We live in a time of social upheaval, and social upheaval is fertile soil for conspiracy theories. Most of them are based on error and misinformation, and some can be downright dangerous. The ones that ensnared me in the turbulent 1960s drew me into racial hatred and political extremism and led to a shootout with police that killed an accomplice and very nearly killed me—all in the name of Christian patriotism.
My story is just one of many that ended in tragedy. Back then, conspiracy theories were on the margins of society, but today, with the advent of the internet, they are proliferating. They have moved mainstream and now into the church, where low levels of biblical literacy and high levels of cultural seduction make people more vulnerable.
Some conspiracy theories are relatively harmless, like the idea that the moon landing was faked. Others, like the theories I believed, are dangerous. By intensifying fear, anger, and hatred, they led to violence.
The most common conspiracy theories today are not as violent as before but can still deceive and lead people astray with serious consequences. QAnon, a right-wing theory that believes former President Donald Trump was fighting an underground ring of Satan-worshiping pedophiles, is probably the most popular right now and is making significant inroads in our culture and the church. Recent research from the American Enterprise Institute shows that 25 percent of white evangelicals affirm part or all of the QAnon conspiracy theory.
QAnon makes frequent use of scriptural references and eschatological allusions, giving it unmerited credibility and even leading some ministries to propose a merger of QAnon and Christianity. The Institute for Strategic Dialogue reports that QAnon grew by more than 175 percent on Facebook alone in 2020.
Professing Christians who believe these theories are on the dangerous thorny ground Jesus described in Matthew 13:22, where, as William Hendriksen puts it, “Constant anxiety about worldly affairs fill mind and heart with dark foreboding.” Instead of being eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace through humility, gentleness, patience, and love (Eph. 4:2–3), they produce the works of the flesh, fostering dissensions and divisions that cause believers to take sides, argue, and fight with one another (Gal. 5:20). When things reach this point, the Devil has succeeded in using his age-old tools of deception and division to disrupt the church, and it underscores Peter’s caution that “whatever overcomes a person, to that he is enslaved” (2 Pet. 2:19, ESV throughout).
How do conspiracy theories begin? Some originate from the noetic effects of sin—flawed thinking. But others originate with “the god of this world,” who blinds “the minds of unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ” (2 Cor. 4:4). The Devil’s lies and deception began with Adam and Eve, and conspiracy theories were widespread as far back as Isaiah’s day (Isa. 8:11–13).
In the New Testament, Jesus warned his followers concerning his second coming: “See that no one leads you astray” (Matt. 24:4; Mark 13:5). Paul urged believers to “Let no one deceive you with empty words” (Eph. 5:6) and “Let no one deceive you in any way” (2 Thess. 2:3). John says, “Little children, let no one deceive you” (1 John. 3:7).
Unfortunately, I was not alert and on guard in the 1960s. As a teenager, I was a patriotic kid who attended a large Southern Baptist church, but I became deeply disoriented by the social upheaval around me and angered by the federally mandated desegregation of my high school and local public facilities. The world that I had grown up in was being turned upside down.
In the midst of the chaos, I stumbled onto some propaganda that was distributed at my school and later met those who were behind it. Their explanation for what was happening revolved around conspiracy theories that made sense to me at the time. They taught the superiority of white people and that a shadowy group of powerful Jews were conspiring to corrupt Christianity, undermine America, and take control of the world. The situation was dire, they said, and patriotic Americans needed to act before it was too late. This was the 1960s version of extreme Christian nationalism. Hitler used the same core ideas in Germany, and many millions died as a result.
That was the hook that drew me down the rabbit hole, the beginning of a downward spiral of indoctrination and deception that eventually led me into terrorist activity, two shootouts with law enforcement, the death of two accomplices, and a 35-year sentence in prison.
As in my high school years, the cultural, racial, and political turmoil we are experiencing today has created a swirling vortex that is psychologically disorienting and deeply unsettling for many people. This arouses fear about the future and a search for answers and solutions. A search for answers—for truth and reality—is not bad in itself; we are living in turbulent times and people should be concerned. However, we must be alert to and on guard against falling for simple answers to complex issues, which is the specialty of conspiracy theories.
Is it possible to help family, friends, or colleagues who are attracted to ideologies like Christian nationalism and conspiracy theories like QAnon? I believe it is. We can start by asking God to help us love the person, seek their good, and be an agent of his grace in their life. Then, we can ask the Holy Spirit to make us usable—to help us recognize and repent of any sinful attitudes toward the person: self-righteousness, pride, or arrogance because we see the truth and they don’t; or frustration, impatience, or anger because they resist facts, reality, and truth. These and other wrong attitudes can sabotage our efforts from the start.
Next, we need to remember that with QAnon we are in a battle with the forces of spiritual darkness. The “deceitful spirits and teachings of demons” that Paul warned Timothy about in the first century are just as prevalent today (1 Tim. 4:1). Personal prayer and even fasting are essential in this battle. Pray for insight, discernment, and wisdom, and be alert to any ideas from the Holy Spirit. We may also need to recruit others to join in prayer. Unknown to me, a group of godly women prayed weekly for two years for my deliverance and salvation.
This type of spiritual battle also requires us to do our homework. Articles and podcasts from credible sources are readily available. Learn from those who have experience in dealing with what you will face. Identify the weak points and vulnerabilities in your interlocutor’s belief system. (Many people have found Steven Hassan’s work helpful.) That will enable you to discern from the start how deeply the person is ensnared.
People are scattered all along the spectrum, from the hardcore to the marginally involved. Hardcore ideologues are the most difficult to work with and may require deeper study and the support of others. The marginally involved person may see the ideology or conspiracy theory as perhaps plausible, but they are not so convinced and alarmed by it that they are committed to action. They can often be reasoned with through friendly dialogue.
Conversations must be carried on with Christlike humility and “with gentleness and respect” (1 Pet. 3:15). This is crucial to gain a hearing and maintain a good relationship—without which there is no possibility of having a positive influence. Show respect and seek to build trust by patiently listening to their ideas (no matter how bizarre). Seek to understand them well enough that they agree that you correctly understand their position. For every hour you are together, spend 50 minutes listening.
Don’t be impatient and attempt to rush the process of relationship building and dialogue. It may take a number of sessions before you start to see progress. Arguments or debates almost never work in this type of situation. Instead, follow Paul’s advice to Timothy: “The Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will” (2 Tim. 2:24–26). If you have done your homework, you will be prepared for opportunities to gently ask questions that expose errors of fact or reasoning. Jesus often used questions to penetrate defenses and prompt self-examination.
Keep alert for the underlying attraction for the person. Often, it is connected to a deep need. Both Christian nationalism and QAnon have cultish characteristics. Many people enter a cult because it “fitted with what they were looking for and lacked in normal society” says Eileen Barker, a sociologist and researcher at the London School of Economics. Meaningful community is often part of what people are looking for in extremist groups. If you are in a healthy church with sound biblical preaching and vibrant community life, invite them to come visit as your guest. And get some of your friends to connect with them. Engaging with a community of joyful, devoted followers of Jesus is in effect immersing oneself in his light, truth, and love. The Holy Spirit can do wonders in such an environment.
Finally, “Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil” (Eph. 6:10–18), and keep reminding yourself that nothing is impossible with God. If he could save a deeply misguided, violent religious terrorist like Saul of Tarsus, or someone like me, he can save anyone.
Thomas Tarrants is the president emeritus of the C. S. Lewis Institute and author of Consumed by Hate, Redeemed by Love.
Speaking Out is Christianity Today’s guest opinion column and (unlike an editorial) does not necessarily represent the opinion of the publication.