A new study released Tuesday has found that nearly half of Protestant pastors in the United States say they hear members of their congregations repeating conspiracy theories — a “worrisome trend” researchers warn damages the impact of a Christian’s witness to those in their community.
A new study by the Nashville-based Lifeway Research of 1,007 U.S. Protestant pastors with a sampling error of plus or minus 3.4 percentage points found that 49% of church leaders agreed with the phrase, “I frequently hear members of my congregation repeating conspiracy theories they have heard about why something is happening in our country.”
Additionally, around 1 in 8 (13%) of Protestant pastors “strongly agree” their congregants are sharing conspiracy theories.
The study was conducted in the months before last November’s presidential election, Sept. 2 through Oct. 1.
Merriam-Webster defines conspiracy theories as “a theory that explains an event or set of circumstances as the result of a secret plot by usually powerful conspirators.”
Scott McConnell, executive director of Lifeway Research, said the statistics represented a “startling disconnect” between Christian churches — which resolve to be places focused on truth — and the spread of assumptions about plots.
“Before returning to Heaven, Jesus appealed to His followers to share what they had seen and heard,” said McConnell. “Passing along these eye-witness accounts of Jesus’ teaching and His death, burial and resurrection is the mission of the church. Instead, many church members are sharing things that might be, could happen or sound possible. One is a firm message of hope, and the other a shaky message of fear.”
Interestingly, pastors of churches with more than 250 in attendance are the most likely to agree (61%) with the statement. White pastors are also more likely than African American pastors to say they frequently hear their church members repeating conspiracy theories (50% to 36%).
Age also affected responses.
Pastors 65 and older are the most likely to disagree that they hear those ideas in their church (59%) and the least likely to agree (34%).
“While a minority of churchgoers may embrace conspiracy theories, the larger the church the more minds and mouths exist to be misled,” said McConnell. “At this time, it appears more of the theories are traveling in politically conservative circles which corresponds to the higher percentages in the churches led by white Protestant pastors.”
Christian apologist and author Mary Jo Sharp, founder of director of the nonprofit apologetics ministry Confident Christianity, Inc., warned in a statement shared by LifeWay Research that “irresponsibility with information unravels the impact of a Christian’s witness to those in their community, and, with social media, to the broader world.”
“The non-Christian may begin to believe or become further ingrained in the culturally popular belief that Christians are anti-intellectual, including anti-science,” she said. She added that “Christians should always be Gospel-forward in how they live their public lives” because they are “representatives of the kingdom of God.”
Before sharing anything in person or on social media, Sharp said Christians should first ask: “How will this affect my ability to share the good news of Jesus Christ?”
“The Apostle Paul tells us that, ‘Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth’ (1 Corinthians 13:6). I am supposed to delight in knowing, and, therefore, in sharing what is true,” said Sharp. “That is a high calling, but it is the one Christians are called to as followers of The Truth (John 14:6). We are not called to perfection, but to take seriously our representation of Jesus, and the truth of His salvation.”
Southern Baptist leader Russell Moore recently emphasized at the Ethics and Public Policy Center’s Faith Angle Forum the need for pastors and Christian leaders to speak the truth in the face of conspiracy theories.
“I talk to pastors every single day who are having to deal with crazy conspiracy theories related to vaccines or related to whatever in their communities,” the head of SBC’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission said. “And after a certain point, many people just become exhausted by this. We can’t be exhausted. We have to be the people who recognize reality and have the integrity to call reality what it is, which means having mouths that line up with our hearts, as Jesus taught us to do.”
Moore said he’d had conversations with people frustrated by family members who buy into conspiracies and feel like they’ve “failed” as a result.
“And what I’ve had to say to all of them is, you can’t fix this and correct it in the time of a day,” he stated.
“Part of that is the sense that the way that I protect myself is by joining myself to a herd, adopting everything that that herd believes or says as a shibboleth and then projecting a kind of swagger. And it’s killing us. It’s killing us as a society. It’s killing us as communities. It’s killing us as churches.”
In an op-ed for The Christian Post, author and retired law professor F. LaGard Smith contemplated why Christians are “fascinated” by conspiracy theories. He urged believers to focus instead on being “passionately loving” to others.
“Ever noticed how believers can be among those most easily drawn to conspiracy theories? Not exactly the greatest testimony to faith and trust!” he wrote.
“Yet, for all their negative connotations, there are more-benign conspiracies, as with a triune God saying in creative accord, ‘Let us make man in our own image.’ If we believers could but tap into the power of that divine conspiracy — conspiring to be passionately loving to each and every fellow image-bearer — it would be one conspiracy theory that even non-believers would find irresistible.”