AUSTIN, Texas (RNS) Conspiracy theories like those accompanying the Benghazi and IRS-Tea Party foul-ups come and go in American political life. They are a great substitute for actually addressing problems.
Cynical politicians use them to attack enemies through innuendo, as in Sen. Joe McCarthy’s hunt in the early-1950s for suspected “Reds” behind every bush.
Conspiracy theories serve to make people afraid and to keep them afraid. Someone is out for their guns, their money, their health benefits, their children’s minds. Demagogues concoct conspiracy fears and feast on the dread they evoke.
When people are frightened, they tend to be more malleable. They willingly give up some freedom and civil rights in order to feel safe from the monsters. Relinquishing freedoms rarely yields any sense of safety, of course, just more fear. Inevitably, conspiracy theories lead toward oppression and division.
Conspiracy theories are a weapon that bullies use against the weak. When successful, they empower the bullies to even greater cruelty, and they leave the weak weaker, ready to join the denunciation of the target group.
Why do people fall for conspiracy theories? Some of it seems basic to human nature. “My sister got more than I did!” “Why doesn’t anyone like me?” The whining of childhood seeks an enemy.
Some of it renders the complex and confusing a bit easier to understand. The Benghazi hearings in Washington, for example, hunt for a pattern of official malfeasance, rather than grasp the chaos that many nations experience and the rage that crowds around U.S. interests.
They also serve to undercut one potential presidential candidate and to cloud the incumbent. The waving of papers by mock-angry legislators looks like McCarthyism all over again.
Conspiracy theories provide cover for truly destructive behavior. Major health care providers use threats of “death panels” as a cover for running up the cost of health care while trimming benefits.
Some of the worst excesses in conspiracy theories have come from my own backyard, the Christian movement. We have used McCarthy-like fear-mongering to justify pogroms against Jews, attacks on Protestants or on Catholics, and campaigns against whatever we didn’t like in society and our congregations.
Here in Texas, the air is filled with worried pastors lamenting supposed attacks on religious freedom, as if there were a gathering army of “secular humanists” out to destroy Christianity. Locking the door against an imagined enemy is always easier than going out to serve.
Jesus gave a consistent commandment: “Don’t be afraid.” But that doesn’t serve the interests of religious bullies. So they ignore the call to courage and to trust in God, and instead provoke fears of moral collapse and offer scapegoats for stemming that collapse.
In time, of course, fear feeds on itself, like a wildfire, and demagogues fan the flames, denounce calls to reason, and stand ready to harvest the benefits.
Then, unfortunately, along comes a shred of fact that justifies the dread. A few feckless Soviet agents were indeed prowling the bushes in the Cold War. The Internal Revenue Service was indeed snooping around the Tea Party. Demagogues pounce on those facts, blow them up and start high-glare hunts for more imagined enemies.
Fortunately, conspiracy theorists tend to overreach, and common sense sees through their extravagant imaginings — but not before lives have been ruined, urgent needs avoided and people rendered a bit more suspicious of their neighbors.
(Tom Ehrich is a writer, church consultant and Episcopal priest based in New York. He is the author of “Just Wondering, Jesus” and founder of the Church Wellness Project. His website is www.morningwalkmedia.com. Follow Tom on Twitter @tomehrich.)
KRE END EHRICH