Snake oil, bleach and lies: how virus brings out the worst in ‘religion’

By Andrew Brown

Two of the most dangerous conspiracy theories about the coronavirus are being peddled by men who claim religious authority. The idea that drinking industrial bleach will cure Covid-19 was endorsed by President Donald Trump, although he later pretended this had not happened. It came originally from Mark Grenon, who claims that his Florida-based Genesis II is a church, and he is its archbishop.

The Federal Food and Drug Administration issued an injunction against the group, whose website describes itself as a “non-religious” church, for distributing a “Miracle Mineral Solution”.

Grenon told Trump that chlorine dioxide — a powerful bleach used in industrial processes that can be fatal if consumed — is “a wonderful detox that can kill 99% of the pathogens in the body”.

The other conspiracy theory, the claim that 5G masts are the cause of the virus, is not original to any one person. There have been conspiracy theories about wireless radiation since the first cordless phones, and the belief that they were being controlled by radio waves was a common delusion in schizophrenia. But it was widely spread on YouTube and elsewhere in a recording by a man the Guardian revealed as Jonathon James, an evangelical preacher from Luton, Bedfordshire.

Why do these people claim the authority of religion to bolster what are apparently scientific claims? James also claims, quite falsely, to have been a ‘Vodaphone boss’, but the company says he held a sales position there for less than a year and had nothing to do with 5G.

The other source of his knowledge is, he said in his sermon, the Almighty: “God has blessed me with the ability to bring disparate pieces of information together that puts the puzzle together and makes sense of it.”

In the United States, there are, of course, tax advantages to being a religion. But there is a much closer link to financial advantage. Grenon sells his bleach and other chemicals as “sacraments”.

Anyone who spends time in the undergrowth of American religion learns soon enough that part of the economic basis of these ministries is merchandising indistinguishable from the way the music business does it.

Kenneth Copeland, perhaps the most successful of the prosperity gospellers, sells DVD sets of his live shows for as much as $75  for last year’s “Washington Victory campaign”. He also sells “partnerships”, which he describes as “a two-way exchange: from partners to KCM [Kenneth Copeland Ministries] flow prayer and financial contributions. From KCM to partners flow prayer, shared rewards and anointing.”

Alex Jones, the conspiracy therapist who claimed that the Sandy Hook children murdered by a gunman in a primary school in 2012 were “crisis actors”, made his money selling supplements that researchers found either  didn’t live up to their claims, or were potentially toxic.

In all these cases, there is a feedback loop between the outrageousness of the claim peddled and the financial rewards to the pedlar, and this fits naturally into a religious pattern. They are not just selling quasi-magical objects, or invisible benefits like “anointing”, or promises of future prosperity and supposed immunity from frightening diseases.

They are also selling a sense of belonging, and for that people might pay even more. Here, the strangeness of their theories becomes a further advantage to the pedlars of conspiracy. The more your beliefs cut you off from your neighbours, the more dependent you become on the solidarity of fellow believers, the only people who truly understand you.

YouTube has taken down Mark Grenon’s videos, and those of Jonathon James. But in a world where everyone is both more online and more anxious than ever before, they will have countless imitators. Religion, as always, will show us the worst as well as the best of humanity.

COMMENT

Dr David Robertson, Open University – fact sheet on conspiracy theories  here 

Dr Laura Premack, Institute for social futures, Lancaster University

Dr Sarah Harvey, Researcher at INFORM, studying new religious movements. Editor, with Eileen Barker, Health and Healing in Minority Religions. Routledge-Inform Series on Minority Religions. Forthcoming.