Religion expert breaks down the toxic union of QAnon, white supremacy and the fading evangelical movement
According to the fantastical, anti-Semitic conspiracy theory known as QAnon, a secret cabal of liberals, Hollywood celebrities and foreign governments is kidnapping and sexually abusing children before eating them. This ritual grants members of the evil global elite special powers they use to manipulate the world and oppress (white) Christians and other groups.
In QAnon's alternate reality, a shadowy figure known as "Q" — who has been notably silent of late — sends out secret "drops" containing messages, clues and orders to true believers. As explained by Q, Donald Trump and his MAGA allies have led a resistance movement against the Deep State, preparing for a great cataclysm called "the Storm," in which Trump will seize full power (or, latterly, return to power) and all will be revealed. Ultimately, QAnon is an updated version of the infamous anti-Semitic libel "Protocols of the Elders of Zion," a conspiracy theory which has existed since the early 20th century and played a central role in the Holocaust.
QAnon is also much more than a mere conspiracy theory. It is a cult that has destroyed families and relationships. It is a con that lures in the weak-minded and the vulnerable. It is a political force with ambiguous but substantial influence within the neofascist Republican Party. It could also be described as a live-action roleplaying game for lonely and socially alienated adults who are desperate for a sense of agency, meaning and community in their lives.
QAnon also has elements of religion. Adrienne LaFrance writes at the Atlantic:
The Seventh-day Adventists and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are thriving religious movements indigenous to America. Do not be surprised if QAnon becomes another. It already has more adherents by far than either of those two denominations had in the first decades of their existence. People are expressing their faith through devoted study of Q drops as installments of a foundational text, through the development of Q-worshipping groups, and through sweeping expressions of gratitude for what Q has brought to their lives. Does it matter that we do not know who Q is? The divine is always a mystery. Does it matter that basic aspects of Q's teachings cannot be confirmed? The basic tenets of Christianity cannot be confirmed. Among the people of QAnon, faith remains absolute. True believers describe a feeling of rebirth, an irreversible arousal to existential knowledge. They are certain that a Great Awakening is coming. They'll wait as long as they must for deliverance.
Trust the plan. Enjoy the show. Nothing can stop what is coming.
As a new religion, the emergence of QAnon coincides with and has fueled the Republican Party and Trump movement's embrace of right-wing terrorism and other political violence.
Terrorism and extremism expert Colin Clarke told the Independent how white right-wing Christian evangelicals are being radicalized by the QAnon conspiracy theory into committing acts of terrorism:
"It's not going to get better anytime soon, unfortunately… Conspiratorial thinking is very closely associated with high-anxiety situations and endless wars, elections and national tragedies," he said.
Moreover, Clarke said there has been a "crossover" between the QAnon systems and evangelical Christianity that is going to imbue right-wing extremism with the sort of violent fanaticism more associated with al-Qaeda or Isis.
"Religious terrorism tends to be more lethal, because people believe they're serving a higher purpose by committing acts of violence, as opposed to secular groups or ethno-nationalists who are fighting over territory or land," he explained. "You can't negotiate with these people, and you especially can't negotiate with QAnon, because how do you assuage grievances that don't exist?"
Clarke also posited that synergies between QAnon and the American anti-abortion movement — another religiously inspired faction that dominates the GOP — could spark extremist violence in the mold of the string of bombings carried out by Eric Robert Rudolph between 1996 and 1998.
In an effort to understand how white Christian evangelicals are being radicalized into terrorism and other forms of extremism, I recently spoke with Robert Jones, CEO and founder of the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI). Jones is also a leading scholar on religion, politics and culture. His essays and other commentaries have been featured by the Atlantic, CNN, NPR, The New York Times, The Washington Post and the New York Times.
Jones is also the author of "White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity" and "The End of White Christian America."
In this conversation, Jones explains how Trump's insurrection and the Capitol attack should also be understood as expressions of white supremacy and Christian nationalist violence. He also details how white evangelicals actually believe that they are being oppressed and have become victims in America — false beliefs which make them very susceptible to conspiracy theories such as QAnon, political extremism and, in the worst-case scenario terrorism and political violence such as we witnessed on Jan. 6. Jones also explores why white evangelicals are so loyal to Donald Trump and his political cult and what that reveals about American politics and society.
This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
How do we explain white Christian evangelicals' enduring devotion to Donald Trump, no matter what he does? He can encourage terrorism, attempt a coup, incite a lethal attack on the Capitol and engage in all manner of apparent crimes, and they still love him.
Polling shows that even after the insurrection on Jan. 6, there are still supermajorities of white evangelicals reporting that they hold favorable views of Donald Trump. There was a majority of evangelicals saying before the 2020 election that they saw President Trump as being called by God to be president. That has been true throughout Trump's presidency.
One of the most remarkable things about white evangelicals in terms of Donald Trump is how little their favorability toward him have changed. Two impeachments, major scandals —including sex scandals involving sordid matters such as having affairs and paying hush money — none of that really seems to have shaken their favorability towards Trump. It's been very stable, somewhere between two-thirds and 80% favorable of Trump during the entire four years he was president.
There are two likely reasons for this. The slogan "Make America Great Again" was supposed to be changed to "Keep America Great" [for 2020]. The Trump campaign very quickly pivoted away from that and just stayed with the old slogan. The power of Trump's appeal is a backward nostalgia which involves going to back to a previous time when white Christians had more power in the United States. "Making America Great Again" signals to that desire to "restore" that state of affairs.
During Trump's campaign speeches, and even on Jan. 6, Trump would say things such as, "If you're not ready to stand up and fight, America as you know it will be over. You're going to lose your country." But who is the "your"? Who is the "our"? Trump is appealing to a white Christian base. What he is communicating is, "I'm the person who's going to help you continue to hold onto your sense of ownership of this country."
For Trump's base of voters that is what it is all about. His appeal is not about policies. It's certainly not about abortion or same-sex marriage. The appeal is based around a single issue.
Looking at the Jan, 6 attack, what did you see when you analyzed that crowd of insurrectionists?
It was remarkable to me. There were Bibles, there were crosses, there were Bible verses on signs. There were flags that said things such as, "Trump is my president, Jesus is my savior." There were shofars being blown, not by Jews but by Christians, who were convinced they were fulfilling some prophecy by bringing Trump into office.
Perhaps the image that stuck with me the most is that there was a fair amount of attention being paid to the Confederate battle flag being marched through the Capitol building. But what did not get enough attention is that there was also the Christian flag. Many people may not be familiar with it. That flag was being marched right into the House chamber along with the Confederate flag. They were all there. There was also a big white cross being carried up the steps along with all those other banners.
I am not quite sure that the American people as a whole really understand what the coexistence of all those symbols really means. The insurrectionists are telling us who they are. They very deliberately chose those symbols. They wore them on their clothes. These were white supremacists. These were Christians. Those two groups were not fighting each other. They were marching side by side.
The Ku Klux Klan is a white Christian right-wing terrorist organization. Many of the white supremacists and other terrorists who attacked the Capitol likely identity as "Christians." Why the tendency to parse "Christianity" and "white supremacy" as somehow being distinct from one another?
I guarantee you that if all those people had been carrying Muslim symbols, the narrative would be that they were radical Islamic terrorists. America has such a long history of being dominated by Christianity that many people are reluctant to really see the connections between white supremacy and Christianity as part of American culture.
But you are exactly right. The Ku Klux Klan targeted not just African Americans but also Jews and Catholics, because they considered the United States to be a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant country.
What do we know about the relationship between the QAnon conspiracy theory and white Christian evangelicals?
Paul Djupe, who is a political scientist at Denison University, did a recent study looking at the overlap between QAnon and evangelicals. He found that more than half of white evangelicals agree with the basic beliefs of QAnon. It has made deep inroads. But that's really not that surprising. When you look at the structure of QAnon, it is essentially a loose collection of pseudo-Christian ideas that have been floating around evangelical Christianity for decades. If we go back to the "Left Behind" novels from the 2000s, the building blocks of QAnon are right there.
For example, there is a big battle of good versus evil, a worldwide conspiracy to control the government, and the job of Christians is to be local prayer warriors who are allied with angels in a literal fight against their enemies, who are working with the devil.
QAnon has many of those same things. There is supposed to be a great "Storm" that will sweep away all the illegitimate holders of power and bring in a figure who is essentially the messiah. Donald Trump has been overlaid onto that "Left Behind" narrative. Combating the influence of QAnon is a really serious challenge for white Christian pastors.
What about the overlaps between QAnon and anti-Semitism? In many ways, QAnon really goes back to the "Protocols of the Elders of Zion."
Such ideas have been around for quite some time. They are certainly not new. QAnon is just their current manifestation. It is very important for pastors to make those connections for parishioners so that they can see the dangerous historical lineage that they are continuing with QAnon.
Why do white evangelicals somehow feel under siege or disadvantaged in the United States? In reality, they are oppressing other groups of people -- white evangelicals are not "victims" in America.
I am from the South and understand how the idea of being under siege runs deep here. That is especially true in the culture of Southern evangelicalism. It goes way back to the Lost Cause mentality of the Civil War and as a backlash to the civil rights movement.
A proclivity to be the "victim" runs deep in terms of theology here as well. This is particularly true in white evangelical circles. Both Republicans and white evangelicals believe that they face more discrimination than other groups such as African Americans and gays and lesbians. That trend has been documented in the polling data and other research for several years. That sense of being under siege has become even stronger during the Trump years. It was certainly there before that, but it's become even stronger.
What do we know about why white evangelicals gravitate to QAnon more than other groups of Christians? Both groups believe in invisible people who tell them things and share secrets only with them. One would think that Christians who are so oriented would be joining QAnon across the board.
By way of comparison, both white evangelicals and African American Christians share many similar theological beliefs. However, it is white evangelicals who are much more likely to be connected to QAnon and similar conspiracy theories. I do not believe that the answer lies in a common belief in something invisible. QAnon and other like beliefs are ultimately self-serving. At the end of the day, QAnon preserves white power.
We passed from being a majority white Christian country to one that is no longer majority white Christian. That happened proximate to Obama's time in office. With him, the first black president, there was a very vivid symbol of demographic change. That really has set off a desperate struggle where many white Christians are now in a bid to hold onto their group's power.
Weird things happen when you get desperate. Those white Americans are reaching for almost anything that will tell them that they are still the most important group in the country, that they still own the country, the country was created for their benefit. In many ways the bedrock of their worldview is crumbling.
PRRI has completed new polling and research on questions of "religious freedom." What have you learned?
One of the clearest findings is when we ask people the direct question, "Do you think religious liberty in America is under threat". Most Americans say no. But we have a very loud minority, four in 10 Americans, telling us that religious liberty is being threatened today.
Again, it is white evangelicals who really stand out as a group, with more than 70% of them saying religious liberty is being threatened. No other religious group in the United States comes anywhere near that. It really is just this one very loud minority group of white evangelicals. Part of the explanation lies in the fact that if you go back to 2008, they were 21% of the population. Today they're only 15% of the population. As white evangelicals have started shrinking as a group, they are getting louder and more desperate.
When a group feels existentially threatened, they are more prone to engage in terrorism and other violence. They literally believe they are in a life-and-death battle.
White evangelical Protestants are at a very dangerous place in their history today. They have been accustomed to being in the majority, as part of the mainstream of American culture. They find themselves increasingly out of step with the country in terms of their beliefs and their attitudes. Their children and grandchildren are disaffiliating from white evangelical churches. It is a shrinking movement.
The danger then becomes that if part of your worldview depends on the belief that America is a Christian nation — and not just a Christian nation but really a Protestant nation — and moreover that your group are rightful inheritors of that country, and you add in leaders telling you that your country is being unfairly taken away from you, it all becomes a very dangerous powder keg. Such beliefs can lead to extraordinary responses. I believe that the extremes of this view are violent. We should take that very seriously.
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