Misinformation fuels a white evangelical movement. This led to 1 Virginia pastor quitting: NPR

Protesters gather at the US Capitol on January 6. Later that day, the Capitol building was breached by a violent mob led by what is commonly referred to as “the big lie”: that President Biden was not legitimately elected.

Jack Gruber/USA Today Network via Reuters

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Jack Gruber/USA Today Network via Reuters

Protesters gather at the US Capitol on January 6. Later that day, the Capitol building was breached by a violent mob led by what is commonly referred to as “the big lie”: that President Biden was not legitimately elected.

Jack Gruber/USA Today Network via Reuters

Jared Stacy is still processing his decision to leave Spotswood Baptist Church in Fredericksburg, Virginia last year. Until November, he cared for young parishioners in their twenties and thirties.

But in the four years since he joined the church as a pastor, Stacy had increasingly found himself confronted by an unseen and powerful force gripping members of his congregation: conspiracy theories. , misinformation and lies.

Stacy has seen the real consequences of these lies pile up over the years; he says it defiled the name of his faith.

“If Christians in America really want to help people see Jesus and what he is and what he claims, then the ‘evangelical’ label is a distraction because it unfortunately carries the weight of a violent “, he told NPR. “I wouldn’t use that term because of its association with January 6.”

This is the day the US Capitol was attacked and overrun by a violent mob led by what is commonly referred to as “the big lie”: that President Biden was not legitimately elected. The rioters headed for the Capitol following a rally hosted by then-President Donald Trump where he repeated that big lie. Rioters say they were forced to stop Congressional certification of Biden’s election, which was happening at the time on Capitol Hill.

The lie is so powerful that a recent survey by the conservative American Enterprise Institute shows 3 in 5 white evangelicals say Biden was not legitimately elected.

Among them is Pastor Ken Peters, who founded the Patriot Church in Knoxville, Tennessee, last year.

“I believe 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 real president elected by ‘We the People’ currently resides in Florida.”

On its website, the Patriot Church is described as a movement: “a church interceding on behalf of its nation”. This 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 spent several years researching Christian nationalism at Indiana University and Purdue University in Indianapolis, defines it as the belief that America is a Christian nation, which should privilege white, native-born, politically conservative Christians.

“We find evidence that Americans who embrace Christian nationalism are much more likely to embrace conspiratorial thinking,” Whitehead told NPR. “The leaders of these movements have continually questioned who you can really trust or even the federal government.”

Trump seized the opportunity to exploit their mistrust for his own political survival. He made himself a champion of evangelical social issues – abortion being at the top of the list. He won their blind trust and loyalty.

For Stacy, the violence at the Capitol on Jan. 6 isn’t something he understood when he decided to step away from his traditional church in November.

Rather, it was a slow burn of other conspiracy theories that had been swirling around his church and others for years.

Jared Stacy was pastor at Spotswood Baptist Church in Fredericksburg, Va., until last year.

Jared Stacy

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Jared Stacy

Jared Stacy was pastor at Spotswood Baptist Church in Fredericksburg, Va., until last year.

Jared Stacy

The danger of ambivalence

During protests last summer following the murder of George Floyd, Stacy noticed her congregation turning to a child sex trafficking conspiracy theory.

“I started seeing people on social media ignoring or pushing back on Black Lives Matter saying, you know, oh, well, nobody here is talking about traffic,” Stacy told NPR. He said the concern about child trafficking was initially legitimate – it’s a terrible truth out there. But he soon noticed that his parishioners began using it as shorthand for a lie: that Democrats in prominent roles in business, media and government run child trafficking rings.

It was this conspiracy theory that compelled a man named Edgar Maddison Welch to shoot a family pizzeria in Washington, DC in December 2016.

This false notion became prevalent again nearly a year later at the center of QAnon, an umbrella of conspiracy theories that has amplified misconceptions about an evil liberal agenda and cast Trump as a savior. QAnon has since merged, perpetuating the lie that President Biden’s election was illegitimate.

Stacy was afraid of what he saw taking root in his church. “It’s about a holistic view of reality – what’s real, what’s true,” he said.

He saw some people in his own congregation — mostly the parents or elders of the young adults he worked with — bring up the idea of ​​child sex trafficking and what he called “democratic pedophilia.”

“They were people I respected, and it’s even more complicated because they were [my] elders,” Stacy said.

“The split, the divider was the kitchen tables, where you have two completely different streams of information, one that parents use and one that their children use,” he said. These two streams of information divided families: the older members of the church harbored conspiracies, and the younger repelled them.

Stacy tried to have conversations with the members who believed these lies. He considered it his duty, even though the church he worked for avoided such discussions.

“As a church, we’re not in that discussion,” a member of the Spotswood Baptist Church leadership told NPR. “We have no interest in being involved in this. It is in no way something that has been discussed or on our agenda.”

But Stacy couldn’t separate his role as pastor from the conspiracy theories that put a strain on the young parishioners he worked with. “The danger was that they were given a co-opted Jesus, a Jesus who believed in Q, a Jesus who believed in a deep state, a Jesus who automatically voted Republican.”

He said he could see several outcomes, none of which were good: either younger members would leave the church altogether, accept conspiracy theories, or simply learn to tolerate them.

This tolerance – and this ambivalence – could be what does the most damage. This is how conspiracy theories spread.

A threat to democracy

Asked about the QAnon conspiracy theory that political leaders run a sex trafficking ring, Peters of the Patriot Church in Knoxville, Tennessee, wouldn’t disavow it.

“I don’t know if they’re right or wrong – I personally don’t have any evidence to go one way or the other,” Peters said. “Let’s investigate this instead of investigating the preachers who were at the [Jan. 6] gathering as if we had started some kind of insurrection. Peters was among those who attended the Jan. 6 rally with Trump.

What may come across as a benign plea of ​​ignorance and a feigned desire to learn the truth is enough to push the theory forward – and make it gain momentum. According to a recent study by Lifeway Research, 49% of Protestant pastors say they frequently hear members of their congregations repeat baseless conspiracy theories.

The recent study by the American Enterprise Institute showed that 27% of white evangelicals – most of any religious group – believe the widely debunked QAnon conspiracy theory about political leaders who run a child sex trafficking ring is “completely” or “substantially correct”. and 46% say they are “not sure”.

If Peters pleads ignorance of this conspiracy theory, he fully embraces the big lie that led to the insurgency in the United States Capitol. In a video of a January 24 sermon, he shouts from the pulpit: “Biden was illegally appointed president, [the] false president of the United States.”

Mixing God and country in this way is a danger to the American way of life as we know it, researcher Whitehead explained.

“Christian nationalism is a threat to a pluralistic and democratic society because it sees particular ends, like keeping a certain person in the presidency, because that is what God intended and what God wants. It is really hard to come to the conclusion of ‘We should share power or compromise or even respect the democratic process’ because if God wills it, who are we to oppose it?”

Take distance to gain clarity

Stacy needed distance to understand what was going on in her church. He lives in Scotland with his wife and children and earns a doctorate. in Theology from the University of Aberdeen.

He eventually wants to return to the United States and pastor a church again.

He thought back to the conversations he had had with his older parishioners: “It’s almost like putting a pebble in someone’s shoe, and eventually you just have to stop walking and you have to sit down. You gotta take your shoe off and you gotta figure out what’s in the world that’s got me limping here?”

“That’s what these conversations were designed to do.”

But he will have to determine if planting pebbles of truth is enough to dismantle a mountain of lies.

Barry F. Howard