As residents of Washington, D.C., we had a front row seat to the events of January 6, 2021 as they unfolded in our neighborhood streets. Glued to our couches and phone screens, we heard the sirens blare down streets to the Capitol building where many of our friends work. The grounds of the place where we frequently picnicked on weekends was transformed: it became a place of death and bomb threats. Then, barricades and fences were erected—sometimes stretching for miles from the Capitol building to downtown DC. We felt the events of that day viscerally, and were continually reminded of it for months while members of the National Guard remained stationed throughout the Capitol Hill neighborhood. Overnight, our city materialized into what felt like a militarized zone.

The first anniversary of January 6th continues to hold symbolic power over the American public—what the symbolism exactly means differs wildly up and down the political spectrum. But if we stick to just some of the physical symbols used on that day– “Jesus Saves” signs and crosses small and large–many symbols were unarguably Christian. Much has been written about the causes and effects of these explicit Christian ties to an event like January 6th, but the confusing relationship between evangelical Christianity, conspiracy theories, and politics is far from resolved.

Broadly, the Capitol insurrection serves as a reminder: political beliefs and conspiracy theories can in fact lead to physical action and are not fixed merely to a virtual reality. Sadly, many families, Christians especially, still do not know how to broach these subjects. The events of the last few years prompted a conviction in us: if we are unable to bring about political reconciliation with those we are closest to and love, then we as a body politic cannot be expected to bridge the political polarization wreaking havoc on the institutions at the heart of our country. And we are not alone, as many of our young friends have confided in us—political topics (and conspiracy theories in particular) have negatively affected relationships with loved ones in the last year or two.

Conspiracy theories are beliefs that events around us are not as they seem, but that they are the result of a secret plot orchestrated by powerful people. Accordingly, conspiracy theories are rooted in the confidence that the publicly accepted narrative or the narrative given by leaders or established institutions about a particular event or topic is false, often melding fact and fiction.

Conspiracies are prominent in many cultures across the world because there are real historical and present-day examples of national leaders or “experts” lying to the public. The reality is that the powerful sometimes wield their power in secret (e.g. Jeffrey Epstein and Ghislaine Maxwell’s sex trafficking ring or the egregious international corruption revealed in the Pandora Papers). Technology and social media have only made it more difficult in recent years to discern what is true about the world–we all are victims of misinformation, propaganda, and real pernicious actors who work to sow lies.

Christians in particular can be susceptible to conspiracy theories because of faith in the unseen, apocalyptic theology, and other religious dispositions. However, the good news is that as Christians we also believe in eternal and objective truth; and through discernment, community, and the aid of the Holy Spirit we are equipped to pursue truth as events unfold in this complex world.

Polling data reflect our observations and indicate recent conspiratorial phenomena uniquely affects evangelical Christians. Shortly after January 6, a report from the American Enterprise Institute revealed white evangelical Republicans are significantly more likely than non-evangelical Republicans to believe in conspiracy theories—up to 18-20 points greater. Per the survey, 60-72 percent of white evangelical Republicans believe Antifa was responsible for the Capitol violence and that there was widespread voter fraud in the 2020 elections. Consequently, in evangelical communities throughout the United States like those we grew up in, it is highly probable to know at least one loved one who believes in a conspiracy theory. How do we gracefully interact with those we know who hold these types of political beliefs?

A complex world and a complex political season requires us to discern political truth together. We need community with people from diverse perspectives to better piece together what is and what isn’t true about the world around us. As John Stuart Mill writes in On Liberty:

The peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.

A shared pursuit of truth is easier said than done. We both have a hunch that it might be much harder to initiate these intimate conversations with those we love, especially those whose faith animates their political convictions, because they are the very relationships we try our hardest to preserve. However, commitment to broach controversial topics and pursue truth together might just be the most loving journey we can embark on together.

It is a process that not only grounds our faith in eternal truths, but is also a way to honor God with the good use of our minds. As the passage that is often quoted during discussions about the pursuit of truth states, “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will” (Romans 12:2).

In our experience, engaging with loved ones on the full gamut of political topics is a gateway to a deeper relationship founded on respect and being “heard” rather than ignored. When done with humility, curiosity, trust, respect, and patience, these conversations recognize the dignity of both parties and have the power to de-escalate our tense political culture.

In navigating conversations with our own families, we have gathered data, listened to the experiences of others, and tested different methods. Below is our testament on how family members can bridge political divides, arrive at a deeper understanding for each other’s beliefs, and through this process, leave with a more compassionate political disposition that eschews an impulse towards political escalation. These overarching principles and tangible suggestions may serve you in conversations with your family as our nation continues to weather a form of politics that seems to ever increase in its divisiveness and hostility.

Humility

It is easy to take for granted the tremendous humility required to bounce truths against other truths. This attitude does not come naturally; individuals often believe wholeheartedly in a single truth, while other perspectives or explanations are wrong. Complicating conversations on truth is the intergenerational temptation to brush aside elders as “out of touch” and youth as “overconfident,” and in doing so curb all of the other principled postures that are essential to these conversations.

Combatting this self-righteousness begins with the acknowledgement that a single perceived “truth” does not hold all the answers. I must actively choose to believe that my counterpart holds a sliver of insight to offer and is worth my empathetic ear. A safe and collaborative process of making sense of the world occurs on common ground, not with moral superiority.

Based on our experiences, we agree that establishing a humble mental and spiritual posture before speaking with our loved ones can dramatically alter the tone of these conversations. We recommend spending time in prayer before having a conversation with a family member about socio-political events and conspiracy theories. Listen with the expectation that understanding why they believe what they believe will broaden your own perspective, even if what they say may not change your mind.

Curiosity

Political conversations can feel scripted, a frustratingly choreographed dialogue that leaves neither party satisfied nor enlightened. This is particularly the case if you are familiar with the sources your family member consumes. The retorts are expected, the narratives tired, and the “evidence” already known. In response, curiosity is a surprisingly refreshing approach to flip the script.

Rather than devoting your mental energy to rehearsing each verbal thrust and parry, consider putting together a list of disarming questions that will get you past the talking points and into the other person’s emotions and personal experiences. For example:

  • “What part of this story you sent me is most compelling to you?”
  • “How do you feel when I say that I received a COVID-19 vaccine?”
  • “What do your friends think about this idea when you’ve shared it with them?”
  • “Is there something about this issue that you think I don’t understand because of my age and life experiences so far? How does your life experience affect your perspective?”
  • “Do you spend a lot of time thinking about these concerning events and what the future will be like?”

Asking and answering questions to focus on emotions and personal experiences is helpful in three ways. First, you honor each other’s experience, which is foundational for feeling heard. Second, you communicate that you are interested in connecting with them and not just convincing them. Third, a posture of curiosity encourages you both to move beyond talking points and to interact with each other as individuals, not as representatives of opposing political tribes. These questions may help your family members mentally disassociate themselves from their political or conspiracy community for an instant and speak as an individual, just as you should too in order to be genuinely earnest and effective.

Trust

At the heart of our current politics and conspiracy theories is a distrust in politicians, media, and the political other. When trust is eroded to this extent, a conspiracy theory can become the only beacon of truth and other sources are perceived as corrupt and bent on a spoken, or secret, evil mission. The tragedy of conspiratorial belief is that it undermines the most natural trust of all: that of the family. It also misuses religious language and genuine belief in divine intervention to bolster lies.

Establishing trust with a family member who does not share confidence in the same information outlets or institutions might seem impossible. How does one assure them that they have also thought through current events, and that they also want the same good for the country? The trust required for productive conversation is fragile and takes time to construct.

Trust is built through the other postures mentioned: humility, curiosity, and patience. But there are also tangible skills to help build relational trust, as well as to broaden the conspiracy believer’s trust in outside sources of information and institutions.

A practical way to gain initial credibility is to find points of mutual agreement. Affirmation about shared concerns shows that the journey to truth does have perennial problems that can be agreed upon: the world is indeed broken. Beginning with points of agreement can reveal the thought processes that follow and greater sympathy for the underlying causes–fear, distrust, and anger about injustice and corruption. From several points of agreement, it is much easier to start constructing what is or isn’t fact and fiction.

Trust in media outlets and institutions is affected by a combination of digital literacy and long held political beliefs, making it a much harder task to rebuild. The approach we have found to be helpful for online media is two-fold. First, steer the conversation away from social media click-bait and chain mail. This might require more bluntness than the other recommendations here, but refusing to start the conversation from a “she-said-he-said” Facebook post and instead redirecting to news sources is a great way for the other person to start to see that you want to take these conversations seriously, which requires serious sources.

If you aren’t sure which sources they consider credible, spend your first few conversations probing for common ground. The very nature of conspiracy theories means institutional sources are often mistrusted, so spend some time learning what kind of information the other person trusts (data vs. purported eyewitness accounts vs. expert testimony, etc.). Equipped with this information, find a news source outlet or journalist the two of you both respect as a source of information. Second, encourage your relative to fact-check sources. Instead of sending them articles in response to a political event or conspiracy theory, ask them if they have cross-checked the information on a website like Snopes. If they don’t trust Snopes, search together for a fact-checking based website you both can agree on. This way the responsibility falls equally on both people to seek out truth and in the process develop better digital habits.

Surrounding this process, there can also be conversations about how social media algorithms fuel confirmation bias, which sources of information are more trustworthy than others, and an appreciation for the pitfalls and benefits of a digital world.

Patience

In your conversations with loved ones, you will find yourself facing discouragement or even resignation–the political differences may feel too large to bridge and the information environment too polarized to work through. If you reach this point of discouragement, remember it takes time and the relationship is worth the difficult conversations.

Author and professional debunker Mick West writes in Escaping the Rabbit Hole: How to Debunk Conspiracy Theories Using Facts, Logic, and Respect that for most people new information, respectful dialogue, and patience are required to discern truth. To maintain this mindset of strategic patience, we have found it helpful to set small goals for yourself for every conversation. Whether it is learning which alternative media your loved one listens to, sharing an infographic about how mRNA vaccines work, or identifying what they know about QAnon, a small goal focuses your efforts and allows you to leave a conversation feeling content even if beliefs remain unchanged.

Patience requires us to see value in the conversation itself rather than immediate results. The very act of having respectful but honest conversations may strengthen a relationship in ways that will surprise you. Pope Francis calls this a “culture of encounter” in his recent encyclical, referring to people who seek contact and relationship with others in spite of ideological and social differences. In a sense, we should think of our truth-seeking efforts as planting seeds of truth and goodness that one day may bear fruit. Pope Francis continues this thought:

what is important is not constantly achieving great results, since these are not always possible. In political activity [and dialogue], we should remember that, ‘appearances notwithstanding, every person is immensely holy and deserves our love… We achieve fulfillment when we break down walls and our hearts are filled with faces and names! … For this reason, it is truly noble to place our hope in the hidden power of the seeds of goodness we sow, and thus to initiate processes whose fruits will be reaped by others.

Finally, community is key to strategic patience. Depending on the situation, your loved one may have found a community that shares their beliefs, making it much more difficult for them to think independently and entertain different political views. In the previously mentioned AEI survey, it was found that white evangelicals do not fit the norm of social disconnection that experts believe makes one more susceptible to misinformation—they are actually deeply embedded in their community that may widely share and support particular conspiracy theories. If this is the case for your family member, it is all the more important to build trust and strengthen a relationship with them so that both of you have the opportunity to step outside of an echo chamber.

With these principles and recommendations, we hope you are inspired and equipped to have fruitful conversations you’ve previously avoided. In doing so, may we undermine the power of lies and embody a radically inclusive and effective culture of encounter.

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Posted by Aryana Petrosky Roberts and Mark Sawyer

Aryana Petrosky Roberts is a poet and writer. She is also a senior associate for AEI's Initiative on Faith and Public Life. Mark Sawyer lives in Washington, D.C. where he works to promote election integrity and democratic political leadership in Eastern Europe. He is a graduate of Wheaton College (IL).

3 Comments

  1. Aryana and Mark, as a part of a very splintered family in regard to political views and interpretations of events, I greatly respect what you have written. My responses have been to ignore or change the subject, or agree on minuscule insignificant points. I appreciate the strategy and pathways you present, which imply my need to truly care enough to try and build relationship. It inspires me to have a bit of hope.

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  2. The penchant for accepting conspiracy theories seems more simple to me. That tendency is the result of binary thinking the and desire to believe the worst about the other side.

    The binary thinking came about from pop talk show hosts like Rush Limbaugh who described non-conservatives in all negative terms. Likewise, one could be recognized as a great American patriot if one agreed with hosts like Sean Hannity. Of course our 2-Party system also helped in promoting this binary way of looking at people along with the Cold War where, regardless of one’s ruthlessness, one could be counted as a humane defender of freedom if one opposed Soviet Union and Red China communism.

    Knowing then that we are called not to be like the world, many of us became eager, not just curious, to listen to accusations about those on the other side. Pointing out the sins of others is a passive way of exalting oneself as well as one’s own tribe. This self-righteousness was briefly alluded to in the above article. In addition, because of the theory of relativity, pointing out the greater sins of others can provide great camouflage that could be used to hide the significance of one’s own sins from oneself.

    This combination of binary thinking and the eagerness to believe the worst about one’s counterparts makes us susceptible to passionately embracing conspiracy theories. Thus, the solution for protecting oneself from believing conspiracy thinking is a bit simpler than described above. We need to see the complexity that exists in issues and in the people trying to address them. Seeing the complexity in people means recognizing the mix of good and bad that is in ourselves as well as our opponents. Recognizing that complexity in and thus the similarities between ourselves and others should make us less eager to believe the worst about others.

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  3. […] The virtues we need to repair trust… […]

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