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New Survey Shows 3 In 5 White Evangelicals Say Joe Biden Wasn't Legitimately Elected

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

At Patriot Church in Knoxville, Tenn., God always comes first, but country is a close second.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KEN PETERS: Praise the Lord. So good to have all you patriots in the house.

MARTIN: This is Pastor Ken Peters. He and his family moved to Knoxville six months ago from Spokane, Wash., to start this church. His wife and kids help lead the music. Video and audio from weekly sermons are posted on the church's Facebook page. The service on January 10, the first Sunday after the deadly U.S. Capitol riot, began this way.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: We're going to start out with an old song. Maybe you know it. It's called "Onward, Christian Soldiers," and it's very fitting for the time that we're going through right now. So if you would like to sing - (singing) onward, Christian soldiers, marching as to war...

MARTIN: They meet in a small, wooden cabin. There's a big American flag hanging on the wall that looks to be crocheted by hand. Video shows people milling around before the sermon starts, the vast majority of them white. Young and old, they greet each other with hugs and smiles. No one is wearing a mask. The church is clear on what it's against - abortion, same-sex marriage and, quote, "leftism." After the election, there is a new sense of urgency about all of it.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PETERS: Do I have any soldiers in the house this morning?

(APPLAUSE)

PETERS: If you're not a soldier, hang out here. You'll end up a soldier.

MARTIN: Moments later, another pastor, Shahram Hadian, gave the sermon. Peters and Hadian traveled to Washington, D.C., for the January 6 rally with former President Trump. On January 10, this is how they characterized President Biden's win.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SHAHRAM HADIAN: The greatest coup in modern history. So when you understand what's at stake, you understand that you must act and put the fear of God in those who are committing the coup.

MARTIN: Again, that's not true. It's not based on any fact or evidence. And we're not playing it to elevate some kind of fringe element within white, evangelical Christianity because in this way, the Patriot Church is not on the fringe. A new survey by the conservative American Enterprise Institute shows that roughly 3 in 5 white evangelicals say Joe Biden was not legitimately elected.

(SOUNDBITE OF BADBADNOTGOOD'S "HEDRON")

MARTIN: This morning, we're looking at how some conservative white evangelical churches have incubated and spread conspiracy theories that have led to violence. There's a name for this movement - Christian nationalism. I talked to Andrew Whitehead about it. He spent several years researching Christian nationalism, and he defines it this way - as the belief that America is a Christian nation, one that should privilege white, native-born, politically conservative Christians.

ANDREW WHITEHEAD: We do find evidence that Americans who embrace Christian nationalism are much more likely to embrace conspiratorial thinking. The leaders of those movements have continually cast doubt on who you can really trust or even the federal government.

MARTIN: So the distrust was already there. Then Donald Trump came along and made himself a champion for white evangelical social issues, abortion being top of the list. He won their confidence, then exploited their distrust of the establishment for his own political survival, as illustrated by a conversation that I had myself with Pastor Ken Peters of Patriot Church.

PETERS: I definitely think the election outcome happened because of the deep state. I think this was a unbelievably planned-out and collaborated operation.

MARTIN: Conspiracy theories like this one have also been circulating around the congregation at Spotswood Baptist Church in Fredericksburg, Va. This is a conservative church against abortion and same-sex marriage, but the words country and America aren't anywhere on its declaration of beliefs, unlike the Patriot Church. But the whispers of conspiracy theories in this congregation pushed Jared Stacy away. Up until three months ago, he was one of the pastors at Spotswood Baptist. During the protest last summer after George Floyd's killing, Stacy noticed members of his congregation making a disturbing turn towards a conspiracy theory about child sex trafficking.

JARED STACY: So I began to see on social media - right? - people ignoring or pushing away Black Lives Matter by saying, you know, oh, well, no one's over here talking about trafficking. And it started out legitimate - right? - but that became a front for Q very quickly.

MARTIN: By Q, Stacy means QAnon, an umbrella of conspiracy theories, chief among them the false notion that Democrats with prominent roles in business, media and government are running child trafficking rings. Remember, it was that conspiracy theory that compelled a man named Edgar Maddison Welch to fire his gun inside a family pizzeria in Washington, D.C., in December 2016.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BRIAN STELTER: According to police, Welch said that he had read online that the Comet Ping Pong restaurant was harboring child sex slaves and that he wanted to see for himself if they were there.

MARTIN: QAnon started to coalesce after that, amplifying false ideas about an evil liberal agenda and casting Donald Trump as their savior. Jared Stacy was afraid of what he saw taking root in his church.

STACY: And so I was sitting there as a pastor saying, you know, OK, this is not just about pitting particular issues against each other anymore. This is about a wholesale view of reality, like, what is real? What is true?

MARTIN: Did people you know in your own congregation, were they elevating the idea of sex trafficking of kids, even if it was overblown and being appropriated by QAnon?

STACY: Yeah. Yeah. Sex trafficking, pedophilia, like, globalist or Democrat pedophilia, these are things that...

MARTIN: Democrat pedophilia - so they were...

STACY: Yeah.

MARTIN: They'd bought in...

STACY: Like, the idea that...

MARTIN: ...Hook, line and sinker to that conspiracy theory.

STACY: Yeah.

MARTIN: Stacy told me the whole thing was dividing families.

STACY: The crack, the split, Rachel, was kitchen tables, where you have two completely different information streams, one that parents use and ones that their kids use. And so the dynamic in these homes was split right along these lines.

MARTIN: The older members of the church entertaining conspiracies, younger people pushing back. We reached out to Spotswood Baptist, and we asked if these kinds of conversations were happening. A member of the church leadership said, quote, "as a church, we're not in that discussion. We have no interest being involved in that. It's not something that's been in any way discussed or on our agenda," end quote. But Stacy saw something different.

STACY: The strain that I saw with 20 and 30-somethings and the danger - right? - was of them being given a co-opted Jesus - right? - like a Jesus who believed in Q, a Jesus who believed in deep state, a Jesus who automatically voted Republican.

MARTIN: He was worried several things could happen. The younger members would leave the church altogether, or they'd buy into the conspiracy theories. Or they'd just learn to tolerate them.

(SOUNDBITE OF BADBADNOTGOOD'S "GUNSHOWERS")

MARTIN: And it's that ambivalence that can potentially be doing the most damage. Take the sex trafficking conspiracy about political leaders. I asked Ken Peters of the Patriot Church whether he thought there was anything to it.

PETERS: I wouldn't disavow it because I don't know if they're right or wrong. I have no evidence, personally, to go one way or the other.

MARTIN: And that's how conspiracy theories spread. What can come off as a benign plea of ignorance is enough to keep the theory going. Just the mere suggestion that, oh, well, you can't possibly know for sure, breathes new life into lies. And notice what happens next in this moment. Peters doesn't condemn the conspiracy theory, as we heard. Then he tries to diminish it by redirecting. Take a listen to the clip in its entirety, and notice the pivot.

PETERS: I wouldn't disavow it because I don't know if they're right or wrong. I have no evidence, personally, to go one way or the other. I just hope that if it is happening, it stops, and let's investigate that instead of investigating preachers who were at the rally as if we started some sort of insurrection.

(SOUNDBITE OF BADBADNOTGOOD'S "HEDRON")

MARTIN: According to a recent study by Lifeway Research, 49% of Protestant pastors say they frequently hear members of their congregations repeating baseless conspiracy theories. That same study by the American Enterprise Institute we mentioned earlier, it showed that 27% of white evangelicals, the most of any religious group, believe the widely debunked QAnon conspiracy theory is completely or mostly accurate. And the big lie about the election that Donald Trump spread, the lie that led to the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, that one's not even whispered about. In Christian nationalist congregations like Patriot Church, it is shouted from the pulpit.

(SOUNDBITE OF SERMON)

PETERS: Biden was illegally put in as president, fake president of the United States.

MARTIN: Again, researcher Andrew Whitehead.

WHITEHEAD: Christian nationalism is a threat to a pluralistic democratic society because it sees particular ends like keeping a certain person in the presidency as that is what God has desired and that God wants. And so it's really difficult to ever come to the conclusion of we should share power or compromise or even abide by the democratic process because if God desired it, who are we to stand in the way of that?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: Jared Stacy needed distance to figure out what was happening in the church he had spent so much time in. He moved away to Scotland with his wife and his kids. He's getting a Ph.D. in theology there. I asked him, when he thinks back to those conversations he had with his older parishioners when he tried to confront them about conspiracy theories, was he able to change anyone's mind?

STACY: To my knowledge, no. My hope going in is almost like putting a pebble in someone's shoe, and eventually, man, you just got to stop walking. And you got to sit down. You have to take your shoe off, and you have to figure out, what in the world is it that is making me limp forward here? And that is what those conversations were designed to do.

MARTIN: Jared Stacy eventually wants to come back to the U.S. He wants to pastor a church again, but he's going to have to figure out if planting pebbles of truth is enough to dismantle a mountain of lies. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.