Evangelical Leaders Like Billy Graham & Jerry Falwell Sr. Have Long Talked of Conspiracies Against God’s Chosen
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 sees many conspiracies around him.
He has described investigations into both Russia’s interference in the U.S. election and alleged violations of campaign finance laws, as well as the entirety of his impeachment, as “
” and a “
He is not the only one seeing sinister forces at play. Some of his
do the same. A number of books
on conspiracy theories
chronicle alleged failed “deep state” attempts to take down Trump.
As religious historian
some conservative evangelicals and fundamentalists began to coalesce around resistance to desegregation in the mid-1970s. Conspiracy theories circulated in some
conservative political spheres
concerning civil rights protests.
These conspiracy theorists suggested that the student protesters in the civil rights movement were
Others suggested that Martin Luther King Jr. and student protesters and organizers were in league with international
Then in the late 1970s, Republican political strategist Paul Weyrich brought disparate religious factions and conservative politicians together and named them the
Weyrich and his companions saw Christianity as under attack and suggested that America had fallen away from its values. In 1980 Falwell Sr.
“What’s happened to America is that the wicked are bearing rule. We have to lead the nation back to the moral stance 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 of approach or argument, were figured as a battle for America’s soul. Popular religious figures like
a Presbyterian minister, framed the survival of Western culture as a battle between secular humanism and Christianity.
In explaining his father’s place as a foundational figure on the Christian right,
Francis Schaeffer Jr. argued,
“For the first time in American history, what you’ve got coming out of the ‘70s and evangelical subculture is a world that looks at its own country as the enemy to be feared.”
This new brand of evangelicalism grew quickly. According to sociologist
20 to 40 million Americans
identified as evangelical
by 1989. Exact numbers of evangelicals are hard to pinpoint, because the term encompasses a wide range of denominations.
Frank Newport, editor-in-chief of the Gallup Poll explained it this way: “the term has been associated with a particular group of Christians who hold conservative and generally Republican ideological and political beliefs.” According to a Gallup poll aggregating data from 1991 to 2018 about
40% of Americans identified
as evangelicals or born-again Christians. The number has remained steady for the past three decades.
To clarify, not all evangelicals are conservative. But a defining feature of the Christian Right is political involvement. While younger evangelicals are less politically committed, older evangelicals associated with the Christian right remain deeply
Some Christian right leaders have named groups they held responsible for the fallen nature of America.
a political organizer and co-author of a series of best-selling Christian books, “
,” claimed that a group called the “Illuminati” coordinated a global conspiracy to undermine Christian values.
The historical Illuminati were members of a
founded in Bavaria, modern-day Germany, in 1776 to oppose the abuse of power by the state. Today, a mythological version of the Illuminati is a favorite among
In 1986, prominent evangelical leader and political activist Beverly LaHaye, wife of Tim LaHaye, lamented feminism and those advocating for the Equal Rights Amendment,
“Well, nobody really likes their unisex, lesbian, radical philosophy either.”
LaHaye describes equal rights and pay equality as radical and suggests feminism seeks to undo biological sex and is intrinsically linked to same-sex relationships. Rather than a civil rights issue concerning individual freedoms, LaHaye framed the women’s movement as an attack on conservative communities and their values.
Phyllis Schlafly, founder of
, an organization formed to stop the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment, rose to national prominence in 1964 with her
“A Choice Not an Echo.” She claimed: “From 1936 to 1960 the Republican presidential nominee was selected by a secret group of kingmakers who are the most powerful opinion makers in the world.” Schlafly claimed powerful elites took the power of the conservative party from the people.
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 telling, the American family is monolithic. Variance in family structures signals destruction of conservative notions of the nuclear family.
Schlafly’s monthly newsletter, renamed the Eagle Forums Report after her death, forwards similar positions with regard to immigration. Authors on the site suggest ending
and make generalizations about
Muslim immigrants being terrorists.
They frame these matters as a means of protecting American culture and values.
Donald Trump seems to have joined himself with conspiracy theorists on the Christian right early in his political career.
Even before his campaign, Trump joined with conservative Christian figures like
the founder and editor of WND, or World Net Daily. WND is a far-right website that entered the mainstream during President Obama’s presidency. The website was a hub for the
According to some birthers, Obama was a “secret”
A 2009 article in the Columbia Journalism Review noted that some of the right-wing media had attacked him for being “
In the middle of the Obama presidency, WND attracted 4 million unique visitors a month. WND also ran a publishing house that featured book titles from conservative figures like
Trump and the Christian right
Trump’s presidency brings together two lines of argument from some of these evangelical leaders through his rhetoric. First,
America when Americans are unfaithful to his commandments. Second, Christianity is
In an article
the Rev. Billy Graham wrote
in 2012 during the lead-up to Obama’s reelection, he recalled his wife, Ruth, telling him, “If God doesn’t punish America, He’ll have to apologize to Sodom and Gomorrah.”
The reference to the Old Testament story in which God laid waste to two cities for 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 unstated premise of Graham’s argument is that Obama is responsible for a fallen America that will bring God’s punishmen
The Sodom and Gommorah example is telling. For Graham and
some other evangelical leaders,
Obama’s leadership represented an intentional move away from Christian values toward immorality.
Trump offered himself as an antidote to that fallen America and as a
savior from the destruction.
One way people came to accept that narrative is, I argue, through his use of conspiracy theories.