White evangelicalism is in decline — and QAnon could take its place
Remember the "Left Behind" series, about how the Rapture would whisk away all devout right-wing Christians before Jesus Christ unleashed the apocalypse on the unbelievers? Purity rings? Jesus Camp? Breathless stories about "girls gone mild," giving up sex and tank tops for the Lord? A federal health official who believed that women who had premarital sex couldn't feel love? Jerry Falwell Sr. and Pat Robertson blaming 9/11 on the "pagans and the abortionists and the feminists and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People for the American Way"?
There can be no doubt that the heyday of Christian fundamentalism in America was the George W. Bush administration. Conservatives craved reassurance that they were defenders of "morality", despite supporting an indefensible invasion of Iraq that led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands. These claims to moral superiority over liberals mainly came in the form of policing hymen status, harassing women at abortion clinics and claiming a right to Christian forgiveness (for yourself) when caught with prostitutes or soliciting gay sex in public bathrooms.
White evangelicals still hold considerable political power, which is why Donald Trump occasionally tries to get photographed fondling a Bible in ways he vainly hopes are convincing. Abortion and LGBTQ rights are still under serious threat, as the Christian right has made major inroads into the federal judiciary.
Perversely, however, the cultural power of white evangelicals is clearly fading, both in terms of numbers and relevance, and that process started long before Liberty University president Jerry Falwell Jr.'s name was ever associated with a "pool boy." Bibles have been largely replaced with Pepe the Frog memes. Public prayer has given way, among right-wingers, to chants of "Lock her up." You hardly hear anyone on Fox News these days talking up premarital abstinence anymore. They're too busy arguing that it's no big deal that Trump has routinely cheated on his wives, or that it's "pearl-clutching" to be angry that he has bragged about committing sexual assault.
White evangelicalism is in decline, but another movement is rising to take its place, a movement that scratches that same right-wing itch towards false piety and elaborate tribalist mythologies that are incomprehensible to outsiders: QAnon.
Yes, QAnon, the bizarre paranoid conspiracy theory that holds (more or less) that behind the scenes of observable reality lies a shadowy worldwide pedophile ring run by Democrats and prominent celebrities, and that Trump's bizarre and self-serving authoritarian behavior is actually an elaborate ruse to hide his secret fight to destroy this elite child-abuse conspiracy.
QAnon has grown rapidly since it first emerged in 2017, morphing from an online conspiracy theory to an explosive political and cultural phenomenon, one that can probably be considered a cult — although it lacks leaders in any conventional sense. While there hasn't been systematic research into how many Americans are QAnoners, an NBC News study earlier this month discovered that QAnon accounts on Facebook have more than 3 million followers.
An estimated 20 QAnon adherents are running for congressional office this year. One of them, Marjorie Taylor Greene, just won a primary race for the Republican nomination in a Georgia district that is nearly certain to go red in November, in a landslide that suggests, at the very least, that her wacky beliefs didn't scare off Republican voters. While some Republicans have publicly expressed reservations about Greene — who has apparently made racist comments and used sexist slurs — Donald Trump just called her a "future Republican Star".
It's a measure of our bizarre political climate that the Trump campaign sees QAnon as the future, but it's hardly a surprise. Trump hasn't been shy about courting QAnon followers, frequently retweeting its adherents (while later suggesting he doesn't know much about it). But this public endorsement of a QAnon candidate brings the public embrace of the movement to the next level. Now Trump's campaign is publicly attacking at least one Republican congressman who committed the sin of criticizing QAnon, with Trump's deputy communications director arguing that the "real" conspiracy theory is the Russian collusion story. (That's actually true, even if Team Trump has the story upside down.)
As ridiculous as all of this is — in the real world, Trump has wished accused child-sex trafficker Ghislaine Maxwell "well," and has shown no particular interest in the issue — the rise of QAnon as a more secular replacement for evangelical Christianity makes a lot of sense.
By claiming to pursue a crusade against the sexual abuse of children, QAnon gives its adherents a feeling of self-righteousness, one that allows them to ignore the reality that they support a deeply immoral and sociopathic president who is bragging about his efforts to steal the November election, and whose malicious mishandling of the coronavirus pandemic has destroyed our economy and led to 166,000 deaths and millions of damaged lives. It lets them construct a story where they're the good guys who oppose sexual exploitation, when in fact they are fiercely loyal to a man who has been credibly accused of sexual assault by two dozen women.
Evangelical Christianity played the same role for conservatives in the pre-Trump years, letting them feel holy and moral despite openly backing politicians who promoted immoral policies. But it came with a bunch of downsides, like being made to feel guilty for premarital sex, divorce or even (as Falwell Jr. found out) drinking and partying. With QAnon, you get to sleep in on Sunday and have all the sex you like, without giving up that pious assertion of moral superiority or the presumption of secret knowledge.
QAnon even swipes a central tactic from the Christian right: Focusing its concern on imaginary threats to children, while ignoring the very real threat to children (and everyone else) posed by their beliefs and actions.
With the Christian right, it's all about melodramatic appeals that abortion supposedly "kills babies," rhetoric that allows them to feel righteous while they undermine the services — social welfare, health care, housing and education — that allow parents to raise actual living children in safe, healthy environments.
QAnon claims to be fighting for children, but the child sex-trafficking victims they speak for are exclusively in their heads. In fact, QAnoners not only ignore the real cases of sex trafficking that exist, which have nothing to do with their conspiracy theory, but get in the way of activists who fight the real problem by clogging up phone lines, confusing their fundraising efforts, and interfering with social media campaigns. And they certainly don't give a damn about the real-life children that Donald Trump separated from their parents and stuffed in cages along the border.
Embracing ridiculous beliefs, whether in the Rapture or in Pizzagate, seems to be a part of American right-wing DNA, perhaps because wild fantasies are the only way they can distract themselves from the real evil they do in the world. In light of that, the rise of QAnon makes sense. It's the perfect mechanism, in Trump's America, for conservatives to tell themselves a story about how they're noble warriors for truth and justice in the face of overwhelming evidence that they're not. Hardly anyone likes to face the genuinely bad things they've done, and QAnon provides Trump-loving conservatives a fable to justify all their dreadful choices.