Recently an article was published by The Gospel Coalition titled “Christians Are Not Immune to Conspiracy Theories”, which I think is worthy of a response. First of all, I do not know Pastor Joe Carter, the article’s author, and I am quite certain his heart is in the right place, his motives are pure, and he has the best intentions in mind. However, I believe he has taken an extreme position in his article which at best is unhelpful, and at worst could potentially be harmful.
Clearly, I understand his concern as there is a fine line between discussing possible conspiracy theories and slandering someone’s reputation. The question is, where is that line to be drawn? He seems to want to draw that line to the furthest extreme point arguing that unless one knows with absolute certainty that the information is true and has been factually verified, then Christians are sinning—engaging in slander—by discussing or sharing conspiracy theories via in person or social media platforms. However, I believe he has taken an overly simplified approach to a complex topic. And the problem with simplified approaches when it comes to theology or Christian living is that they tend to border on legalism or libertinism. In other words, overly simplified approaches tend to take an all-or-nothing position without really analyzing the variegated facets of an issue.
In the article, he takes the position that one “can hardly open Facebook without seeing a Christian (too often a pastor or other church leader) has posted claims they cannot possibly know to be true.” In other words, Christians should not spread conspiracy theories without first conducing firsthand research to determine whether the information is actually true. Yet, in the very next sentence he claims to know that the information is false without having conducted firsthand research himself. “Much needs to be said about why so many followers of Christ are spreading misinformation.” To claim that discussing or sharing conspiracy theories is spreading “misinformation” is to determine a priori that the information is false. He goes on to state in the very next paragraph that “Slander occurs,…whenever someone says something untrue about someone else that results, intentionally or unintentionally, in damaging that someone else’s reputation.” While I understand what Carter is getting at, he is painting with too broad of a brush. A more accurate definition of slander would be “whenever someone [unnecessarily] says something about someone else that results, intentionally or unintentionally, in damaging that someone else’s reputation.” There are times when it is necessary to say something about someone else that may damage that someone else’s reputation, even when we are uncertain of the veracity of the information. The nursery worker who merely suspects a child has been molested has a duty to report it to the proper authorities knowing that the accused may have their reputation damaged based on information that may not be true. Too many sexual predators in the church have gone undetected by well-intended Christians who do not want to say something untrue about someone else that may damage that someone else’s reputation.
In a democracy it is important to bear in mind that the people do not exist to serve the government, to do the will of the government, or to blindly submit to the government. This is often the mistake many Christians make when citing Romans 13 as an argument that Christians should not speak ill of the government and should simply submit to the government which has been ordained and instituted by God. What many fail to realize is that Romans 13 was written under the rule of the Roman Empire where it was believed and understood by most that the people exist to serve the government, to do the will of the government, and to wholly submit to the government. However, in a democracy, such as the United States, the government exist for the people, to do the will of the people, and to submit to the authority of the people. This is the way the framers wrote the U.S. Constitution and envisioned our system of government. The U.S. Constitution begins by stating six objectives for the constitution. “We the People of the United States, in Order  to form a more perfect Union,  establish Justice,  insure domestic Tranquility,  provide for the common defense,  promote the general Welfare, and  secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.” What is too often overlooked is that these six objectives are not to be achieved by the government. The framers did not place their hope in a government to achieve and secure these objectives. Notice who the framers looked to for achieving and securing these objectives: “We the People of the United States, in Order to…” The United States is a government of the people, by the people, and for the people. Our national leaders answer to the people, are accountable to the people, and work for the people. Thus, in a democracy it is imperative that the people have the freedom and the right to express their opinions, ideas, and even their theories about our state and national leaders. It is for this reason that our nation’s framers listed as First Amendment rights freedom of speech and freedom of press. Freedom of speech and freedom of press are the sine quo non of a true democracy; they are the things without which there is no democracy.
To be fair, I believe the author’s main concern is not trying and convicting leaders in the courtroom of public opinion. This should never be done. Not only is it a bedrock principle of our judicial system—presumed innocent until proven guilty—Jesus commanded us to do unto others what we would have them do unto ourselves (Matt. 7:12). If accused of a crime or of unethical behavior, we would all want to be given the benefit of the doubt and to have our day in court. Nevertheless, if every person has “a duty to determine the veracity of a claim that is potentially slanderous” before discussing or sharing that information with others, then past actual conspiracies may never been uncovered, such as the Teapot Dome Scandal of President Warren G. Harding which began with “rumors of a shady deal” between the President, the Secretary of Interior, and several powerful oil companies. The conspiracy theory began circulating around Washington before it was followed up by The Wall Street Journal who broke the story. The Nixon tapes may have never been uncovered and Nixon himself may have never been forced to resign had Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein not followed up on the conspiracy theories circulating that the Watergate break-in was more than just a low-level operation. In other words, discussing and sharing conspiracy theories is a way of Americans holding their public officials accountable in the hopes that if there is any truth to the conspiracy theory being circulated, then hopefully someone in the right position and with the right authority will launch a thorough investigation. In the end, discussing and sharing conspiracy theories in person or on social media platforms is not sinful. Pronouncing someone guilty or convicting someone in the courtroom of public opinion without verifiable evidence and without allowing that person to have his or her day in court is sinful.