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How QAnon uses religion to lure unsuspecting Christians

Parker Neff was scrolling through conservative posts on Facebook when he saw an unfamiliar hashtag: #WWG1WGA.

Recently retired after serving as a Southern Baptist pastor for more than 20 years, his time was free and curiosity piqued.

“I started looking into it online,” Neff said. “Doing some research.”

And with that, the 66-year-old retiree, and soon his wife, Sharon, fell down one of the internet’s most dangerous rabbit holes.

It didn’t take long for Neff to find the hashtag’s meaning. “Where We Go One We Go All” is one of several mottoes of QAnon, a collective of online conspiracists.

The pastor and his wife, who live in Arcola, Mississippi, began watching the vast collection of QAnon videos posted online by “researchers” who decipher the cryptic messages of “Q,” an anonymous online persona who claims to have access to classified military and intelligence operations.

Since its inception in 2017 QAnon has quickly metastasized, infiltrating American politics, internet culture and now – religion.

According to QAnon, President Donald Trump is secretly working to stop a child sex cabal run by Hollywood and political elites who will one day be revealed during an apocalyptic event known as The Storm.

During the pandemic, QAnon-related content has exploded online, growing nearly 175% on Facebook and nearly 63% on Twitter, according a British think tank.

Although QAnon’s conspiracy theories are baseless – they allege that a famous actor is a secret sex trafficker and a leading Democrat participated in Satanic rituals – the dangers the movement poses are very real.

The FBI has called QAnon a domestic terror threat and an internal FBI memo warned that “fringe conspiracy theories very likely motivate some domestic extremists, wholly or in part, to commit criminal and sometimes violent activity.” Facebook finally pledged to ban QAnon content earlier this month.

Still, some Christian conservatives are falling for QAnon’s unhinged conspiracies.

“Right now QAnon is still on the fringes of evangelicalism,” said Ed Stetzer, an evangelical pastor and dean at Wheaton College in Illinois who wrote a recent column warning Christians about QAnon. "But we have a pretty big fringe.

“Pastors need to be more aware of the danger and they need tools to address it,” he told CNN. “People are being misled by social media.”

Pastors who preach QAnon-aligned ideas

Some Christian pastors are actually leading their followers to QAnon, or at least introducing them to its dubious conspiracy theories.

To cite a few examples:

“If you are just learning about QAnon and The Great Awakening, this is the right spot for you,” reads the ministry’s website. Representatives from the ministry did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Paul Anleitner, an evangelical pastor in Minneapolis, said he’s seen worrying examples of conservative Christians preaching from QAnon’s bible: Pastors warning about the “Deep State,” congregants trading conspiracy theories during Bible studies, and, most concerning to him, unsuspecting Christians lured to QAnon through respected church leaders.

“I see this circulating through conservative and Charismatic churches and it breaks my heart,” said Anleitner, who spent time in Pentecostal churches, where he says QAnon’s influence is distressingly pervasive.

“It’s pulling families apart, pulling people away from the gospel and creating distrust among people searching for the truth.”

Earlier this year a young Christian friend of his recirculated QAnon ideas posted online by a national Christian leader, Anleitner said. (He declined to name the pastor on the record).

“I reached out to my friend and told him the stuff he posted came directly from QAnon,” said Anleitner. “He had no idea.”

And that, Christian leaders say, is a big part of the problem.

Some followers see QAnon messages as sacred texts

QAnon is complex, said Brian Friedberg, a researcher at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government who has studied the movement.

It churns out an almost endless stream of content, from memes to anti-Semitic tropes to Christian Scripture. From its anonymous message board, the dubious ideas circulate through social media, sometimes finding their way into the Twitter feed of Trump and his allies, who have repeatedly boosted QAnon accounts.

Q himself (or herself, or themselves for that matter – no one quite knows who Q is) has posted nearly 5,000 messages since 2017.

In QAnon, some observers see a mass delusion, others see a political cult, and still others claim to see the sprouts of a new faith.

According to the religious view of QAnon, Q is a postmodern prophet, “Q drops” (aka his messages) are sacred texts and Trump is a messianic figure who will conjure “The Storm,” an apocalyptic revelation exposing evildoers.

If QAnon is a new religion, it bears the birthmarks of our truth-deprived time: Born on an obscure internet image board, it spreads through social media, preaches a perverted form of populism and is amplified by a president who has demonstrated little regard for facts.

But in Mississippi, the Neffs said they see QAnon as a source of “behind the scenes” information – not as a religion.

“It’s kinda like checking Fox News or CNN,” – that is, a place to find the latest news, said Park Neff, who has a masters in divinity and a doctorate from New Orleans Baptist Seminary. “It just seemed to be good, solid conservative thought.”

Like her husband, Sharon Neff said she saw no contradictions between QAnon and Christianity. Instead, she saw important connections, as did many of her friends and fellow church members.

“What resonated with me is the idea of moving toward a global government,” she said, “and that actually goes along with the Christian belief about the End Times.”

QAnon’s ‘red pill’

In some ways, QAnon echoes the concerns of politically engaged, ultra-conservative evangelicals.

It interprets world events through the lens of Scripture or Q posts. It’s obsessed with a grand, apocalyptic reckoning that will separate good from evil, deeply distrusts the media and finds an unlikely champion – and hero – in President Trump.

Neff also said she likes that Q quotes Christian scripture extensively and claims to be exposing child trafficking, a problem that she said she and other Southern Baptist women have been fighting for years.

That’s no accident, say experts who have studied QAnon. The group intentionally uses emotionally fraught topics, like suffering children, to draw Christians to their movement.

“That’s a recruiting tactic,” said Travis View, a host of “QAnon Anonymous,” a podcast that seeks to explain the movement. “It’s their red pill.” (Travis View is a pseudonym he uses for safety. )

View compared it to a religion that proselytizes by offering potential converts seemingly mundane services before laying the hard sell on them.

“The ‘Save the Children’ messaging is very effective, because everyone wants to protect children.”

It’s also tailor-made for evangelicals, View said.

Lately, he added, QAnon has been holding “Save the Children” rallies, while carefully concealing its involvement.

The tactic has been effective, said Anleitner.

“People who start with ‘saving the children’ don’t stay there – and that’s the problem,” he said. “It’s like Alice in Wonderland. They follow the rabbit and enter a totally different framework for reality.”

Ready for the Great Awakening

Friedberg said he sees elements of his experience as a young evangelical in the QAnon movement: Its seamless blend of Christianity and nationalism, its promise of spiritual knowledge and the primacy of scripture, and, finally, the desire to evangelize to friends and family.

But Friedberg said he doesn’t see QAnon itself as a religion.

“This is an information operation that has gotten out of the direct control of whoever started it,” he said. It’s an operation, he added, that likely would not exist in a less polarized, confusing and frightening time.

Under somewhat similar strains, a group of 1840s Baptists called the Millerites predicted the Second Coming of Jesus.

When Jesus didn’t arrive, the Millerites were greatly disappointed, but they adjusted their apocalyptic timetables and soldiered on, eventually becoming the Seventh Day Adventist Church.

Travis View said he sees echoes of the Millerites in QAnon. Numerous QAnon “prophecies” have proven false. Hillary Clinton was not arrested in 2017, Republicans didn’t rout Democrats during the 2018 midterm elections and Trump has not imprisoned his political enemies at Guantanamo Bay.

These days, Q shies away from giving specific dates, View noted, suggesting a shift in tactics. Even so, believers attempt to explain away any contradictions between QAnon and reality, just as the Millerites did centuries ago.

Park Neff, the Baptist pastor, said the failed prophecies are all part of QAnon’s master plan.

“Some of it seems like deliberate misinformation to throw off the other side,” Neff said, “as should be apparent to anyone who watches the news. Sometimes he (Q) does it to rattle their cages, sometimes to keep them guessing. It seems to work.”

Meanwhile, Neff, like many interested in QAnon, looks forward to the Great Awakening. The pastor said it won’t be like the other Great Awakenings, the religious revivals that torched through early America.

This one, he said, will concern the state, not the church.

It will start when the prevailing evil in our government is finally revealed, he said, and end with Trump validated and all the bad people jailed on an island far, far away.

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Democracy isn’t on the GOP’s side. Why should they pretend to care about it?

Yes, the U.S. political and judicial systems were designed to protect the minority from the majority — but not to entrench minority rule across the country.

Last week, I became a citizen of the United States. The process was long and tedious — forms, fees, photos, biometrics and, as the final step, a naturalization interview. That last hurdle in particular showed how much the rhetoric about the democracy the U.S. shares with immigrants differs from how it’s practiced.

One of the reasons I was keen to become a citizen is because the United States is supposed to be based not on a race or a culture but on an idea: of popular sovereignty; of government of, by and for the people; of democracy. That was reflected in my naturalization interview, as I discussed on my show the next day, which involved a test of my knowledge of “civics,” of U.S. history and government. Every prospective citizen is expected to answer a minimum of six questions correctly, from a list of 100 provided in a booklet from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). Democracy is something of a running theme throughout the test. The opening section of the question booklet is titled “Principles of American Democracy.” Many of the questions refer to elections and the electoral process; question 55 asks: “What are two ways that Americans can participate in their democracy?”

Now that I’m done with the test, maybe I should mail my well-thumbed USCIS booklet to the office of Republican Sen. Mike Lee. The senior senator from Utah declared on Twitter the night before my citizenship test:

He followed up a few hours later:

Sorry — what? Sure, right-wing trolls on Twitter often invoke the “we’re a republic, not a democracy” talking point to try to deflect from calls for greater representation and political equality. But it is deeply depressing to witness a sitting U.S. senator engage in the same “cheap rhetorical sleight of hand,” to quote the political scientist Ed Burmila.


Of course, Lee doesn’t really believe the U.S. isn’t a democracy. “It’s time to stop delaying democracy; it’s time to stop hiding from the American people,” he declaimed on the Senate floor in 2015. Lee, as writer Jonathan Katz noted, was accusing Democrats of undermining the democratic process in a debate over funding for the Department of Homeland Security.

We shouldn’t be surprised by Lee’s entreaties though. In all three branches of federal government, minority rule is the new normal — so why should Republicans pretend to care about democracy and the popular support it requires? Why would they want to promote it?

President Donald Trump lost the popular vote in 2016. The previous Republican president, George W. Bush, came to office in 2000 after also losing the popular vote. At the presidential level, the GOP has won the popular vote only once since 1988. Yet they have controlled the White House for the majority of the 21st century. According to Cook Political Report’s David Wasserman, “In 2020, it’s possible Trump could win 5 million fewer votes than his opponent — and still win a second term.”

In Congress, the House of Representatives is far from representative thanks to partisan gerrymandering. In the wake of 2018’s blue wave, which saw Democrats retake control of the House, the overall result still “wasn’t as bad as it could have been for Republicans,” according to analysis by The Associated Press, which states that the GOP “won about 16 more U.S. House seats than would have been expected based on their average share of the vote in congressional districts across the country.”

Across the Capitol, the Senate has always been an anti-majoritarian institution but never more so than today. Based as it is on states regardless of size, “the Republican Senate ‘majority,’” according to Vox’s Ian Millhiser, currently “represents 15 million fewer people than the Democratic ‘minority.’”

And on Oct. 12, the Senate Judiciary Committee launched hearings to confirm Amy Coney Barrett, Trump’s third Supreme Court nominee. If confirmed, Barrett will join Chief Justice John Roberts, Samuel Alito, Neil Gorusch, and Brett Kavanaugh in being nominated by a president who became president despite losing the popular vote. A minority of voters will have led to a majority on the highest court in the land in lifetime posts.

The problem remains the same at the state level. In five states in 2017 and 2018 — Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Wisconsin — “Democratic candidates for state house received a majority of the statewide popular vote,” according to a study by the USC Schwarzenegger Institute, but “the Republican Party won more seats than Democrats,” thereby retaining their majorities. In Wisconsin, Republicans won 45 percent of the vote but gained a whopping 65 percent of the seats in the state Legislature.

How is this fair? How is it small-d democratic or, for that matter, small-r republican? To those who abuse history to defend such grossly inequitable outcomes with the tired trope of “We’re a republic, not a democracy,” it is worth considering the definition of a “republic” offered by Founding Father James Madison. In Federalist No. 10, Madison defined a republic as “the delegation of the government…to a small number of citizens elected by the rest.” The “rest,” however, have since become perpetually stymied even as their overall numbers have grown through universal suffrage. Yes, the U.S. political and judicial systems were designed to protect the minority from the majority — but not to entrench minority rule across the United States. None of the founders would have recognized a system that regularly denies a majority of voting citizens both political representation and the power to pass laws.

Those of us who are new U.S. citizens understand this, perhaps, better than most. I’m reminded of the third question in my test booklet: “The idea of self-government is in the first three words of the Constitution. What are these words?”

Answer: “We the People.”

“A Minority of People” would be marked incorrect.

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How far reaching is QAnon? It’s big and it has tormented people like this California State Senator with death threats because he is gay, and supports legislation they do not agree with.

What happened to me was a perfect QAnon storm: I’m a progressive, gay, Jewish Democrat working to end discrimination against L.G.B.T.Q. people. I’m just the right target for an internet cult obsessed with pinning pedophilia and child trafficking on progressives, gays, Jews and Democrats. As tens of thousands of slanderous and hate-filled comments about me proliferated on Facebook and Twitter, the companies did little to stop them.

How did I become a QAnon target? Last year, I introduced Senate Bill 145 in the California State Senate to end discrimination against L.G.B.T.Q. young people on California’s sex offender registry. California law treated “gay” sex — oral and anal — much more harshly than it treated vaginal sex, allowing straight young people to stay off the registry while forcing L.G.B.T.Q. young people onto it. This discriminatory distinction existed because when California created its sex offender registry in 1947, gay sex was illegal and anti-sodomy laws were still on the books. Even though these anti-sodomy laws were overturned in the 1970s, part of the sex offender registry law was never updated and was still destroying the lives of L.G.B.T.Q. young people.

If a 17-year-old and 19-year-old of the same gender had consensual oral or anal sex and the younger party’s parents made the decision to press charges for homophobic reasons, a judge would have no choice but to put the older teenager on the sex offender registry. But if a straight couple had vaginal intercourse, the judge would have discretion regarding whether or not the 19-year-old belonged on the registry.

This bill simply provided that all forms of sex should be treated the same way. It was supported by a broad coalition of law enforcement, civil rights and sexual assault survivor groups, and was signed into law last month.

But because SB 145 dealt with the sex offender registry, QAnon supporters latched on and began posting wildly inaccurate statements about it, including that it legalized sex with children. I woke up one morning in August to find that I had hundreds of messages from people I’d never met, with names like NoMaskMama29. They used hashtags I’d never encountered and anti-gay taunts I hadn’t heard in decades. We had to tell our interns to stop answering the phones because we were getting death threats by the minute.

QAnon is gaining followers because people are feeling hopeless, anxious and mistrustful of traditional institutions. The middle class has been shrinking for decades. Covid-19 has made Americans’ suffering even worse, and everyone’s stuck at home, clicking refresh on their devices. People are looking for something — or someone — to blame. Many want a good-versus-evil cause to which they can attach themselves. QAnon has smartly made child trafficking and pedophilia its “cause.” After all, who doesn’t want to #SaveTheChildren? Sharing this outrage on social media has become a release for so many.

The QAnon conspiracy theory is that a cabal of Satan-worshipping pedophiles, mostly Democrats, are operating a global sex-trafficking ring, and that President Trump is secretly fighting to dismantle it. The baseless idea continues to gain steam, and President Trump has refused to disavow it. Political candidates who’ve embraced the theory may be elected to public office in two weeks.

QAnon followers are also targeting incumbent lawmakers with vicious online attacks and death threats. California State Senator Scott Wiener is one of those lawmakers. He’s a Democrat who represents San Francisco. He just wrote an op-ed in the New York Times headlined “What I Learned When QAnon Came for Me.”

In the op-ed, he says what happened to him was a “perfect QAnon storm.” He explains to Press Play that this year, he authored a bill that passed, ending significant discrimination against LGBTQ young people on the sex offender registry.

“All we were doing was saying, ‘Let’s treat everyone exactly the same way that straight kids are already treated.’ QAnon latched onto this legislation. And people started to spread misinformation that we were somehow ‘legalizing pedophilia.’ That was absolutely false.

He says on social media, he received about 1000 death threats from QAnon followers and tens of thousands of comments calling him a pedophile and other negative things. Wiener explains that the attacks were most intense between mid August to mid September, and he reported them to police.

He says, “People like Donald Trump Jr. and Ted Cruz and Rush Limbaugh and others amplified this slander. …. It really sends a loud signal to elected officials that if you dare to try to do the right thing, you might get attacked.”

Wiener’s staff were affected too. “At one point, we had to tell our interns to stop answering the phones because people were saying just horrific things.”

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This will be hard if not impossible…

Bloomberg Opinion) – Less than two weeks from Election Day, most talk of a political “bloodbath” remains metaphorical. A 59-year-old man was arrested in Wichita, Kansas, last week after threatening to slit the throat of the mayor, who led the city’s effort to pass a mask mandate. The week before in Michigan, 13 men were arrested on charges of conspiring to kidnap their state’s governor and “try”

Both plots, while ghastly, made headlines because they are atypical. The warped worldview that drives such plans, however, is growing alarmingly commonplace. According to a Yahoo News/YouGov poll, half of Trump supporters claim to believe in the mad ravings of the group that calls itself QAnon. Attacking the roots of propaganda that feed such paranoia should be one of most urgent tasks of a Joe Biden presidency.

The asymmetry of the two major parties is driven in part by information asymmetries that feed extremism. The decades-long project of Fox News and the conservative movement to destroy shared truth has paved the way. Regular imbibers of Fox News, according to a new survey from the Public Religion Research Institute, occupy a climate more extreme than other Republicans, who tend to have more varied and less dishonest information sources.

As insidious as Fox is, it appears almost benign compared with other feeders of fanaticism around Trump. The conspiracy theories of QAnon are not a departure from Trumpism; they are a subsidiary of it. Devotion to Trump requires not only defying the facts revealed by journalism, history, science and lived experience. It requires disbelieving the literally dozens of former Trump loyalists who openly dispute MAGA fantasies and see the president as childish, solipsistic, vindictive and uninterested in, or incapable of, doing his job. Meanwhile, Trump’s baseless accusations against others routinely turn to dust.

Some Trump supporters willfully ignore these realities. Others don’t care or perversely admire his corruption and incompetence. Both mindsets will persist even if Trump is removed from office in January.

Men like Donald Trump don’t prosper in a healthy political culture. The emergence of a reality-based conservative information sphere — the Bulwark is a new example — is a necessary but insufficient development. The alienation of the MAGA base from realistic national narratives will continue to play out in criminal plots, pizza obsessions and dangerously unhinged right-wing politics that enjoys the imprimatur of leading Republicans. The U.S. won’t return to anything like political health so long as tens of millions live in a dystopian triangle bounded by MAGA, Facebook and Fox.

Experts call for more aggressive actions by the news media and social media companies to combat disinformation. Both have improved upon their abysmal 2016 performance, but it’s not enough.

Even amid acute polarization, the most effective alternative to mass disinformation may be the White House. Trump has deployed it to spread countless lies. But his success proves that no media source can compete with the White House in establishing the flow and parameters of information. Even those who recognize the Trump administration’s falsehoods and the damage they have done to government credibility still bend to its gravity.

There are limits, of course. All sorts of calumny spread through right-wing media when Barack Obama was president. Moreover, there is little evidence that Republican politicians not named Mitt Romney will denounce propaganda — including Russian-sourced disinformation — if they think it provides a partisan advantage.

Yet Obama largely refrained from directly attacking disinformation aimed at undermining his presidency. That may or may not have been a partisan mistake. But beyond partisan self-interest, the cost of his administration’s reticence was high. With a more concerted effort, the presidency has the power to yoke the misinformed more closely to fact, if only by degrees.

No doubt the most unhinged, such as the Michigan conspirators, would be undeterred by pronouncements from a Biden White House. To the MAGA cohort, a Biden presidency would represent an alternate reality that bears no resemblance to the magic kingdom in which they prefer to reside.

Still, the assault must be made. Breaking the hold of this collective delusion is a national imperative. If there is one thing America has learned in 2020, it is that defeating a virus — whether biological or informational — requires an honest and engaged president.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Francis Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg Opinion. He was executive editor of the Week. He was previously a writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.

From former Supreme Court Associate Justice, John Paul Stevens.

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