During my senior year of high school, the youth group at Rose Drive started a new Bible study on Friday nights. Held at the Johnsons’ house, it started at seven and often didn’t end until around ten. Tony, who was in his early twenties and had just moved to Orange County from Calexico, a town near the US-Mexico border, led the group. He was the high school assistant minister who worked part-time at the Rose Drive while attending the Calvary Chapel Bible College. Calvary Chapel, as a denomination, started from the “Jesus People” movement in Southern California during the sixties. In what must be one of the most extreme examples of the way 1960s counterculture morphed into sold-out 1980s conservatism, the Calvary Chapel movement that started as mostly guitar-playing hippies and religious vagabonds became a denomination of dogmatism, with buttoned-up conservative theology. Calvary Chapel has a special focus on the end times—much more than Rose Drive. So on Friday nights Tony—a short, compact guy with a wrestler’s build and a black ponytail—would lead us through Revelation, the infamous apocalyptic text at the end of the New Testament. While most biblical scholars agree it is a kind of mystical political commentary on the Roman occupation in Palestine, many evangelicals see it as the key to understanding when and how the apocalypse will happen.
The Friday night Bible study grew from a handful of kids to several dozen over the course of the school year. We packed the Johnsons’ modest living room, squeezing in close to make sure everyone could find a place, and I’m sure it took most of the weekend to clear the house of the aroma of pizza and body spray. After half an hour or so of singing and prayer, Tony would hold us rapt for hours with his teachings about the end times. He would explain how the earthquakes, famines, and global tragedies happening all over the world were actually signs of the end times. The rapture—the event some Christians believe will lead to all the “saved” being instantly taken into heaven in the blink of an eye—was surely near. He took obscure passages from Revelation and shaped them into lucid blueprints of where the world was heading in the years to come, explaining that the antichrist would rise to power, most likely through a unified governmental structure such as the European Union.
Soon, Tony warned us, the mark of the beast would be introduced in some form of technology implanted into our bodies. That implant would act as a tracking device for the antichrist and his new world order. He mapped scriptural references to serpents and beasts and whores of Babylon onto the impeachment trial of Bill Clinton, the development of the new unified currency called the euro, and the push to study harvested stem cells through new technologies, a huge controversy on the West Coast at the time. All of these were indications that the end was near.
Tony wasn’t the only person in my life making these types of proclamations. A few of my friends and I passed around books like Hal Lindsey’s Late Great Planet Earth and the books of the Left Behind series by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins. We also listened to Calvary Chapel preachers like Chuck Smith and Greg Laurie on the radio, on our way to surfing trips and afterschool hangouts. My girlfriend, Alexis, and I would debate the meaning of passages in Revelation. In the tit-for-tat arguments over hermeneutics unique to evangelicalism, we’d use commentaries and books to back up our interpretations.
Learning about the end times always made me, and others, feel like we were gaining special knowledge—an initiation into cosmic secrets and techniques for reading the signs of the times. It was a fellowship of those-who-know. We felt select, even among the church community—the chosen remnant within the chosen remnant. Whereas many adults in our midst had forgotten the immediacy of our age in favor of golf games and nice dinners, mortgage rates and 401(k), we huddled together on Friday nights to be vigilant in the face of the extraordinary. Unlike them, we were ready to give everything we had to play a role in God’s secret plan for the cosmos.
And because we met on a Friday, our gatherings felt like a reprieve from the day-to-day godlessness of our schools and daily lives. I was used to people thinking of me as an extremist. I was the guy who led a Bible study at lunch and walked around with Jesus tracts to hand out at any given moment, the zealot who refused a letterman’s jacket in order to give the money to buy Bibles in Nepal, the freak who stood alone on Friday mornings praying at the flagpole. While I took pride in being different, it was also exhausting. On Friday nights, I didn’t have to swim up current. At the end of each week, the Johnsons’ living room felt like a cocoon of belonging. Everyone there accepted that the world didn’t understand us, didn’t know the truth, and would carry on in its blind, fallen state until Jesus returned. For a few hours we could bask in the shared knowledge that we were among the few in the world who knew what was really going on—and knew how it would all end. There was a significance in the fact that not only did we all believe the same thing; we believed it together.
What Is a Conspiracy Theory Anyway?
The end-times theology that we learned and cultivated on those Friday nights resembles a conspiracy theory. According to anthropologist Susannah Crockford in her work Ripples of the Universe, “what makes a ‘theory’ a ‘conspiracy theory’ is the surfeit of meaning and explanation, overextending the agency and intentionality behind complex socio-political situations.” In other words, if you examine current events as part of an intentional scheme planned by evil agents, rather than accepting the apparent and simple answers afforded by logic and evidence, you are wading into the waters of conspiracy. These events might include political developments, such as elections or coups, or scientific advancements that require we change our daily lives, like wearing masks during a pandemic. For Crockford, some religious beliefs and conspiracy theories are similar in that they both make nonfalsifiable claims about reality and “grant agency to causation in a way that challenges assumptions of rationality.” In other words, they make claims about what is real on the basis of divine authority with no regard for human rationality. Their stances are based on rumor and delusion rather than evidence, logic, or data. Not all religious beliefs fall under this category. Many religious communities make assumptions about the limits of rationality but are committed to using reason to its limits whenever possible.
When it comes to the true believers in fundamentalist religious communities and conspiracy theorists, however, both those inside and outside the religious movement or the conspiracy recognize the peculiarity of the belief system. Everyone knows what the conspiracy theorist or true believer adheres to is not part of the accepted normal. But the insiders, according to Crockford, “believe that in certain circumstances there are occulted dimensions to reality that only the initiated are aware of. Understanding is granted by initiation; the believer believes themselves to have access to knowledge that the unbeliever does not.”
This type of worldview has the same effect for both conspiracy theorists and true believers (like those of us at the Johnsons’ house on Friday nights). It teaches them never to trust what is in front of their eyes. It instructs them to see invisible forces and hidden actors working to control the levers of power and the narrative of events while ignoring any explanation based in logic or evidence.
“The overall effect is the suggestion that what appears is not what is,” Crockford writes. “There are invisible forces at work. Reality, especially as depicted in the mainstream media, is illusory because it is being consciously manipulated by those who hold power for their own gain.”
While many religious traditions adhere to things unseen, they do not all instruct their devotees to ignore the apparent and the obvious, or to posit that their realities are being consciously manipulated by the powerful. Religious fundamentalisms and conspiracy theories do make such prescriptions, and this is what sets them apart. This is what the scholar of conspiracy theories Giovanna Parimigiani calls dissensus, or seeing differently. Though they are part of “private networks of belonging,” the fellowship of those-who-know, members of conspiracy communities try to tear down the “partition” between their fringe worldview and what is held as acceptable forms of knowledge and authority in the public square. In other words, they want to take their fringe beliefs into the mainstream, turn the fantastical into the real and magic into science.
If you think you know the truth behind how the world functions, then you want to evangelize as many as will listen. There is a certain coherence to this impulse, which animates both current forms of White Christian nationalism in the United States and the White evangelical movement I was part of as a teenager. While part of the fun of those Friday night Bible studies was participating in a select group of initiates, the prevailing sentiment was the need to pull back the veil and enlighten as many people as possible to “what is really going on.” This means not only spreading the word about the nearing end times but also working to legitimate your worldview in the public square. You become energized to change what is accepted as rational, true, and real. Unfortunately, conspiracy is now a mainstay in American politics.
The conspiracy theories driving MAGA Nation’s war on America are multidimensional, and they have insinuated themselves into the everyday discourse of millions. The goal is to reshape what is real, rational, and true. Even if it has no basis in the facts.
The Pragmatic Function of Conspiracies
Conspiracy theories are ways for groups at the margins—or who feel as if they are at the margins—to gain power and authority by changing the narrative surrounding truth and reality in the political realm. For some within end-times conspiracy communities, the theories about the end of the world and “what’s really going on” are explanations for their sense of suffering and helplessness in a world that doesn’t accept or understand them. Others take it a step further: If they can legitimate their claims about grand schemes by global elites and new world orders, they can flip the board, topple the system, and gain power.
Taken together, these components of conspiracy theories explain why so many White Christian nationalists have been prone to participating in them over the last half century. It makes sense that religious groups who believe that the media is “too liberal,” that the government is out to get them, and that the antichrist is already walking among us are prone to conspiracies about election fraud, birth certificates, and pizza parlors.
But there’s a special ingredient to White Christian nationalists’ proclivity for conspiracy. This is the group who believes America was founded as a “Christian nation,” and who thus believes it has the right to maintain the top spots of American politics and culture. When they feel their influence and power dwindling, conspiracies become a tool for reasserting their worldview as legitimate. In these instances, they are a group used to privilege, and they are trying to hold on to it by changing the standards of the real and true. They believe they have a God-given right to hold power in the United States. That belief extends beyond winning elections and making policy. It goes all the way to deciding what is real and what isn’t. The details of the QAnon and Pizzagate conspiracies may seem comical, but they are insidious in nature. For those on the outside looking in, one of the hardest parts to grasp is comprehending that many people actually believe their core tenets. They are not playacting. They are not pretending.
When I listened to Tony exegete the book of Revelation as a high school senior, I didn’t think we were just doing story time. His teachings about the antichrist shaped my worldview. They gave me the foundation to go out into my community and do what seemed like strange and awkward things—like walk up to strangers at public places and ask them if they knew where they would spend eternity.
Since 2020, the Big Lie has shaped the worldview of tens of millions of Americans. It is propagated by a man, Donald Trump, who many of them believe was anointed by God to rescue America. His words and actions give them the basis to do radical and extreme things—like overrun the US Capitol in order to stop an election.
This is an excerpt from Preparing for War chapter 8, "Real Delusions."