On virtual rumor-mongering

JP: A good article about fact-checking rumors! See further comments after the quoted section.

What does virtual rumor-mongering say about Christians?


Thanks to the Internet, some gullible American Christians can engage in one of their favorite hobbies — digging up the metaphorical corpse of Madalyn Murray O’Hair and rhetorically flogging it — more easily than ever before.

Even though the famous atheist’s body was discovered in 1998 and positively identified in Texas — and even though she apparently has been dead since she disappeared in 1995 — patently false rumors about her alleged anti-Christian campaigns continue to spread. Credulous Christians who once forwarded these kinds of rumors in mimeographed chain letters or spread them on talk radio now can broadcast them around the world with the mere click of a mouse.

And, of course, O’Hair is not alone in the annals of perceived enemies of Christ about whom some Christians will spread the most ridiculous stories, not bothering to do the merest hint of fact-checking on them.

From the old Procter & Gamble Satanism libel to tales of more recent vintage about President Obama’s faith and citizenship, Internet-fueled rumors seem to run rampant. And, frighteningly, Christians seem at the very least to be as susceptible as the population at large to the habit of spreading false stories.

So, why are Christians so willing to believe unsubstantiated rumors? And more troubling, why are Christians, who should hold the highest standards of truth-telling, so eager to spread such rumors — and even downright libels?

Rumors like the ones tied to O’Hair become more powerful when they tap into the hostility and distrust toward government that is widespread among conservative Christians. It’s easy for the average evangelical to believe any rumor that fits this larger political paradigm.

Factor in a contentious presidential election and the stakes go even higher. During the 2000 campaign — the first in the age of widespread Internet access — dutiful Christian culture-warriors worked overtime.

One popular e-mail rumor claimed then-Attorney General Janet Reno had described evangelical Christians as “cultists” in a 1994 “60 Minutes” interview. The fabricated story received such wide distribution that Religious Right leaders James Dobson and Jerry Falwell had to warn their followers publicly against believing it.


Of course, rumors can be used to enhance a reputation as well. One e-mail hoax in recent years that received wide circulation was that President George W. Bush, at a thank-you dinner for campaign workers after the 2000 election, took time out of his duties to share the gospel with the son of a volunteer. As the story goes, the boy prayed to receive Christ on the spot, with Bush leading the prayer.

It is, unfortunately, untrue. Bush’s campaign never held any such dinner, and campaign officials said the pressing time commitments of the ongoing Florida recount would not have allowed Bush to deviate so dramatically from his schedule even if he had wanted to.

Those minor details didn’t stop many church newsletters and websites — even the website of Christianity Today, the flagship evangelical publication — from reporting it as fact.

The Bush rumor fits a pattern that folklorists call “cult of personality” myths. They often spring up around new presidents and are most prominent among the president’s core supporters.

Some Christians are so willing to believe rumors that reflect well on their heroes and poorly on their opponents that they abandon even a modest concern for the veracity of the rumors. Yet the Bible clearly prohibits “bearing false witness” and spreading rumors and gossip. Perhaps Christians who spread such rumors think they serve a greater purpose, as if the end justifies the means, some ethicists speculate.

My brother in law has worked for Proctor and Gamble for 39 years. Twenty years ago there was a false rumor about the P & G logo. My relative even thought that the church I then Pastored was associated with this rumor! See the Snopes response.

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