After President Donald Trump falsely claimed victory in the presidential election at 3 a.m. on Wednesday, he continued to share unsubstantiated claims about dumped ballots, mysteriously found votes, and an effort to rig ballot counts. These claims were quickly proven false. And, throughout the day, more false claims spread across social media.
One claimed 100,000 absentee ballots were found in Michigan and none of them were for Trump. (According to the Detroit Free Press, this claim was based on a typo.) Another alleged that more votes were cast in Wisconsin than the number of people registered to vote in the state. (The Wisconsin Elections Commission discredited this claim, citing on Twitter that the “state of Wisconsin had 3,684,726 active registered voters” on Nov. 1.)
“There are never more ballots than registered voters,” the commission tweeted.
But fact checks didn’t stop a number of pastors across the U.S. from sharing the false claims.
Rodney Howard-Browne, pastor of The River at Tampa Bay Church, retweeted the false claim that 100,000 new votes had been cast for Biden. Pastor Mark Burns tweeted concern about “those who seek to undermine the sacred election process in our democracy” and shared that “President Trump is the clear winner of this 2020 Presidential election.” Darrell Scott, pastor and a member of President Trump's executive transition team, falsely claimed “they stop[ped] counting.”
According to John Fea, historian and author of Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump, this messaging is part of the false narrative that Trump has created and is “trying to get Christians to embrace.” Franklin Graham and Paula White — two of what Fea calls Trump’s “court evangelicals” — each echoed this messaging in nearly identical statements, claiming that some are “trying to steal the election.” This, says Fea, “served as a ‘subtle dog whistle’ intended to sow fear.”
“They get their facts and their truth from Donald Trump,” Fea told Sojourners. “If he says there’s fraud, they will not investigate it themselves. They will accept it as truth. They're not interested in evidence or data. That’s what’s happening here.”
For Nora Rasman, a lead organizer with the Unitarian Universalist Association and a Wisconsin election defender state lead, Trump’s spread of misinformation didn’t come as a surprise.
“It’s all a voter suppression tactic to scare people and create mistrust in the system,” Rasman said. “There are consequences when faith leaders give credence to these lies … It further undermines people’s trust in the process. It can dissuade people from engaging in the process in the future.”
But while social media is saturated with lies, on the ground, some clergy and other faith leaders are working to correct them. Tuesday night, Rev. Greg Lewis, assistant pastor at Saint Gabriel’s Church of God in Christ in Milwaukee and president and founder of Souls to the Polls, held a news conference with the Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association and Service Employees International Union outside an absentee processing center in Milwaukee; he implored officials to count every vote.
“This is one thing [Trump] can’t talk his way out of,” Lewis told Sojourners. “The numbers are the numbers and that’s that.”
Rev. Eli Valentin of Bridge Church of God in Allentown, Penn., said he’s witnessed his parishioners spreading the disinformation online, and considers it his role to correct it..
“I have some folks that are buying into the hysteria of Trump and his allies, so I've been intentional about explaining that the counting process is part of the electoral process,” Valentin said. “... I have found myself needing to be clear with my folks, so that they are not led or influenced by misinformation.”
According to an October survey from Public Religion Research Institute, most Americans think religious leaders have a role to play post-election: More than eight in ten say it is important for religious leaders to speak out about a peaceful transition of power regardless of who wins the election. That desire is echoed among religious groups, including 91 percent of white evangelicals, 90 percent of Black Protestants, and 85 percent of white Catholics.
According to Sister Anne McCarthy, OSB, of Erie, Penn., faith leaders commit a “dangerous” act when they spread falsehoods.
“All of us are called to be very, very careful with what we share and what we spread,” McCarthy told Sojourners. “For any leaders to share information that is false and divisive and damaging to our democracy, it’s dangerous.”
McCarthy attended a rally in Erie, Penn., on Wednesday in which faith leaders and activists from Choose Democracy processed to the local courthouse chanting “count every vote.”
“Someone’s illegitimate grab for power, either to retain power to declare themselves a winner in an election, or to ignore the findings of an election — it only works if it’s held in place, if the society gives it legitimacy,” McCarthy said.