MIT Technology Review has an interesting piece out on how the pandemic has accelerated the embrace of QAnon conspiracies among Evangelical Christians cut off from their normal communities and spiritual leaders. It positions Q and his most prominent mouthpieces in social media as prophets of religious cult peeling away members of more traditional conservative evangelical flocks during a time of public crisis.
Carter, of the Gospel Coalition, says this well-meaning drive to help is also easily exploited. Among evangelicals, feelings about human trafficking are often so intense that people are only interested in hearing, and sharing, stories about how inhumane and widespread it is. In Carter’s experience, his audience is particularly hostile to being told that a trafficking story being shared isn’t true. “If it’s a problem, it has to be a huge problem. If you try to put it into context, it’s seen as downplaying the problem,” he says.
Howerton believes it’s no accident that QAnon has taken hold among evangelicals now: they are facing tremendous cognitive dissonance. “I was raised evangelical Christian Republican. There is nothing that makes sense for Trump with any of the values that I was raised with,” she says. “There’s a part of me that thinks that this is a very elaborate false narrative to explain their continued loyalty to Trump.”
I’ve seen a lot of the hashtags and memes referenced in this article among conservative friends and family members over the last six months. Where four years ago most of these same voices were openly and loudly political (often for the first time since I had known them), most of them seem to have pivoted to conspiratorial thinking to justify why they MUST vote for Donald Trump.
There are several variables at play here. For one, mounting a policy based defense of Trump is something no serious commentator can do. Don’t misunderstand me, lots of propaganda outlets performatively repeat Trump’s unsubstantiated claims of having walked on water, but none are willing to stand his record up against what he promised or to contextualize them with trends that were established long before he took office. As I have written about extensively before, he failed to deliver almost every major platform promise he made in 2016. Hell, he barely delivered on the little stuff. Of the 69 unique planks of his policy platform, Trump has delivered an abysmal 13– in other words he has completed 19% of his agenda. No wonder the GOP didn’t bother to write a platform this year given that they never really got around to addressing the last one.
Trump can only credibly point to two major “wins”– judges, which were always going to be automatic once elected, and the tax cut, which is frankly Paul Ryan’s and comes from orthodox, establishment Republican politics. There is no great, big beautiful wall. No stemming of the immigrant tide. No crackdown on sanctuary cities. No repeal or replacement of Obamacare. No end to US troops being deployed abroad. No decrease in the federal deficit (in fact, he made it much larger). No balanced budget– Trump never tried and never came close to sending a balanced budget to Congress. Combating the opioid crisis? Nothing. Lowering the cost of college? Nope. Ending crony capitalism and corporate welfare? Hahaha. The Trump administration is the apex of crony capitalism. Nothing on term limits. No “Kate’s Law.” Not much of anything, really.
You don’t need to take my word for it. Former major Trump supporter Ann Coulter has been furious with him for years now because he never bothered to even try to accomplish any of the things that so excited his base and the parasites like Coulter who attached themselves to Trump.
All Trump supporters got from Trump was two Supreme Court justices who have failed to deliver the impossible goals of the conservative movement (overturning Roe and rolling back LGTBQ rights) and a tax cut that any Republican from 1980 to today would have passed with control of Congress. That is it.
Beyond that, evangelicals have been victims of weird “satanic” conspiracies and preoccupation on child sex trafficking for decades– I still vividly remember the fear of satanic influences in the Smurfs or the gateway to Satan that was Dungeons and Dragons (which is much more accurately described as a gateway to celibacy) growing up in a conservative evangelical church in the 1980s. Crusades against “secular” popular culture, be it positive depictions of “witch craft” in Harry Potter, sexualized lyrics and dancing in music (from Elvis on), violence in video games, to history teaching in public education are all promoted as examples of how secularism (and/or darker forces) try to influence our children and drive them away from the church. These well-meaning folks are easily preyed upon by vicious hucksters. The Righteous Gemstones almost underplays the parody of the snake-oil salesman ministries that have run rampant through the evangelical community since the 1970s (to say nothing of the tradition of traveling evangelists/hucksters that dates back to the earliest days of our nation). Afraid of the influence of music on your kids? Send them to my school that will punish them if we catch them dancing outside of an organized spiritual performance! Fear the influence of godless liberals indoctrinating your children with progressive views? You can buy my super Christian homeschooling program! Every scare comes with a miracle cure, at a low, low cost. QAnon is just the most blatantly political (and glaringly stupid) example of this phenomenon.
The conflation of QAnon and conservative Christianity comes at the intersection of failing to find a defensible position of Trump’s record and their community’s historical vulnerability to conspiracies about Satanic influences in political and popular culture. I call them Qhristians4Trump.
I know the Qhristians in my life to be genuinely decent people. Like the examples cited in the MIT piece, I was shocked and confused by their embrace of these nakedly stupid conspiracies. Prior to a few years ago, they were largely just folks who go to work, go to church, go to their kids sporting events, and hang out with family and friends. Most were not overtly political. More typically, they thought politics was largely disconnected from their life and it was all corrupt (a topic for another day).
They care about people– at least people they know. They believe their political positions are righteous and biblical. They oppose abortion. They oppose marriage equality, but will take pains to say it isn’t personal, just that marriage has a biblical definition. Nothing too far out of the conservative mainstream there. But over the last few years, they also spend a lot of time on social media describing a deep fear of sex trafficking, paying inordinate attention to “suspicious men” in vans outside Wal-Marts in rural Ohio or claiming the pandemic is distracting people from (or worse, enabling) the real danger: child sex rings. What happened here?
The piece from MIT outlines how conservative pastors think they lost these members of their flock. Much of it is self-flagellation focusing on their inability to connect or support these members during a time of need. My own experience with this is quite different. I would suggest that the conflation of conservative politics and conservative religion set up a spiritual division between those who were Christian first and those who were conservative first that was bound to fracture the church. Some pastors, like those quoted in the piece, are beginning to understand this and are trying to combat it. Others seem to be plowing ahead, promoting political narratives that make their flock ever more political (and hence potentially compromising the centrality of faith to their identity).
The idea that politics have become faith isn’t original. We know that as religious identity has become less central to Americans lives political identity has become more ossified and essential to how we view ourselves. For many spiritual leaders, it was ok to encourage your congregation to overlook Trump’s unseemly behavior, lack of faith, and ignorance of any theological understanding of the world in exchange for anti-abortion judges. Many went further. Prominent evangelical leaders claimed that his mean-spirited, pugilistic approach was preferable to having someone like Jesus in office.
This trend did not just materialize in 2016. The conservative evangelical movement has been trending towards being more of a political and economic body for decades. Jerry Falwell Jr, now former President of the leading evangelical university (Liberty) founded by his reverend father, had no theology training or spiritual leadership role. He was a businessman who ran his religious school as a profit generating machine. Falwell’s full-throated endorsement of Donald Trump, instead of openly evangelical candidates like Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio, was considered a pivotal moment in the 2016 GOP primary. That the evangelical movement had become deeply intertwined with economic success and political power was clear for all to see, provided you were willing to look for it.
To be clear, most Qhristians slipped into this rather innocently. They aren’t introspectively examining the problems with conflating faith and politics. Few people look suspiciously at things they inherently agree with. In my experience, they genuinely believe themselves to be defending their “way of life” against a hostile world of non-believers (including, and sometimes especially, liberal sects of Christianity). When they repost memes of Trump being guided by Jesus under the assertion that God has placed him in office for a reason they presume it is a positive reason and ask people to pray for his success (without any mention of what they want him to succeed at). They don’t question why they never feel the need to provide similar support for duly elected liberal politicians. After all, if God is on “our side” the other team must be in league with dark forces…
It does not take much to leap from “I support the GOP because they are pro-life” to “anyone who is pro-choice is an evil baby killer hell bent on making abortions legal and plentiful up to and sometimes past birth.” Especially in the age of social media, where people who have little skill or knowledge in formal logic, content knowledge of divisive topics, or a grasp on the policy making process all feel compelled to argue these flashpoint topics with friends and family (often in bad faith, though they are unaware of this concept and doing it because that is what the talking heads model for them on tv and the internet). The intensity of partisanship and the lack of gatekeepers online leads to grotesque caricatures that allow you to dismiss and even hate the team that opposes you. I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen a conservative Christian in my family respond to political disagreements with a liberal family member by posting a snowflake image, referencing liberal tears, or mocking how they triggered their opposition. I’ve personally had more than a handful of physical threats made on me– none of which I took seriously– from family members alone (not to mention hundreds of threats from anonymous folks on the internet). Team all of this with decades of consuming infotainment that promoted all sorts of unfounded political conspiracies (the Clintons are murderers!; is Obama the anti-Christ?; is Obama a Kenyan socialist?) and a religious history of viewing American secular and popular culture as insidiously trying to undermine your faith and turn your kids against you/God and it isn’t hard to predict that some ugly conspiracies might start to take hold.
If this sounds insane to people who live in liberal bubbles I’d ask you to curb your gleeful disdain and take a cold, hard look at your tribe. The blue team has a whole host of it’s own pathological blind spots. The conflation of the political and spiritual is also strong on the left, it just manifests itself differently. Spend 15 minutes on rose twitter and count how many times anyone who voted for the Iraq War is casually called a war criminal or where anyone on the left who isn’t an avowed socialist is referred to as a “neo-liberal shill” or “corporatist Dem.” Partisan extremism is not an exclusive phenomenon of the right– they are just much further ahead in the process.
The descent of many conservative Christians into the conspiracies and ugly worldview of QAnon is yet another canary in the coal mine for American political and religious culture. Both have been sick for sometime. Neither pivoted from the narratives or foci of earlier generations. This static state offers old solutions to new problems. I’ve written extensively about how overdue a realignment of our political coalitions is– especially on the right. With the collapse of Reagan era conservatism when the neo-cons who inherited the kingdom seemingly discredited the entire movement in the second half of the George W. Bush administration, all that was really left to hold the party together was the ugly husk of Nixon’s Southern Strategy, abortion, and guns. Clearly, the infighting on the left is also a sign that the old teams are no longer internally coherent.
Similarly, Christianity (conflated both internally and in larger American culture with conservative evangelicalism) is struggling to offer solutions to the problems of our new age. The prosperity gospel isn’t very convincing when your company moves your job overseas or gives it to a robot. The playbook for opposing civil rights and integration that was rerun on marriage equality is a proven loser, politically and morally. And the siren song of abortion opposition is losing strength as abortion rates decline and abortion laws are treated increasingly as settled by the courts. Conservative Christian politics offer no solutions to the crisis in healthcare costs and access, widening wealth gaps and employment opportunities, the opioid epidemic, immigration, public health, systemic racism, police violence. or environmental issues. Policy-making in a democracy must be fluid, shifting to meet the ever changes needs of the time. Trump broke the fossilized GOP by rhetorically offering a solution to the issues that really vexed Americans: himself. Conservative Christians have made a less compelling pivot: that guy will fix it. Is it surprising that when their leaders couldn’t articulate a plausible explanation of what was wrong and how policies shaped by their faith tradition could address them they went looking for spiritual justifications elsewhere?
Ultimately, the Qhristians have to take a hard look at themselves and what they are promoting. And not just the dumbest stuff. It is too low a bar to accept rejecting the idea that liberals and Hollywood elites are running child sex rings out of a pizza shop as reasonable reflection. Conservatism at large must reject the absurd conspiracy mongering it has allowed for decades on talk radio, Fox News, the internet, and in the pulpit. Winking and nodding at Glenn Beck asking if Obama is the anti-Christ (largely as a pivot to then discussing all the ways the conservative caricature of him sounds like the anti-Christ of Revelations) or “just asking questions” about Birtherism, the Seth Rich murder, or did Joe Scarborough murder a staffer is harmful. These and dozens more conspiracy theories tainted the discourse and primed the conservative movement to believe all sorts of outlandish things with out a shred of evidence. Democracy cannot survive when large swaths of the population live in a dystopian nightmare of their own imagination. We cannot debate policy, candidates, or the future if we are operating off completely different “fact” sets. How do you have a discussion when one side is saying affordable healthcare is our biggest social need and the other side is saying “our opponents are evil and want to take control of healthcare to kill us”? How do we move forward with 40% of the nation believing that a global pandemic is a hoax perpetuated to harm the re-election of Donald Trump or that Republican Governor Mike DeWine is a secret liberal authoritarian who is using the pandemic as cover to institute a permanent nanny state?
In 1858 Abraham Lincoln sent a warning to all Americans about the dangerous disconnect between those who believed the Constitution and God’s moral code demanded an end to racial chattel slavery and those who would die to defend their right to own other humans by saying “A house divided against itself, cannot stand.” Lincoln was rightly fatalistic about the future of the nation. His own election as President two years later would prove his fears were well founded. Our government could not endure as half slave and half free. So too it is with this moment. Our democracy cannot persist half believing in objective reality and half living in a post-modern relativistic hellscape. We will either become all one thing or all the other. Either the opponents of conspiracy theories will arrest the further spread of it, banishing back under the rocks they crawled out from under; or its advocates will push it forward, till it becomes the modus operandi for all Americans, left and right. Qhristians have a choice to make. There are two options:
1) They can continue down this path of insanity, sacrificing their morals and faith for the promise of immediate political power. This path threatens the future of their church and the very foundation of our democracy in exchange for tax cuts and grievance politics.
2) They can humble themselves and admit this was a mistaken path, rejecting the anger and vengeance that Q and Trump call on them to embrace. This path offers redemption and the promise of a brighter future at the cost of tax increases and several years of moderate Democratic policy.
It is not too late to back away from this disaster. You have 50 days to change your minds.