Conservative Evangelicals’ Embrace Of Conspiracy Theories Threatens Democracy

  Rob Boston

A few weeks ago, Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) released a report noting that a quarter of white evangelical Protestants in America accept the major beliefs of the QAnon conspiracy theory.

In case you’ve forgotten, QAnon, which began to gain traction online during the presidency of Donald Trump, holds that a ring of satanic pedophiles who are highly placed in government and the entertainment industry worked to undermine Trump because he planned to expose their trafficking of children. Its adherents believe that these pedophiles will be purged from public life, and some even insist that Trump will be “restored” to the White House in August.

Ridiculous, right? Yep – yet tens of millions of Americans believe it. And some are moved to action: QAnon followers were among the insurrectionists who assaulted the U.S. Capitol Jan. 6.

That’s troubling enough, but now another study has been released about fundamentalists and conspiracy theories, and its findings are equally disturbing. Researchers at Baylor University found that biblical literalists, people who self-identify as “very religious” and those who attend church weekly are significantly more likely to believe in other conspiracy theories as well. Not only do they swallow the QAnon “Democrats-are-sex-traffickers-line,” they also believe that the 2020 election was fraudulent and that the COVID-19 vaccinations aren’t safe.  

Paul Froese, Ph.D., director of the Baylor Religion Surveys and professor of sociology, said in a press statement, “The intersection of religion and politics makes the discrete religion effect on conspiratorial thinking hard to concisely determine, and we must note that there are lots of different types and expressions of religiosity. While Americans who most strongly assert their personal religiosity are, on average, more likely to believe these falsehoods, they still remain a minority of religious Americans overall.”

That’s a bit of a cold comfort. Yes, these people are a minority, but they hold increasingly radicalized beliefs; some are open to violence. In the PRRI study, 15% of respondents overall backed the idea that violence may be necessary to save the country. That’s millions of people. Remember, on Jan. 6  it only took a mob numbering in the thousands whipped into a frenzy by a demagogue to overrun the Capitol, assault police and do at least $30 million in damage.

Conspiracy theories have hurt America in other ways. COVID deniers fought in court to keep houses of worship open during the lockdowns, unfortunately winning a sympathetic ear at the Supreme Court. Vaccine skeptics are denying the country herd immunity and scaring people away from shots while spreading all manner of nonsense. Debunked conspiracy theories about the 2020 presidential election helped fuel voter suppression laws in several states. QAnon has torn families apart. It remains a festering sore on our body politic. QAnon’s leading proponent in Congress, U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.), is a disruptive influence whose antics might be amusing if so many people didn’t take them seriously.

There’s a sense among some political commentators that American democracy stands on a precipice. Beyond the GOP-led assault on voting rights, we face a growing concern that democracy can’t function in a nation where so many people push facts aside in favor of nonsense that feeds their biases. Much to their shame, far-right evangelicals are forging the path that may take us over the cliff.

(Photo by Anthony Crider via Creative Commons)

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