Conspiracy and American Jihad

Michael Gerson is right. Feverish conspiracy theories have become “a kind of discrediting madness” among American conservatives. But it’s not only a problem on the right. Progressives are prone to embracing outlandish conspiracy theories, too. (*Paging Louise Mensch*) What are we supposed to do, then, whether we’re progressive or conservative, when we see evidence of a real, frightening conspiracy? Of prominent preachers calling for American jihad and civil war?

In general, it’s difficult for a historian like me to get too worked up by hyperbolic claims of conspiracy. It’s not that historians don’t see plenty of conspiracies in the archival record. Rather, as I’ve argued in these pages before, digging into archives shows us lots of evidence of real conspiracies. It is precisely the abundance of conspiracies that keeps us calm. There are so many conspiracies afoot, operating at cross-purposes and usually in bungling fractious competition with one another, that the ultimate goals of such conspiracies foil themselves.

When my progressive friends have warned of theocratic fundamentalist or creationist conspiracies, I’ve replied time and again that fundamentalists and creationists are among the most divided groups in America. The notion that they could combine to impose a Handmaid’s-Tale sort of theocracy simply doesn’t match the historical record.

I was flummoxed, then, by a recent Jim Bakker video.

Remember Jim Bakker? Of PTL Ministries? In a recent video circulated by Right Wing Watch, Bakker insisted that any impeachment of Trump would lead to a “civil war in the United States . . . Christians will finally come out of the shadows” to fight for what’s right.

Even for a mild-mannered historian like me, it’s hard not to be disturbed by such threats of American jihad. And it’s easy for secular people like me to see more evidence everywhere we look. We know, for example, that a whopping 81% of white evangelical voters voted for Trump. Those of us who study evangelical history might politely argue about the meaning of evangelical support for Trump, as John Fea and I did a while back, but it’s not too difficult to make a case that Bakker’s violent Trumpism might have plenty of support.

So should we freak out?

Not yet. Here’s why: Clearly, violent extremism is real and dangerous. Whether from Portland, the PTL, or campus radicals, we can’t afford to pooh-pooh the threat of real theo/political/racial violence. But in order to recognize and fight the danger of extremism we need to avoid the temptation of lumping together all those with whom we disagree.

Rather, we need to understand and encourage the diversity within every group. It is hard for secular progressives like me to truly understand, but no one will be more horrified by Bakker’s jihadist rhetoric than other evangelical Protestants. If we leap to assume that Bakker’s extremism represents the thinking of all white evangelicals, we turn our greatest potential anti-extremist evangelical allies into imagined pro-Bakker extremist enemies.

Are conspiracies real? Are Bakker’s fulminations dangerous? Yes, and hell yes.

The proper response, though, is not to score cheap points against conservative evangelicals by using Bakker’s words against them. The real goal should be to recruit anti-Bakker allies from among his many evangelical opponents.

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  1. What meaningful influencers and audiences believe Margaret Atwood literally describes a plan some members of the religious right have as a goal they could achieve? That sounds like straw man.

    You’re being extremely loose with other definitions and a lack of distinctions as well. You’re not really talking about the left or progressives but liberals and neoliberals who represent a center-right position because of their willingness to compromise on economic and other inequalities with conservatives.

    If Clinton and her neoliberal devotees insist, against all evidence, they were robbed by Russian hackers who released her campaign’s real emails, that is verifiable as fake new about s fake conspiracy. (Same thing with Hannity’s nonsense.)

    But if people are concerned about “theocrats” in the Trump admin pushing the country in a theocratic direction where (for example) religious freedom = the right to persecute certain people who are not enjoying real equality under the law, well that is an actual and longstanding, fact based issue playing out in schools, courts, etc.

    Another distinction that matters: Is someone like Mike Pence simply a man who has some different opinions compared to “progressives,” or does he have beliefs and values that reject or take an axe to egalitarian values as applied to women, gay people, etc.? Are dedicated Islamomophobes who have made long careers of calling for a kind of civilization-wide apartheid, or similar figures focused in Latin American immigrants engaged in conspiracies — perhaps, in the sense of real agendas like those you find plenty of evidence for when you do the research.

    Anything people do politically on the basis of antithetical belief systems get described as conspiracies even if they are fairly open and explicit. Radical, reactionary or revolutionary agenda might be a better label for these.

    • Dan

       /  June 5, 2017

      I noticed yesterday that Rushdoony protege and the “avenging angel of the religious right,” Howard Ahmanson, recently agreed with you about “conspiracy theories.” —

      Come to think of it, Michael Gerson was on the board of the Institute for Religion and Democracy with the Ahmansons when they were using it to attack the liberal mainline churches for “apostasy” (failing to persecute LGBT people) and to support African Anglican homophobes and Islamophobes, primarily one bishop Peter Akinola who happened to lead a Christian paramilitary. Akinola and others like him became the leaders of breakaway Anglican splinter groups like the Ahmansons’ and John Kasich’s churches belong to, along with congregations in prominent Christian college communities, like the Grand Rapids and Wheaton areas, where faculty and students are the main membership.

      Is that a conspiracy, which literally means “breathing together?” If so, it is your true conspiracy, documented in the archives of the Atlantic Monthly, New York Times, etc. over a decade ago. The Scott Lively debacle got a little more attention, Masha Gessen considerably less. Why these developments have not been widely noted outside of activist groups like SPLC and HRC as attacks on significant civil rights shrouded in religious freedom arguments probably has to do — not with a conscious conspiracy — but the common tendency toward denial among evangelicals and journalists that large, well-funded, mainstreamed interest groups could be enemies of the open society invested in taking an axe to its foundations. Historians ought to be more diligent, especially now.


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