The origin of the American fixation with conspiracy theories is hard to trace through history. Perhaps the very fact that our nation emerged from a revolution against its motherland has something to do with this proclivity. Some historians point to the role of secret societies like the Freemasons in the plot leading up to American independence. But it is probably true that our founding fathers spent more time meeting in pubs over pints than they did gathering under the cloak of darkness at a masonic lodge. And although some American religious groups forbade membership in secret societies, the majority of mainline Christian denominations permitted its members to attend both the Sunday morning church service and Monday evening masonic meeting. Ironically, one of the largest religious bodies to explicitly ban connection to secret societies was the Roman Catholic Church—who themselves were often accused by Protestant Americans of being agents of papal conspiracy.
Although rumors and theories persist concerning the influence on society by secret societies like the Masons (and the Illuminati, who are alleged to have survived until now), present fears concerning conspiracies have in fact been shaped by different forces. After decades of Cold War tensions—marked by intelligence and counter-intelligence, agents and double-agents—and with the declassification of actual conspiracies under the 1967 Freedom of Information Act (such as MKUltra and the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment), Americans have become aware of the fact that their government, ever-growing greater in its power and more questionable in its ethics, does not always have the best interests of every citizen in mind. Historically it was expected that the media would be a watchdog on governmental reach, keeping our leaders in check. And yet today many feel that the media has become a part of the problem: serving either partisan interests or the oligarchs who own their franchises.
And then came the internet.
At first, the World Wide Web was championed as the ultimate form of free speech and democracy, giving a voice to the least of these. The power of both the government and media giants could be challenged by free-thinking reporters and whistle-blowers, leveling the playing field once more. But as with any tool, the internet can be used for both good and evil. While providing an alternative to the mainstream narrative, the mainstream would gradually co-opt the Web for its own purposes. And on the other end of the spectrum, devious players began to appear, particularly in less-regulated virtual spaces like 4Chan, where misanthropy and wild conspiracies began to fester. When everyone has a voice, we discover how dark some of those voices truly are.
Today we are inundated by an enormous range of contradictory messages in the media and on the Web. And with our tendency to mistrust those in power, there is a constant temptation to travel down the rabbit hole and be lost in a labyrinth of conspiracy theories. We are constantly being invited to swallow the “red pill” and wake up to what is “really” going on around us. But we must ask ourselves: as Orthodox Christians, is this helpful? Regardless of whether some of these theories turn out to be true or not, what benefit do we gain by entertaining them?
As a minority in this land, Orthodox Christians may look to the early Church for guidance on this issue. From its inception, Christianity was opposed by society’s powerbrokers. Immediately after that first Day of Pentecost, the authorities in Judea began to attack the Church. And as membership grew in the first few decades, Roman emperors Nero and Domitian would both instigate localized persecutions. This trend would continue for almost three centuries with countless believers joining the ranks of the martyrs, until Galerius would finally promulgate the Issue of Toleration in 311 (followed by Constantine’s Edict of Milan in 313). During these times, a very real conspiracy against the Church was apparent. And yet, Christians did not focus on the conspiracy itself, but rather on the role they were to play within society. So how did they live in those days?
Both the New Testament and the writings of early Saints seem unconcerned with the power of the persecutors. They understood that God is also the Lord of history, and that the gates of Hades shall not prevail against the Church (Matt 16:18). In spite of the hatred often fulminated against Christians, they continued to love and pray for society and its leaders. They continued to feed the poor, take in orphans, and minister to the sick. This is because they understood two realties. First, they believed that our true enemy is not our fellowman, but the devil and his horde of demons. St Paul wrote to the Ephesians, “For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (6:12). The real conspiracy at play is the evil one’s plot to affect our eternal condemnation.
Second, they believed that humans (unlike demons) are always dynamic characters in the narrative of salvation. Every person can be redeemed, and therefore he or she cannot truly be our enemy. Others may unwittingly serve evil, being duped by Satan, but the power of Christ is ever able to convert them if they would just give Him an in-road. Thus our Lord commands us to love them, even if they act as our adversaries at the present moment.
Once we recognize that the fallen angels are really the ones out to get us, we begin to realize that the real “red pill” we need to swallow is that of waking up to this demonic plot. The New Testament writers all refer to the current epoch as the “last days” (beginning with the Resurrection of Christ and culminating with His coming again). We are not told when our Lord will actually return to judge the living and the dead; but until then, we are instructed to be vigilant and watch: “And do this, understanding the present time: The hour has already come for you to wake up from your slumber, because our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed” (Rom 13:12).
So while there are many “causes” that we are invited to join in order to fight against worldly power, God calls us primarily to spiritual warfare:
Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the Lord’s people. (Eph 6:13-18)
The true conspiracy has already been exposed by Jesus Christ. As we proclaim each year on Pascha, He has already emerged triumphant over our enemy. It now remains for us to participate in His victory by allowing Him to win the battle for our hearts.