence to baseless allegations that Biden lost the election. Steve Berger, pastor of Grace Chapel, was at the National Mall during the storming of the U.S. Capitol on January 6, and later apologized for spreading the conspiracy theory that the insurrectionists were actual Antifa marauders disguised as MAGA enthusiasts. These are not minor incidents. Locke has over 92,000 followers on Twitter. Berger, who is stepping down from his role as lead pastor, can count Tennessee Governor Bill Lee among his congregants.
Obviously, there’s no reason at all to think that Locke was surveyed for this study. But there’s also no reason to think that pastors who think like him weren’t. To be sure, conspiratorial thinking hasn’t spread to all or even most pastors in the U.S., but there are enough high profile examples of pastors who buy into conspiracies that trusting the group to reliably identify conspiracies within their own church is a bit presumptuous. It’s possible that some pastors agree with some of the conspiracy theories they hear from congregants, which would mean the percentage of pastors who hear conspiracy theories is being underreported in this survey. Likewise, it’s possible that some conspiracy theory-minded pastors are hearing real news from their congregants which they are reporting as conspiracies. Without more data, it’s just not clear.
In an email, LifeWay Research told RELEVANT they did not ask about specific conspiracy theories in their survey. Doing so might have helped shed some light on not only what type of conspiracies have infiltrated the church, but which ones church leaders themselves are falling into and whether or not denomination leadership needs to get involved. In any case, it’s clear that conspiracies are a real problem for the Church and that problem needs to be addressed with wisdom, grace and love. But without more data, the extent of the problem is unclear.