When Conspiracy Theories Induce Paralysis

The Christian Right has a problem that afflicts every activist movement: a proliferation of conspiracy theories and theorists. Some of them have better footnotes or videos than others. But they all risk self-destruction.

My father-in-law, R. J. Rushdoony, warned me over 40 years ago about conspiracy theorists — not actual conspiracy theories, some of which he accepted, but theorists. “They see the affairs of mankind as one long story of one successful conspiracy. They attribute to the conspiracy what the Bible attributes to God: omniscience and omnipotence.”

The result is a form of emotional paralysis, a retreat into one’s shell. People think they are up against near-supernatural power. He called these people gravediggers. He avoided them.

Conspiracies are not a new phenomenon. The prophet Isaiah issued a warning regarding the interpreting the history of man as the work of conspirators.

For Jehovah spake thus to me with a strong hand, and instructed me not to walk in the way of this people, saying, Say ye not, A conspiracy, concerning all whereof this people shall say, A conspiracy; neither fear ye their fear, nor be in dread thereof. Jehovah of hosts, him shall ye sanctify; and let him be your fear, and let him be your dread (Isaiah 8:11—13, ASV).

Rushdoony took this warning seriously. It was not that he believed that impersonal forces of history or impersonal anything else govern history. He was a cosmic personalist who saw the world in terms of rival beings: God vs. Satan. He would quote Psalm 2 in defense of this view. But he was careful always to present the issues of the past and the present in terms of multiple special-interest groups that operate in a world that is the product of competing religious worldviews.

He wrote a 1965 essay on this issue, “The Conspiracy View of History.” He warned that it is a mistake to see any group as the group that operates behind the scenes. He said that “the conspiracies at any given moment of history are many, and, the more crucial the issues, the more extensive the conspiracies.” (The Nature of the American System, 1965, p. 141.)

There is another factor to consider. “The commonly admitted conspiracies are those of the opposition” (p. 143). This blinds historians and contemporary commentators to the fact of similar activities, with similar tactics, inside the camp of the saints.

He saw the issue of conspiracies in terms of an illegitimate quest for power.

The more a conspiracy is concerned with power in priority to a faith, the more unscrupulous will its activities and alliances become. It will join forces with anyone and sacrifice both friend and foe without any moral restraint in order to attain its goals (p. 147).

This was an application of Chapter 10 of Hayek’s Road to Serfdom, “Why the Worst Get on Top.”

Rushdoony understood that central banking and fractional reserve banking are essentially conspiracies against the public (pp. 150—52). Yet he warned against too great a concern with such matters. The fundamental issues of life are not the non-conspiratorial good guys vs. the conspiratorial bad guys. The fundamental issues are theological and moral.

How shall we evaluate these things? It is possible, and many have done it, to begin naming the international money-lenders, some known and the others unknown, who are involved at the heart of these things, but this is an exercise in futility. Knowledge is important, but it is not knowledge which saves men, and the public announcement of all the relevant names would in no wise alter the situation in any basic respect. The issue is theological (p. 153).

Rushdoony held to a revisionist view of the United States’ entry into World War I and World War II. He understood the influence of central banking in political affairs. But he left to professional historians the detailed study of these events. As far as I can recall, he never in 35 years devoted an issue of his newsletter, Chalcedon Report, to a discussion of some alleged contemporary conspiracy and its machinations. He believed that such publishing efforts are essentially rabbit trails. They lead good people down dead end roads . . . or over steep cliffs.

In the April 2, 1969, issue of the Chalcedon Report, Rushdoony framed the question of the importance of conspiracies as well as anyone ever has. The fundamental issue is not the political power of conspiracies; rather, it is the underlying faith of a society.

The important question to ask is this: What makes a conspiracy work? Let us suppose that a number of us conspired together to turn the United States into a monarchy, and ourselves into its nobility; let us further suppose that we could command millions from our own to achieve this goal. Or, let us suppose that, with equal numbers and money we conspired to enforce Hindu vegetarianism on the country. In either case, we would have then, not a conspiracy, but a joke. A successful conspiracy is one which is so in tune with the faith and aspirations of its day that it offers to men the fulfilment of the ideals of the age. It is an illusion to believe that dangerous or successful conspiracies represent no more than a small, hidden circle of diabolical men who are manipulating the world into ruin. Such groups often exist, but they only exist and succeed because their plan and hope is closely tied to the public dream and the faith of the age. If the threat were only from small circles of hidden men, then our problem would be easy. Then, as Burton Blumert has observed, “if we only unmasked the conspiracy, all our problems would be solved, but if the trouble is in all of us, then we really are in trouble.”

Ruishdoony was not one to let the obvious escape the reader, so he added this sentence:

If tomorrow the secrecy were stripped from all conspiracies, and their goals revealed, most people would merely say, “Well, isn’t that what we all believe?” and go on with their daily lives.

For over four decades, I have seen conservative activists self-destruct over concern about this or that conspiracy. They become convinced that their favorite special-interest group to hate is the conspiracy of conspiracies, with plotters lurking behind every major event or political decision. For them, nothing is as it seems. Everything significant is part of a grand illusion. For them, the movie Matrix is the real thing, or close to it.

The problem is, we cannot make calculated, informed decisions based on illusion. We cannot build for the future if every plan we make will ultimately be thwarted by The Conspiracy.


Whenever an historian pays careful attention to some event — not even a crucial event — he finds that things just do not add up, that something is missing, that things could not have happened as the textbooks say. This is the inescapable consequence of finite minds dealing with the complexity of human affairs.

Consider President Kennedy’s assassination. There is even a movie of the event. What more could anyone want? It is clear from the film that his head went back. This indicates a shot fired from the front. (Or does it?) Yet a great deal of evidence points to Lee Harvey Oswald, who was behind the motorcade at that point.

That it seems impossible for shots from behind to have caused all of the damage is clear to every JFK conspiracy buff. The problem is timing. How could the front-and-back shots have been coordinated so precisely? There is little clear evidence that Oswald ever met with supposed assassins: CIA, the mob, or whoever. If there were such evidence, there would not be conflicting identifications and theories concerning the institutional connections of the unindicted co-conspirators. For example, whoever “Raul” was, it is not clear whose payroll he was on, if anyone’s.

This debate has gone on for over 40 years. The evidence has been sifted thousands of times in thousands of books and articles. The Warren Commission’s report does not stand up to scrutiny. But what JFK assassination theory does? This is the problem. It is a problem that still defies historians, professionals and amateurs alike.

Then there was another seemingly random event. I have quoted this passage before on this site. It is from Jim Lehrer’s autobiography, A Bus of My Own. He was at Love Field in Dallas that morning, as a young reporter covering the President’s motorcade. He was on the phone with a man at the newspaper.

Just before the plane was scheduled to leave Fort Worth for the short flight to Dallas, the rewrite man, Stan Weinberg, asked me if the bubble top was going to be on the presidential limousine. It would help to know now, he said, before he wrote the story later under pressure. It had been raining early that morning, and there was some uncertainty about it.

I told Stan that I would find it. I put the phone down and walked over to a small ramp where the motorcade limousines were being held in waiting. I spotted Forrest Sorels, the agent in charge of the Dallas Secret Service office. I knew Mr. Sorrels fairly well, because I was then the regular federal beat reporter. . . .

I looked down the ramp. The bubble top was on the president’s car.

“Rewrite wants to know if the bubble top’s going to stay on,” I said to Mr. Sorrels, a man of fifty or so who wore dignified glasses and resembled a preacher or bank president.

He looked at the sky and then hollered over at one of his agents holding a two-way radio in his hand. What about the weather downtown? he asked the agent.

The agent talked into his radio for a few seconds, then listened. Clear, he hollered back.

Mr. Sorrels yelled back at the agents standing by the car: “Take off the bubble top!”

How can we factor that series of events into the plans of Oswald and/or anyone else? If the bubble had been left on, would JFK have been assassinated a week or a month later? By whom?

History is complex. It is more complex than any conspiracy can deal with predictably.


There are specialists who devote their lives to a painstaking examination of the evidence of a major event. For these people, give thanks, whether they find a conspiracy or not.

There are also specialists in a particular field — fractional reserve banking comes to mind — who spend years tracking skullduggery, especially political skullduggery, that lines the pockets of some special-interest group or family. The public has never heard of most of these researchers. These are public benefactors. Nobody pays much attention to them, let alone pays money to them.

Then there are conspiracy buffs who dig in early and reveal choice bits of evidence in event after event. They are universally of the “crazy Uncle Ed” variety. They just cannot stay away from a dozen recent events that “just don’t add up.” They sound more and more crazy as they continue publishing, because, almost without exception, they want to connect the dots of all the major recent events. But dots are all over the landscape. Some are still to be found.

As they continue publishing, their stories become more far-fetched.

I offer three examples. All three men are dead. No one has suggested foul play.

Sherman Skolnick died in May, 2006. He had a website: . Skolnick put out a newsletter for decades. I would occasionally see one. They were unfootnoted, off-the-wall reports. Yet he did expose a bribery scandal in the Illinois courts in the late 1960s.

Joe Vialls died in June, 2005. He had a website: There, you can read the sequence of conspiratorial events, from the bottom (earlier) to the top. The man they say is Saddam Hussein is a look-alike. The 2004 tsunami was a conspiratorial event engineered in New York. And so on — a list of dozens of such events.

Then there was the legendary Peter Beter. (I am not making this up.) Dr. Peter D. Beter died in 1987. He wrote one thoroughly crackpot book, The Conspiracy Against the Dollar, in 1973. It was published by a small but respectable publishing house. Rushdoony gave me a copy, which I read and warned him was worthless. He took my advice. Later, Beter started an audio newsletter. I recall his theory that Jim Jones did not die in Jonestown, Guyana, but escaped with help from the CIA. A summary of many of his reports has been posted by an enthusiastic follower.

These men were cranks, yet they had followings in the conspiracy wing of the American Right. They had subscribers.

What they did not have was evidence.


Those who have come late into political activism have not spent decades watching conspiracy theories surface and then sink into obscurity, to be cared for by a kind of priesthood. They hear about their first Astounding Suppressed Story, and they get excited. They are not aware that there is a long line of Astounding Suppressed Stories that have come and gone, and that have torpedoed the careers of those who got on board early and then sank with the ship.

The fact that things don’t add up does not prove a conspiracy. The fact that things add up only if there was a conspiracy does not identify the nature of that conspiracy. When there are five different alleged perpetrating groups, there is a case to be made to wait and see. Such surely is the situation regarding 9/11.

Conspiracy theorists and their readers can become addicted. This addiction produces paralysis or irrelevance. Both are negative.

I will put it this way: If the conspiracy theorist doesn’t provide footnotes or web links to publicly verifiable information, wait and see. Use him for background information. See what happens.

Always compare his findings with other conspiracy theorists who begin with the same basic facts but identify a different conspiracy. Again, wait and see. Also, keep this in mind:

And if a kingdom be divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. And if a house be divided against itself, that house cannot stand. And if Satan rise up against himself, and be divided, he cannot stand, but hath an end (Mark 3:24—26).

August 5, 2006

Gary North [send him mail] is the author of Mises on Money. Visit He is also the author of a free 17-volume series, An Economic Commentary on the Bible.

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