In October, 2015, the Catholic Church conducted a synod (or doctrinal council) on the family (more specifically, the Catholic Church’s stance on issues relating to the family). In the wake of conspirative discussion leading up to the synod, Pope Francis warned synod fathers against “the hermeneutic of conspiracy” which he stated as “sociologically weak and spiritually unhelpful.”
Though this statement was apparently a momentary caution against rumors that the Pope was attempting to subvert the church’s stance of issues related to the family, the statement (and the larger subject) is one that resonates if not in every aspect of modern life, at least in contemporary American political and social life.
Hermeneutics in Social Life.
Hermeneutics originally referred to the ways of interpreting religious and philosophical texts, specifically to interpretation of scripture. In the sense that hermeneutics is now a wider used ‘theory of understanding’, it has effected how almost every social science discipline is conducted (though, not always welcome). As a study, Hermeneutics has focused on interpretation of texts; Sociology being an exception as it is used to understand the meaning of social events.
To understand the meaning of an event, so the theory goes, it is important to comprehend both the historical and social context in which that event occurs.
Hermeneutic of Conspiracy.
The singular, hermeneutic, refers to a specific mode of understanding and interpretation. When considering the political and social mindset of Americans at large, a hermeneutic of conspiracy reveals itself.
One year after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, as if aware that this would appear to some in the future as the genesis of some new American ‘conspiracism’, Richard Hofstadter wrote a lengthy refresher course on the long history of the Paranoid Style in American Politics.
The long history in America of anti-Intellectualism, Nativist Populism, fear and distrust of ethnic, religious, and political outsiders (the various anti-Catholic, anti-Semitic, anti-Communist, anti-Masonic, anti-Asian movements) and their associated laws restricting or removing access to Life, Liberty, and Property all come with a built-in conspiracy narrative.
The Hermeneutic of Conspiracy, at least in America, is as follows:
- An alien ‘out group’ wishes to infiltrate America and attain dominance.
- This alien force is willing to use deceit to achieve these aims.
- The alien interlopers have uncanny skill in deceit and trickery.
- Some within the proper ‘in group’ have already been deceived, any alliance with the interlopers is proof of treason.
- The only valid recourse is the removal or subjugation of the ‘out group’ by any means necessary.
This hermeneutic was applied to Catholics in the anti-Papist Movement in the 1840s and 1850s, to Communists after WWII, to Jewish people before WWII, and to Americans of Japanese descent, most notably, during WWII.
The Current Revolt in the Hermeneutic.
The simplistic, linear American conspiracy hermeneutic is currently metastasizing. The end of the Cold War, the growth of Globalization as a social and economic trend, the advent and subsequent advancements of the Internet and Social Media have made it possible (almost inevitable) that a multiplicity of conspiracy theories simultaneously exist, overlap, seemingly contradict yet remain apparently coalesce.
The following is one very recent example.
The perceived threat of religiously inspired persecution of Christians in America is at the center of some of the most vociferous and unhinged conspiracy theories today. In them, non-Denominational and Evangelical Christians claim that the Catholic Pope Francis is attempting a syncretism between Christianity and Islam to create the One Religion of the Book of Revelations; this new religion, called ‘Chrislam‘, will be mandatory forcing Christians to choose between conversion or Death.
If the implication of a union between the Catholic Church and Islam seems far-fetched, consider suggestion by prominent Evangelicals that Muslims and Homosexuals are somehow in league. This particular nonsense, spread by Pat Robertson and others, came to light in the wake of the Orlando Massacre at the Pulse Nightclub on June 12, 2016 but had been floated recently in Christian conspiracy theory groups as an explanation for the existence of transgender peoples, gay marriage, and the apparent dissolution of traditional gender roles and heteronormativity in America. In effect, the Right Wing Christian hermeneutic of conspiracy places blame on a coalition between Catholics, Muslims, & the LGBT Community for all issues that they believe are unnatural and undesirable social events.
It is claims such as these that make it hard to not accuse the believers of playing a morbid prank. From a sociological perspective, however, this is just one more reason that a hermeneutic of conspiracy need be further investigated.