What just happened?

Last week, an article in The Atlantic brought renewed attention to the political cult known as QAnon. As Adrienne LaFrance writes, “To look at QAnon is to see not just a conspiracy theory but the birth of a new religion.”

About three-quarters of U.S. adults (76 percent) say they have heard or read nothing at all about QAnon. But while they may not know the name, they have likely seen QAnon propaganda on social media (President Trump has frequently retweeted QAnon-related accounts on Twitter, and some parenting and lifestyle “influencers” promote the views on Instagram, YouTube, and Facebook). Although it’s still on the fringe, Christians should be aware of the threat this political cult poses to the global church.

What is QAnon?

QAnon is the name for both the family of fringe conspiracy theories promoted by the anonymous online figure “Q” or “Q Clearance Patriot” and also the community of supporters who promote and advocate the theories.

It started on October 28, 2017, when a person identifying themselves as “Q Clearance Patriot” first appeared on a board of 4Chan (“Politically Incorrect” or /pol/) known for intentionally spreading fake news and propaganda for the “lulz” (i.e., amusement of internet trolls). The message thread was titled “Calm Before the Storm,” an apparent reference to a gathering of U.S. military leaders that President Trump referred to as “the calm before the storm.” The first message said:

HRC [Hillary Rodham Clinton] extradition already in motion effective yesterday with several countries in case of cross border run. Passport approved to be flagged effective 10/30 @ 12:01am. Expect massive riots organized in defiance and others fleeing the US to occur. US M’s will conduct the operation while NG activated. Proof check: Locate a NG member and ask if activated for duty 10/30 across most major cities.

A second message posted a few hours later read:

HRC detained, not arrested (yet).
Where is Huma? Follow Huma.
This has nothing to do w/ Russia (yet).
Why does Potus surround himself w/ generals?
What is military intelligence?
Why go around the 3 letter agencies?
What Supreme Court case allows for the use of MI v Congressional assembled and approved agencies?
Who has ultimate authority over our branches of military w\o approval conditions unless 90+ in wartime conditions?
What is the military code?
Where is AW being held? Why?
POTUS will not go on tv to address nation.
POTUS must isolate himself to prevent negative optics.
POTUS knew removing criminal rogue elements as a first step was essential to free and pass legislation.
Who has access to everything classified?
Do you believe HRC, Soros, Obama etc have more power than Trump? Fantasy.
Whoever controls the office of the Presidecy [sic] controls this great land.
They never believed for a moment they (Democrats and Republicans) would lose control.
This is not a R v D battle.
Why did Soros donate all his money recently?
Why would he place all his funds in a RC?
Mockingbird 10.30.17
God bless fellow Patriots.

Then on November 1, 2017, Q wrote:

My fellow Americans, over the course of the next several days you will undoubtedly realize that we are taking back our great country (the land of the free) from the evil tyrants that wish to do us harm and destroy the last remaining refuge of shining light. On POTUS’ order, we have initiated certain fail-safes that shall safeguard the public from the primary fallout which is slated to occur 11.3 upon the arrest announcement of Mr. Podesta (actionable 11.4). … We will be initiating the Emergency Broadcast System (EMS) during this time in an effort to provide a direct message (avoiding the fake news) to all citizens. Organizations and/or people that wish to do us harm during this time will be met with swift fury – certain laws have been pre-lifted to provide our great military the necessary authority to handle and conduct these operations (at home and abroad).

Q would later claim to be a government agent with access to top-secret information who was working to assist President Trump in a mission to take down the so-called “deep state” (i.e., a cabal of government leaders believed to be involved in the secret manipulation or control of government policy).

Rather than share this information publicly and in a verifiable form, Q chooses to share what the community calls “breadcrumbs”—vague, mostly incoherent posts that are only comprehensible to those who frequent internet message boards (while it started on 4chan, it was later moved to 8chan, a site banned by Google for publishing “suspected child abuse content”). When the posts were moved to the more popular online forum Reddit, QAnon was able to tap into a broader group of conspiracy theorists. This helped it to spread to Facebook, YouTube, and other mainstreams sites, and allowed the promoters of the conspiracy to monetize their propaganda through advertising, soliciting donations, and selling Q-related products.

Who is Q?

The person behind the “Q” posts—known as “Q Clearance Patriot”—remains anonymous. While initial posts by Q appear to be an obvious attempt to mock the beliefs of some Trump supporters (they seem to have been written in the typical style of a 4Chan troll), many QAnon supporters think Q is a high-ranking military official, John F. Kennedy Jr. (who, they claim, faked his own death), or even Donald Trump.

NBC News has provided circumstantial evidence that Q is a QAnon promoter named Coleman Rogers, though Rogers has publicly denied that he is the author of the “Q” posts.

What do followers of QAnon believe?

The core of the QAnon theory is known as #TheStorm. This is a claim built around a vague comment made by President Trump on October 5, 2017.

“Maybe it’s the calm before the storm,” Trump said to reporters. “Could be. The calm before the storm. We have the world’s great military people in this room, I will tell you that. And we’re going to have a great evening. Thank you all for coming.” A reporter requested clarification about what Trump said: “What storm, Mr. President?” “You’ll find out,” the president said. “Thank you, everybody.”

Since then the coming “storm” has been connected to everything from secret Democrat pedophilia rings to Robert Mueller’s investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election.

For example, according to QAnon, Mueller was not really investigating members of the Trump administration. Instead, the special counsel was working with President Trump on indictments to arrest “many high level officials.” As Q Clearance Patriot wrote:

Even an Atheist knows and must be intelligent enough to know, that Satan worshipers are real, Cults are real and ‘True Evil’ exists. Disinformation is also real. It’s the job of the media and the entertainment industry to keep the public saturated with stimulus designed to keep us blind and distracted. This is where most people ‘tune out’ because it’s too hard for them to swallow. They don’t want to believe that there are people in this world buying children to rape and kill them as sacrifices. It’s tough to stomach but who are we if let this continue, who are we if we choose to turn a blind eye. Evil exists, and it exists at the highest level of the United States government. Don’t be naive and think ‘it can’t happen here’ because I assure you that it is.

The level of importance of this operation equates to a ‘Good vs Evil’ battle that transcends politics. This is a ‘Global Evil’ that attempted to takeover America. Many in our government actively worship Satan, Moloch/Molech and participate Pedophilia, Spirit Cooking, etc. Most Americans are afraid to look this Truth in the eye but True Evil does exist regardless of your religious views. This is not a joke and most definitely not a game. Thousands of Pedophiles and Child Traffickers have been arrested since Trump was sworn in. They are all under heavy investigation, including their funds and their affiliations.

Such arrests didn’t occur that November or in the three years since that post. But as with most other conspiracy theories, QAnon predictions that fail to come true (and none of their predictions have come true) are not seen as disconfirming or even reason for skepticism. Instead, failed predications are ignored or modified in favor of different, though equally absurd theories.

For instance, when the COVID-19 pandemic struck, some QAnon-supporting Christians originally thought it was a cover for the Trump administration’s secret plan to arrest deep state agents. But then the movement changed narratives and began to argue that it was either a bioweapon created by the Chinese or that the virus was spread by 5G cellular communications technology.

What is a political cult?

While cults are often considered religious phenomena, they can also be political. What defines a cult is often debated, but they tend to share certain traits. In 1981, the psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton wrote an influential article on “Cult Formation.” Lifton identified three characteristics associated with cults:

1. A charismatic leader, who increasingly becomes an object of worship as the general principles that may have originally sustained the group lose power. That is a living leader, who has no meaningful accountability and becomes the single most defining element of the group and its source of power and authority.

2. A process [of indoctrination or education that involves] coercive persuasion or thought reform. For example, members of the group engaging in behavior that is not in their own best interest but promotes the interest of the group and its leader.

3. Economic, sexual, and other exploitation of group members by the leader and the ruling coterie.

Lifton also identifies several other traits of cults: milieu control (the control of all communication within a given environment), mystical manipulation (turning the member into a pawn who will spread the message and carry out actions for the group), and dispensing of existence (i.e., those who have not seen the light and embraced the truth are wedded to evil, tainted, and therefore in some sense, usually metaphorical, lack the right to exist).

Jeremy E. Sherman also notes, “Cults are not defined by what their members believe but by how they enable members to translate their beliefs into a source of permanent self-affirmation, self-protection, and self-aggrandizement, sacrificing all else to maintain their membership in something that keeps their encouragement-to-discouragement ratio forever high.”

A prime example of an American political cult is the movement led by the late Lyndon LaRouche. Other political cults, such as the Church of Jesus Christ Christian (Aryan Nations) and other groups in the Christian Identity movement, combine both political and also religious elements. While QAnon has primarily been a political cult, there is evidence that offshoots are morphing into full-fledged religious cults.

For instance, Marc-André Argentino recently highlighted a “faction within the movement has been interpreting the Bible through QAnon conspiracies” and “QAnon conspiracy theories serve as a lens to interpret the Bible itself.” Although that particular group is relatively small group of neo-charismatic home churches, it is not uncommon to see QAnon-supporting Christians on social media interpret Q’s predictions as fulfillment of eschatological prophecy.

What is dangerous about QAnon?

Last year, for the first time, the FBI identified fringe conspiracy theories—and specifically QAnon—as a domestic terrorist threat. An internal intelligence bulletin of the agency observed, “The FBI assesses these conspiracy theories very likely will emerge, spread, and evolve in the modern information marketplace, occasionally driving both groups and individual extremists to carry out criminal or violent acts.”

While most are presumably peaceful, some QAnon followers have allegedly been involved in terroristic threats against Trump and his family, an arson that destroyed 23,000 acres in California, and armed standoffs with law enforcement. The conspiracy theory has also spread to Europe with a QAnon-inspired mass murder in Germanyarson targeting cell towers, and attacks on telecom workers in Belgium, Cyprus, Ireland, and the Netherlands.

How is QAnon connected to the 1980s-era Satanic ritual abuse panic?

In February, Tobias R. murdered 10 people in the city of Hanau, Germany. In his manifesto he said that a sex cult was flourishing at underground military bases in the United States. “In some of them, they worship the devil himself,” he wrote. “They abuse, torture and kill little children.”

In many ways, the QAnon phenomenon is a revival of the Satanic ritual abuse (SRA) panic that originated in the United States in the 1980s. At the core of SRA was the belief that a global network of the wealthy and powerful elite was kidnapping and breeding children for the purposes of pornography, sex trafficking, and Satanic ritual sacrifice. SRA was largely abandoned by the early 1990s because the allegations about SRA were unsubstantiated. Promoters of SRA (like QAnon advocates today) were accused of allowing an unsupported theory to distract from and downplay real cases of child sexual abuse.

The long-term effect of SRA was the destruction of families and reputations, and a discrediting of those (such as Christians) who believe in the reality of the demonic.

The anxieties about society that allowed SRA to flourish are the same that underlie the QAnon phenomenon. In his 1993 book, Satanic Panic: The Creation of a Contemporary Legend, Jeffrey S. Victor explained,

Satanic cult rumors are symptoms of anxieties deeper than fantasy worries about a secret, conspiratorial kidnappers and murderers. These rumors are collaborative messages in metaphorical form, which speak of a moral crisis. That moral crisis, as people perceive it, involves a loss of faith in the moral order of American society, a perception of the rapid decline in traditional moral values. People are saying, in essence, that “our world is falling apart, because all things good and decent are under attack by evil forces beyond our control.”

Couldn’t QAnon’s claims be true?

A common defense of conspiracy theories is that they “could possibly be true.” But most people use the term to refer to theories that have either already been debunked (e.g., flat earth theory) or that have no reasonable evidence to support their claims.

The issue with conspiracy theories is not with the possibility that they could be true, but with the lack of supporting data. As with many other conspiracy theories, QAnon takes a plausible scenario—such as sex trafficking by the wealthy elite—and distorts it until it becomes inconceivable.

For example, the financier Jeffrey Epstein was convicted in 2008 of sexual offenses with a 14-year-old girl, and arrested again in July 2019 on charges of sex trafficking and conspiracy to engage in sex trafficking of minors. Epstein was friends with numerous powerful elites, including Bill Clinton, Donald Trump, and Queen Elizabeth’s son Prince Andrew. In 2002, at the age of 56, Trump said, “I’ve known Jeff for 15 years. Terrific guy. He’s a lot of fun to be with. It is even said that he likes beautiful women as much as I do, and many of them are on the younger side.” The New York Times columnist James B. Stewart said that in an on background interview, Epstein “claimed to know a great deal about [rich and powerful] people, some of it potentially damaging or embarrassing, including details about their supposed sexual proclivities and recreational drug use.”

To verify such claims, though, would require fact-based investigation, which can be both timely and expensive. Since most people have neither the ability nor dedication to find the truth of such claims, they resort to the much easier method of merely repeating the unverified claims of an anonymous source on discredited message board.

And as with most other conspiracy theories, QAnon dismisses contradictory evidence that would require abandoning the theory. That’s because the QAnon movement is less interested in protecting children than they are in making outrageous and slanderous claims (such as that celebrities like actor Tom Hanks were arrested for pedophilia) against those they perceive as political enemies. Instead of searching for the truth, they engage in misdirection that draws attention away from actual and substantiated cases of child sex trafficking.

Why should Christians care about this political cult?

Christians should care about QAnon because it’s a satanic movement infiltrating our churches.

Although the movement is still fringe, it is likely that someone in your church or social media circles has either already bought into the conspiracy or thinks it’s plausible and worth exploring. We should care because many believers will or are being swayed by the demonic influences of this movement.

The QAnon movement frequently engages in slander, which James calls demonic behavior (James 3:15–16). The QAnon movement often traffics in lies, which Jesus says are associated with Satan. The QAnon movement repeatedly sides with demonically inspired falsehoods that divide professed Christians from faithful believers. And the QAnon movement has a tendency to call evil that which is good, and good that which is evil, and to put darkness for light, and light for darkness (Isa. 5:20). As a movement of Satan, QAnon is incompatible with Christianity.

Rather than scoff because it’s on the fringe, we should work to guard those who would fall for such deceptions. And rather than disdain those who have become enamored with these lies, we should plead with them to return to the faith. It is neither too early nor too late for Christians to launch a counterattack on the demonic influence of QAnon.

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