Ethical Reflections with Rev. Ian Markham: Conspiracy theories abound

Ethical Reflections with Rev. Ian Markham: Conspiracy theories abound
The Rev. Ian Markham (Photo/Virginia Theological Seminary)

Sometimes a conspiracy theory can be true. On Feb. 24, 1933, the Nazis claimed to find seditious materials that pointed to a communist plot to attack public buildings. On Feb. 27, 1933, the Reichstag went up in flames. On Feb. 28, 1933, the president of Germany passed the “Decree of the Reich President for the Protection of the People and State.”

The Communists were blamed and 4,000 people were arrested, many of whom were deputies from the Communist party. This is the official narrative. However, it is highly likely that the Nazis themselves were involved in the setting of the fire. The truth is that the official narrative is almost certainly false and that, in fact, people inside the government were really involved.

Conspiracy theories are everywhere. They are found across the political spectrum. Popular ones include that 5G networks are responsible for the spread of COVID-19, President George W. Bush helped organize the 9-11 attacks, the Roman Catholic Church has hidden the proof that Jesus really married Mary Magdalene, and of course our current favorite – QAnon.

Fifteen percent of Americans believe that the United States is under the control of a group of Satan-worshipping pedophiles. In October 2017, on the website 4chan, Q – a government official with Q clearance – provided highly cryptic posts “exposing” this conspiracy. A complex narrative follows: President Donald Trump will expose these evil people and there will be a day called “the Storm” when these Democratic politicians, business tycoons and actors will be arrested and held accountable for their evil actions.

With all conspiracy theories, there is a backstory. The shadow of Jeffrey Epstein looms large. He created a business that involved sex trafficking and powerful people. And Epstein’s network of friends was vast: it included Bill Clinton, Alan Dershowitz, Prince Andrew and Donald Trump.

When Epstein was arrested the second time for sex trafficking, he committed suicide in prison in 2019. The story of Epstein is shocking. He was a mover and a shaker. Epstein was on the board of Rockefeller University and was a major donor to Harvard University. In the 1990s, he donated more than $100,000 to Democratic Party candidates. As more and more of his victims have emerged, the extent of this shadowy sex network is extraordinary.

QAnon builds on the Epstein narrative. Add in the ingredient of the secular and irreligious left, and the result is a story about a group of Satanists preying on young people. This 15% of Americans is a key voting block; Marjorie Taylor Greene and Lauren Boebert are both sympathetic to QAnon and in Congress. Media Matters estimates that there are 36 QAnon-supporters on the ballot for the midterms in November this year.

There is an ethical obligation on us to engage appropriately with the human propensity to find conspiracy theories plausible. Certain rules of reflection are important. Do not simply assume the conspiracy theory is false. Do not denigrate believers, after all, Jeffrey Epstein’s actions were horrifying. Most importantly, make the task of “reading the world aright” a central priority.

So, how do we “read the world aright?” The classic liberal answer is “freedom of the press.” Permit a culture where the public square is full of many voices all seeking the truth. In an environment where news is not controlled by government, then the truth in the end will come out. A perspective on the news by a provider is fine, provided that there are many perspectives permitted.

This liberal answer is more fragile in a social media world. We function in news bubbles. We block views that we don’t like on Facebook. And we increasingly choose to either watch Fox News all the time or MSNBC all the time. Very few of us try to watch both. But our political discourse does need more of us to make the effort.

To really understand this world, we need journalism at its best. For me, I read The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Economist and of course The Alexandria Times. And based on these sources, I can reassure you all that it is not true that a group of Satanist pedophiles are running the country.

The writer is dean of Virginia Theological Seminary.