Is it just me, or does any time before the pandemic feel blurry? I was thinking about 2011 and it felt like ancient history. Eleven years ago, Obama was president, four of my grandchildren were yet to be born and things were looking up.
But in that year the seeds of what has blossomed lately were germinating. 2011 was the year The Book of Mormon musical surfaced on Broadway. Over the last decade, its scathing look at “believers” has become more and more prophetic as Evangelicals hardened into Trump supporters, as a horned shaman bellowed from the house dais on January 6, and as Rusty Bowers said last week it was a tenet of his (Mormon) faith that the Constitution is inspired by God. A mormonesque capacity seems to have captured people all over the world. Elder Price doubles down on such “believing” in the big song from the 2011 hit:
Facts, orthodoxy, institutions, common sense, and laws notwithstanding, people are going with what they believe. On June 17th Couy Griffin, founder of Cowboys for Trump and a member of the Otero County Commission in New Mexico, refused to back down from his refusal to certify the local election results after the New Mexico Supreme Court demanded he do so. He said, “My vote to remain a no isn’t based on any evidence, it’s not based on any facts, it’s only based on my gut feeling and my own intuition, and that’s all I need.” When he ran for the office in 2018, he said his experience as pastor of the New Heart Cowboy Church in Alamagordo would help him administer the needs of the county. When you are reduced to thinking you believe in your gut, a Trump cannot be too far away.
I started a session this morning by asking a client how she was doing and she said, “The world is so crazy right now, I’m not sure.” I think a lot of us wake up the same way many days. So what is going on?
The Donald Trump effect is not over
Thomas Edsall tried to sum up the Trump effect last week in the Washington Post.
Whether he is out of power or in office, Donald Trump deploys conspiracy theory as a political mobilizing tool designed to capture anger at the liberal establishment, to legitimize racial resentment and to unite voters who feel oppressed by what they see as a dominant socially progressive culture.
The success of this strategy is demonstrated by the astonishing number of Republicans — a decisive majority, according to a recent Economist/YouGov survey — who say that they believe that the Democratic Party and its elected officials conspired to steal the 2020 election. This is a certifiable conspiracy theory, defined as a belief in “a secret arrangement by a group of powerful people to usurp political or economic power, violate established rights, hoard vital secrets, or unlawfully alter government institutions.
According to a poll released on January 6, 2022, roughly 52 million voters believe Donald Trump won the 2020 election. The Republican Party has committed itself unequivocally and relentlessly to promoting that false claim. On June 18, the 5,000 delegates to the Texas Republican Party convention adopted a platform declaring that “We reject the certified results of the 2020 presidential election, and we hold that acting President Joseph Robinette Biden Jr. was not legitimately elected by the people of the United States.”
That’s what is happening. Maybe we will finally figure out why. Here are three reasons I am pondering.
We’re not titrating off our social media meds fast enough
Facebook has begun losing users, but Tik Tok and Instagram keep growing, as well as gaming and other communication platforms. It has all turned into a hotbed for misinformation. And it is addictive. The screens are a cheap way to medicate what we won’t overcome.
Eugen Dimant says people know factual news is more accurate than conspiracy theories. But they expect sharing conspiracy theories to generate more social feedback (i.e. comments and “likes”) than sharing factual news. The more positive social feedback for sharing conspiracy theories significantly increases people’s tendency to share these conspiracy theories that they do not believe in. Once you get away with a lie, when people believe it, when there are no repercussions, when it becomes part of your brand, it is hard to stop.
Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist at N.Y.U.’s Stern School of Business, noted that spreading a lie can serve as a shibboleth — something like a password used by one set of people to identify other people as members of a particular group — providing an effective means of signaling the strength of one’s commitment to fellow ideologues. Like a gang member’s tear drop, believing and advancing the lie demonstrates how far you are willing to go to belong.
For people on the edge, holding on to social media for connection, even still afraid to be in a face-to-face social group because they aren’t vaccinated or the virus might break through, belonging to a lie might be alluring.
Paranoia has been increasing worldwide for a decade
Many people have said the pandemic just accelerated societal trends that had been growing for years. Acquaintances in West Philly have been documenting the deterioration of their blossoming neighborhood for quite some time and trying to figure out how to get into the burbs. The pandemic pushed their poorest neighbors right over the edge. But before that, the whitelash after Obama was making Black people and all marginalized people frightened and reactive. At the same time, Rupert Murdoch has made billions stoking the fire of fear building among people who feel they are losing their rights, their place, their planet, their future.
“Conspiratorial thinking” is so common it has become a topic for social scientists and psychologists to study. One of the reasons the neighborhood may have more trash in it could be linked to what they are discovering. A group of English researchers wrote about the connection between conspiracy thinking and everyday crime: “Such crimes can include running red lights, paying cash for items to avoid paying taxes, or failing to disclose faults in secondhand items for sale” (2019 paper).
People are paranoid on the extreme right and the left of the political spectrum, worldwide. A psychologist from Amsterdam argues there are psychological benefits of believing conspiracy theories. “Conspiracy theories help perceivers mentally reconstrue unhealthy behaviors as healthy, and anti-government violence as legitimate (e.g., justifying violent protests as legitimate resistance against oppressors).”
The paranoia is everyday and mainstream. Edsall says people committing far-right violence — particularly planned violence rather than spontaneous hate crimes — are older and more established than typical terrorists and violent criminals. They often hold jobs, are married, and have children. Those who attend church or belong to community groups are more likely to hold violent, conspiratorial beliefs. These are not isolated “lone wolves;” they are part of a broad community that echoes their ideas.
Paranoia breeds more paranoia. If it is amplified by giant corporations and media megaphones, if it seems like everyone else feels the same, it is no wonder the ball is rolling.
The church has had its heart cut out
The church in the U.S. has often been the rock upon which corruption and cruelty crashed. It is no longer that rock. It is more like a ship which was listing long before the pandemic, sinking under the weight of its capitulation to power and profit. After having witnessed French history for three weeks recently, such sinfulness seems cyclical. The same sinfulness sank the French church a while back.
The pandemic was a torpedo. Preoccupied before the disease hit with fighting over race, sexuality, sexual abuse, authority and whether narcissistic white, mainly, and other males have a lock on leadership, the lockdowns revealed every unaddressed weakness and unleashed disaster.
Churchgoers are still wandering around dazed. Their post-pandemic church is not the same. Leaders are burned out and leaving in droves. The Black church and Catholic Church have seen the largest drops in attendance. Overall, the Barna group says, only one in three worshippers are still and only attending their pre-Covid church.
Maybe I should say the church’s heart has been colonized instead of cut out. Couy Griffin sums up a new worldview that took root after the conspiracy mentality invaded the church. He doesn’t consult the facts, his duty, the law, the Bible or his community, he trusts his gut — I would say his gut marinated in a tank of lies if I weren’t interested in being more generous. When you were their pastor, did you teach your people to trust their gut instead of Jesus and his church?
I don’t think people wake up one day and decide to overthrow the government. In our era, people already in a weakened state, too poor, too abused, too undereducated, too alone and uncared for are easily pushed into the arms of the gang, the ideology, the dictator. When people in the church think about themselves, their marginality, their anger instead of turning into Christ and his community, they can also lose the heart of their faith. I hear about how that has happened in the lives of my clients every week. I have experienced the emptiness first hand.
If the planet survives long enough, the church is likely to make a comeback. We may die but Jesus is alive. I know my month has been full of inspiration and new hope.
But it is hard to feel a lot of confidence things will change any time soon. Many people are hanging on to believing in believing like Elder Price. They are believing in themselves because they are all they’ve got. They are floating in a sea of lies trying to trust their gut, trying to hang on to some shred of morality and integrity. I respect their resilience. I hope we can all hang on until we outgrow our ego-driven self-protection and open up to the presence of God, presented in Jesus and ever-present in the Holy Spirit.