I’m old enough (literally!) to remember when members of my white Protestant church (where I was a child, not a pastor) openly expressed racist (the worst kind of conspiratorial thinking) ideas; so this ain’t exactly new. It’s still pernicious, though. And really, the differences between the '60's and the civil rights movement and southern congregations, and today, is rather hard for me to discern:
"Americans who embrace Christian nationalism are much more likely to embrace conspiratorial thinking," says researcher Andrew Whitehead. "Leaders of those movements have continually cast doubt on who you can really trust or even the federal government." https://t.co/pYc0XLWqss— NPR (@NPR) February 21, 2021
During the protests last summer after George Floyd's killing, Stacy noticed his congregation making a turn toward a conspiracy theory about child sex trafficking."I began to see on social media people ignoring or pushing away Black Lives Matter by saying, you know, oh, well, no one's over here talking about trafficking," Stacy told NPR. He said the concern about child trafficking started out as legitimate — it is an awful truth that exists. But he quickly noticed that his parishioners started using it as shorthand for a lie: that Democrats with prominent roles in business, media and government are running child trafficking rings.It was that conspiracy theory that compelled a man named Edgar Maddison Welch to fire inside a family pizzeria in Washington, D.C., in December 2016.That false notion became prevalent again nearly a year later at the center of QAnon, an umbrella of conspiracy theories that has amplified false ideas about an evil liberal agenda and that casts Trump as a savior. QAnon has coalesced since then, perpetrating the lie that President Biden's election was illegitimate.Stacy was afraid of what he saw taking root in his church. "This is about a wholesale view of reality — what is real, what is true," he said.He saw some people in his own congregation — mostly the parents or elders of the young adults he worked with — elevating the idea of sex trafficking of kids and what he called "Democrat pedophilia.""It was people who I respected, and that's even more complicated because they were [my] elders," Stacy said."The crack, the split was kitchen tables, where you have two completely different information streams, one that the parents use and one that their kids use," he said. Those two streams of information divided families: Older members of the church were entertaining conspiracies, and younger members were pushing back.
Jared Stacy was pastoring to 20 and 30 year olds in his church, so I'm assuming he was a "youth minister," not the head minister. But the split along generational lines he describes is a familiar one to me, when my parent's generation was upset by MLK and Malcolm X and blacks demanding equal rights; and my generation was just as upset (some of us, hardly all of us) that these things had to be demanded by human beings in America. We didn't have Q-Anon, but we had racism, and we had degrees of racism. KKK/White supremacists were the worst, "prejudiced" was socially denounceable, but "I have nothing against 'those people,' I just don't want my daughter to marry one" was considered perfectly acceptable in all circles. A lot of conspiratorial thinking today is just racism by another name; or it makes clear how conspiratorial racism is. "They" are out to get you, and you'd better wise up! I'm not equating Q with the disease of racism; but they share a common taproot. Stories about Democrats and pedophiles are the same stories behind racism. The labels change, but not the meaning. It's easy to slide from racism to Q-Anon and never really stop the fundamental effort, which is drawing a boundary line between "us" and "them," because how can I be sure you're really with “us”? I can remember people testing gently in conversation to see if you were with them, or not. If that isn’t conspiratorial thinking, what is?
Racism was the dividing line in many a congregation, especially with any pastor who dared to speak well of MLK or civil rights in general. And more than a few pastors split with their congregations over the issue, mostly because the congregations insisted:
"As a church we're not in that discussion," a member of Spotswood Baptist Church leadership told NPR. "We have no interest being involved in that. It's not something that's been in any way discussed or on our agenda."
That could be a member of any white church in America in the '60's. You don't have to change a word.
"Disinformation" is blamed today. In my youth it was "prejudice" or "ignorance" or just "hate." It took me decades to realize those words were just ways of excusing the racism of those around me, and my own (I am not holier than thou, or than anyone). My racism is hidden even from me, but yours has a cause, and the worse it is, the more pronounced your racism. But mine? I don’t have a bone like that in my body!
Racism is our national original sin, and we struggle mightily to ignore it because it is right in front of our nose. The root of the problem is the same; the labels have just been changed to protect the responsible from their own guilt. The greatest result of this labelling and identifying and finger-pointing is that we find ever new ways to ignore the fingers pointing back at us.
Just like the poor are "less fortunate" (what fortune, more or less, is there in poverty?), or divided into the "deserving poor" and the unspoken "undeserving" (because the category is moral, not economic; those we deem "undeserving" don't earn even our sympathy), so we distinguish between the "misinformed/disinformed" and the simply hate-filled. We never consider that this ignorance and hatred are two sides of the same coin, and is simply the culture we all partake of. We don't strike, in other words, at the root of the problem; we just try to arrange our deck chairs on the Titanic so we will be as comfortable as possible.
Ken Peters, pastor of the Patriot Church in Nashville, is quoted in the NPR report:
"I believe that right now we have an illegitimate president in the White House and he was not elected by the people," Peters told NPR. "I believe the truly 'We the People'-elected, should-be president is residing in Florida right now."
That same basic issue, illegitimacy, was leveled against Dr. King and the entire civil rights movement, before and after the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. Nothing has fundamentally changed about this "divide" in America.
On its website, the Patriot Church is described as a movement: "a church interceding on behalf of her nation." That movement has a name: Christian nationalism. Some conservative evangelical circles have incubated and spread these kinds of conspiracy theories — some of which have led to violence – for years.
Andrew Whitehead, who has spent several years researching Christian nationalism at Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis, defines it as the belief that America is a Christian nation, one that should privilege white, native-born politically conservative Christians.
"We do find evidence that Americans who embrace Christian nationalism are much more likely to embrace conspiratorial thinking," Whitehead told NPR. "The leaders of those movements have continually cast doubt on who you can really trust or even the federal government."
Orval Faubus and George Wallace didn't trust the federal government, either. "State's rights" was a direct assault on the concept of federalism and a constitutional republic. There was actually more violence in the '60's; it just never aimed itself at the U.S. Capitol (a reminder itself, it occurs to me, that the seat of government is not the White House. And yet the defenders of Trump, and the obsequious toadies who seek his mantle, implicitly say otherwise.). It was confined to cities (and perhaps a bit worse when they weren’t all Southern cities) and to individuals or the police (always hard, though, blame them). The same hatred, the same paranoia, the same fear and violence, that's being reported today as if it were newly invented and recently created, is as old and endemic to America as violence and cherry pie. Nothing has changed. If anything, it seems to be generational, except now whites are agitating in ferocious response to what non-whites have asserted, fought for, and won.