June 16, 2021

The Apple Valley Community Church in Bedford, Virginia, recently advertised a documentary screening. “Wake up sleepy church!” read the headline on the leaflet. “Arise from your stupor. Open your bleary eyes. Enlighten your confused minds. EDUCATE YOURSELF!” The documentary’s title — Fall of the Cabal — was a clue to the documentary’s subject, as was the ominous warning that it was “not for the faint of heart.” But the giveaway was the giant “Q” on the advertisement.

Fall of the Cabal is go-to viewing for new recruits to QAnon: a three-hour introduction to the ABCs of the cultish movement that follows the 4chan posts of “Q” — an anonymous individual who claims to be a US government official with access to classified information, warns powerful elites are paedophiles running a global child sex trafficking operation and foretells a day of reckoning, “The Storm”, when Donald Trump will save the world from this perverted elite.

Apple Valley did not return my calls or respond to a request for comment, but according to one post on their Facebook page, the feedback from those who attended the film’s screening was “so positive they suggested we might present the material again”. This little church in rural Virginia may be an extreme case, but it is an expression of something widespread — and troubling. At some point in the last year or two, QAnon leapt from pixel to pew: out of the weird and dark corners of the internet and too close to the centre of American religious life for comfort. 

The recent Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) survey was the latest in a series of polls to find widespread support for the core tenets of QAnon among American evangelicals. A quarter of white and Hispanic evangelical Protestants agreed with Q’s central claim of a paedophilic cabal. Asked whether “there is a storm coming soon that will sweep away the elites in power and restore the rightful leaders”, 26% of white evangelical Protestants and 29% of Hispanic Protestants agreed there was.

Using a composite measure of responses to questions about the core tenets of QAnon beliefs, the researchers at PRRI characterise 22% of white evangelical Protestants and 21% of both Mormons and Hispanic Protestants as QAnon believers. For white mainline Protestants, white Catholics and black Protestants, the figure hovers around the national average (14%). For non-believers, the figure is 9%. (Unsurprisingly, given its quasi anti-Semitic message, QAnon attracts the support of just 2% of Jews.)

It might be tempting to dismiss these numbers as demographic coincidence. White evangelicals are overwhelmingly conservative and lean heavily Republican: they are bound to be overrepresented among the followers of a pro-Trump conspiracy theory.

But to do so would be to ignore the content of Q’s message. The story Q tells is a prophecy. The villains of the piece aren’t just paedophiles but Satan-worshipping paedophiles. Trump’s crusade against them is a spiritual battle that will end with a reckoning in which good triumphs over evil. “God wins,” Q frequently declaims; “The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing,” wrote Q in an early post. In other words, QAnon is designed within an unmistakably Christian moral framework, cut from a Biblical template and, whether cynically or earnestly, geared towards a Christian audience. And that makes it a Christian problem.

“I’m embarrassed by the silence of pastors across America on this issue,” says Benjamin Marsh, pastor of the First Alliance Church in Winston-Salem, North Carolina and one of the few clergymen to have offered criticism. “And I’m genuinely shocked at how little has been spoken.”

Rev Marsh believes that pastors have a special obligation to counter QAnon because “it has become a cultic practice. These people gather, they sing songs, they read Q. It divides families and divides congregations. Most pastors aren’t paying attention to it and that’s extremely naive.”

Derek Kubilus, who leads the Uniontown United Methodist Church in Uniontown, Ohio, says 6 January was the day he decided to do something to country the spread of QAnon. “My wife and I were really upset that day,” he says. “We saw people carrying crosses and wearing Q hats and shirts and flags, and I said, there has to be something I can do.”

Rev Kubilus launched a podcast, Cross Over Q, to take on what he calls “the most violent and dangerous Christian heresy to come along this century.” In the first episode, he says that fighting QAnon should be about “healing the sick and binding up the broken hearted among us” rather than calling people crazy. 

Kubilus, like everyone I spoke to about QAnon and the church, is tight-lipped when it comes to recounting first-hand experience of the conspiracy theory’s impact on his own congregation. “Their stories are their stories and I don’t have the right to tell them,” Kubilus says, but he thinks QAnon “infects almost every church”. His podcast, he says, is both an effort to “inoculate” Christians against the conspiracy theory and “help people care for those who are already infected”.

The question of what religious leaders should do about the problem is an uncomfortable one; more uncomfortable, still, is the question of why evangelical Christianity has proven such fertile soil in the first place. According to Marsh, American Christians, and evangelicals in particular, are “paying the price” for “becoming comfortable with some pretty bad theological falsehoods that weren’t central to the good news of Jesus.” Marsh identifies tolerance for “false prophesy” as the biggest problem, lamenting a tendency to “put up with a mountain of garbage if we can find a shred of truth”. 

Stir a healthy serving of false prophesy and eccentric preaching in with the growth of a Christian nationalism that sees America as a modern-day Israel, and you have a heady brew.

Declining church attendance is also part of the story: with fewer than half of the country now belonging to house of worship, Christian leaders have a looser grip on the spiritual lives of Americans than they once did. The denominations that have declined least tend to be congregationalist, meaning that individual churches aren’t subject to the discipline of the hierarchy, as with the Catholic Church or the traditional mainline Protestant churches.

This has created the ideal conditions for eccentric beliefs, among them the idea popularised by some charismatic preachers that Donald Trump was chosen by God. Paula White, a high-profile televangelist who delivered the invocation at Trump’s inauguration, compared his victory to Esther becoming queen of Persia in the Old Testament; Franklin Graham, the son of Billy, said that Trump’s 2016 victory was evidence that “God’s hand was at work”.

Jonathan Cahn, a liberal Jew from New Jersey turned charismatic evangelical Christian preacher, delivers a more explicitly millenarian prophesy, drawing parallels between Trump and the Bible and warning of approaching end times. Cahn is kooky but increasingly influential: he’s even preached at Mar-a-Lago.

These figures might not embrace QAnon, but according to Dr Daniel Hawk, a professor at Ashland Theological Seminary, “there is a common denominator, namely the idea that there is a spiritual battle, that Donald Trump has been anointed by God to bring defeat over whatever Satanic, demonic forces have gained access to the nation.” It’s not hard to see why, if you believe this, you might find QAnon appealing. 

The contagiousness of QAnon among white and Hispanic Protestants must be seen alongside the broader splits, and some might say crisis, in American evangelicalism. Last month, Russell Moore, a major evangelical figure and maybe the highest-profile evangelical critic of Trump, resigned as the president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, the policy wing of the Southern Baptist Convention. The SBC is the largest Protestant denomination in the United States and Moore quit after giving an account of racism and sexual assault cover ups within the group. (The SBC meets in Nashville this week for a convention that could prove to be a crossroads for the religious Right.)

After his resignation, Moore also voiced concern about the appeal of QAnon to fellow evangelicals, warning that it was “taking on all the characteristics of a cult, from authoritarian gurus… to predictions that don’t come true.” 

Predictions that don’t come true are part of the country’s religious heritage. “There’s always been a millenarian stream within American Christianity,” says Daniel Hawk. And they haven’t always been on the fringes. The Late, Great Planet Earth — a book by the evangelist Hal Lindsey that drew parallels between the Bible’s end-time prophesies and contemporary events and predicted the second coming of Christ sometime in the 1980s — sold more copies than any other in the 1970s. (Ever since, Lindsey has been publishing books with titles to the effect of This Time I Really Mean It or Okay, Seriously, This Is It.)

While Lindsey’s end-is-nigh prophesies were certainly more benign than the radicalising, destructive web of QAnon conspiracies, both reflect the paranoias of millions in their time: nuclear proliferation and World War Three in Linsey’s case, a decadent and unaccountable global elite and a swamp in need of draining in the case of QAnon.

Where will QAnon go next? The gap between Q and non-Q congregants could prove unbridgeable, if American clergymen take decisive action to expunge it from their churches, might it effectively evolve into its own religion, like Mormonism, only more conspiratorial and political? Or it could follow a similar trajectory to an eccentric and secretive movement like Scientology.

On his podcast, Kubilus says the QAnon hardcore see themselves as “soldiers who have become mired in an invisible war, taking to a digital battlefield and fighting a satanic force in the world… When you are caught up in that narrative, it’s just one hell of a drug.” Q, he argues, “injects transcendental meaning and purpose into the lives of regular folks every day by convincing people that they are central players in the war for the soul of America.”

Q’s adherents aren’t the only Americans suffering under that delusion. The supply side of the QAnon problem — the speed with which it has spread online and what “misinformation” censorship might be done to slow it — receives plenty of attention. But it’s the demand side that is more interesting and important. Here the challenge for America’s religious leaders is the same as for its secular ones: how to offer that purpose to those who are starved of it. QAnon isn’t just the product of bad information hygiene but a strange and dangerous symptom of a broader American crisis; a crackpot theory with particular appeal to American evangelicals but one inextricably linked to the drift of the whole country.