If almost half of U.S. members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints believe the “big lie” about the 2020 presidential election and almost a quarter of them subscribe to the QAnon conspiracy theory, what does that say about their ability to discern truth?
In these cases, it may be about nothing more than allegiance to partisan politics or agenda-driven sources.
“Latter-day Saints have been Republicans for a long time,” says Brigham Young University political scientist Quin Monson, “and that’s the identity that is at work here. Party identification is a strong drug.”
There was a “steady diet of messaging coming out of Republican Party elites and members of Congress about election fraud,” Monson says, while countermessages from the Utah-based church “were few and far between.”
It was tough for Latter-day Saint leaders “to push back with the same level of volume and intensity as the Republican Party,” says Monson, since “their mission is religious, not political.”
The BYU professor’s own surveys echoed the findings of PRRI (Public Religion Research Institute), which showed that 46% of Latter-day Saints believe the “big lie” — that the presidential election was stolen from Donald Trump — ranking behind only white evangelical Protestants (61%) and ahead of white mainline Protestants (37%) and white Catholics (35%).
For Monson, though, the good news is that not all Mormon Republicans support the “big lie.”
“We’ve diverged from evangelicals,” he says. “We haven’t become Democrats, but there is a significant minority who haven’t come fully around to Donald Trump.”
Morgan Lyon Cotti, associate director of the University of Utah’s Hinckley Institute, concurs with Monson about the amount of information that Latter-day Saints on every side have to wade through daily.
“It is becoming increasingly difficult to be a truth seeker, difficult to discern in the types of news we are getting, whether it is from a partisan news outlet or literal fake news,” says Lyon Cotti, who is a Latter-day Saint. “When people are receiving this message [that the election was stolen] from what they view as legitimate sources, it can be tough to discern opinion from reality.”
At the faith’s April 2021 General Conference, Dallin H. Oaks, first counselor in the church’s governing First Presidency, discussed the U.S. Constitution and election laws.
Oaks, a former Utah Supreme Court justice, said no political party, platform or individual candidate represents all the church’s positions, that “mobs or other groups of people [should not] intervene to intimidate or force government action,” and that Americans’ loyalty should be “to the Constitution and its principles and processes, not to any officeholder.” He added that the document’s “dignity and force … is reduced by those who refer to it like a loyalty test or a political slogan.”
But both sides of the partisan divide heard what they wanted to hear in that speech, Lyon Cotti says. “The way we take information, we mold it to fit what we already believe.”
Even if Oaks had meant to counter some of the misinformation about the election floating on social media, she says, “one General Conference talk isn’t enough.”
What about QAnon converts?
Equally if not more concerning, though, is that a sizable chunk of members have embraced the far-right QAnon conspiracy theory.
This apocalyptic and convoluted tale is centered on the baseless belief that Satan-worshipping pedophiles are plotting against Trump and that a coming “storm” soon will cast out those evil forces from positions of power.
This PRRI survey found that Latter-day Saints joined white evangelicals and Hispanic Protestants as the most likely to believe in QAnon.
PRRI separated aspects of QAnon into three separate questions, Religion News Service reports. One focused on the pedophile assertion, another asked about the coming “storm,” and a third inquired about whether respondents believed “because things have gotten so far off track, true American patriots may have to resort to violence in order to save our country.”
Nearly a fifth (18%) of Latter-day Saints buy into the supposition of devilish pedophiles running the world. Even more (22%) believe a storm will cast out these evildoers. And almost a quarter (24%) say patriots may have to use violence to rescue the nation.
All those figures are higher than the general U.S.population.
So why are so many Latter-day Saints drawn to conspiracy theories about politics and religion?
“Because they’re coming from voices and institutions that they have already learned how to trust,” says Matthew Bowman, director of Mormon studies at Claremont Graduate University who will be teaching a course on conspiracy theory at the Southern California school in the fall.
It’s not about whether people “are intelligent and able to discern the truth,” Bowman says on The Salt Lake Tribune’s weekly “Mormon Land” podcast. “It’s about belonging.”
The appeal of conspiracies
Conspiracy theories — the notion that there are shadowy groups secretly manipulating society or politics or institutions for their own benefit and their own malignant aims — have been around throughout human history.
Did Nero really start a fire in Rome so he could build himself a big new palace?
Historian Tacitus argued in A.D. 64 that there was no evidence for that, Bowman says, but “Nero was widely disliked anyway and, because the rumors came from [figures] whom people listened to, it was believed.”
The most infamous conspiracy of the Middle Ages is called “blood libel.” This is the belief spread among Christians that Jewish people stole Christian infants, maybe to convert them, maybe to sacrifice them, Bowman says, “which, of course, was not true … but it fell into stereotypes that the people already listened to and sometimes came from clergy whom people were already primed to trust.”
In the modern world, people are “increasingly influenced and controlled by large institutions far away from us that we have really limited control over,” the historian says. “Those institutions might be big business, massive corporations ...big government, military.”
That makes Americans assume, for instance, that “Facebook controls what information we get, and that Nabisco decides what you’re going to eat for breakfast,” he says, and, with today’s social climate, conspiracy theories have multiplied.
In the 20th century, the “blood libel” conspiracy became the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, Bowman says, “which is a famous pamphlet that was forged by a Russian military officer in the late 19th century that alleges that, in fact, governments, corporations, the banking industry are all controlled by Jews.”
And now QAnon taps into similar sentiments and rumors.
How QAnon started and spread
QAnon sprang from postings by a person — using the name Q — to a fairly obscure internet message board, the scholar says, “and this figure claimed to have a level of security clearance in the government, designated Q clearance.”
This person posited the notion that there is a “deep state battle going on between corrupt agencies and the government and that Donald Trump learned of this secret [group] and ran for president to cleanse the government from it.”
To this group of “original believers,” he says, the evil cabal consists of bureaucrats.
Increasingly, though, other groups, particularly apocalyptically minded evangelicals and Pentecostals, glommed other beliefs onto it. They believe in a vigorous spiritual battle between good and evil, with the bad guys being associated with the prophesied AntiChrist.
“This theory began to mushroom with QAnon eventually absorbing many, many different types of conspiracies,” Bowman says, and QAnon is capacious enough “to accommodate a lot of different beliefs.”
Social media enlarges that reach.
The internet “allows information that’s unvetted,” Bowman says, “that has not gone through the various channels of control and verification.”
In the early 20th century, professionals developed all sorts of criteria for vetting information, he says. “Academics developed the notion of peer review. Many major media institutions developed fact-checking. All of this to try to ensure that information that enters the public square is reliable.”
Social media has turned all of that on its head.
Instead of carefully evaluated data, Bowman says, “you are often getting information from people you trust, from your friends, from your community, right? So you are more likely to believe in that.”
Is believing conspiracies dangerous?
A principal danger of believing in an unfounded conspiracy theory, Bowman says, is that it can lead people “to engage in extreme activities like murder.”
Real-life consequences followed the 2016 false theory known as Pizzagate, which suggested Hillary Clinton and her top aides were running a child-trafficking ring out of a Washington, D.C., pizza parlor.
Troubled by what he heard, an armed North Carolina man showed up at the restaurant, prepared to protect the kids and even fired shots into a closet. He found no such ring but was arrested for felony assault with a deadly weapon.
Spreading conspiracies also can destroy others’ careers and livelihood, says Bowman, pointing to the McMartin Preschool case.
In 1983, the McMartin family and teachers at the school were accused of being Satan worshippers who abused children, he says. “They were dragged into lawsuits that wrecked their lives and destroyed their business. And, ultimately, all of them were cleared. There were no charges and nothing could be proven.” The most insidious threat from conspiracy theories, Bowman says, is that they can destroy trust — trust in institutions, trust in people, trust in authority.
For the past 50 or so years, Americans have suffered repeated blows to their public faith — including actual conspiracies linked to the Vietnam War (think Pentagon Papers) and Watergate (think cover-up) — and “a growing coterie of politicians who try to gain power by telling us not to trust each other,” he says. “That is really, truly devastating to our social fabric.”
It is times like these, “when our social fabric is fraying, that conspiracy theories tend to percolate more,” Bowman says. “We don’t trust people and, because we don’t trust them, we are more and more inclined to believe even more baseless theories about them.”
Consider the story of the Gadianton robbers from the Book of Mormon, the faith’s signature scripture. This murderous band becomes a large criminal organization, with its own secret signs and symbols, that has infiltrated various societies of the time.
“What’s fascinating about the use of Gadianton robbers, I think, is that ... you can put whatever mask you want on them,” Bowman says. “They might be Communists. They might be Nazis. They might be satanic ritual abusers. They might be the deep state now.”
They are an archetype, he says, which gives latter-day believers “a tool for overlaying conspiracy onto the world around us.”
Indeed, a lack of trust has infected the Mormon community, which has spawned internal divisions.
“It does give members of the community who don’t believe in religious-themed conspiracy theories,” he says, “a lot of pause and a lot of worry about what is happening to their community.”
Suppose a Latter-day Saint bishop is a deep believer in some of these elements of QAnon “and for whom that idea of the QAnon criminal conspiracy theory structures his reality,” Bowman wonders. “How is that going to affect how he interacts with his congregation?”
That is, he says, “something to worry about.”
How the church can correct misinformation
Possibly in response to members’ acceptance of false narratives, Latter-day Saint leaders added a section late last year to the church’s General Handbook about “seeking information from reliable sources.”
Many outlets “are unreliable and do not edify,” the handbook says. “Some sources seek to promote anger, contention, fear, or baseless conspiracy theories. ...Therefore, it is important that church members be wise as they seek truth.
Church members, the leaders advise, “should seek out and share only credible, reliable, and factual sources of information. They should avoid sources that are speculative or founded on rumor.”
The guidance of “the Holy Ghost, along with careful study,” they say, “can help members discern between truth and error.”
The fact that so many Latter-day Saints accept false ideas about the election “damages the way the church is perceived by non-Republicans,” says Monson, the political scientist at church-owned BYU. To repair its image and correct misinformation or conspiracy theories, “it needs stronger, more specific messaging.”
In his book “Seeking the Promised Land: Mormons and American Politics,” written with John Green and David Campbell, Monson analyzed the effect of church statements and found two examples when attitudes changed in response to them.
The first was the 1981 statement opposing plans to deploy MX missiles in Utah’s West Desert.
Then-President Spencer W. Kimball had given an Easter message, which included a sentence condemning nuclear war, Monson recalls, but public opinion on the MX system did not shift until a month later, when he and his counselors issued a detailed and impassioned plea against the arsenal.
The second case was during Utah’s immigration debate in 2011. After Arizona passed a stringent immigration law, legislators proposed a similar bill for the Beehive State.
“The church went all-in lobbying against it, releasing some fairly clear opposition, but it was broad enough to be misinterpreted,” he says. “Sometime after the legislative session started, the church added specific statements of support for a revised bill by name — and it changed attitudes.”
In the current climate, Monson says, if the church wanted to set members straight, it would need to use specific wording, such as “there is no evidence of election fraud and church members shouldn’t buy into it.”
To debunk QAnon, leaders would need to detail its false premises and assumptions.
“That would at least stem the tide of any buy-in at this point,” he says, “and likely would move opinion on it — especially since the church does this so infrequently.”