QAnon explained: The conspiracy theory spreading in Christian circles

Editor’s Note: Stay tuned for continued coverage on November 3.

“WWG1WGA,” “Pizzagate,” “The Great Awakening” – If any of these terms sound familiar to you, then chances are that you have heard about QAnon, a conspiracy theory that alleges a cabal of government and other elite institutions are involved in child trafficking, cannibalism, and world domination, among other claims.

Although Americans’ awareness of QAnon has increased since March to nearly half of U.S. adults, very few say they have heard a lot about it, according to a Pew Research Center survey conducted from Aug. 31 through Sept. 7, 2020. Among those who are aware of QAnon, 74% see it as bad for the country, in contrast to 20% of Americans who say it is a somewhat or a very good thing. Six percent of the subjects did not answer.

Daniel Bennett, associate professor of political science at John Brown University, explains the appeal of QAnon. “I think it is a conspiracy theory in the sense that it talks about things that people in power don’t want average people to know for the purpose of maintaining their positions in power,” he said. “One of the big elements of QAnon is that political elites are engaged in sex trafficking and child abduction, and how are they able to hide that? Well, because they are all elites and are trying to protect themselves.”

The movement started with a post by “Q” on 4chan, an online forum infamous for spreading misinformation and fostering hate speech. But Q’s message has now spread into the offline world, where its followers are moved to commit real-life crimes. For instance, on June 15, 2018, an Arizona resident pled guilty to a terrorism charge after blocking a bridge near the Hoover Dam with an armored vehicle. Given its link to several violent acts since 2018, the FBI identified fringe conspiracy theories such as QAnon as a domestic threat, according to a document dated May 30, 2019, obtained by Yahoo News.

But what started as a far-right fringe conspiracy online since Oct. 2017, has been seeping through the cracks of our mainstream political sphere in the past year. President Donald Trump has interacted with QAnon adherents by sharing posts on Twitter and publicly supporting pro-QAnon politicians like Marjorie Taylor Greene, a congressional candidate who won the Republican primary runoff in Georgia on Aug. 11.

“With this conspiracy theory, there are a lot of folks who are politically conservative and are behind it,” David Vila, professor of religion and philosophy at JBU, said. “It’s been connected to the support for President Trump, and if it gives conservatives a reason to support him, I think sometimes they will want to believe that the claims are true even if they might not have done the research.”

According to Pew Research, liberal democrats are most likely to have heard or read about QAnon (28%) compared to 18% of Republicans and GOP supporters. Although this movement garners more sympathizers with far-right ideologies, it is not a partisan issue. “We are now a divided nation with two major political parties and not many other options,” Vila said. “You are either for Trump or for Biden, democrat or republican, and that’s the kind of thought that’s always been a part of Christianity. People tend to see the fight against good and evil as binary opposites.”

As the conspiracy theory spreads further into social media feeds, it is simultaneously gaining attraction from Christian audiences, particularly from evangelicals. An article originally published on Religion News Service by reporter Katelyn Beaty refers to QAnon as “the alternative religion” that is increasingly dividing churches.

Josiah Wallace, associate professor of speech and theatre at JBU, points out the underlying religious tones in QAnon’s message. “This conspiracy theory is highly persuasive in terms of how they present the information,” he said. “It gives them the ability to no longer have any cognitive dissonance between scientific information and their Christian faith.”

However, the most concerning aspect of QAnon’s claims is its misuse of the Bible to appeal to evangelical Christians, according to an article published by Christianity Today. From quoting Scripture to sending cryptic messages such as, “Watch the water,” this movement depicts Trump as its messiah, the underdog whose personal mission is to defeat the cabal and usher in the “Great Awakening,” the new age of American greatness.

The dangers of conspiracy theories such as QAnon do not apply only to one political party or the other. QAnon’s message, which is rapidly spreading on social media despite efforts from Facebook and Twitter to ban its message, is not always easily avoided.

A study conducted in July 2020 found that QAnon has seen a 71% increase in Twitter content and a 651% increase on Facebook since March 2020. Furthermore, a poll by Morning Consult reported that 39% of respondents said sharing QAnon content online was a “major problem” while 28% labeled it a “minor problem.”

“I think the danger, especially for Christians, is that we are looking for answers in ways that don’t reflect the truth of Christ,” Bennett said. “That can be dangerous because it could be another idol of sorts to say, ‘This is what we are putting our hope in to explain the world.'”

Photo: Bailey McKenzie, The Threefold Advocate