Conspiracy as Evangelical Liturgy

By Danny Anderson

An Opening Salvo

Though too few media outlets cover it, there is in fact a sober and intellectually serious strain of Christianity in America. Revenue imperatives will probably always drive the media to focus on what historian John Fea refers to as the “Court Evangelicals” and other bizarre artifacts from the fringes of Christian life, but if you look in the orbit of, say, the Christianity Today crowd, you’ll find very reasonable and well-adjusted people who probably make up the center of Christian culture.

Recently, this segment of Christians, along with mainstream journalism, has been doing a lot of hand-wringing about the disturbing influence of conspiracies like QAnon on the American Evangelical church. Christianity Today has openly lambasted Christians who forsake Communion with our Lord, preferring instead communion with Q, and many others have anguished over this situation as well.

I must say that this sudden concern for the sanity of the faithful is difficult to take with a straight face. 

The thoughts that follow are nowhere near as loving as I would like them to be. I fully admit that my perspective lacks charity toward my fellow believers. But as a person who has spent his life in mainstream Evangelicalism, the surge of Qism and Trump worship is all too predictable, and Evangelicalism’s shame is long overdue.

In short, the rise of conspiratorial thinking in Evangelical churches is not a bug, but a feature.

The same mainstream, reasonable Christian culture which is now publicly embarrassed by the flock’s enthusiasm for Q have, for the last 50 years at least, not only tolerated, but actively encouraged conspiratorial thinking every bit as ridiculous as that of the Satanic, pedophile-hunting, Deep State-battling Q narrative. Let me briefly summarize some lowlights in American Christianity’s illustrious history. 

Chick Tracts

Without a doubt, Jack Chick was a bizarre figure from an isolated outpost of Christianity. His famous series of comic-booklets almost singularly epitomize fundamentalist kitsch. I also must confess a real affection for Chick Tracts. As a Christian child who loved horror movies and was made to feel guilty about that fact, Chick Tracts created a fantastic, fully-authorized world of demons, devil-cults, and human massacre that allowed me to consume horror and still pass myself off as “saved” to my church elders.

His comics were pamphlet-sized renditions of the classic slasher film formula of brutal punishment for sin. A typical story followed the moral arc of an arrogant non-believer who scoffs at the beginning scoffs and God’s rules and by the end is dragged to Hell by maniacal (yet oddly cute) demons as God watches from a distance, basically responding “Hey don’t talk to me, bro. I warned you.”  

Chick Tracts were almost a direct descendant of the conspiratorial John Birch Society’s worldview, where evil communists lurk around every corner to deceive and brutalize pristine, Eisenhowerian Americans. These comics are likewise, by every definition, little conspiracy theories.

And yes, while Chick himself was a character from the fringes, his work was widely distributed in supposedly “reasonable and mainstream” evangelical churches. A favorite part of visits to my aunt’s house was the bowl full of Chick Tracts she kept in her living room and the tracts were routinely available on literature tables in small churches across my midwestern home. How else would they have been so widely read if the mainstream did not sanctify this fringe conspiratorial thinking?

Rapture Narratives

Yet far more than Jack Chick’s nightmarish tales, End Times science fiction have dominated the eschatological imaginations of evangelicals for decades. Hal Lindsey’s bestseller The Late Great Planet Earth is probably ground-zero for the Christian obsession with the subject of the rapture and the Great Tribulation to come, but it is far from the first or last entry in the genre. 

The Christian exploitation film series A Thief in the Night cast a long shadow over my own paranoia about my salvation for many years. Available to rent at local Christian bookstores, my own family hosted a watch party as a form of Evangelical outreach and for the many years since I’ve dreaded dying on a guillotine. 

End Times eschatology itself is a kind of conspiratorial way of reading the Bible alongside current events. “Hey did you notice that each of Ronald Wilson Reagan’s names has six letters? 666?” It is also well-established and entirely authorized by the same Christian culture that now fears conspiratorial thinking in the Age of Trump. 

Rock and Roll Hysteria

My personal favorite tortures of my Evangelical youth were the “Rock and Roll Seminars” that were regularly scheduled by church leadership (not just at the local, but the denominational level). Youth camp was sure to reserve a slot for a grim revealer of satanic influence just beneath the surface of your Led Zeppelin albums. 

Again, I don’t look back on these moments with pure regret as they were great horror narratives. One speaker opened up a copy of the Eagles’ Hotel California and pointed us to a distant image in the background before revealing that it was Satan himself captured on film. Honestly, Friday the 13th always felt a little tame to me by comparison. 

In addition, having grown up on country music, I might never have discovered the thrill of AC/DC had it not been for these events (though I can do without the Eagles, frankly). 

Again, this type of theology emerges from the darkest heart of conspiracy theory, looking for clues beneath the surface that are unacknowledged by the uninitiated or unenlightened. And they were firmly part of Evangelical theological training. 

Why the Fuss Over Q?

I could go on and on with examples of church-affirmed conspiracy thinking. For crying out loud, I have not even mentioned Ken Ham’s Creation Museum and Ark Encounter grifts. The point is, Evangelicalism and conspiracism are so entwined that it is often difficult to tell where one ends and the other begins. Recently, Hollis Phelps wrote an article detailing the interchangeability of the two at The Bias, which is worth your time.

So the question about the serious reaction to Q in American churches remains. Why is the center of mainstream Christianity suddenly taken aback?

I have two responses, one more charitable than the other. 

First the uncharitable. Mainstream Christian intellectuals have formed respectable institutions like Wheaton College, Baylor University, and Christianity Today that are for good reason taken seriously by secular society. They are entirely reasonable and intellectually rigorous. Now that the secular media is paying attention to Evangelicals since Trump’s election, there is a bit of embarrassment about all the hicks. You can take that perspective or leave it; I understand.

Secondly, and probably more importantly, with Q, the conspiracy has now morphed into something identifiably blasphemous. 

Q offers an alternative form of Messianic salvation that replaces Jesus with Donald Trump. Sure, many people have somehow convinced themselves that Trump is Jesus’s man so this isn’t really blasphemy, but that is objectively bunk. Despite A Thief In the Night’ s conspiratorial flaws, it was at least still Jesus coming to the rescue. Q has dispensed with the pretense altogether and that makes it theologically dangerous to the reasonable center of the faith.

Conspiracy as Evangelical Liturgy

Why are fundamentalist forms of Evangelicalism such fertile soil for conspiracy?  To understand this, it is important to consider some key elements of conspiratorial thinking. 

First, conspiracy theories are basically constructed on the natural human tendency to find patterns in the world, particularly when confronting randomness. That cloud that looks like a bunny? That is pareidolia at work; it is simply the way we are wired. 

Second, a conspiracy tends to be nefarious. Who or whatever is collaborating against us is probably not benevolent. 

Third, conspiracies are essentially a form of Gnosticism, in which the enlightened one reveals hidden truths about the world to neophytes. The Matrix is a good example of this structure. 

Each of these elements of conspiracy have neat counterparts built into Evangelical theology. 

The hermeneutics that Evangelicals typically employ mirror a form of pareidolia, particularly when stitching together a variety of prophetic texts across the Old and New Testaments. Evangelicals approach the Bible as a unified single text, and under-estimate the process of writing and assembling its various writings across time and space. Therefore, the visions of Daniel and St. John and stitched together in a pastiche that constructs a grand pattern where none probably is. The role of the exegete in Evangelical traditions is to not only decode the hidden messages of the Bible, but also to map their meaning onto current events, often in real time.

Added to this, Original Sin and Satan as elemental components of Christian theology provide ready-made nefarious conspirators, against which the Christian must be vigilant, making the exegete’s message of dire importance. 

Certainly the political influence of Evangelical’s cozy relationship with conservatism is also a factor in the conspiratorial mindset of the church. Democrats and socialists are the natural political enemies of conservatism anyway, so when Q suggests that Hillary Clinton sacrifices children in the basement of pizza shops, one conspiracy maps neatly onto another. 

But ultimately I want to argue that markets and profit are what make Evangelicalism so susceptible to conspiracies. There is a great deal of money to be made in the Christian Mediasphere, and conspiracies practically print money.

Erin A. Smith, in an article about the mass success of The Late Great Planet Earth, details that by 1981, Christian publishing was a $1 Billion business, and Hal Lindsey’s book (my church library certainly had multiple copies of it) was a big part of that marketing empire. 

Profit-driven Gospel-mongering, from Lindsey to Ham and well beyond provide little incentive to not peddle fear-based conspiracies to a market that has been cultivated to receive them without question. The Evangelical abandonment of ritual and liturgy created a vacuum that was filled by people selling things, and political conspiracy flew off the shelves.

Good Country People

The Evangelicalism that is so perfectly vulnerable to conspiratorial thinking is, in many ways, predicted by Flannery O’Connor in her classic short story “Good Country People” (yes O’Connor is apparently #canceled now but give me a break already). I will assume the reader is familiar with the story already, but if not, they should go read it as soon as possible.

The story of Mrs. Hopewell, her arrogant daughter, Hulga, and the duplicitous Bible salesman Manley Pointer tells us almost everything we need to understand the baked-in naïveté cultivated by Evangelical culture.

O’Connor certainly reserves some scorn for Hulga’s over-educated cultural snobbery, but here I just want to focus on Mrs. Hopewell, the fake Christian whose assumptions about the world make her an easy mark for Manley Pointer (the greatest character name in American literature). 

Mrs. Hopewell brings Pointer into the family’s life because he knows how to sell to someone with her biases. In this way, he is no different from any other salesman whose market is the Evangelical church in America. Slap an American flag, a Bible verse, and something vaguely Thomas Kinkade-ish on it and some shmuck will buy it. Simply passing himself off as a model of the simplistic idea of “good country people” that Mrs. Hopewell values is enough for him to gain entry. Add to this the fact that he is selling Bibles, he has the veneer of religiosity that dupes the Hopewells. 

When in the end it is revealed that Pointer’s Bible is hollowed out and contains whiskey, playing cards, and condoms as he makes his getaway with Hulga’s prosthetic leg, there is a sense that justice has been done to the equally hollow Hopewell faith. As is typically with O’Connor, however, this moment of humiliation is also held out as a possible moment of redemption.

Similarly, the Q fiasco should sufficiently embarrass the Evangelical church enough that it takes a moment of self-reflection. What form of conspiracy is it comfortable with? 

Dr. Daniel Anderson teaches English at Mount Aloysius College in Cresson, PA. He received his Ph.D. in English from Case Western Reserve University. He teaches a range of Rhetoric, Literature, and Film classes at the Mount, including classes on the Jewish American Novel, Flannery O’Connor, Shirley Jackson, Franz Kafka, the Literature of Pittsburgh, and the Classic Horror Film. He also produces and hosts the Sectarian Review Podcast, which investigates art, pop culture, politics, and religion.

5 Comments Add yours

  1. Drew Trott says:

    I enjoyed this piece very much, but I have to lodge an objection to the way you are using “conspiracy.” That term refers to an agreement among multiple persons to accomplish a wrongful or unlawful act. Where is the conspiracy in Chick Tracks? The QAnon nonsense includes various claims of conspiracy, but I think the more general concept you are describing would be better referred to as “paranoid fantasy,” or something along those lines (while conceding that “paranoid” is not being used in its strict clinical sense). I suppose the real problem is that we have yet to coin a really fitting term to describe the kind of lunacy we’ve been witnessing. But in the meantime I feel obliged to defend the prescribed meaning of “conspiracy” and the related phrase “conspiracy theory.” Thus if you think Oswald acted in concert with others, that’s a conspiracy theory. It doesn’t mean it’s crazy. Many conspiracy theories are crazy; some are not. After all, conspiracies are charged and proven every day in our courts.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Here is Danny’s response that I’m posting on his behalf. He was having computer issues doing it on his end:

      I wanted to follow up with Drew’s comment. (When Matthew Brake alerted me that there was a comment I should respond to, I was a little anxious – this is a relief as the comment is entirely rational). I agree with your conclusion here that conspiracy theories are not always wrong. I also want to emphasize that Conspiratorial thinking is not something confined to the fringes of society. Historian Richard Hofstadter in his conversation-starting piece “The Paranoid Style in American Politics” initiates this narrative about conspiratorial thinking being a fringe thing. This is wrong. Mainstream conservatives and liberals engage in it was well (all the time). I highly recommend Jesse Walker’s book ‘The United States of Paranoia’ for insight into Hofstadter’s failings. Walker also goes into the history of conspiracies that turned out to be true.

      Back to the first point you made, I used Chick Tracts as an example based on the narratives of many of their comics. The stories really are (very often) little conspiracy narratives about communists or demons or whatever and I do think that their appeal among people like me and my fellow white evangelicals is partially tied to an appetite for this way of thinking. So I think that the paranoid fantasy frame you offer overlaps with conspiracy theory very heavily. It’s a venn diagram that is almost a circle.

      I hope this helps explain my reasoning a bit. The qualifications you bring to this are very important and I’m glad you did so. Thanks for following up and if you have further questions, feel free to contact me. On Twitter I’m @dannypanderson.

      Liked by 1 person

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