Covid-19 and Conspiracy Theories: Thou Shall Not Bear False Witness


[1] Given the present situation, where a novel virus is causing untold pain and suffering in our country, it is necessary to promote accurate medical and scientific information due to the high stakes of life and death. Unfortunately, scholars, doctors and public health officials have been combating a plethora of misinformation. Dangerous ideas have threatened our response and mitigation efforts due to the rapid proliferation of conspiracy theories. For example, a study conducted by Forbes Magazine in July of 2020 found that nearly a third of Americans believed that the COVID-19 death toll was inflated. Another 34% of respondents believed that the toll was higher than reported. Finally, the study concluded that 61% of the respondents who watched Fox News and identified as Republicans (59%) believed the toll was inflated.[i] Reports indicate that conspiracy theories drove the protests against the lockdown.[ii] These conspiracy theories have also forced prominent evangelical leaders to create a clearinghouse web page to provide factual information on the Coronavirus.[iii]

Piquing My Interest: A Debate on Social Media

[2] A spirited Facebook debate between a retired ELCA Pastor friend and a former parishioner, over her spreading a conspiracy theory related to the Covid-19, led me to investigate the proliferation of these theories during this pandemic. This examination is both pastoral and pedagogical. On the one hand, academically I had previously written a piece in a pop culture and philosophy anthology and concluded that as long as no one was harmed these theories were not problematic and could serve a positive role. On the other hand, pastorally these theories present a corrosive challenge to the well-being of society and the church. In fact, a correction and biblical admonition was a pastoral duty necessitated by these conspiracies.

How do we define Conspiracy Theories?

[3] The English psychologist Viren Swami has provided a working definition of conspiracy that suits our purposes: “Conspiracy theories are lay beliefs that attribute the ultimate cause of an event, or the concealment of an event from public knowledge, to a secret, unlawful, and malevolent plot by multiple actors working together.”[iv] Even though conspiracy theories have existed throughout history, and in every culture in the world, a resurgence of this mindset has taken place due primarily to 9/11 and the proliferation of the worldwide web/social media. Sadly, the declining influence of “traditional gatekeepers” of information—the mass media, publishers, and state actors—has made it easier to secure information that is more democratic and outside of the mainstream. On the other hand, this democratization of information has created the challenge of vetting the enormous amounts of material in the hands of the consumer. It is also worth noting that as the American Enterprise Institute demonstrated in a 2013 study, Public Opinion on Conspiracy Theories, adherents of conspiracy theories come from all walks of life; they cross all socio-economic, racial, generational, gender, class, and political categories.

Conspiracy Theories and Belief

[4] Psychological and political research has demonstrated that belief in conspiracy theories presents a type of selective doubting. Believers of conspiracy theories doubt information that they deem incongruent with their worldview. For example, Harvard researchers found that 29% of Republicans who hold to conspiracy theories believe that the threat of COVID-19 has been exaggerated to damage Trump, while 31% agree that the virus was purposely created and spread by China or Bill Gates in order to further political aims of global soft-power (in the case of China) and profit (in the case of Gates). This has led researchers to conclude that there were three strong predictors of belief in conspiracy theories during this pandemic: 1) the “psychological predisposition to reject expert information (medical and scientific);” 2) a psychological predisposition to “examine events through the lens of conspiracy theories;” and 3) “partisan and ideological motivations including support for Donald Trump and his early messaging about the virus.”[v]

[5] Philosophically, there are two epistemic problems that apply directly to conspiracy theories. The first problem relates to the low priority that evidence is given by conspiracists. This allows for information to spread quickly without serious questioning or fact checking. The second problem is related to the echo chamber problem; conspiracy theories tend to be self-insulating. This allows them to be resilient due to their insulation from questions and challenges. This allows for a “cascading logic” which encourages conspiracists to include more and more participants in their conspiracy. A Facebook study in May of 2015 demonstrated that conspiracy theories follow a predictable three step pattern. It begins with an individual post in a social media page. Within hours, the conspiracy is shared and propagated by individuals who agree with the narrative. Lastly, the theory branches out throughout the social network, gradually picking up an audience, culminating in the adoption by a large segment of the population within a period of two weeks. Again, two conclusions can be drawn: 1) that these theories are circulated within specific ideological and homogeneous communities or “echo chambers;” and 2) These echo chambers choose only to read information that feeds into their belief systems and are unlikely to associate with people of differing ideas. This process perpetuates a circular logic.

[6] There are two schools of thought regarding the social value of conspiracy theories. Some scholars believe that conspiracy theories are harmless and actually provide a practical social function. Currently a large number of people consider themselves voiceless and outside of the decision-making process of society. For them conspiracy theories provide an outlet for their voices to be heard and to give them hope in the midst of circumstances that are beyond their control. For example, there is a significant problem among evangelicals concerning their acceptance and promotion of conspiracy theories. A LifeWay Research study released in January of 2021 showed that half of all Protestant pastors report hearing conspiracy theories in their churches.[vi] This has led evangelical scholars and critics to push back concluding that conspiracy theories undermine the Christian witness, and that gullibility is not a Christian virtue.[vii]

[7] A second group of scholars contend that conspiracy theories present one of the greatest threats to security in this technological age. Since conspiracy theories have an impact on beliefs, attitudes, and behavior, there are real life implications for these negative attitudes. (This was illustrated by the January 6, 2021 insurgency on Capitol Hill). A belief in conspiracy theories has proved detrimental in public health debates, as we have seen during this coronavirus event. Conspiracy theories have perpetuated a mistrust on scientific matters and has been responsible for the coarsening of public discourse.

[8] Based on the proliferation of conspiracy theories, and the amount of information published regarding the inefficaciousness of dialogue, efforts to correct conspiracy theories have had the opposite effect. Two conclusions can be drawn. First, these theories circulate within specifically truncated, isolated, and homogeneous ideological communities or echo chambers. Secondly, these echo chambers choose only to read information that feeds into their belief systems and are unlikely to associate with people who espouse different ideas. According to a study from the Wheaton College Billy Graham Center, 77% of evangelicals get their information on politics and technology questions from social media, and 32% have admitted to “unfriending” people who thought differently politically.[viii] This isolation creates a disincentive for constructive dialogue and impedes constructive problem-solving attempts. In fact, efforts to correct conspiracy theories often have the opposite effect, making conspiracists hold to their beliefs more tightly; this is known as the “backfire effect.” Attempts to correct information are used to discredit those challenging the conspiracy theory which reinforces the “echo chamber” effect.

Context of the COVID-19 Conspiracy Theories

[9] In our examination of pandemic conspiracy theories we discovered three types. The first type of these conspiracies is medical and scientific. Early in the event the dominant narrative was highjacked by a pair of documentaries entitled “Plandemic.” Plandemic was produced and directed by Mikki Willis, a “B” movie actor/director, and featured a discredited researcher named Judy Mikovits, a noted anti-vaccination advocate. The main argument of the documentary was that the virus was not naturally occurring and was created in two labs (Wuhan China, and the Fort Dietrich US Army Institute in NC). The documentary also claimed that the death numbers have been inflated, doctors are being paid to diagnose COVID, untested experimental vaccines accounted for the massive number of deaths in Italy, that hydroxychloriquine works but was being maligned by Dr. Fauci, that social distancing has actually contributed to the outbreak of cases, and that masks will activate the virus in the body. Other conspiracists have gone on to claim that doctors and nurses are paid actors, that the dead bodies are actually mannequins, and that COVID-19 is no different from the common flu. Regardless of the fact that the videos were quickly removed from YouTube and other social media platforms, the message went mainstream in a matter of weeks. In fact, both Willis and Mikovits, among others, sought out social media influencers and promoted their ideas, thus skirting content restrictions by YouTube. The influencers benefited financially by monetizing increasing numbers of views and likes. The MIT Technology review concluded that “health misinformation poses its own challenges, and existing conspiracy theories and false claims are adapting and spreading in the current pandemic faster than fact-checking or sometimes science, can catch up.”[ix] We are still forced to address these ideas well after they have been debunked.

[10] The second type of these conspiracies are political and were associated with Donald Trump’s undermining medical authorities, undermining public trust over the pandemic, and spreading misinformation through his social media platform, press conference, and campaign rallies.[x] Political debates about the pandemic center around where it originated and for what purpose. A secretive society such as China did not make matters simple. Exceedingly early in the event, members of the Trump administration were playing fast and loose with the facts concerning the origins and infection rates in China. The conclusion drawn by the administration was devastatingly simple: if China has lied about mortality statistics, they could also be lying about the origins of the virus. Richard Grenell, the director of the NSA, formerly a commentator at Fox News, began promoting the idea that the virus had been created in a Chinese lab for nefarious purposes, regardless of the fact that intelligence agencies had no conclusive evidence to support this claim. The most likely conclusion of both of these examples was that the administration intentionally attempted to deflect responsibility from Trump. Nevertheless, the political debates continue even though there is mounting evidence to this administration’s gross incompetence.

[11] The final type of conspiracies are religious. As we have discussed earlier most evangelical Christians hold to conspiracy theories as compared to mainline church Christians. The explanation for evangelical susceptibility is twofold; evangelicals are intentionally targeted by conspiracists due to their political allegiance to Donald Trump and the Republican Party. Evangelical scholars have pointed out that evangelicals have been targets of disinformation and are susceptible to conspiracy theories for six primary reasons:

  • Evangelical social teaching emphasizes distrust of government and science
  • Evangelical eschatology and apocalyptic convictions interpret these crises as signs pointing to Christ’s return and the fulfillment of prophesy
  • Evangelicals are conditioned by a belief system of epistemological doubt and a hermeneutical framework of skepticism
  • Evangelicals exhibit a lack of critical thinking and a belief in a ‘higher standard of objective truth and morality”
  • Evangelicals “speak to a desire to be a part of a story larger than themselves”
  • Conspiracy theories address a perceived feeling of persecution, prominently illustrated by debates concerning social distancing and the closing of houses of worship

We have pointed out that this arena is of particular concern since these ideas influence the church and life in community directly. As Lutherans, we need to be concerned since these conspiracy theories have made their way in our midst and are prominent in discourse about the pandemic. As mentioned earlier, this is a pastoral concern. Another concern relates to the conflation of conspiracy theories (Q-Anon and COVID-19) and the effect on the Church Universal. In a number of disturbing pieces, a number of journalists have pointed out that Q-Anon churches have developed and are growing to the point of becoming new religious sects.[xi] This is reflected in Bonnie Kristian’s sober assessment:

“QAnon may be a portent of things to come: Traditional religiosity is declining in America, but humanity will not cease to be religious. It will merely diversify its sources of increasingly customized religiosity. From lapsed evangelicals, as many QAnon adherents seem to be, to religiously unaffiliated “nones,” people crave the community, meaning, and purpose church provides, even if they abandon or reject its teachings.      “Q-Anon may be a portrait of things to come: traditional religiosity is declining in America… reject it’s teachings.”

Are Conspiracy Theories Harmless?

[12] As we discussed earlier it is possible to view conspiracy theories as harmless and valuable socio-political expressions. These can provide a practical social function that gives a forum of expression to the voiceless and hopeless in circumstances that are beyond people’s control. On the other hand, as is the case of this pandemic, conspiracy theories have negatively impacted beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors. A belief in conspiracy theories has also proved detrimental in public health debates. For example, the belief that vaccines contribute to autism has contributed to many parents not vaccinating their children, which has caused a resurgence of preventable diseases, which has contributed to a public health crisis in many communities. This concern may exacerbate the current pandemic as large number of people refuse to be vaccinated. The belief in African American and Latino communities, rightly so, that the vaccines cannot be trusted since the government has previously experimented in communities of color is common. These beliefs will definitely have negative consequences in containing the coronavirus, public health policy initiatives, and in saving lives. It is my contention that these theories are counterproductive and harm the Common Good and undermine our sense of community. These theories produce real harm to society and the church and must be condemned as antithetical to Christian values and our faith commitments.

[13] Based on our examination of conspiracy theories we must conclude that these ideas constitute bearing false witness. Truth telling is central to our faith biblically, theologically, and ethically.  This valuation of truth telling leads to an important question: What is biblically wrong with sharing conspiracy theories? Firstly, scripture prohibits us from bearing false witness; in fact, Proverbs 6:16-19 includes it among six things God finds detestable. Secondly, spreading misinformation is sinful and violates the second commandment. Exodus 20:16 “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.” Finally, there is a clear biblical prohibition against slander (Romans 1:30; James 3:15-16; Matthew 5:43-48). These conspiratorial ideas are divisive and harmful to the Body of Christ and the Common Good. Furthermore, promoting conspiratorial ideas can do great harm to others since we are in the midst of a deadly pandemic.

Conclusions and Connections

[14] Our Lutheran tradition provides a corrective to this harmful and sinful practice. Our church has developed a rich ethical and pastoral tradition based on four guiding moral principles (Sufficiency, Sustainability, Solidarity, Participation) as a remedy to critically and nonconfrontationally establish a dialogue that can help address the challenges conspiracists create.


[15] The principle of sufficiency requires our society to address and advocate for the basic needs (both physical and emotional) of all citizens. Based on the precepts of Scripture, the Lord’s Prayer, and the Golden Rule, we affirm the right of every person to life, health, and safety. Health is an important gift that should safeguarded, protected, and promoted. Conspiracy theories undermine public health. Sufficiency implies not only acknowledgement and respect; it includes advocacy for all in matters of health care, including minorities, the elderly and the poor.  


[16] The principle of sustainability requires our society to provide an acceptable quality of life and the accessibility of healthcare for all people. This principle applies to emotional, physical, and material aspects of life. We recognize the weaknesses of our healthcare system due to systemic and structural problems associated to access, quality, and affordability of care. As we come to terms with the overwhelming toll COVID-19 has had on minorities, communities of color, the poor, and the elderly, we will need to talk about the intersectionality of gender, class, and economy. Our medical system is at a breaking point, no part in due to a callous disregard of science and common sense. We can clearly see the deleterious effects of conspiracy theories on this pandemic. We also need to celebrate the contributions of women, and marginalized people as they struggle to combat the disease and participate in the critical functions that our society requires. This celebration is bitter-sweet since there have been great sacrifices, even to the point of death. Conspiracy theories, by dismissing the severity of this pandemic, undermine the Common Good, undermines the contributions of essential workers, and relegates those who have suffered the most to the margins.


[17] The principle of solidarity requires us to respect our neighbors and to share not only in their suffering, but also to participate in their healing. Regardless of whether we agree or not about the origins of the coronavirus, we are required to stand together in a shared objective, the protection of life and the elimination of this pandemic. Conspiracy theories are harmful to unity, and undermine our shared communal concerns, moral values, and spiritual commitments.


[18] The principle of participation requires citizens to actively participate in the decisions that impact their lives and well-being. This includes making autonomous decisions based on accurate scientific and medical information, logical reasoning, and a clear understanding of what is at stake. Lastly, as we are dealing with a life and death a matter, people are entitled to the virtue of truth telling. Conspiracy theories play fast and loose with the facts, undermine credulity, and create confusion. In matters of health decisions about our bodies, people must be free of political manipulation, and free of the paternalism that undermines our moral agency. The right to participation on matters that impact our health are central to our ELCA social teaching as illustrated in our social statement on abortion where public policy is cautioned to protect life and to respect our freedom “to make responsible decisions in difficult situations”[xii]

[19] After examining the ways in which conspiracy theories can harm society and the church, we will need to reinforce the biblical prescriptions and our ethical obligation. Dialogue is essential. Regardless of how we feel about these theories we must be respectful and attentive while simultaneously affirming our witness and convictions. We must create safe spaces where these ideas can be heard, examined, and challenged in a spirit of love. In addition to dialogue, we are challenged to create study programs that encourage internet literacy. These programs must be robust and intense; in effect emphasizing a “deep education,” eschewing superficial teaching and timid sharing of core concepts and ideas such as civility, respect, and mutuality. These hermeneutical tools will create a means to counter conspiracy theories in the church and society.


[i] Alison Durkee, “Nearly a Third of Americans believe COVID-19 Death Toll Conspiracy Theory,” July 21, 2020.

[ii] Vice News video documentary, “These Right-Wing Fringe Conspiracies are Driving the Lockdown Protests,” April 20, 2020.


[iv] Applied Cognitive Psychology. 24:749-761, 2010.

[v] Joseph E. Uscinski, et al, “Why do people believe COVID-19 Conspiracy Theories?”, Harvard Kennedy School/Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy, April 28, 2020.

[vi] “Study reveals half of pastors say they’re hearing conspiracy theories in their churches,” Emily MacFarlan Miller.

[vii] Ed Stetzer, “On Christians Spreading Corona Conspiracies: Gullibility is not a Spiritual Gift,” Christianity Today, April 15, 2020. According to Stetzer, Christian groups are promoting some of the worst and most outrageous conspiracies including the belief that Dr. Fauci is attempting to suppress the efficacy of hydroxychloroquine since 2005, that COVID-19 vaccination is an attempt to mark people with the mark of the beast, and that COVID is a plan to end religious freedom and the liberties associated with worship.

[viii] Ed Stetzer, “Too many evangelical Christians fall for conspiracy theories online, and gullibility is not a virtue,” The Dallas Morning News, May 17, 2020.

[ix] For a review of these claims please see Angelo Finchera, et. al., “The Falsehoods of the “Plandemic’ Video,, May 8, 2020. Abby Ohlheiser, “How COVID-19 Conspiracy Theorists are Exploiting YouTube Culture, MIT Technology Review, May 7, 2020.

[x] “How Trump administration has undermined public trust on pandemic,” PBS News Hour, October 6, 2020. “Study finds ‘Single Largest Driver’ of Coronavirus Misinformation: Trump,” by Sherly Gay Stolberg and Noah Weiland, New York Times, October 22, 2020. Sarah Evanega, et. al., “Coronavirus misinformation: qualifying sources and themes in the Covid-19 infodemic’,” Alliance for Science Cornell University, July 23, 2020.

“Hiding COVID-19: How the Trump administration suppresses photography of the pandemic,” by Peter Maass, The Intercept, December 27, 2020.

Trump’s influence on the debate cannot be underestimated. Multiple outlets reported that misinformation on social media outlets dropped by 70% after Trump and his allies were banned by social media outlets, particularly on Twitter. It is also worthy to note that the Washington Post reported that Trump had made 30,573 false or misleading comments/claims during his four-year presidency.

[xi] “Q-Anon Is a New American Religion,” by Caroline Mimbs Nyce, The Atlantic, May 14, 2020. See also, “is Q-Anon the newest American religion?” by Bonnie Kristian, The Times, May 21, 2020. “How Q-Anon uses religion to lure unsuspecting Christians,” by Daniel Burke, CNN, October 15,2020. “The Church of Q-Anon: Will conspiracy theories form the basis of a new religious movement?” by Marc-Andre Argentino, The Conversation, May 18, 2020.

[xii] Social Statement on Abortion, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, part V, section c, p. 9.



William Rodriguez

William Rodriguez is Assistant Professor of Religion and Philosophy at Bethune-Cookman University, Daytona Beach, Florida