Disinformation Fuels A White Evangelical Movement. It Led 1 Virginia Pastor To Quit
Some evangelical circles have incubated and spread conspiracy theories for years. It's part of a movement called Christian nationalism that researchers call a threat to American democracy.
Jared Stacy is still processing his decision to leave Spotswood Baptist Church in Fredericksburg, Va., last year. Until November, he was ministering to young parishioners in their 20s and 30s.
But in the four years since he had joined the church as a pastor, Stacy had found himself increasingly up against an invisible, powerful force taking hold of members of his congregation: conspiracy theories, disinformation and lies.
Stacy has seen the real consequences of these lies build up over the years; he says it has tainted the name of his faith.
"If Christians in America are serious about helping people see Jesus and what he's about and what he claims, then the label 'evangelical' is a distraction because it bears, unfortunately, the weight of a violence," he told NPR. "I would not use that term because of its association with Jan. 6."
That's the day the U.S. Capitol was attacked and invaded by a violent mob driven by what's commonly known as "the big lie": that President Biden wasn't legitimately elected. The rioters moved toward the Capitol following a rally held by then-President Donald Trump, during which he repeated that big lie. Rioters say they were compelled to stop Congress' certification of Biden's election, which was happening at that time at the Capitol.
The lie is so powerful that a recent survey by the conservative American Enterprise Institute shows that 3 in 5 white evangelicals say Biden was not legitimately elected.
Among them is Pastor Ken Peters, who founded the Patriot Church in Knoxville, Tenn., last year.
"I believe that 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 truly 'We the People'-elected, should-be president is residing in Florida right now."
On its website, the Patriot Church is described as a movement: "a church interceding on behalf of her nation." That 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 has spent several years researching Christian nationalism at Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis, defines it as the belief that America is a Christian nation, one that should privilege white, native-born politically conservative Christians.
"We do find evidence that Americans who embrace Christian nationalism are much more likely to embrace conspiratorial thinking," Whitehead told NPR. "The leaders of those movements have continually cast doubt on who you can really trust or even the federal government."
Trump seized on the opportunity to exploit their distrust for his own political survival. He made himself a champion for evangelical social issues — abortion being at the top of the list. He won their confidence — and their blind loyalty.
For Stacy, the violence at the Capitol on Jan. 6 is not something he fathomed when he decided to step away from his mainstream church in November.
Rather, it was a slow burn of other conspiracy theories that had been churning at his church and others for years.
The danger of ambivalence
During the protests last summer after George Floyd's killing, Stacy noticed his congregation making a turn toward a conspiracy theory about child sex trafficking.
"I began to see on social media people ignoring or pushing away Black Lives Matter by saying, you know, oh, well, no one's over here talking about trafficking," Stacy told NPR. He said the concern about child trafficking started out as legitimate — it is an awful truth that exists. But he quickly noticed that his parishioners started using it as shorthand for a lie: that Democrats with prominent roles in business, media and government are running child trafficking rings.
It was that conspiracy theory that compelled a man named Edgar Maddison Welch to fire inside a family pizzeria in Washington, D.C., in December 2016.
That false notion became prevalent again nearly a year later at the center of QAnon, an umbrella of conspiracy theories that has amplified false ideas about an evil liberal agenda and that casts Trump as a savior. QAnon has coalesced since then, perpetrating the lie that President Biden's election was illegitimate.
Stacy was afraid of what he saw taking root in his church. "This is about a wholesale view of reality — what is real, what is true," he said.
He saw some people in his own congregation — mostly the parents or elders of the young adults he worked with — elevating the idea of sex trafficking of kids and what he called "Democrat pedophilia."
"It was people who I respected, and that's even more complicated because they were [my] elders," Stacy said.
"The crack, the split was kitchen tables, where you have two completely different information streams, one that the parents use and one that their kids use," he said. Those two streams of information divided families: Older members of the church were entertaining conspiracies, and younger members were pushing back.
Stacy tried to have conversations with the members who believed these falsehoods. He saw it as his duty, even though the church he worked for avoided these discussions.
"As a church we're not in that discussion," a member of Spotswood Baptist Church leadership told NPR. "We have no interest being involved in that. It's not something that's been in any way discussed or on our agenda."
But Stacy couldn't separate his role as pastor from the conspiracy theories that were putting a strain on the younger parishioners he worked with. "The danger was of them being given a co-opted Jesus, a Jesus who believed in Q, a Jesus who believed in deep state, a Jesus who automatically voted Republican."
He said he could see several outcomes, none of which was any good: Either the younger members would leave the church altogether, or they'd buy into the conspiracy theories or they'd just learn to tolerate them.
That tolerance — and ambivalence — could be what do the most damage. They're how conspiracy theories spread.
A threat to democracy
When asked about the QAnon conspiracy theory that political leaders run a sex trafficking ring, Peters of the Patriot Church in Knoxville, Tenn., wouldn't disavow it.
"I don't know if they're right or wrong — I have no evidence personally to go one way or the other," Peters said. "Let's investigate that instead of investigating preachers who were at the [Jan. 6] rally as if we started some sort of insurrection." Peters was among those who participated in the Jan. 6 rally with Trump.
What can come off as a benign plea of ignorance and a feigned desire to learn the truth is enough to keep the theory going — and have it gain steam. According to a recent study by Lifeway Research, 49% of Protestant pastors say they frequently hear members of their congregations repeating baseless conspiracy theories.
The recent study by the American Enterprise Institute showed that 27% of white evangelicals — the most of any religious group — believe that the widely debunked QAnon conspiracy theory about political leaders running a child sex trafficking ring is "completely" or "mostly accurate," and that 46% say they're "not sure."
If Peters pleads ignorance about that conspiracy theory, he fully embraces the big lie that led to the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. In a video of a sermon on Jan. 24, he shouts from the pulpit, "Biden was illegally put in as president, [the] fake 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, democratic society because it sees particular ends, like keeping a certain person in the presidency, as that is what God has desired and that God wants. It's really difficult to ever come to the conclusion of 'We should share power or compromise or even abide by the democratic process' because if God does desire to, who are we to stand in the way of that?"
Taking distance to gain clarity
Stacy needed distance to figure out what was happening in his church. He's living in Scotland with his wife and kids and earning a Ph.D. in theology at the University of Aberdeen.
He eventually wants to come back to the U.S. and pastor a church again.
He reflected back on the conversations he had with his older parishioners: "It's almost like putting a pebble in someone's shoe, and eventually you just got to stop walking and you've got to sit down. You have to take your shoe off and you have to figure out what in the world is it that is making me limp forward here?"
"That is what those conversations were designed to do."
But he's going to have to figure out if planting pebbles of truth is enough to dismantle a mountain of lies.
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