Flailing Leaves

Christians and Conspiracies

And as for those of you who are left, I will send faintness into their hearts in the lands of their enemies. The sound of a driven leaf shall put them to flight, and they shall flee as one flees from the sword, and they shall fall when none pursues.” – Leviticus 26:36

In December 1974, Lorenzo Milam, an “activist who was instrumental in starting many of the first listener-supported community radio stations in the United States,” and fellow activist Jeremy Lansman filed a petition before the Federal Communications Commission.

The petition, known as RM-2493, asked the FCC to conduct a review “to determine if any religious groups were filing for licenses on channels that had been reserved for general educational purposes with the intent of making religious broadcasts.”

They couldn’t have known it at the time but their petition would give rise to a conspiracy theory that refuses to die.

From the start, the petition’s opponents got almost everything about the petition wrong. They incorrectly believed that the petition would ban all religious programming from the airwaves. And they incorrectly believed that the petition originated with Madalyn Murray O’Hair, the prominent atheist who had successfully sued to end school-sponsored bible reading.

The fact that Murray O’Hair had nothing to do with the petition, which in any case, didn’t propose what it was alleged to propose, didn’t stop the avalanche of letters. These letters continued to pour in even after the FCC rejected RM-2493 in August of 1975. By early 1977, more than five million letters had been received by the FCC, which had to hire “two extra employees and temporarily [rent] additional space to handle the letters.”

It didn’t stop there. The FCC says that it has received 30 million pieces of mail on the issue. Since Murray was murdered in 1995, the people behind the conspiracy have changed, but it is still periodically necessary for responsible Christian groups to join with the FCC to state that never was such a proposal. While the volume of correspondence has tapered significantly, the conspiracy theory refuses to die

In my last column, I wrote about Americans’ susceptibility to conspiracy theories and imperviousness to facts. The simple truth is that Christians are not exceptions to this trend. (By “Christians” I mean all Christians, Catholics as well as Protestants. Catholic craziness is just as, well, crazy, albeit less publicized.) Sometimes, as in the FCC case, the conspiracy theory has a distinctly Christian flavor. Other times, it’s a case of simply passing on stuff that originated in what Dave Neiwert calls “Alt-America.

(Please give me a moment while I put on some shoe covers. I’m about step on some toes, but I don’t want to scuff anyone’s shoes in the process.)

The obvious question is “why?” I would like to suggest that a large part of what drives this phenomenon is our increasing tendency to define ourselves as victims.

The New Testament was written by and to Christians who were, at best, marginalized, and, at worst, being actively persecuted for their faith. While the Apostles Peter and Paul urged believers to submit themselves to the temporal authorities, they were under no illusions about the nature and ultimate destiny of those authorities.

Paul’s rationale for this submission – that is that “we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness” – brings to mind the Rabbi’s words at the beginning of “Fiddler on the Roof” who, when asked whether there was a proper blessing for the Czar, answered “may God bless and keep the Czar . . . far away from us.”

By the time we get to the Book of Revelation, which was written several decades after the deaths of Peter and Paul at the hands of those same authorities, it’s clear that the government, in the person of the Roman emperor, is the enemy of the Christian faithful.

It wasn’t only Caesar. Much of the persecution and violence came at the hands of what we would call private individuals. Jews and Gentiles in Asia Minor probably agreed about very little but they did share a loathing for the Apostle Paul.

The Christian response to this marginalization and persecution was to be perseverance, hope, and rejoicing. The first (and subsequent) readers of the New Testament were assured that the “powers and principalities” that waged war against the Church were mortally-wounded enemies whose doom, along with that of their master, has already been pronounced.

While, like most wounded animals, they can still inflict serious harm their demise is certain.

While my colleague Timothy D Padgett is far more qualified to discuss the history than I am, it’s clear that sometime in the last century American conservative Protestants lost sight of this fact. They regarded their relatively-privileged position in American society, compared to the vast majority of Christians who have ever lived, as a kind of spiritual and political birthright and considered the loss as a theft of patrimony.

Or worse. Christian political and thought leaders cited the President’s “boorish attitude” towards his (and their) opponents as a reason for supporting him. Tired of “decades of media bullying of conservatives,” and having run out of cheeks to turn, they welcome the chance not to be a “welcome mat which people can just stomp their feet on.”

Even if you stipulate that conservative Christians have been bullied and stomped on, and I don’t, these sentiments don’t exactly scream “We are more than conquerors.” As Mr. Dooley, the fictional character created by journalist Peter Finely Dunne, famously said, “Sure, politics ain’t bean-bag. ‘Tis a man’s game, an’ women, childer, cripples an’ prohybitionists ‘d do well to keep out iv it.” Or, as Harry Truman put it less offensively, “If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.

Or even worse. Among white Evangelicals polled by the Public Religion Research Institute, seven in ten say that “discrimination against Whites is as big a problem as discrimination against Blacks, and eight in ten say that “discrimination against Christians is as big a problem as discrimination against other groups.”

I don’t know whether to laugh or cry.

To be fair, I can’t blame them. They are constantly bombarded by messages about American, i.e., white Evangelical, Christianity being under siege, or under attack, and they internalize these messages. Everything outside their epistemic bubble begins to look like pieces of a malevolent jigsaw puzzle.

Criticism and disagreement become preludes to persecution. In fact, they are seen as persecution. What’s more, sometimes words need not be spoken at all.

Take Mark Conditt, the serial bomber who terrorized Austin, Texas a few weeks ago. When it was learned that he was homeschooled, many people predicted that all homeschoolers, especially Christian ones, would be on the receiving end of guilt-by-association.

It didn’t happen. Not even close. Google “Austin bomber homeschooled” and the first link is to an article in that notorious hotbed of Christophobia, The Federalist. I couldn’t find a link to an actual story that made the connections I was told were inevitable. On the contrary, he was extended a level of empathy and search for understanding that would have unimaginable his name had been Malik and not Mark.

In “What’s Wrong With the World,” G.K. Chesterton wrote “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.” While this quote is well-known, what isn’t as well known is what precedes it. The people not trying the Christian ideal are Christians, the Church. In Chesterton’s words “the world did not tire of the church’s ideal, but of its reality.”

The “ideal” Chesterton referred includes chastity, of course, but it also includes humility, as well as, to borrow some examples from Catholic blogger Anthony S. Layne, “forgiving the unforgiveable, loving the unlovable,” “hoping in the midst of hopelessness,” and “giving to the undeserving (because to give to the deserving is not charity but rather justice).”

And as if that weren’t enough, it requires rejoicing and being glad when others revile and persecute us, and utter all kinds of evil against us falsely on Jesus’ account.

When Layne writes that “Christianity is hard to practice” it’s an understatement. It’s even harder when we see ourselves primarily as victims. When we do that, instead of being spoken falsely about, we speak falsely of others – and what are conspiracy theories if not bearing false witness? – as the never-ending saga of RM-2493 illustrates.

Again, I can’t blame most Christians. If what passes through my inbox is any indication, there are a lot of “leaders” whose message is the stuff of several leaf-blowers. That’s enough to make anyone feel persecuted.


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