Christians are increasingly falling victim to online falsehoods. Meet the librarian leading the fight against conspiracy theories and health misinformation.

church mask phone
A worshipper wearing a protective face mask checks her smartphone while attending a Sunday service on May 10, 2020.

  • A librarian is leading the church’s fight against misinformation by holding online media workshops.
  • Rachel Wightman is teaching church congregants to identify fake news, and fact-check their sources.
  • White evangelicals are more likely to believe in conspiracy theories, recent polls show.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

A local librarian from Minnesota is leading the fight against misinformation in Christian churches by holding online media training for congregations across the country.

Rachel Wightman works full-time at Concordia University, St.Paul, but started teaching six-week seminars part-time after watching a worrying number of people in her community became misguided by online misinformation.

The presidential election prompted Wightman to give her first workshop at her local Mill City Church in Minneapolis in early 2020. But the coronavirus pandemic paired with the Black Lives Matter protests made her workshops a lot more pertinent, so she decided to organize more.

The BLM movement, in particular, hit close to home – Wightman’s church was only a few miles away from where George Floyd was killed, and for most of the summer months, the city was gripped by protests.

Read more: HOLY WAR: A California pastor who believes ventilators are killing people is holding massive, mask-free services – and he refuses to shut down

“I remember the day our pastor was talking about racism and saying we have to check our inputs, meaning we have to get inputs from people who are different in order to understand this issue,” Wightman told Insider. “That was the moment for me where it really clicked. I knew I had to continue giving people tools to get to these inputs.”

In the last few weeks, the librarian has become inundated with requests from other pastors from around the US asking her to give her workshops to their congregations.

The need for such training seems to be as urgent as ever: Over the last year, churches have become engulfed in conspiracy theories and health misinformation, in some cases even prompting pastors to leave their congregations.

Recent polls show that white evangelicals have one of the highest levels of vaccine skepticism in the United States. According to a Washington Post/ABC News poll published in January, just under a third of US adults say they will probably or definitely not get the vaccine, compared to 44% of those who identify as white evangelicals.

Another poll by the Christian research organization Lifeway Research found that more than 45% of protestant pastors said they had often heard congregants repeating conspiracy theories.

“As a librarian, I’m seeing this huge information landscape every day, and I feel like it’s incredibly overwhelming for people,” Wightman said. “We’ve all spent this past year in this hyped-up environment where everything feels urgent and stressful, so I try to encourage people to take some space and say: ‘Okay, I’m going to figure out how to slow down and make sense of everything around me.'”

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Rachel Wightman, Associate Director for Instruction and Outreach at Concordia University in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Due to the pandemic, Wightman meets most of her students on Zoom. Together they talk about everything from how to identify fake photographs, the ways in which algorithms work, fact-checking sources, and how to avoid being judgmental when friends post something inaccurate online.

Wightman stressed that while the training is a good space to talk about all the information people find online, it is also “politically neutral.”

“We’re not here to talk about your opinion on the latest legislation or our president. We are here to talk about how do you evaluate what you’re finding online … and how that overlaps with your faith,” she said.

For the librarian, it is also important to keep faith at the center of her teachings.

“I want to also bring in this perspective of Christianity. As Christians, we need to ask ourselves, if you have this faith of loving your neighbors, in what spaces does your faith show up?'”

The librarian said her workshops had been received well by many churchgoers, who vary in age and race. Many are also taking the training to help family members who have succumbed to online misinformation, Wightman said.

trump capitol religion
Pro-Trump supporters storm the U.S. Capitol following a rally with President Donald Trump on January 6, 2021 in Washington, DC.

Dr. Christopher Douglas, a professor of English at the University of Victoria, specializing in Christian literature, politics, and epistemology, thinks having training is essential in this day and age.

“Misinformation is in some sense baked into white evangelical churches as many of them reject science, scholarship, and mainstream journalism,” Douglas told Insider. “It’s a small step from disputing the science of evolution and climate change to doubting the efficacy of masks and vaccines in fighting the pandemic because it all comes from a common source, which is mainstream ‘secular’ science.”

Douglas believes 2020’s pandemic and election exacerbated this problem as many feel like their political opponents are trying to “destroy Christian America and to take away what they call their ‘religious freedoms.'”

This is why Christian churches need training like Wightman’s, Douglas said. “Public institutions like libraries, colleges, and universities all have a role to play in developing critical thinking and critical media literacy skills,” he said.

Even though Wightman is balancing her new work with a full-time job, she said she’s proud of what she’s accomplished so far and hopes to continue doing more workshops in the future.

“A lot of people think librarians just sit around and read all day, so it’s been fun to bust that myth open a bit,” said Wightman. “We’re teachers, we’re about connecting people with information, and so be able to do that in a new way that feels so relevant is very exciting.”

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A Michigan pastor is under fire after claiming ‘none have died’ from the coronavirus

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A nurse puts on her PPE before tending to a COVID-19 patient on October 21, 2020 in Essen, Germany.

  • Bart Spencer, the senior pastor at the Lighthouse Baptist Church in Michigan, encouraged churchgoers in a November sermon to contract the virus and “get it over with.”
  • He also falsely said “none have died” from the coronavirus.  
  • More than 10,300 people have died from the coronavirus in Michigan, according to the latest data from Johns Hopkins University.
  • Since his November sermon, Spencer has continued to encourage people to show up to his in-person sermons without a mask, despite receiving backlash for his November comments and despite recommendations from health officials to practice safety measures.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

A Michigan pastor in November told churchgoers to get the coronavirus “over with” and said “none have died” from the disease, according to a local report from the Holland Sentinel

Bart Spencer, senior pastor at the Lighthouse Baptist Church in Holland, Michigan, delivered “irresponsible” remarks, a Facebook user wrote, according to the Sentinel. 

“COVID, it’s all good. Several people have had COVID, none have died yet,” Spencer said in a November 14 sermon. “It’s OK. Get it, get it over with, press on.”

More than 10,300 people have died from the coronavirus in Michigan, according to the latest data from Johns Hopkins University.

In an interview with the Sentinel, Spencer said he and his family members had contracted the virus and survived.

“It’s not fun, I lost my sense of taste and smell, but my bout with the flu was worse,” he said.

The Lighthouse Baptist Church has been holding in-person services and congregations, with many people choosing not to wear masks or follow social distancing guidelines. 

In a December 2 sermon posted on the church website, Spencer said “the GOP” called him to ask why he’s “overtly disobeying the order of public gatherings.” The person he spoke with, whose name he didn’t give in the sermon, said he’d fine the church $1,200 and $1,000 “for each member if the sheriff has to come in.”

“We simply trust people to make their own decisions,” Spencer said in the sermon. “You have a complete right and privilege to believe whatever you want to believe.”

“If you believe that you need to quarantine, hide in the corner of your room, for the next eon or plus, that’s fine, I respect that. But you have to respect that I’m not afraid,” he continued. “You have to respect that I’m not concerned with that.”

Spencer also told his churchgoers in the sermon that mask-wearing and social distancing are choices they can make for themselves. 

Health officials and organizations have recommended and encouraged taking measures like mask-wearing and social distancing to limit the spread of the coronavirus. 

“Masks offer some protection to you and are also meant to protect those around you, in case you are unknowingly infected with the virus that causes COVID-19,” says the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website.

Spencer on Friday defended his comments in an interview with WXMI, a Fox affiliate. 

“I would never tell them to go get sick, but you don’t know how you’re going to get it,” he said. 

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