QAnon and Evangelicals: What’s the Appeal?

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QAnon — the rapidly-spreading online conspiracy theory — is now making increasing inroads into American evangelicalism. If you are unfamiliar with what QAnon actually is, then before you go any further, read my article about it here.

As just one example of the encroachment of QAnon into evangelicalism, there is now an “online church” called Omega Kingdom Ministries (OKM) out of Wolf Lake, Indiana. They hold regular Sunday Zoom calls billed as “ekklesia training.” (By the way, ekklesia is the Greek word for “church,” as most evangelicals understand it anyway).

According to their linked site homecongregations.org, OKM’s goal is to have all Christians unite in prayer — thus combining spiritual warfare together with conspiracy theories.

As I mentioned in my previous article about QAnon, in particular this movement has exploded since the Covid-19 lockdowns earlier in 2020; tied in with the “deep state” conspiracy theories are also a wide variety of beliefs that the virus is some sort of “plandemic.” This is also closely allied to anti-science, anti-masking and anti-vaccination conspiracies. For evangelicals distrustful of “secular scientists,” who believe and promote both evolution and a belief in a multi-billion-year-old universe, this stance is actually quite consistent with their theological worldview.

Therefore, it should come as no surprise to see multiple pastors of churches nationwide refusing to honor state lockdown orders, and holding services inside their buildings with few attendees, if any, wearing masks or observing social distancing. Thus when tied into the conspiracy theory angle, combined with an anti-science bias, it’s clear that certain aspects of American evangelicalism are now devolving into a sort of apocalyptic death cult. There’s a sense of fatalism among many evangelicals who tell themselves, “I can attend church and not wear a mask. God will protect me from getting sick; and besides, if I die from Covid (which may be a total hoax anyway), that’s just…God’s will.”

The OKM site displays the following opening statement, written by Gary Holcombe of the Maine Strike Force of Prayer network:

“To all, We want to write a short declaration that EVERYONE who truly loves and believes in God and Jesus and the power of the Kingdom of God needs to start declaring over America. It is time to stop reading/hearing/repeating and complaining about COVID, the ‘shutdown’ and the Plandemic. It is time for the people of God to take action and to TAKE CONTROL. I am not going to waste time talking about all the science; we KNOW masks don’t work and that the plandemic is about the election, lets just do what Jesus said: Decree and Declare that the power of Heaven is unleashed.”

Holcombe displays his conspiracy theorist roots, allied with a spiritual warfare angle, when he declares further in his “prayer talking points” that believers should ask God to deliver on the following prayer request: “Lord; please expose and frustrate Deep State attempts to use this covid19 situation as an excuse to nullify or minimize People’s rights as spelled out in our Nation’s Constitution and Bill of Rights. Frustrate the efforts of some to use the Covid Crisis to ‘program’ or ‘train’ people to be ‘obedient sheep,’ or use people’s ignorance as a means of installing over-reaching and tyrannical government.”

Holcombe’s prayer request ends by asking God to have his Holy Spirit “fall on Donald Trump,” giving him and his family protection from the following perils: the coronavirus itself; any attempts to discredit him; attacks by the mainstream media; and basically any and all “opposition from any quarter.”

Incidentally, on the Home Congregations site, which is part of the OKM site, under “Resources,” among other things there is a link to a QAnon information site.

Christians and Conspiracy Theories

Stepping back from the current situation, we need to ask the following question: are Christians more open and accepting of conspiracy theories in general, or are they more wary of being taken in by them?

Studies have shown that those who hold such beliefs as, for example, young-earth creationism, are more susceptible in general to conspiracy theories (i.e., the conspiracy theory that the moon landing was faked). A study performed at the University of Fribourg in Switzerland demonstrated the following belief patterns, according to Kimberly Hickock of Live Science: “When something occurs that’s hard to explain, many people say that ‘everything happens for a reason’ and that the event was ‘meant to be.’ The thought provides a purpose for what, in reality, was a random, accidental event.”

This mentality is what is referred to as telelogical thinking, which is demonstrated by the beliefs of young-earth creationists. Their logic is as follows: the Bible clearly teaches that the Earth was created by an omniscient being (God) approximately 6–10,000 years ago. It is therefore absolutely not the result of random chance plus time over billions of years (evolution). The Fribourg study demonstrated that the same type of thinking also promotes a belief in conspiracy theories — in other words, the belief that accidents and apparently random, unconnected historical events don’t just “occur,” they are somehow planned or controlled (potentially by unseen, powerful forces). Seeming randomness is ultimately rejected in favor of conspiratorial thinking.

Therefore, teleological thinking helps adherents make sense of, and explain, seemingly random events in the world — and of history too. Nothing happens by chance, they firmly believe. In addition, young-earth creationism promotes conspiracist-theory thinking: secular scientists don’t want you to know “the truth” about the real age of the earth, what the Bible teaches about historical events like creation and Noah’s flood, and about creation science. To their way of thinking, secular scientists are wilfully suppressing the truth, because they have an inbuilt bias (if not an outright hatred) of both God and Christians. Evolution is merely a secularist theory designed to “scientifically” explain away God’s existence and his creation of both the universe and of humanity, who were created by him in his image.

In addition to telelogical thinking, there’s another aspect to it: an “us-vs-them” ingroup, outgroup orientation. Evangelicals may find solace in QAnon because they see it as a logical extension of the culture war started by such organizations as Falwell’s Moral Majority in 1979. Tyler Huckabee of Relevant Magazine notes that it provides a “real plot and vocabulary to the ‘us vs. them’ model that became popular with the rise of the Moral Majority. QAnon codifies the mistrust of science, ‘big government’ and celebrities into a real (if slippery) system.”

Churches and QAnon

Given the bent toward teleological thinking, combined with an us-vs-them orientation, perhaps it should come as no surprise that many journalists have noted that evangelicals — and churches — are increasingly buying into QAnon conspiracy theories. Recently, for example, on the 5th of July 2020, footage was leaked on Twitter of a sermon from Rock Urban Church in Grandville, MI. Prior to getting onstage and speaking, the pastor showed a 12-minute video, which was edited down from a larger YouTube video entitled “Covid 911” by YouTuber Joe M. The video promotes many QAnon conspiracy theories, such as the following: obviously Covid-19 is some sort of plandemic; how George Floyd’s murder was actually organized by the deep state to hurt Trump; and that the Black Lives Matters protests are in reality a terrorist front for antifa, etc.

Since the outbreak of Covid-19, and subsequent nationwide lockdowns beginning around March of 2020, there’s been an explosion of evangelical church members spreading QAnon theories to other congregants via social media platforms. This phenomenon is similar to the spread of the so-called “Satanic panic” that swept through evangelicalism in the 1980s. Among its bizarre and unfounded beliefs was the absurd idea that babies and children were being ritually abused in Satanic covens located in daycare centers or preschools. Another aspect to the Satanic panic was that rock music, and particularly heavy metal, was being infiltrated by Satanists who used “back-masking” to hide evil suggestions inside of songs.

QAnon’s rise, and growing popularity among evangelicals, feels eerily similar today. Back then, in the pre-internet days, credulous evangelicals not only bought into the Satanic Panic, they spread it far and wide through available media sources. A great many televangelists and Christian speakers also cashed in by spreading the scare, speaking nationwide on the dangers of Satanism and the evils of rock n’ roll music wherever they could: in churches, on Christian media, and in Christian schools. Fearful Christians hung on their every word, then went home and forced their kids to burn, or throw away, their heavy metal albums that appeared to be evil. CBS News did a segment on this if you want more information about the Satanic Panic.

As a second example of the spread of QAnon in evangelical churches, recently a certain Pastor Frailey, minister of a church in Oklahoma, started noticing the spread of QAnon conspiracy theories among his congregants during the Covid-19 lockdown. Like the virus, this belief had also spread quickly. Abby Ohlheiser of Technology Review notes: “Like thousands of other church leaders across the United States, Frailey had shut down in-person services in March to help prevent the spread of the virus. Without these gatherings, some of his churchgoers had turned instead to Facebook, podcasts, and viral memes for guidance. And QAnon, a movement with its own equivalents of scripture, prophecies, and clergy, was there waiting for them.”

Frailey, and other pastors too, report a growing sense of alarm and frustration as they try to confront this spreading belief within their congregations. As they try to stop its transmission among their members, they oftentimes encounter a stiff resistance to facts and logic. What can they do in order to counter this growing phenomenon?

The Cult Psychology of QAnon

But beyond teleological thinking, and the deep distrust of “government overreach” systemic to evangelicalism for decades now, what exactly is the appeal of QAnon to evangelicals? Perhaps the best way to analyze this movement is to study it from a cult psychology point of view, and then tie that into already-established beliefs and practices within the wider world of evangelicalism.

First of all, Q’s “drops” or “breadcrumbs,” released on outlets like 4chan and 8kun, function like Scriptural prophetic messages — divine revelation, as it were, dispensed from above, containing cryptic clues that believers need to study carefully and parse in order to figure out. Thus Q drops function like Robert Jay Lifton’s “sacred science” category, because (of course) Q knows everything about “what’s really going on.” Followers of Q’s drops begin to feel a sense of superiority as they learn to follow the “breadcrumbs” and decipher them for themselves. Q also makes numerous predictions about what’s going to happen in the future, which gives adherents the assurance that they know what’s coming up in terms of what the future will hold. And just like joining a church, QAnon followers begin to feel a real sense of community and acceptance among this tribe that is forming worldwide.

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Thus, the sacred science of Q’s drops appeals to adherents because they feel part of the in-group orientation on the inside line, and it initiates them into the Q community. In addition, it also fits what Lifton refers to as “loaded language” — insider jargon that only true believers understand. If, for example, you were to show up at a Trump rally wearing a shirt emblazoned with “WWG1WGA” on it, or simply have a sign with the letter Q on it, or wear a Q lapel pin, other insiders will know what those mean. Q uses tons of secretive slogans in his “Q drops” (or “breadcrumbs”) that only his/her followers are aware of, and understand. For example: a “blackhat” is a code word for a person who is part of the evil cabal; “the castle” is the White House; “CBTS” = “the calm before the storm”; “crumbs” are clues left by Q; and Trump is known as “Q+.”

For QAnon followers, just like the difficulties posed by biblical interpretation, it takes real effort to unpack Q’s cryptic messages — and thus, just like in churches, there are also “spiritual guides” like The Praying Medic on YouTube who will help the new adherent to the movement understand what Q is talking about. Thus, guides like this function as a sort of “priestly class” to help guide new initiates, bring them into the fold, and shepherd their journey — much like a priest or pastor does for his or her congregants.

Therefore, perhaps not too bizarrely, for some evangelicals who’ve bought into it, the lines are becoming increasingly blurred between Q drops and Scripture. What we are seeing is a sort of “interpretative feedback loop” intertwining Q and the Bible. For example, Marc-Andre Argentino, in an article on The Conversation website, comments on this interpretative phenomenon that is spreading largely among neo-charismatic churches: “What I’ve witnessed is an existing model of neo-charismatic home churches — the neo-charismatic movement is an offshoot of evangelical Protestant Christianity and is made up of thousands of independent organizations — where QAnon conspiracy theories are reinterpreted through the Bible. In turn, QAnon conspiracy theories serve as a lens to interpret the Bible itself.”

Apocalypticism

Second, in addition to the cult psychology aspect of the movement, there’s an apocalyptic, end-times feel to many of Q’s drops that refer to “The Storm.” This event involves the alleged day when Donald Trump finally reveals how he’s going to bring the Satan-worshipping, child-sex-trafficking and child-murdering cabal to justice.

This feels eerily similar to the apocalyptic end-time events prophesied in the New Testament book of Revelation. Ever since it was written, that book has proven to be notoriously difficult to interpret because it, too, makes use of future prophecies, numerology, typology, and apocalypticism, all of which makes it very hard to decipher. Christians who buy into both scenarios feel a sense of certitude that at some point in the future, they will triumph with God’s help, and all the effort and hard work have been worth it in the end.

But what if adherents are confronted with the many predictions made by Q that failed to come to pass? One is reminded of Festinger’s epic study of cognitive dissonance in his book When Prophecy Fails. Rather than admitting that Q was wrong, and is therefore a false prophet, the diehard QAnon follower will tend to double down, and instead look for explanations that explain away the seeming discrepancies or false prophecies. They’ll argue that Q intentionally uses deception; what seems “false” is only designed to throw enemies off the scent. The end is near; Trump will be victorious at some point, and good will triumph over evil. Ultimately, then, the feelings of cognitive dissonance must be suppressed or explained away — just as many Christians simply shelve doubts or concerns they have about their own faith, or will take refuge in apologists who seek to explain away potential problems with God or the Bible.

Thus to the QAnon cultist, facts and logic are meaningless, dismissed as “fake news” spread by the “lying, lamestream media.” They are impervious to reason, facts, or logic. Any sense of cognitive dissonance will be banished or suppressed by studying harder and doubling down. Ohlheiser comments on this connection that “QAnon followers will often repeat a commandment they learned from Q: that in the presence of doubt, you should ‘do your own research.’ And that impulse will feel especially familiar to evangelicals, says William Partin, a research analyst at Data & Society’s Disinformation Action Lab, who has been studying QAnon. ‘The kind of literacy that’s implied here — close reading and discussion of texts that are accepted as authoritative — has quite a bit in common with how evangelicals learn to read and interpret the Bible,’ he says.”

The major problem with QAnon generally is this, says LaFrance of The Atlantic: “It is a movement united in mass rejection of reason, objectivity, and other Enlightenment values. And we are likely closer to the beginning of its story than the end. The group harnesses paranoia to fervent hope and a deep sense of belonging. The way it breathes life into an ancient preoccupation with end-times is also radically new. To look at QAnon is to see not just a conspiracy theory but the birth of a new religion.”

Contact: Follow me on Twitter @MindShift2018

QAnon’s Cult Psychology

If you want to find out more about QAnon, and why I believe it is not only a cult but a growing threat to the world, listen in to my recent conversation with Chris Shelton. Chris and I explain QAnon, explore who Q might be, and unpack the cult-like psychology that fuels this ever-expanding movement.

https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/bonus-episode-cult-qanon-unpacking-pyschology-chris/id1199559501?i=1000490388378

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I’m an ex-evangelical speaking out about the dangers posed by the Christian Right, dominion theology, and Christian nationalism. Host of the MindShift podcast.

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