It seemed that whenever the Rev. Daniel Darling ventured into social media, he saw the same red flags – so he posted a commentary on “Christians and Conspiracy Theories.”
“Because it’s online, doesn’t mean it’s true,” he noted. “Because a story is advanced by someone whose ideology I agree with, doesn’t mean it’s true. ...
“For some reason, we are a people who want to believe there is a big plot behind every single thing that happens. ... If you watch enough cable TV, depending on your political persuasion, you will come to think that behind every act in Congress there is a string of connected dots that go back to either George Soros (liberal) or the Koch brothers (conservative).”
This wasn’t a hot take on QAnon letters or rumors of shredded Georgia ballots.
Darling wrote those words a decade ago, while leading an evangelical church near Chicago. Now he’s a crucial voice for the National Religious Broadcasters and author of a book — “A Way with Words: Using Our Online Conversations for Good” — pleading for believers to think twice about their online lives.
“I’m not saying we should run away and hide,” said Darling in a phone interview. “There’s no way to avoid the fact that social media is a crucial part of American life. I don’t think Christians have any choice about whether or not to be engaged. ... What we need to do is be more careful when deciding where to draw lines and take stands. But, unless you’re Amish, I don’t see anyone sitting this one out.”
It’s especially important for religious leaders to warn their followers not to join the online “mobs” that are destroying America’s ability to have sane public debates. In some cases, digital attacks are also threatening lives and reputations.
Consider, for example, the woke social media attacks that fueled inaccurate mainstream news reports about Covington Catholic High School students at the 2019 March for Life. Then there were the conservative social media warriors who embraced the #pizzagate conspiracy theory, claiming that prominent Democrats were linked to a global child-trafficking ring.
Did Russia steal the White House in 2016? Some would say yes — there were mainstream news reports. Did China, Cuba, Venezuela or some other evil force steal the 2020 election? Some would say yes, citing headlines on the other side of America’s partisan media wars.
The result is anger and pain that has reached many pews and some pulpits. In his book, Darling quotes research by political scientists Nathan P. Kalmoe and Lilliana Mason indicating that one out of five Republicans and Democrats agree that their political adversaries “lack the traits to be considered fully human — they behave like animals.”
Thus, he noted: “Today’s mobs are not found on the streets with sticks and stones; they’re dressed nicely in office cubicles, sitting quietly in church pews and sipping coffee in the comfort of air-conditioned homes. The mobs are — us. ...
“It is intoxicating,” writes Darling. “So intoxicating that we are tempted to immediately post something without stopping to consider if what we are communicating is true. And we often fail, in these split-second decisions, to consider the humanity of the person or organizations we are joining a mob to crush.”
It would help, he said, if shepherds reminded their flocks about the New Testament warning, in the Epistle of James, that the “tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.”
At some point, people who view themselves as social media apologists will need to be more effective, searching for reputable sources to quote and ways to praise acts of mercy as much as they attack the words of those they believe are in error.
It would also help, said Darling, if true believers learned to laugh at themselves and maybe even to apologize after making mistakes. And it’s wise to think twice before fighting with “trolls” who aren’t interested in finding common ground or clarifying points of sincere disagreement.
“Some people really are convinced that courage and civility are incompatible,” he said. “They think that — unless you’re shouting at the top of your lungs or typing IN ALL CAPS — you aren’t really defending the faith. That’s so attractive.”
Terry Mattingly leads GetReligion.org and lives in Oak Ridge. He is a senior fellow at the Overby Center at the University of Mississippi.