A Long Erosion in the Same Direction: Trump, Evangelicals, and the Poison of Conspiracy Theories

Throughout the past five years I have regularly criticized Donald Trump, and while it remains true that I personally dislike him, that personal dislike has been neither the substance nor source of my criticisms. Instead, my attention has focused on what his presidency and actions have meant for, and within, the community of Christians of which I am a member. I am an Evangelical, and these past years—under the explicit influence and impact of Trump—have revealed many things about Evangelicals that reflect poorly on the Gospel we claim to advocate.

I think we’ve made a bad deal.

I have found, speaking as a Christian to Christians, something deeply troubling in the easy alliance between our tribe and this president. This president has been a Bad Moral Example—he speaks and acts in ways in which we would not allow for our children. The ready defense of his many indiscretions makes a mockery of our public witness—we who claim to uphold the importance of integrity in our public officers have, strangely, given this man a pass. In the end, we look like people who are more hungry for power than for justice. We are the inevitable losers in this exchange.

To pour salt on these wounds, in recent years Christians have increasingly turned upon one another when they criticize Trump. Certain members of the Evangelical world are all too ready to question the credentials and faithfulness of anyone who dares to publicly criticize this particular president. The rhetoric of divisiveness (us/them, conservatives/the libs), the sloganeering and name calling (snowflake, libtard, MAGA), and the all-or-nothing thinking (“Trump’s presidency is the last hope for America!”), have combined in such a way that the Good Guys and Bad Guys are now determined not by their faithfulness or clear thinking but by—ironically enough—a form of political correctness. These factors bear a strange fruit indeed when an upright figure like John Piper becomes an enemy of Evangelicalism for daring to criticize Trump.

Nietzsche once ironically wrote of a “long obedience in the same direction.” His words were ironic because, despiser of Christian rules and regulations as he was, he recognized in them a consistent source of beauty and goodness in the world. But now I fear that we Evangelicals stand together at the end of a long erosion in the same direction—that we Christians, who for so long have warned of the dangers of the slippery slope, have become the victims of one; that, having cozied up to a form of power, we have allowed that power to corrupt our witness.

This corruption has reached a peak in the last weeks. Despite all of the alarming characteristics within Evangelicalism that have been exposed by the Trump presidency, none has been more dangerous—or more toxic to our faith and witness—than those that have emerged in the conclusion of his presidency. I speak specifically with regard to the claims of widespread conspiracy and election fraud. These claims, and our belief in these claims, present perhaps the gravest threat of all to our Christian witness. Allow me to explain why.

I should begin by noting that I grew up near Chicago, and Illinois basically wrote the book on election fraud. It is, indeed, a Thing. It happens, and when corruption reaches a certain stage in civic operations, it becomes difficult to accomplish anything without corruption. But I also know that the resources required to commit a fraud at the level required to hoodwink an entire national election beggars belief—organization, secrecy, money, they simply aren’t there. I’ll tell you why I think this way. When I was young and driving at night—especially late at night—I used to listen to a syndicated radio program called Coast to Coast AM. The program was great fun. They regularly interviewed alien abductees, discussed the Kennedy assassination, and talked endlessly about the mysteries of Area 51. The content was absurd, but at night, driving alone in your car, the voice through the radio worked its comforting magic and became strangely believable. One night, the host was interviewing a former CIA agent. The host was asking questions about government conspiracies, about cover-ups and secrets, and in two short sentences the former agent put a pin to the balloon that is basis of many U.S. Government Conspiracy theories. He said, “The people who run the CIA are basically like the Post Office. Do you think they’re organized enough to keep a thing like this secret?” With that, the absurdity of a nationwide, massive coverup became clear as day. It’s impossible. Nobody knows how to keep quiet about these things. Nobody is organized enough. And therefore it is far more likely that the conspiracy theory is just that—an interesting but ultimately flimsy theory.

Here, with the 2020 election, we face a similar set of incredulous claims—and they are in-credulous in that they defy credulity. And yet we are challenged by many prominent Christian figures to believe that there are widespread conspiracies of election fraud. Eric Metaxas is a prominent example of this, and in articulating his convictions he has quite clearly linked support for Trump to support for the Christian faith. About a month ago, participating in an event called “Global Prayer for US Election Integrity,” Metaxas offered the following comments, drawing first on the distinction between the natural and supernatural,

If we’re going through a time of darkness where in the natural we’re not getting the evidence—or whatever—we need, there is no doubt that we must stand firm. It’s like somebody saying, ‘Oh, you don’t have enough evidence to believe in Jesus.’ We have enough evidence in our hearts. We know him and the enemy is trying harder than anything we have seen in our lives to get us to roll over, to forget about it. (video timestamp 11:52)

This is an astonishing train of thought, because in it something of the very structure of Christian belief has been coopted for political purposes. Metaxas is arguing that belief in election fraud is of a kind with belief in the resurrection of Jesus; that faith might mean knowing a thing is true first and then finding the evidence later; that the nature of faith is belief in the absence of evidence; and with all these there is the suggestion that the nature of belief is a kind of inner fervor. This, to my thinking, is the most troubling development of all, the most dangerous yet to our Evangelical witness.

There are many things to address here. In the first place, Christian faith is not a feeling, it is not a fervor, nor is it a kind of conviction in the absence of evidence. One of the most mis-read verses among Christians is Hebrews 11:1, which states “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” In my experience, Christian readers undergo a kind of hypnosis when reading these words—they read, “Now faith,” then gloss the middle of the sentence, and hear, “is unseen.” Faith is invisible, it is like the “leap of faith” in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, where he doesn’t see the invisible bridge, but must step on it anyway. See? Faith is unseen. But that isn’t what the author of Hebrews says—he says that faith is the assurance, the substance, the material reality of things hoped for. If we look closely we will see that it is, in fact, hope that is unseen. Faith is most definitely seen.

This is, of course, not a new problem. American Christian teaching on faith and the nature of faith in has for too long relied on a misplaced understanding of faith—our theology has been formed more by Stephen Spielberg than by the Bible—and we have allowed ourselves to believe that faith means clinging to things without evidence. This kind of belief—faith as fervor, faith as belief without evidence—characterizes not Christianity, but Mormonism. The book of Mormon documents rivers, cities, and events that don’t’ exist and never happened. No external evidence corroborates the events of the Book of Mormon, and therefore faith for Mormons very much means believing in things without evidence. When Christians ask us to believe in election fraud, even when there is no evidence, then the structure of their ‘faith’ looks more Mormon than Christian.

And yet evidence is at the heart and soul of the Christian faith. On this, 1 John 1:1-3 is explicit, and I will attempt to make it even more explicit by highlighting the words of evidence in bold:  

What was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the Word of Life— and the life was manifested, and we have seen and testify and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was manifested to us—what we have seen and heard we proclaim to you also, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father, and with His Son Jesus Christ.

The New Testament contains the writings of people who were eyewitnesses to the Christ event. They met him, touched him, heard him, sat with him, watched him die, and met him after he rose from the dead. The whole business of Christianity hangs precipitously on whether or not Jesus rose bodily from the dead, and even the early Christians knew the stakes. Paul himself, writing in 1 Corinthians 15:16-19, makes this explicit,

For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If we have hoped in Christ in this life only, we are of all men most to be pitied.

Do you see that? If it didn’t happen, we’re the stupidest people on the planet. Everything—and I mean everything—for Christians hangs on the testimony of these eyewitnesses.

This means that, extending from our belief in the evidence of the resurrection, we are a people who care a great deal about evidence, and along with evidence we care about truth. Our commitment is, in fact, uncompromising. Josef Pieper, in his book Happiness and Contemplation, puts it succinctly: “We want to know the truth at any cost, even if the truth should be frightful.” I want to know God, not my idea of God. I want to know the real Jesus, not my idea of Jesus. And if it were indisputably proved tomorrow that Jesus didn’t rise from the dead—if they produced without doubt the desiccated bones of Jesus Christ—then the nature of our faith is such that everything we Christians believe would be over. It would be a frightful truth, but it would be true; and we who have committed to the truth could do no other.

This is the quite the opposite, of course, to the tone set by many public Christians of late—who appear to be measuring the value of a news source based on its agreement with what I already believe. Upset with Fox News for reporting, well, the news—the news that Trump had lost and that no fraud was forthcoming—many conservatives have turned on Fox! The new measure of a news source’s worthiness is whether or not it agrees with me, and apparently masses of conservative Christians have migrated from Fox News to Newsmax, from Facebook to Parler. It begins to look as if agreement means more than information. We have truly entered into strange waters when a media figure like Metaxas wields more authority among Christians than a seasoned pastor like Piper.

But a further reason why claims like Metaxas’s are so damaging is precisely because as Christians we ask other people to believe things. We are in the business of faith, of belief—that’s arguably our main business in the world. What we do is ask people to believe—things like our testimony, our witness to the resurrection of Jesus, the trustworthiness of our tradition, and our commitment to goodness, and truth, and virtue.

But all this is at risk, because what we ask people to believe are real things. Thing that really happened. The basis of the Christian faith is the belief that Jesus of Nazareth rose from the dead, bodily, on the third day after his crucifixion. We believe this because eleven men and three women saw him that day, and then most of them died violently never abandoning their conviction that Christ was alive. They handed their testimony on to others, who met and experienced the risen Jesus, so that today—two thousand years after the event—we believe in the resurrection of Jesus in the same kind of way that we believe Abraham Lincoln was assassinated on the 15th of April, 1865. It happened. People saw it, and told us about it, passing it on.

Christian faith is not a conspiracy theory. The conspiracy depends upon secrets, deception, hidden evidence, and suggestive connections between events. Christian faith depends on openness, clarity, sound reasoning, and an unbroken line of eyewitness testimony. Consider the words of Chuck Colson, one of Nixon’s advisors, and the only one of his associates who was tried and convicted for the events related to the Watergate scandal. Reflecting on these events years later, he wrote the following in his autobiography, Born Again:

I know the resurrection is a fact, and Watergate proved it to me. How? Because 12 men testified they had seen Jesus raised from the dead, then they proclaimed that truth for 40 years, never once denying it. Every one was beaten, tortured, stoned and put in prison. They would not have endured that if it weren’t true. Watergate embroiled 12 of the most powerful men in the world—and they couldn’t keep a lie for three weeks. You’re telling me 12 apostles could keep a lie for 40 years? Absolutely impossible.

Colson has nicely outlined the difference between conspiracy-faith, and Christian-faith—the conspiracy cannot sustain itself, it will break, and under pressure the truth will out; Christian faith is ongoing, it doesn’t break, and under pressure its original adherents refused to break. Their testimony was proved true. So should it be with us who claim Christ.

Therefore when we—whose entire eternity is wagered on the belief in the trustworthiness of these events—when we abuse our belief by associating it with baseless conspiracy theories, when we allow our cultural fears to override overwhelming evidence, then this promises immeasurable damage. What is at stake is more than an election, more than our rights, more than America; what is at stake is our ability to ask people to trust us when we tell them that a man rose bodily from the dead and that belief in him is the means of salvation for humans.

In the end, the more incredible the beliefs we demand of people, the more incredulously they will regard our actual beliefs. It was bad enough when society began to associate the term ‘Evangelical’ with Trump; now, because of our tarnishing of belief, they will associate our disposition of faith with Trump’s fraudulent election claims. Inasmuch as Trump will inevitably fail to execute this particular lie, our faith will be tarnished alongside him. That’s why our evangelical association with conspiracy theories is so very dangerous: because if you are ever again going to ask someone to believe in the resurrection of Jesus Christ as a condition for their salvation, you need to take a long, hard look in the mirror about what other things you have linked to that belief.

One comment on “A Long Erosion in the Same Direction: Trump, Evangelicals, and the Poison of Conspiracy Theories

  1. Joe White says:

    This was really great!!!!

    Thanks for writing it!

    On Wed, Dec 30, 2020 at 9:56 AM Mustard Seed Faith wrote:

    > jmichaelrios posted: ” Throughout the past five years I have regularly > criticized Donald Trump, and while it remains true that I personally > dislike him, that personal dislike has been neither the substance nor > source of my criticisms. Instead, my attention has focused on what ” >

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