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.