Why Is it So Hard to Reach the Christian Conspiracy Theorist?

When fellowship is superior to facts.

I’m going to share with you the question I get more than virtually any other. It comes from sons and daughters, husbands and wives, uncles and aunts. It's a simple question with a hard, complicated, and often completely unsatisfactory answer. Here it is:

A person I love is deeply committed to conspiracies. What can I do? 

Sometimes the question is followed by another. What resources can I share with them to prove that vaccines are safe? Or that COVID is real? Or that the election was lawful? I’ve had a tendency to respond to the question with a question. Is your loved one merely conspiracy-curious, or are they conspiracy committed? 

If conspiracy-curious—they’re coming to you with genuine questions about misinformation—my advice has been simple: Engage enthusiastically. In other words, don’t be alarmed by bizarre questions. Instead, view them as an opportunity to have honest and genuine conversations. I love it when someone asks me, for example, if late night “ballot dumps” turned the election for Biden. The question communicates an open mind. 

I’m more alarmed, however, if someone tells me the election was stolen. The declaration communicates not just a commitment to a false reality, it also carries with it an implied commitment to a particular community.

I fear that my early responses to questions about the conspiracy-committed have been too passive—too inadequate for the magnitude of the challenge. I’ve advised patience. Give the political moment a chance to calm. Give COVID a chance to pass. Let people come back to church, to attend the way they used to attend—in close contact with people they love.

Recreate the human connections we’ve all missed, and then let’s see if the challenge remains so urgent. Then let’s see if so many millions of Christians continue to flirt with QAnon, believe Antifa attacked the Capitol on January 6, or believe that widespread election fraud cost Trump the 2020 election. These beliefs don’t just undermine our civil society, they often exact great costs in the wrathful hearts of their adherents.

But the more I see the conspiracies play out in real life, the more concerned I grow. When large numbers of people hold beliefs with religious intensity, those beliefs not only provide them with a sense of enduring purpose, they also help them form enduring bonds of friendship and fellowship. The conspiracy isn’t just a set of intellectual convictions, it’s also a source of community. It’s the world in which they live. 

Let’s put it another way: The conspiracy becomes part of their elephant. 

Ok, I know that makes no sense, but hang with me for a moment. Earlier this week a friend reminded me of Jonathan Haidt’s discussion of persuasion and moral humility. Haidt, as many readers know, is a New York University professor, a social psychologist, and author of The Happiness Hypothesis, The Righteous Mind, and the excellent Coddling of the American Mind, with my friend Greg Lukianoff.

Haidt describes our mind divided “like a rider on an elephant.” The rider “represents your conscious verbal reasoning—the stuff you’re aware of, the stuff that uses logic.” The elephant is “everything else, the automatic processes, the 99 percent of what’s going on in your mind that you’re not aware of.” 

Haidt argues that most of us spend our time trying to persuade other people’s “riders.” As he says, we forward them articles with the “seven reasons why you’re wrong,” but the real way to persuade is to “speak to the elephant first.” The elephant, after all, is “much stronger than the rider.” If the elephant digs in its heels, the rider can’t make it go anywhere, but when the elephant moves, the rider will follow along effortlessly. 

I love how Jonathan explains it in the first few minutes of this YouTube video:

So how does a conspiracy theory become part of the elephant? When it’s connected to the fabric of your identity, to your community, to your friendships, and to your faith. 

Let’s think this through for a moment. Let’s suppose that you forward to your Aunt Edna the absolutely perfect fact check—in 900 words, her commitment to “stop the steal” crumbles into ash. Where does that leave her in her friendships? Where does that leave her in her sense of political purpose? Does it leave her disconnected from her friends in her Bible study? Does it impact her relationship with her husband? What about the online community that’s embraced her and helped her through the loneliness of the pandemic? 

All of those consequences are exactly why most of the conspiracy-committed are beyond the reach of even the most potent acts of persuasion. You’re asking the rider to fight the elephant. 

So, how do we persuade? We reach the elephant. If your role in another person’s life is (as you see it) the “teller of hard truths,” then you’re at an immense disadvantage when contending for a family member’s heart with the people who share the same lie, but also love them, accept them, and give them a sense of shared purpose. 

You? You just make them feel bad.

Now, lest we start to feel arrogant—like we might be rational enough to be all rider and no elephant—Haidt has news for us. We’re not. We’ve got our own elephants, and it’s very hard to pull them away from their appointed path. 

Months ago, I wrote a Sunday newsletter called, “There’s a Question My Confederate Ancestors Taught Me to Ask.” I was reflecting on the humbling realization that we’re deeply bound to our place, our time, and our tribe. “When everyone around us is right,” I said, “we deserve little credit for conforming. When everyone around us is wrong, we’re also likely to fail.” 

Thus, the necessary posture of persuasion is one of deep humility. We can take little credit for our virtues. We’re often imprisoned by vices we can barely comprehend.

True persuasion is much more challenging than winning a debate. Sweeping away a falsehood is of little use unless you can replace the lie with a meaningful and empowering truth. You cannot yank a person from their community and then leave them homeless. Do not pretend we can replace something—no matter how malignant—with nothing.

There is profound biblical precedent for this idea. In Matthew 12, Jesus describes an “unclean spirit” that leaves a person and “passes through waterless places seeking rest.” Finding no rest, the spirit returns to the person and finds that the house of his heart is “empty, swept, and put in order.” And so the spirit takes up residence with seven more spirits, “more evil than itself,” and thus the “last state of that person is worse than the first.”

And so I feel I should change my response to the question that launched this piece. When you fear for the mind and heart of your conspiracy-committed mother or uncle or son, don’t wait. Engage. But don’t engage immediately with argument, but instead with the fellowship and love that makes the heart want to turn towards truth. You become the person who loves them, accepts them, and helps provide that vital sense of virtuous purpose. 

The conspiracy theory is often the symptom of an underlying disease—a disease of hate or fear that robs a person of joy. The fierce anger and furious purpose of the conspiracy mindset is a hollow replacement for the peace and faith found not just in truth, but in truth communicated by a loving and empathetic family and friends. 

(By the way, this whole year—when hundreds of thousands of older Americans died of disease in nursing homes and hospitals and millions isolated at home with Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity, and the endless scroll of their Facebook feeds—has demonstrated the extent to which our culture has neglected intergenerational relationships and forsaken older family members to fend for themselves in a time of great stress and pain.)

It can seem strange to speak of evangelizing Evangelicals, but there’s a crying need for people of faith to reach out within their own community to turn the elephant, to demonstrate the kind of fellowship that can make the fact checks superfluous. 

The longer I look at our bitter and divided culture, the more convinced I am that there are no shortcuts to cultural repair. Politics are important, but it’s relationships that will repair or destroy our land. Do we care enough about our angry relatives that we’re willing to love them back to spiritual health? The answer to that question will be more important than any media reform and any political contest. We simply cannot write off millions of Americans as beyond the reach of truth and hope.

One more thing …

One thing that I enjoy the most about this newsletter is the correspondence with readers. I’ve said before that I can’t respond to everything, but I do read everything you send. Many of your letters are thought-provoking and deeply moving. 

I wanted to take a brief moment and say that I hear one of your most common questions—why do I spend so much time pointing out the perceived errors and scandals of the church? What do I hope to accomplish by providing so many people with evidence of the church’s failures and hypocrisy?

There’s a long answer to that question, but here’s the short version—I see a distinction between Christendom and Christianity. And there are times when Christendom contradicts and even attacks the Christian faith. I’m drawing the distinction in part from Soren Kierkegaard’s Attack on Christendom—an eloquent critique of state religious establishment. Here’s how I put it in a National Review essay shortly before I joined The Dispatch:

The Evangelical analogue to the state religious establishments of years past — the “Christendom” that all-too-often redefined the faith as a kind of cultural and legal conformity, a rote adherence to external religious dictates — is the creation of a series of extraordinarily wealthy, powerful, and influential institutions that not only reach and influence Americans by the tens of millions, but also shape the course and conduct of the domestic and foreign policy of the most powerful nation in the history of the world.

A form of Christendom is necessary and important. That form should not be state-sanctioned Christianity, but rightly oriented private institutions that facilitate the spread of the Gospel and the compassionate works of the church. I’ll never forget the kind and loving Catholic social worker from Catholic Charities of Tennessee who helped my Calvinist family adopt an Ethiopian Orthodox child.

Moreover, rightly oriented institutions can impose the necessary theological and spiritual discipline that prevents churches from spinning off into apostasy and error. If a church proclaims that it is Southern Baptist or a member of the Presbyterian Church in America (my denomination), that has to mean something.

However:

It is the very importance of these institutions that can lead Christians astray. The institutions of Christendom are a means of advancing Christianity. Liberty University is valuable not because it exists, but rather because at its best it can and absolutely still does deepen and strengthen the genuine faith of its students and faculty. At the same time, the imperative that “Liberty must prosper” is not the same thing as declaring that the “Gospel must advance,” and the very moment that those two concepts start to conflict, then the institution must yield to the Gospel.

Take the extreme (but unfortunately common) example of how the defense of Christendom can damage Christianity: the often-reflexive institutional defensiveness in the face of sex-abuse allegations in both Catholic and Protestant religious institutions. Has any secular force harmed the church more than the church has harmed itself by its defensive response to the terrible crimes and horrific sins in its midst? “We must protect the church” is an impulse that can directly contradict the imperative to seek justice and care for the souls of those who are wounded by abuse and exploitation.

We cannot confuse accountability for any given Christian individual or Christian institution with hostility to Christian faith. Indeed, Christianity often requires that we confront the institutions of Christendom and, if necessary, demonstrate that no individual or ministry is more important than the truth of the Gospel itself. 

One last thing …

This hymn is marvelous. That is all: