Evangelical leaders like Billy Graham and Jerry Falwell Sr. have long talked of conspiracies against God's chosen – those ideas are finding resonance today
President Donald Trump in the Oval Office of the White House. AP Photo / Alex Brandon
President Donald Trump sees many conspiracies around him.
He has described investigations into Russia's interference in the US elections and alleged violations of campaign finance laws, as well as the entirety of his impeachment, as "witch hunts" and "hoaxes".
He's not the only one who sees dark forces in the game. Some of his supporters do the same. A number of books on conspiracy theories report failed "Deep State" attempts to defeat Trump.
Even Trump's COVID-19 diagnosis and hospitalization spawned a number of conspiracy theories, with some conservative sources suggesting that Republicans were intentionally infected.
In my recent book, Rhetoric, Race, and Religion on the Christian Right, I examined conspiratorial issues and rhetoric from some of the leaders of the Christian right during the Obama administration.
I contend that the rhetoric of conspiracy now used by Trump has been fundamental to many prominent figures on the Christian right.
Christian law and the conspiracy
In the late 1970s and 1980s, evangelical leaders like Jerry Falwell Sr., Billy Graham, and other social and cultural changes such as the racial integration of schools opposed. For some, social and cultural changes were signs of a fallen land.
As the religious historian Randall Balmer explains, some conservative evangelicals and fundamentalists began to band together to oppose desegregation in the mid-1970s. Conspiracy theories about civil rights protests circulated in some conservative political areas.
These conspiracy theorists suggested that the student protesters in the civil rights movement were outside the agitators. Others said Martin Luther King Jr. and student protesters and organizers allied with international communist organizations.
In the late 1970s, Republican political strategist Paul Weyrich brought diverse religious factions and conservative politicians together and called them the moral majority.
Weyrich and his companions viewed Christianity as under attack and suggested that America had fallen away from its values. In 1980, Falwell Sr. argued, "What happened to America is that the wicked are in charge. We need to bring the nation back to the moral attitude that made America great."
Falwell saw the nation as fallen and secular forces as the enemy of Christianity. Theological and political differences, rather than differences in approach or reasoning, were seen as a struggle for America's soul. Popular religious figures like Presbyterian Minister Francis Schaeffer have described the survival of Western culture as a struggle between secular humanism and Christianity.
Francis Schaeffer Jr. explained his father's place as a fundamental figure of the Christian right, arguing: “For the first time in American history you have from the 1970s and evangelical subculture a world that deals with your own country as an enemy, before one has to be afraid. "
This new kind of evangelism grew rapidly. According to sociologist Sara Diamond, 20 to 40 million Americans were identified as Protestant in 1989. The exact number of evangelicals is difficult to determine because the term encompasses a wide range of denominations.
Frank Newport, editor-in-chief of the Gallup poll, said: "The term has been associated with a specific group of Christians who hold conservative and broadly Republican ideological and political beliefs." According to a Gallup poll in the 1991 data By 2018, roughly 40% of Americans were identified as evangelicals or born again Christians. The number has remained constant over the past three decades.
To clarify, not all evangelicals are conservative. A defining characteristic of the Christian right, however, is political engagement. While younger evangelicals are less politically engaged, older evangelicals associated with Christian law remain deeply politically engaged.
A poll by Pew Research shows that 79% of white Protestant evangelicals voted Republicans in the 2012 presidential campaign. Quit polls show that around 80% of white evangelicals voted for Trump in 2016.
Christian values and conspiracy
Some Christian rights leaders have named groups they hold responsible for America's fallen nature. Tim LaHaye, political organizer and co-author of a number of best-selling Christian books, Left Behind, claimed a group called the Illuminati had coordinated a global conspiracy to undermine Christian values.
The historical Illuminati were members of a secret society that was founded in Bavaria, now Germany, in 1776 to counter the abuse of power by the state. Today, a mythological version of the Illuminati is a favorite among conspiracy theorists.
LaHaye, for example, claimed that the Illuminati stalled in their attempts to establish a new world order because Christian law mobilized the vote for Ronald Reagan. Former presidential candidate and televangelist Pat Robertson has also attributed other conspiracy theories to the Illuminati.
More than culture wars
Since the late 1970s, the rhetoric of some Christian lawyers has been used to wage cultural warfare against racial integration, protection of marriage and gender identity, and compulsory public education.
In 1986, prominent evangelical leader and political activist Beverly LaHaye, wife of Tim LaHaye, lamented feminism and proponents of the Equal Rights Amendment, saying, "Well, nobody really likes her unisex, lesbian and radical philosophies."
Describing equality and wage equality as radical, LaHaye suggests that feminism seeks to undo biological sex and is closely related to same-sex relationships. LaHaye was not a civil rights issue in relation to individual freedoms, but rather described the women's movement as an attack on conservative communities and their values.
Phyllis Schlafly, founder of STOP ERA, an organization set up to stop the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment, gained national fame in 1964 with her book "A Choice Not an Echo". She claimed, "From 1936 to 1960, the Republican presidential candidate was selected by a secret group of kingmakers who are the most powerful influencers in the world." Schlafly claimed that powerful elites had robbed the people of the power of the Conservative Party.
Fifty years later, in her 2014 book "Who Killed the American Family?", Schlafly claimed, "The American nuclear family made America great, but few are now defending it against forces determined to destroy it." In Schlafly's tale, the American family is monolithic. Differences in family structures signal the destruction of conservative ideas about the nuclear family.
Schlafly's monthly newsletter, renamed the Eagle Forums Report after her death, forwards similar positions on immigration. The site's authors propose to end the birthright and make generalizations about Muslim immigrants as terrorists. They frame these matters as a means of protecting American culture and values.
Donald Trump appears to have teamed up with conspiracy theorists of the Christian right early in his political career.
Even before his campaign, Trump joined conservative Christian figures such as Joseph Farah, the founder and editor of WND, and World Net Daily. WND is a far-right website that went mainstream during President Obama's presidency. The website was a center for further conspiracy.
According to some obstetricians, Obama was a "secret" Muslim. A 2009 article in the Columbia Journalism Review found that some of the right-wing media outlets attacked him for being "un-American."
In the middle of the Obama presidency, WND drew 4 million visitors a month. WND also ran a publishing house with book titles by conservative figures like Schlafly.
Trump and Christian Law
Trump's presidency unites two lines of argument from some of these evangelical leaders through his rhetoric. First, God punishes America if Americans do not obey His commandments. Second, Christianity is under attack.
In an article written by Rev. Billy Graham in 2012 ahead of Obama's re-election, he recalled his wife, Ruth, and told him, “If God does not punish America, He must apologize to Sodom and Gomorrah. ”
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The reference to Old Testament history where God ravaged two cities because of their sinful nature reinforces the idea that American leadership is responsible for American decline, just as the leaders of these ancient cities were responsible for the wickedness of their people.
The underlying and unspoken premise of Graham's argument is that Obama is responsible for a fallen America that will bring God's punishment. The example of Sodom and Gommorah is telling. For Graham and several other evangelical leaders, Obama's leadership was a deliberate move from Christian values to immorality.
Trump offered himself as an antidote to fallen America and as a savior from destruction. One way to accept this narrative is, I suggest, through the use of conspiracy theories.
This article was republished by The Conversation, a non-profit news site dedicated to exchanging ideas from academic experts.
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Samuel Perry does not work for any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and does not consult or receive funding from stocks. He has not disclosed any relevant affiliations beyond his academic appointment.
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