By Dr. James Emery White, Crosswalk.com
Photo Credit: ©Getty Images/Rick Loomis/Stringer
I have been quietly keeping an eye on QAnon for a while, including reading with great interest the recent in-depth article in The Atlantic on its dynamics. But it wasn’t until Katelyn Beaty’s reporting on its spread among Christians that I knew it was time to speak out. The title of her article was telling: “The alternative religion that’s coming to your church.”
So what is QAnon?
See if any of this sounds familiar: 5G radio waves are used for mind control; George Floyd’s murder is a hoax; Bill Gates is related to the devil; face masks can kill you; the germ theory isn’t real; there is a ring of pedophiles made up of deep state leaders.
This from Beaty’s reporting:
Conspiracy theories – grand narratives that seek to prove that powerful actors are secretly controlling events and institutions for evil purposes – are nothing new in the U.S. But since 2017, a sort of ur-conspiracy theory, QAnon, has coalesced in online forums and created millions of believers. “To look at QAnon is to see not just a conspiracy theory but the birth of a new religion,” wrote Adrienne LaFrance in The Atlantic in June.
Named after “Q,” who posts anonymously on the online bulletin board 4chan, QAnon alleges that President Donald Trump and military officials are working to expose a “deep state” pedophile ring with links to Hollywood, the media and the Democratic Party. Since its first mention some three years ago, the theory has drawn adherents looking for a clear way to explain recent disorienting global events.
Once the fascination of far-right commentators and their followers, QAnon is no longer fringe… it has gained credibility both on the web and in the offline world: In Georgia, a candidate for Congress has praised Q as “a mythical hero,” and at least five other congressional hopefuls from Illinois to Oregon have voiced support.
One scholar found a 71% increase in QAnon content on Twitter and a 651% increase on Facebook since March.
Please hear me. This is not about politics. It is not about whether you plan to vote for Trump or Biden. It is about the way a set of ideas and sentiments are infiltrating the minds of those who claim to follow Christ, even when those ideas do not reflect the mind of Christ.
Again, from Beaty’s article:
Jon Thorngate is the pastor at LifeBridge, a nondenominational church of about 300 in a Milwaukee suburb. In recent months, he said, his members have shared “Plandemic,” a half-hour film that presents COVID-19 as a moneymaking scheme by government officials and others, on Facebook. Members have also passed around a now-banned Breitbart video that promotes hydroxychloroquine as a cure for the virus.
Thorngate, one of the few pastors who would go on the record among those who called QAnon a real problem in their churches, said that only five to 10 members are actually posting the videos online. But in conversations with other members, he’s realized many more are open to conspiracy theories than those who post.
Thorngate attributes the phenomenon in part to the “death of expertise”—a distrust of authority figures that leads some Americans to undervalue long-established measures of competency and wisdom. Among some church members, he said, the attitude is, “I’m going to use church for the things I like, ignore it for the things I don’t and find my own truth.
“That part for us is concerning, that nothing feels authoritative right now.”
So why would Christians, of all people, fall prey to subjective truth in place of authoritative truth? Particularly when the Christian faith is rooted in the belief in authoritative truth and the wholesale rejection of subjective truth? Beaty observes that “suspicion of big government, questioning of scientific consensus (on evolution, for example) and a rejection of the morals of Hollywood and liberal elites took hold among millennial Christians, many of whom feel politically alienated and beat up by mainstream media. They are natural targets for QAnon.”
Ed Stetzer, executive director of the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College, has noted that distrust of mainstream news sources “can feed a penchant for conspiracy theories.” The distrust of mainstream news, and the rejection of science, has become so acute among some Christians that it has led to a plea from prominent Christian thinkers titled “A Christian Statement on Science for Pandemic Times.”
Of even deeper concern is how this is harming the witness of the church. Again, from Beaty:
Jared Stacy said the spread of conspiracy theories in his church is particularly affecting young members. The college and young adult pastor of Spotswood Baptist Church in Fredericksburg, Virginia, Stacy said some older members are sharing Facebook content that links the coronavirus to Jeffrey Epstein and secret pedophile rings.
He says his and other pastors’ job is to teach that conspiracy theories are not where Christians should find a basis for reality.
“My fear… is that Jesus would not be co-opted by conspiracy theories in a way that leads the next generation to throw Jesus out with the bathwater,” Stacy said, “that we’re not able to separate the narrative of taking back our country from Jesus’ kingdom narrative.”
Others are concerned the theories will become grounds for more mistrust. “Young people are exiting the church because they see their parents and mentors and pastors and Sunday school teachers spreading things that even at a young age they can see through,” said Jeb Barr, the senior pastor of First Baptist Church of Elm Mott outside Waco, Texas. He said conspiracy theories are “extremely widespread and getting worse” among his online church networks.
“Why would we listen to my friend Joe… who’s telling me about Jesus who also thinks that Communists are taking over America and operating a pedophile ring out of a pizza restaurant? … Why would we be believed?”
We all know that nobody shares a conspiracy theory. They only share what they believe to be the “truth.” Even further, when confronted, the “media cover-up” is used to dismiss anything that would discount the real “truth.”
But confront this we must. As Beaty rightly notes:
QAnon is more than a political ideology. It’s a spiritual worldview that co-opts many Christian-sounding ideas to promote verifiably false claims…
QAnon has features akin to syncretism—the practice of blending traditional Christian beliefs with other spiritual systems…. Q explicitly uses Bible verses to urge adherents to stand firm against evil elites. One charismatic church based in Indiana hosts two-hour Sunday services showing how Bible prophecies confirm Q’s messages. Its leaders tell the congregation to stop watching mainstream media (even conservative media) in favor of QAnon YouTube channels and the Qmap website.
And it’s having life-and-death effects: It’s hampering the work of anti-sex trafficking organizations. The FBI has linked it to violence and threats of violence. And its adherents are downplaying the threat of COVID and thus putting others’ lives at risk….
At a time when church leaders are having to host digital church and try to meet members’ needs virtually, the idea of adding “fight heresy” to their to-do list might sound exhausting. But a core calling of church leaders is to speak the truth in love. It’s not loving to allow impressionable people to be taken in by falsehood. Nor is it loving to allow them to spread falsehood and slander to others.
“Conspiracy theories thrive on a sort of cynicism that says, ‘We see a different reality that no one else sees,’” said Stacy. “Paul says to take every thought captive—addressing conspiracy theories is part of that work.”
Katelyn Beaty, “QAnon: The Alternative Religion That’s Coming to Your Church,” Religion News Service, August 17, 2020, read online.
Terry Mattingly, “Evangelicals Split on the Notion of ‘Fake News’ and QAnon,” Knox News, June 4, 2020, read online.
Ari Shapiro, “How QAnon Conspiracy Is Spreading in Christian Communities Across The U.S.,” NPR, August 21, 2020, read online.
Adrienne LaFrance, “The Prophecies of Q,” The Atlantic, June 2020 Issue, read online.
“A Christian Statement On Science for Pandemic Times,” BioLogos, view the statement.
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunct professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His newest book, Christianity for People Who Aren’t Christians: Uncommon Answers to Common Questions, is now available on Amazon or at your favorite bookseller. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church & Culture blog, visit ChurchAndCulture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.