I just read Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire: A 500-Year History (Random House, 2017) by Kurt Andersen. I came across it first about 18 months ago, leafed through it, and passed on it. But now, with tens of millions of Americans suddenly embracing wildly bizarre ideas about politics and reality, it seems much more relevant. What’s wrong with America? Andersen offers one explanation, namely that this mental failing was baked into the American psyche from the very beginning, as illustrated in the 46 short chapters of his roughly 450-page book, starting with the Pilgrims and going right up to Donald Trump. The current explosion of conspiracy thinking among right-wing Republicans is the obvious current manifestation of the problem, but Anderson covers episodes of liberal and secular craziness as well. I’ll review a few ideas offered in the book, but then come back around to a narrower question for readers: Not only are Mormons not immune to this mental condition, we seem particularly vulnerable to it. Mormons voted for Trump in higher percentages than any other religious demographic. So we have some explaining to do. What’s wrong with American thinking? What’s wrong with Mormon thinking?
Is It Religion?
From the beginning, the wide variety of denominations and religions in America introduced new possibilities for speculative thought, which sometimes veered into religious fantasy. From Chapter 2, “I Believe, Therefore I Am Right: The Protestants”:
[O]ut of the new Protestant religion, a new proto-American attitude emerged during the 1500s. Millions of ordinary people decided that they, each of them, had the right to decide what was true or untrue, regardless of what fancy experts said. And furthermore, they believed, passionate fantastical belief was the key to everything.
In Chapter 4, “Building Our Own Private Heaven on Earth: The Puritans,” we meet “the most extreme of the extremists,” Separatist Puritans. They left not just the Church of England but England itself, and came to America after a short stay in the Netherlands. A similar but slightly less extreme group which founded the Massachussetts Bay Colony followed ten years later. All of these were biblical literalists and zealous apocalypticists with little regard for religious tolerance. But they also had a “paradoxical combination of their beliefs and temperament. … They were excruciatingly rational fantasists who regarded theology as an elaborate scientific enterprise. They were theologically medieval …. They were crazed and pragmatic.” They were religious zealots with a practical streak.
Andersen continues, reviewing the American witch hunts (Chapter 6, “Imaginary Friends and Enemies: The Early Satanic Panics”) and the First and Second Great Awakenings (Chapter 9, “The First Great Delerium”), at which point Mormonism enters the story: Chapter 10, “The All-American Fan Fiction of Joseph Smith, Prophet.” It’s not a very reverent discussion of LDS historical events, but the tone isn’t really different from discussions of other Christian groups. In fact, it’s a much fairer discussion of Mormonism than you’ll read in any Evangelical book.
Four years later Smith finally succeeded in unearthing the tablets, then began “translating” them. His friends and his wife were often at his side as he performed the translations. He would place a seer stone in a hat beside one of the golden plates, bury his face in the hat, and then speak the English words he “saw,” a sentence at a time. During the period he was translating the tablets, he said, he received additional revelations directly from God, in his mind, which he also transcribed.
Remove the disclaimers (scare quotes, “he said”) and this might have come out of a recent LDS manual. The author sees Joseph Smith’s views as right in line with the trends evident in earlier American Christianity, but amped up. “The grandiose anything-goes literalism of his theology knew no bounds.” And: “Joseph Smith was a quintessentially American figure.”
Is It America?
There are social and economic themes that parallel the religious elements he discusses. In Chapter 3 there are “the Gold Seekers,” in Chapter 11 it’s “Quack Nation: Magical but Modern,” in Chapter 16 “Fantasy Industrialized.” But let’s jump to Part IV of the book, when everything goes crazy in the 1960s. There are Hippies (Ch. 22), Intellectuals (Ch. 23), and Christians (24), all embracing wildly unconventional ways of thinking and living. With the Kennedy assassination, full-blown conspiracy theories about the event (and they are still going strong) became more or less mainstream. I’ll bet your local library has a half-dozen books on the Kennedy assassination. There was Nixon and Watergate, which initially sounded like a conspiracy theory but turned out to be an actual conspiracy. Not what you need if you are trying to discredit and marginalize all the other conspiracy theories. And there was political violence (assassinations, bombings, riots) not seen again in America until … well, until last week.
I have only touched on material about halfway through the book at this point, so I’m going to cut some corners and then get to our Mormon discussion. In the 1980s and 1990s, he talks about the cult of youthfulness (Chapter 28, “Forever Young”), which is interesting. These days, some people never really grow up or turn into adults, which is a very new thing, even in America. There is the emergence of a variety of alternative religious or spiritual movements or ideologies (Chapter 33, “Magical but Not Necessarily Christian, Spiritual but Not Religious”), many of which subscribe to varieties of secular craziness, from reincarnation to thetans (Scientology). One example:
A woman in Washington State named Judith Darlene Hampton renamed herself Judy Zebra Knight, JZ for short, and became rich and famous by pretending to speak as Ramtha, a Stone Age warrior from the legendary land of Lemuria who’d fought a war against the legendary land of Atlantis and conquered most of the world before becoming an all-knowing demigod. JZ Knight attracted a ton of followers ….
Moving into the 21st century, there is Chapter 38, “Reality Is a Conspiracy: The X-Filing of America,” giving a nod to The X-Files, one of the first conspiracy TV series. Now it seems there are dozens, hundreds of TV dramas featuring young heroes struggling against government or corporate conspiracies. It’s how the next generation is being trained to think about the world, it seems. There’s Chapter 41, “Liberals Denying Science,” which I note just so you don’t think the book or me is portraying this as a Republican or conservative problem. There’s Chapter 43, “Final Fantasy-Industrial Complex,” talking about the entertainment industry, including video games but the Internet and the media as well. It’s like Reality TV is starting to take the place of plain old Reality for lots of us. There are millions of young men who spend more time, more hours per day, immersed in video game worlds than in the real world.
The author notes fantasy sports leagues, a minor item perhaps but rather revealing. There are millions of people who are, in a sense, sports fans but who get their sports kicks not from watching actual sports events and rooting for actual sports teams but, instead, from constructing virtual teams and computing virtual points based on box scores or league statistics, competing against other guys and their virtual teams and points. The more you think about it, the stranger it is. Somehow the growing media and entertainment industry has morphed into fantasy entertainment and fantasy media. The author suggests this is just another aspect of his overall thesis. In earlier America, there was fantasy religion and fantasy medicine (various forms of quackery). Now our thirst for fantasy entertainment is somehow contributing to the popularity of fantasy politics and fantasy history and fantasy science. The world of popular media and discussion is all turning into one big cauldron of “fact-free nonsense,” the term a CNN anchor coined for what average Trumpists sound like when they try to explain what they believe and why they are doing the things they do.
Is There an Explanation for All This?
That rather long review of some but not all of the points in the book is a helpful reminder that today’s American Craziness is not new or unique, it just seems that way. The author’s argument is that this sudden emergence of political fantasy on the right is just the latest twist on a general and long-term American penchant for embracing speculative and fantastic and downright ridiculous ideas and claims. Recall that it was an American who said, “There’s a sucker born every minute.” It was first uttered in the 19th century, not the 21st century. We’ve been suckers for a long time.
There are other options to explain things. Maybe sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll in the Sixties was not just part of a 500-year story but was something new that put us as a country on a different track. It sure seems like things have never been the same since. Or maybe Trump is not just the latest in a line of American political opportunists but is something new on the American political scene. He certainly has redefined political norms in America. There’s never been a Trump before and hopefully there won’t be another. Alternatively, one might say there have been earlier versions of Trump, but they never had any political traction on the national scene and never got elected. Maybe we, the voters, are to blame, and we should be saying: We’ve never elected a Trump before, but we did four years ago, and let’s hope we don’t do it again. But why did we do it now? How have we changed?
And let’s throw in the Mormon angle. In light of the whole discussion above, one view might be that only Americans (a few of them, anyway) would have found early Mormonism compelling, and continued to do so for two centuries. But let’s focus on the here and now, and ask the question of why more Mormons than average Americans seem to be Trump supporters and believers in the various Trump and fringe conspiracy theories. I suspect the author would say that all Americans have been open to conspiracy theories and fantasy thinking over the years, but that Mormons are just more open and more vulnerable than most. Perhaps Ezra Taft Benson gave a big push to the whole Mormon attraction to political conspiracy theories. If some other LDS fellow had been called instead of Benson, how different would LDS political history have been?
So, readers, tell me: Are Mormons particularly vulnerable to recent political conspiracy theories, or is that whole idea just an exaggeration? Our overseas readers might chime in and tell us whether this is all an American aberration or whether there are opportunistic populist politicians on the rise elsewhere as well? I’m thinking the guy in Brazil and Boris Johnson in England are evidence that there’s more going on than just what’s happening in America. And perhaps some readers have their own stories to tell about how fantasy is displacing reality in some other corner of the modern world, whether religious or political or something altogether different.
I think the religious necessarily keep an eye toward the fantastical and otherworldly because of their investment in worlds to come. Fantasy and lies are powerful, but they serve some kind of purpose in enabling communities to evolve. “Rationality is a relationship” is how Franco Ferrarotti put it. I take to heart the anthropologist Mary Douglas’s comment that dirt is simply matter out of place. Lies and fantasies are just stories about worlds yet to be. They are simply stories out of place.
I’m simplifying and neutering the problems you outlined that are painfully evident and dangerous today. But Mormons, like those in other communities, craft stories of their own logic. Lying or fantasizing can be pro-social; they arguably are necessary and are sometimes more righteous than telling the truth. Practicing otherworldliness and building possibility are what allows a community to step into newer, possibly better worlds. I’ve written about how Mormons do this in musical theater, the fantasies of the stage becoming an extension of performing in the temple selves and ideas untethered to this world. Of course, this is as true for liberal and secularized communities as it is for conservative religious ones–Hamilton traffics in fantasy and fiction seemingly willy nilly. This is why it’s important to turn this gaze upon progressive causes, to unearth our own lies and fantasies not for shame but as a ticket to a new world. When truth lacks any currency, selling your facts for cheap hardly seems rational.
Stephen Carter in his recent Sunstone podcast concluded that “Mormonism and Trumpism are the same kind of organism”.
Good post. A couple of thoughts:
1. I think the link between Fantasyland as we’re currently experiencing it and Protestantism is pretty solid. One of the most significant things to emerge from Lutheranism and the Protestant Reformation in general is a kind of self-authorization. Luther facilitated a disruption between the hierarchy/orthodoxy of the Catholic Church and the subjectivity of the individual believer by emphasizing conscience, God’s grace, and scripture and by de-emphasizing the role of Catholic clergy and ritual in the life of the believer. Much of what Luther preached emphasized the individual’s conscience and its relationship to God. In a real sense, Luther taught a kind of self-constituted and self-constructed authority (see “priesthood of the believer”, e.g.). In that sense, at least, Luther’s thinking presaged European Romanticism that arose more than two centuries after his death (see Kant, e.g.).
2. Mormons are particularly susceptible to conspiracy theories in part because Joseph Smith’s teachings are, in some aspects, the logical extension of Lutheran thought. In Smith’s (and Mormonism’s) paradigm, individual spiritual experiences are a kind of authorization both for personal behavior and doctrine, up to a point. A lot of Smith’s own rhetoric, for instance, insists upon the truth of what he experienced (see his telling of the First Vision, e.g.) because he has to “sell” that truth before he can then institute doctrine/practice.. Thus, subjective experience is the basis for much of Mormon doctrine. We enact this in a small way every Fast Sunday when we dutifully troop up to the podium and announce that we “know” that such and such a teaching is true (or that the church itself is true). Thus, Mormons carry on the tradition of subjective experience determining the “truth” of things, meaning that we rely more on subjective “feelings” that we think are objective (“spiritual witness”) to determine truth than on facts, reason, logic, etc.
3. As the OP indicates and as I’ve mentioned somewhere in another post, Mormons are particularly susceptible to conspiracy theories for two main reasons: 1) Our whole religion is a conspiracy theory: Christ left the Earth and things were cool for a while, but then the “pure” doctrine and practice gets corrupted and someone has to fix it because other Christian sects are just part of the problem/conspiracy because they’re altering Christ’s words and teachings and so Joseph Smith comes along and has visions and people don’t believe him because people hate the truth and hate him because he’s God’s anointed and they seek to destroy him and he’s a martyr for the cause so because of that and because people hate him and contradict him, all of what the church teaches must therefore be true. Or something like that (pretty standard conspiracy theory thinking). 2) Binary and orthodox thinking tends to cultivate the kind of paranoia evident in most conspiracy theories. There is a kind of all-or-nothing thought pattern consistent with Mormonism and conspiracy theories. In Rudy Giuliani’s exhortation to the insurrectionists a few weeks ago, he said something along the lines of “if we’re wrong, we’ll be made fools of, but if we’re right a lot of them (people who support the election results, I guess?) will go to jail.” That kind of rhetoric is no different from Gordon B. Hinckley’s famous statement about either the First Vision is true or we’ve perpetrated the greatest fraud in history. Mormons are therefore used to that kind of rhetoric and that kind of binary thinking and unfortunately associate it with “truth” and therefore have a really difficult time seeing and thinking clearly when such rhetoric is employed.
Let me tackle this from a different more simplistic angle. I believe that the gamechanger here is the open Internet. When it comes to fantasy, The Internet has affected the US and the Church in different ways.
The US: You can find people on the Internet who believe anything you can imagine . So it’s very easy for conspiracy theorists to find others who support their views. The Internet is often anonymous and so there are no normal or natural guardrails to stop the most ridiculous of theories. Yes, we’ve always had people like this in the country. But before the Internet they were scattered. Now they are unified. Right-wing and Left-wing fringe can give credit to the Internet for bringing them together. And it contributes to the deep division we find in the country. Social media seems to force everyone to take a stand on issues that in my youth we would have easily ignored. And for those with extreme political fantasies, they are no longer alone.
The Church: The Internet has had a similar effect on the Church. It used to be that progressive Mormons had to work very hard to find supporting materials and other like-minded folks. Maybe you could find a Sunstone or Dialog sitting around. These days, they can turn to Wheat and Tares, Radio Free Mormon, Mormon Stories, etc. And there are many others. And what the Internet has revealed to many of us is that much of the correlated information is indeed a fantasy. But just as importantly, the Internet has allowed us to see that there are many others who believe what we do (or DONT believe what we don’t believe). When I was a kid in the 80s I could never have made the case that BOM / BOA “translation” was a Mormon fantasy. Now it’s very easy to do so.
We’ve been taught that the Lord reveals to man the ability to leverage technology to bring about His purposes. But what if the same technology feeds into political fantasy and chips away at correlated fantasy?
Taking from what joshua h said, the internet is Pandora’s box because it removes the isolation of fringe ideas, many of which are borne of mental instability and perhaps illness. Do you feel like pederasty is actually just a different lifestyle because you have urges and it was practiced in ancient Greece, the cradle of modern civilization? There’s an online group for that. You think Trump is destroying an evil cabal of child molesters? There’s a large group of like-minded people you can join. Finding someone like you makes you feel more normal, less aberrant, less grotesque, less unlovable.
Of course, conditioning helps. Opening one’s mind to the possibility of angels and gold plates and wooden submarines makes all things seem possible, particularly if those same things are never viewed with a jaundiced eye. As Mike Quinn demonstrated, a largely uneducated and magical world view made Joseph Smith’s foundation stories seem plausible. Feeding children those same stories from an early age creates generations who carry the same magical world view even in a world that largely rejects fantastical events.
Are Mormons particularly vulnerable? Yes, from jump. But the yellow press in the nineteenth century taught us that words on a printed page carry an assumed truth, even if they speak of little green men on the moon. We’re still in the same place; people see words on a web page and it’s like Prometheus giving fire to primitive humankind. Mormons are susceptible, but it’s hard to argue they are MORE susceptible.
I wish I were going to be alive long enough to see where this brave new world of digital technology takes us. Orwell wasn’t exactly right and Huxley was closer to the current truth, and neither are still around to look into the future. We need similar prognosticators.
Great post and great comments. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the connection between Mormonism & conspiracy thinking, and this post + comments have done a really good job of describing that.
Just yesterday I read a (terrible) BYU speech about faith crisis that (in addition to saying that “doubt” is a sin) emphasized that revelation is a higher form of knowledge than scientific or analytical reasoning. And I totally believe in the spirit and revelation, and I also totally believe that scientific and analytical reasoning are certainly not bullet-proof. But the spirit cannot tell you if a fact is true. The spirit cannot tell you if Moroni was a real human being–just that the Book of Mormon is helpful to you living a good life and growing closer to God. The spirit cannot tell you if Joseph Smith saw God–only if Joseph’s teachings bring you closer to God. Those are historical events that either did or didn’t happen and the only way to know if they did or didn’t happen is to examine the evidence. But in Church we teach that feelings testify of facts, which then makes it every bit as reasonable to trust your feelings that masks don’t work, the election was rigged, etc. in the face of facts to the contrary.
Elisa: as you say, we’ve been taught to trust our feelings more than our reasoning. But don’t feelings lead directly to fantasies? I suppose you could reason yourself into a fantasy but it’s a lot harder to do.
A few reasons I can think of:
–Mormons are taught from a very early age how to willingly suspend disbelief and invest wholeheartedly in untenable fantasies. Even innocently questioning the very premise upon which a fantastic “truth” is built violates the norms of Mormon society. This also explains why Mormons love Disney movies and musical theatre so much.
–Mormons are also taught to reject critical thinking, reasoned arguments and evidence-based approaches, instead relying on appeals to emotion (“The Spirit”) to test ideas, make significant life decisions and confirm biases.
–Mormon culture encourages worship of leaders and professing loyalty to them, and punishes criticism of them.
–Mormons rampantly traffic in end-times speculation, even going as far to believe that encouraging man-made turmoil and anarchy will actually hasten the return of Christ.
–Mormons are deeply insecure about their place in the world (persecution complex), but then mask it with a massive superiority complex.
–Mormons also have a well-established history of racism, sexism, homophobia and xenophobia, which are all cornerstones of misogynist white nationalist movements. While most modern Mormons will emphatically claim to be not racist, they also refuse to acknowledge their own implicit biases (and are very uncomfortable talking about what things were like in the Church prior to 1978).
–Mormons were taught to believe that the U.S. Constitution was inspired and dictated by God Himself, especially the Second Amendment.
–Many cultural Mormon strongholds in places like Utah and Idaho have residual suspicion of government intrusion in their lives left over from the 19th century.
–The Church demands members to be “all-in” literal believers, and invest fully in ideas that are unprovable. Nuanced believers and “wishy-washy” members are frowned upon, while “hardcore” members are often celebrated. For example, if I were to declare over the pulpit that the Book of Mormon is probably not historical (but still has value) I would get the mic cut off and be summoned to the bishop’s office. But when a certain endowed High Priest on national television declares that the most morally bankrupt U.S. president in living memory is actually a modern-day Captain Moroni, he gets no discipline and is then showered with praise from his mostly-Mormon constituents.
This unsustainable “fantasyland” problem in Mormonism is one that Mormons created for themselves.
The basis for conspiracy theories among Church members is the recurring theme of secret combinations in the Book of Mormon, including Gadianton robbers, King-men, etc.
Nowadays, most conspiracy theories eventually turn out to be either false or highly exaggerated, but a few are proven true.
Google “conspiracy theories that were proven true”
Like Elisa said, there’s an obvious connection between conspiracy and Mormonism. If you need evidence, look at how well multilevel marketing schemes tend to do in Utah.
But I don’t think it’s Mormonism per se that makes people susceptible to the darker forms of suspended disbelief (conspiracy, MLM, Trumpism). Mormons, after all, are not a random sample: they’re people who have stayed in a religion that millions have left or never bought into at all. IMHO, there’s a deeper psychological phenomenon that explains *both* a person’s perfunctory Mormonism and their penchant for conspiracy. In other words, a certain approach to Mormonism is correlated with conspiracy, but the relationship isn’t causal. For that, you need a phenomenon that explains religion and politics at the same time. Enter psychology.
The psychological explanation may be: for any number of reasons, the person deeply desires a simplistic, black-and-white, “obvious” explanation of a complex, non-obvious universe, without any need to wrangle with discomfort or problematic complexity. This desire/phenomenon goes by many names (all-or-nothing thinking, extremism, literalism, being a “hedgehog” instead of a “fox”.) Post-1960s Mormonism gives you the simple, safe answer on a theological level, all nicely correlated and neutered of any radicalism or risk. (“What would we do without the Plan of Salvation?” and “Let God prevail.”) So, too, for conspiracy and Trumpism, but on a practical or political level. (“Geez, all these bad things keep happening – it must be the government’s doing!” and “I hate the present moment – can’t we just Make America Great Again?”).
The psychological need for certainty, simplicity, and shallowness can come from lots of places. In my family, I’ve discovered that it’s rooted in anxiety. If the real complexities and problems in your life (economic stagnation, climate change, familial dysfunction) are too much, and you can’t stand to confront them, it helps to just blame them on some single theory that “explains” them (“Well, these are the last days, after all”). Once such scapegoat explanations grow large enough in one’s mind, they become an escapist fantasy in which one seeks refuge – usually unconsciously – from the actual explanations for the life-and-death problems we face.
What I don’t know – does anyone here? – is how family or friends can break this cycle. I am fairly certain that confrontation with “fact” is counterproductive (because “facts” are what the person can’t honestly confront in the first place). Perhaps establishing a trusting relationship is a better first step.
Billy Possum, my first response to your question about how to help someone break the cycle is “good luck with that”. But I do think there are a few things that can be done. The first is related, I think, to how great swaths of this country (esp. rural “fly over” areas) feel ignored, dismissed, disempowered. I think that’s one reason for the anxiety you mention. In my experience, it’s not only about establishing trust, but also about not acting in a condescending manner. People don’t like being told that they’re backwards-thinking idiots; they don’t even like it when someone’s tone of voice implies that they are. I think the answer is empathy and also a willingness for the other person in the discussion to remain really calm and open. The more that happens, the more trust can be established. Also, I think it’s helpful to remember that the goal isn’t winning an argument. You can’t win an argument with conspiracy theorists, so the goal, again is more about exchanging ideas and just getting to know how the other person thinks while also letting them know, gently and kindly, how you think.
I guess the last thing I’d say is that the kind of division that the county is facing now means that the progressive side as well as the conservative side tends to be reactionary. I know that one thing it’s really important for me to remember if I’m going to get in conversations with folks who are into conspiracies, or who are always-Trumpers or whatever, is that I can’t react emotionally to what they say. The more open and calm I stay, the more I’ve found I can engage with folks who think differently and at least have a civil conversation if nothing else. I also try to remember that the people on the right often think of liberals as arrogant and smug, which is actually a sometimes accurate portrayal. All of this comment seems really obvious and not terribly helpful. Sorry. But it’s all I’ve got right now.
@Billy Possum agree with you on the correlation / causation thing.
In response to your question, I don’t know how to talk to people about this stuff. I don’t have a deep IRL relationship with a conspiracy theorist / Trumper and it would be a tough thing to tackle in a more casual setting. And of course a total lost cause on the internet IMHO.
It’s funny, Brother Sky, I actually think much of your comment is not obvious to progressives. Or if it is obvious, it’s really hard to remember in the moment, when the MAGA hats are out, so to speak. That’s why I asked – I understand the points you raised (empathy, understanding, checking reaction) conceptually, but it’s hard to practice them when I feel like I’m fighting Nazism here. It feels like lives and liberty are at stake (because they literally are).
Thank you for your response, which was thorough, on point, and even a bit optimistic. I think it’s more helpful than you realize (as you say, it’s the best we’ve got right now, which ain’t nothin’).
Conspiracy thinking has always been there. It is human nature. Humans are prone to exaggerations, fantasies, paranoia, and confirmation bias. I admit when I was a teenager and just starting college, I used to think that conspiratorial thinking was a cultural thing. I thought that Americans were rational thinkers and that Arabs (having done study abroad in Jerusalem) were more prone to conspiratorial thought. Some Palestinians that I interacted with who went on about these worldwide Zionist conspiracies made me think this. I soon realized as I interacted with more Americans that conspiracism was alive and well among Americans too, and to my dismay even among some with PhDs (I remember physics professor at BYU, Steve Jones, went off the deep end and started publishing about his theories that the Bush administration was behind 9/11).
I’m not sure if Mormons are more prone than others to conspiratorial thought. For conspiracism seems to exist in communities and people of all types. I regularly interact with ex-Mormons and find that many of them believe and accept conspiratorial ideas. I think it is an education thing. Those with more education and experience in environments where they have to critically think tend to have a better feel for when to be skeptical and when to accept evidence. People who accept conspiracy theories have a hard time with that balance. They insist that we always ask questions and be skeptical of a mainstream narrative or narrative coming from a government agency but can never bring themselves to draw tentative conclusions, especially not ones that would show the government as innocent and a conspiracy as not existing. Conspiracists have a hard time constructing narratives built around a hypothesis that they substantiate with evidence and test before experts in a similar field. Instead they seize on anomalies and extrapolate well beyond what these seeming anomalies suggest. Experience in a critical thinking environment helps people to overcome the tendencies to fall into the common fallacies that conspiracists fall into. But even the highly educated aren’t immune.
Ultimately a problem lies in too much free speech. Social media and blogs have allowed laypersons to gain large audiences that they would have never had had pre-internet. The ease of internet communication allows fantasists to skirt around having their ideas tested by peers and experts.
Dave B. and those who agree with him are absolutely correct. If anyone disagrees with them, they are conspiracy theorists.
How was that comment constructive or helpful?
Great posts, discussion, critical thinking, all worth considering. The mummified LDS flock, are being unwrapped. Reminds me of Jesus comments regarding sepulchres painted white, but within filled with deceased persons bones.
I have an engineering type mind, I build things. There is no room for alternative facts/measurements. You can sometimes build with different materials, but if for example you try to build car suspension members with concrete they will fail. To me there is truth and there are lies. If you want to call lies; trump facts, or conspiracy theories, they might sound softer but they are still lies.
When I was young, at church we had discussions about whether truth was relative or eternal? We always concluded eternal. How would that go today?
It would be interesting to see whether there are certain personality types/professions that are more suceptable. Why do 30% of Americans believe Trump, and the rest not? Why do some like right wing news and others not? Why do members seem to be particularly suceptable?
Do we still believe in the 9th of the 10 commandments. Thou shalt not bear false witness, which is cleverly worded. If it said thou shalt not lie, people could claim they were not lying, because they believed every word. Bearing false witness puts the onus on the person to fact check before repeating something.
If the church tells me something, I examine it to see if it looks true, and be willing to be persuaded if more information comes to hand. I do not believe Christ ever sanctions discrimination, and see the church leadership, looking disingenuous when opposing racial discrimination, while continuing to discriminate on other basis.
If I read that Trump is a good man, and the greatest president America has ever had, (which I did today on facebook) I believe there is enough evidence that that is not true. The person saying it believes it but it is still a lie.
Do I have a responsibility to correct lies? Luckily not a problem in my immediate family. With strangers on facebook, or blogs, I might try to show truth, without emotion, but frustrating.
The small government thing/ distrust of government is a particularly american thing. That your government intervened less in the pandemic than for example Australian governments, has consequences. (400,000 so far), and there are so many other examples. That we generally support our government shows a different mindset. The obsession over small government in America is not helpfull to good governance/ community spirit. A lie that has been sold, like the lie that voting democrat is voting to kill babies.
If the foundation of a culture has too many lies in it, it has problems that will have to be adderssed, certainly it is weakened.
I realise I sound harsh, but I believe that there has to be accountability. That often accountability is a natural consequence.
We are seeing some of the people who attacked the congress loosing their jobs. I can envisage potential employers looking at facebook etc. and excluding people spreading conspiracy theories, and particularly, trump stolen election lies, in a year or two, particularly if American culture changes/improves.
I can imagine a reference to the 9th commandment, and please explain, at the judgement bar.
Have you seen the cartoon of a trump supporter being asked to explain at the judgement bar, and responding the conspiracy from the left goes higher than he realised?
“Perhaps Ezra Taft Benson gave a big push to the whole Mormon attraction to political conspiracy theories. If some other LDS fellow had been called instead of Benson, how different would LDS political history have been?”
One should possibly include Mark E. Peterson and, to some extent, Joseph Fielding Smith as individuals from that era with a similar mindset and philosophy, although not quite as politically focused as ETB. The post-WW2 commie version of “barbarians at the gates of Rome” had a lot of Americans frightened and buying into Joseph McCarthy-type conspiracies. We are a religion that, from the very beginning, have been centered on eschatology as reason for the restoration’s very purpose. With that mindset as a filter, it’s always been very easy to see the daily headlines as playing their role in the approaching “end times”.
Brother Sky: I have been thinking a lot about this notion of the aggrieved rural white person, and I’m starting to think that the real issue isn’t that liberal elites are looking down at them with disdain, but that Republicans are TELLING THEM that liberal elites are looking down at them with disdain. They already felt insecure and out-progressed, and then they have a political platform telling them they are the REAL Americans, not those “coastal elites” whoever the hell they are, as if we are all just stereotypes to be reckoned with and not real people. Until leaders quit feeding divisive narratives, we will never get past this. It’s not for progressives to quit looking down on people in flyover states. It’s for ALL of us to look forward to a shared future that benefits everyone, not pitting groups against each other in this partisan manner. I’m hopeful Joe Biden can take the twig out of the open wound of anxiety that groups are feeling.
As to the fantastical nature of Mormonism, the biggest factors that contribute to it are: 1) the idea that discernment based on spiritual feelings is as valid or more valid than other, more objective methods, and 2) the newness of our religious narratives which frankly cast all religious narratives into question. It’s very hard in 2020 to believe in the magical worldview Joseph Smith did. If it happened 1500 years ago, it would be easier to dismiss it as legend and unfamiliar, but 1830 is awfully recent. It takes a lot to think literally about these types of events. Religion requires a lot of a specific type of imagination.
Why are Americans so prone to this type of thinking? Well, first, I don’t know that the book’s premise is completely accurate. For example, if you want to talk about the Salem Witch Trials, that was 19 people (there were one-off witches killed elsewhere in the Colonies over the first 100 years, but not a lot of them). The European Witch Craze was an import to the states. It’s fantastical that more witches weren’t killed in the US. In Germany alone, an estimated 40,000 witches were burned alive between 1450 and 1750. The US can’t even hold a candle to that (pun intended). Saudi Arabia still considers witchcraft a criminal offense. 118 people were arrested for it in 2009.
The one way in which American thinking and culture would seem like it’s based in Fantasy to outsiders is the optimism and self-righteousness. Americans believe that we are the pinnacle of democracy (January 6th notwithstanding), the best creative minds in the world, and the beacon of freedom to all. And in some ways, that is true. Europeans are not nearly as optimistic and self-important, even though they are patriotic about their nations. I suspect it has to do with America being more isolated and unchallenged by competing neighbor’s narratives, the fact that we’ve never fought a war on our own soil nor been occupied, and that creates a certain unearned confidence in our rightness. Those are all similar factors to Mormonism which mostly came of age in an isolated area of the US where our stories could be the majority view, unchallenged by other religions and cultures. Mormon dominance in Utah has never been in question, and as a religion, we are new enough and isolated enough to be able to feel unchallenged and confident despite the fact that others see the weaknesses.
“the real issue isn’t that liberal elites are looking down at them with disdain, but that Republicans are TELLING THEM that liberal elites are looking down at them with disdain.”
Really? I thought it was Hillary Clinton, one of the “liberal elite”, who insisted that they were “deplorables.” If I remember that correctly, then it was the so-called liberal elite. But then some Trump supporters (not all Republicans) don’t seem to know when to let go of attributing Clinton’s words to others.
While I’m not very good at playing “what if”, I suspect that if the Democrat party machine had run Biden instead of Clinton in 2016, we may never have had a President Trump.
I agree that “Until leaders quit feeding divisive narratives, we will never get past this.” We may not then either, since those who are not party or ideological leaders are also quite capable of spreading divisive narratives.
Wondering: Hillary’s comment about “deplorables” was in direct response to the GOP women who claimed, when confronted with all of Trump’s rape allegations and his own recording where he boasted about grabbing women by the pussy, that they WISHED he would sexually assault them. How we’ve gotten from women who laugh about others being sexually assaulted as something to be envied to a broad claim that everyone who votes Democrat thinks that every conservative is deplorable is a pretty far stretch. Those women were and are deplorable. Their comments were despicable. I don’t assume everyone in the Republican party wants to be sexually assaulted, though, nor that 100% of them think sexual assault is a compliment. However, it’s possible that her comment that half of Trump’s voters were in this category is accurate. The GOP has certainly been flirting with misogyny, more and more.
“You know, to just be grossly generalistic, you could put half of Trump’s supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables. Right?” Clinton said. https://time.com/4486502/hillary-clinton-basket-of-deplorables-transcript/
If she was responding to GOP women who made those claims, she went way beyond the mark by claiming they were half of Trump’s supporters. They were not. She went on, apparently describing the basket of deplorables: ““The racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamaphobic—you name it.” I wonder if when when you add all of those to the GOP women who made appalling claims you might get to half, but among those 2016 and 2020 Trump voters I know (admittedly a very small sample) you would not get to half.
Wondering: 1) I really hope you’re right and Hillary was wrong about the “half” projection, although the reason I wonder about the accuracy of it is how many legislators were willing to contest electoral votes on behalf of their fact-repellant constituents, and 2) it’s entirely possible that you just know the classier Republicans. I hear you about the litany of stuff Hillary lumped into the “deplorable” comment, but it was, in the timeline, right after the fracas about his sexual assault braggadocio, and there were women who proudly wore “Deplorables” tee shirts in response, so at least some of them got that she was calling them specifically Deplorables (women who think sexual assault, particularly from Trump, is a compliment). When interviewed, several of these women giggled and explained that their shirts were about how thrilled they would be if only Trump grabbed them by the pussy because he’s so rich and handsome. Not to yuck someone’s yum, but YUCK.
Anyone wanting to understand why 75% of people believe in at least one conspiracy theory (and in particular, those who are intelligent and highly educated) should listen to the “Conspiratorial Thinking” episode from the podcast, You are not so Smart.
Maybe we’re seeing “men’s hearts are failing them”. Personally, and I’m speaking personally, I don’t get why anyone would believe the (crazy) worst of their fellowman without legitimate proof. It’s mean spirited and hateful. I’m your average imperfect nice person who means well. I tend to assume others are too until I have proof otherwise. Sure there are bad evil people but they aren’t Bill Gates and Dr. Fauci. The Gadiantons are organized crime.
Pres Biden gave an inaugeration speech that is being described as powerfull, and visionary, but if you read any congratulatory statement on facebook, the majority of comments are from trump disciples repeating trump lies and hate about stolen elections, the abilities (he can’t string 2 words together) or motives, selling us out to china, and communists.
Trump disciples = lies and hate. How can that be what members do? Why can’t they see a problem with that?
Do I want to associate or be associated with them? No
Yes there a trump desciples in the church (not many outside) here too.
Thanks for the comments and excellent discussion, everyone. I’ve been on the road for a few days and haven’t been able to follow and comment as usual, but here are some quick responses:
Jake wrote, “Practicing otherworldliness and building possibility are what allows a community to step into newer, possibly better worlds. I’ve written about how Mormons do this in musical theater …” The now-phased out pageants deserve some retrospective commentary. The expanding array of “official” LDS videos seems like a good topic for discussion as well, the new medium for displaying LDS traditional narratives (that are not necessarily historically accurate and possibly complete fictions, but they look so real when enacted in video form).
Brother Sky said, “As the OP indicates and as I’ve mentioned somewhere in another post, Mormons are particularly susceptible to conspiracy theories for two main reasons: 1) Our whole religion is a conspiracy theory …. 2) Binary and orthodox thinking tends to cultivate the kind of paranoia evident in most conspiracy theories.” Yeah, I suppose. I wish there were a nicer spin on the link between Mormons and the whole conspiracy theory industry.
josh h wrote, “Let me tackle this from a different more simplistic angle. I believe that the gamechanger here is the open Internet. When it comes to fantasy, The Internet has affected the US and the Church in different ways.” It sure seems like the whole social media phenomenon and its contribution to political conspiracy theories is a new animal compared to “the Internet.”
Jack Hughes, great list.
Billy Possum, I agree that Mormons are not a random sample. Maybe we winnow out determined realists.
John W, yup, turns out Americans are as susceptible to conspiracy thinking as everyone else.
Geoff-Aus, “Do I have a responsibility to correct lies?” A whole ethics post lurks therein.
Angela C., “It’s very hard in 2020 to believe in the magical worldview Joseph Smith did.” Bingo.
A glance at tRump;s Manhattan apartment may provide a clue to the 71%