Conspiracy Theory in American Religions

Kelly Baker

As my Apocalypse class is finishing up Michael Barkun's excellent A Culture of Conspiracy, I have conspiracy theory on the brain. We have discussed new world order, aliens, reptoids, black helicopters, secret concentration camps, the Illumnati, the Masons, government coverups, more aliens, men in black, and secret cabals that control the world. One of my commitments in teaching Barkun's book is to problematize visions of "fringe" and "mainstream" by demonstrating how conspiracy theories appear commonly in popular and civic culture. I want students to move beyond initial reactions of "this is crazy" to an approach that recognizes how conspiracy functions and why these theories have appeal and longevity. Barkun convincingly argues the need to study groups we find bizarre and strange for comprehension while also noting that ignoring conspiracists will not make them go away. More importantly, his book demonstrates that hoping some movement is fringe does not make that true, even it is comforting. By far, he is one of my favorite scholars to think with as I also research groups and topics that appear "fringe" at first blush. To demonstrate the mainstreaming of these topics, my class watched an episode from the History Channel's Ancient Aliens series (now in its fifth season) about alien cover-ups as an example of mainstreaming. I've posted it here for your viewing pleasure

It also remarkably fitting, then, that Public Policy Polling released a poll this week tracking "widespread and/or infamous" conspiracy theories. (Many thanks to Chip Callahan for pointing out this poll). Here are some of the results:

-          37% of voters believe global warming is a hoax, 51% do not. Republicans say global warming is a hoax by a 58-25 margin, Democrats disagree 11-77, and Independents are more split at  41-51. 61% of Romney voters believe global warming is a hoax
-          21% of voters say a UFO crashed in Roswell, NM in 1947 and the US government covered it up. More Romney voters (27%) than Obama voters (16%) believe in a UFO coverup
-          28% of voters believe secretive power elite with a globalist agenda is conspiring to eventually rule the world through an authoritarian world government, or New World Order.  A plurality of Romney voters (38%) believe in the New World Order compared to 35% who don’t
-          29% of voters believe aliens exist
-          4% of voters say they believe “lizard people” control our societies by gaining political power
-          51% of voters say a larger conspiracy was at work in the JFK assassination, just 25% say Oswald acted alone
-          14% of voters believe in Bigfoot
-          15% of voters say the government or the media adds mind-controlling technology to TV broadcast signals (the so-called Tinfoil Hat crowd)
Conspiracy theory is alive and well in American culture, and I hope to see more attention to this important topic in the study of American religions. Otherwise, my next book after zombies might have to be about aliens. 


Tom Van Dyke said…
Public Policy Polling makes a living asking poll questions baldly designed to embarrass Republicans. Such bottom feeding, even if accurate, tells us nothing of value. [Ask Obama voters if the AIDS virus was created by the CIA to exterminate the black man and see what you get. Ask Democrats if Jews were to blame for the latest financial crisis.*]

It also assumes that people tell the truth when asked idiotic questions. Is Obama the antichrist? Sure, put me down for "Strongly Agree." Then go screw yourself.



Mark said…
I know of one Texas public high school Bible class that spent two days watching Ancient Aliens--and then had to write a paper on it. Go figure.

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