Nutty conspiracy theorists in U.S. history cackle like Chicken Little, “The sky is falling!”
Rush Limbaugh parrots Chicken Little. His spitfire lectures attack the Obama administration for swinging a socialistic wrecking ball and razing the house of liberty. Our nation’s foundations have crumbled, moans Limbaugh. Freedom’s hall is knocked down, he warns, because big government usurps citizens’ rights.
Such fear-mongering serves as a silly example of American political paranoia that Columbia University historian Richard Hofstadter exposed in his classic 1964 essay, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics.”
Hofstadter notes crazy conspiracy theories littering American history.
The colonial religious establishment unleashed dire warnings against Thomas Jefferson’s alleged conversion to strange “Bavarian revolutionary rhetoric.” In 1776, Adam Wieshaupt, a professor of law at the Bavarian University of Ingolstadt, substituted human reasoning for divine revelation as truth’s source. He distrusted clergy, a common trend in 18th century Bavaria. Weishaupt undercut German state-church authority.
Masonic Lodges imported this anticlerical spirit into the U.S. They identified with the “Illuminati” — thinkers who illumined minds by rejecting superstitions, such as miracles or confidence in the Triune God.
Christians in the Federalist Party regarded Jefferson’s Enlightenment ideals as an expression of this Bavarian heresy. They believed if Jefferson were elected president, he would import Bavarian heresy and immorality. Christians accused “Illuminati” like Jefferson — those enlightened by natural laws rather than God’s miraculous interventions — of robbing property rights from citizens and perverting the U.S. with libertine values. That’s how Christian traditionalists caricatured reasonable faith in humankind’s possibilities.
Professor Hofstadter describes how in May 1798 the Boston Congregationalist minister Jedidiah Morse preached against Jefferson’s sympathies with Illuminism. Jefferson’s hooligans, claimed Morse, would redistribute property, mock religion and shatter the foundations of society in which “the good, the wise and the propertied” held power.
Conspiracy theories abound
The conspiratorial mind today spreads a staggering number of theories to get to the bottom of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination. Many Americans think the jury is still out on the verdict of what happened in Dallas. They are suspicious of the Warren Commission’s conclusion that Lee Harvey Oswald, acting alone, pulled the trigger and killed JFK.
Conspiracy theories cloud what became self-evident to American security forces who built the case for Oswald as the lone assassin. The case “for the sole guilt of Lee Harvey Oswald remains formidable: ballistics evidence, eyewitness evidence, ear-witness evidence, fingerprint evidence, firearms evidence, circumstantial evidence, fiber evidence” recounts Adam Gopnik in The New Yorker. Still, a dizzying array of explanations feed those who devour conspiracy explanations.
Admire Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758), the Puritan preacher who lived a generation before Jefferson. He didn’t succumb to political paranoia. During his life, Scottish philosophers questioned Scripture’s reliability and dismissed huge portions of it as silly superstition.
Edwards didn’t fear this intellectual assault on traditional Christianity. Using clear, forceful logic, Edwards mastered his opponents’ arguments, and saluted their strengths before debunking them. He refrained from wielding conspiracy as a cudgel to cut down opponents. Rather, Edwards’ scalpel severed chaff from truth’s kernel in the Bible.
Invited to become third president of the College of New Jersey (Princeton University) in the winter of 1758, Edwards didn’t get delusional about threats of annihilation as the “Seven Years War” (1756-1763) intensified. He lived at the stormy vortex in which British Protestants in the Middle Colonies, French Catholics to the north, and displaced Indians robbed of their native lands slaughtered each other.
During harrowing times, Jonathan Edwards trusted in the repeated promise God makes: “Fear not; nor be afraid” (Ezekiel 44:8). When threatened, he didn’t succumb to mental panic that muddles conspiracy theorists.
Heed George Bernard Shaw’s caution: “Two percent of the people think; three percent of the people think they think; and 95 percent of the people would rather die than think.” Don’t become gullible to political paranoia.
Rev. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax exempt Creative Growth Ministries (www.thelivinghistory.com), which enhances Christian worship through dynamic storytelling.