Cornell University Press

Anti-Science Conspiracy Theories, Power, and Morality

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Almost two years into the COVID-19 pandemic, we are inundated with COVID conspiracy theories: Satan-worshipping globalist elites, including George Soros and Bill Gates, deliberately developed and spread the COVID virus around the globe. The COVID vaccine is the Mark of the Beast from the Book of Revelation. Hollywood celebrities caught COVID by drinking infected adrenochrome harvested from live children in a satanic ritual. Mask and vaccine mandates are a communist plot by the Jewish IlluminatiPolling data suggest that millions of Americans—up to 20 percent of the country—believe at least some of these claims. 

Almost two years into the COVID-19 pandemic, we are inundated with COVID conspiracy theories…

For secular and scientifically-minded Americans, it’s tempting to dismiss COVID conspiracy believers as lunatics and fools. But if we want to have a chance at beating the COVID pandemic, we do not have the luxury of ignoring 20 percent of the population. Nor will browbeating them work. Better to begin by attempting to understand the roots of conspiracy theories aimed at modern science, with the aim of confronting those ideas more effectively. My new book, Red Dynamite: Creationism, Culture Wars, and Anticommunism in America, suggests that people embrace conspiracy theories when they are concerned about moral decline and feel powerless to reverse it.

Starting with the Scopes “Monkey” trial of 1925, I trace a century of Christian conservative activism animated by conspiratorial claims remarkably resonant with the COVID culture war. Leading Christian fundamentalists of the 1920s—William Bell Riley, Gerald Winrod, Mordecai Ham, among them—blamed evolutionary science on an all-powerful international, satanic, Jewish communist cabal, foretold in the Protocols of the Elders of Zion.  In 1924 sermons delivered in North Carolina, Ham warned his audience that Satan worked through a shadowy network of Jews with a “tremendous banking connection”  who stood behind the new immoral Russian Bolshevik government. “The day is not far distant,” Ham warned, “when you will be in the grip of the Red Terror and your children will be taught free love by that damnable theory of evolution.”  

Better to begin by attempting to understand the roots of conspiracy theories aimed at modern science, with the aim of confronting those ideas more effectively.

While creationists claimed that evolution was bad science and appealed to the Bible for authority, their primary tactic was to argue that the real danger of evolution was the way it made people act. If you taught young people they were descended from animals, that is, they would act in an “animalistic” fashion, which had both violent and sexual implications. In this view, communists were the worst. Not only were they atheists, undermining the authority of the Bible and promoting evolutionary science. But from Marx and Engels to Lenin and Trotsky, they fought for social changes that undermined existing power relations and represented an evolving class-based morality. In pinning evolution and communism on Jews, Riley, Winrod, and Ham followed the lead of auto magnate Henry Ford, who published the fabricated Protocols as fact. In The International Jew, published as a series in Ford’s Dearborn Independent, the automaker blamed Jews for all manner of social ills, especially for promoting “sex knowledge” to demoralize the Christian masses. In a similar fashion, current-day creationists like Ken Ham (no relation to Mordecai) of Answers in Genesis link the changing “man-centered” (as opposed to “God-centered”) morality of evolution to abortion and gay marriage.

Which is to say that COVID conspiracy theories do not really derive from opposition to science, but rather express deep anxiety and a sense of powerlessness about the current moral state of American society. What makes conspiracy theorizing distinct is precisely the sense that the conspirators possess a near-supernatural power to affect the course of events. In real life, powerful people do lie and make decisions in secret. But they are never fully in control. Witness, for example, the disastrous twenty-year US war in Afghanistan or the massive movement last year to protest police brutality.

In real life, powerful people do lie and make decisions in secret. But they are never fully in control.

After we peel back the fantastical Jewish space lasers and lizard people, we will find a well-grounded concern with the power wielded over ordinary people by billionaires and their allies in both political parties. We can’t really have a rational debate over the role of Satan in the COVID-19 pandemic. But we can exchange ideas about pharmaceutical drug prices, the opioid epidemic, amnesty for undocumented immigrants, tech companies’ suppression of free speech, abortion rights, police brutality, and even the spate of strikes workers have launched across the US today. It is through debates on these kinds of issues that progress can be made.

*Featured photo: Protestors in Indianapolis rally against Indiana governor’s COVID-19 stay-at-home order, April 19, 2020. Credit:  Photo by Jeremy Hogan/The Bloomingtonian.


Carl R. Weinberg is Adjunct Associate Professor of History and Senior Lecturer in the College of Arts and Sciences, Indiana University Bloomington. He is the author of Labor, Loyalty, and Rebellion. Follow him on Twitter @Euclid585.

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