He doesn’t know much about the QAnon conspiracy theory, President Trump told a reporter this month. But “I understand they like me very much, which I appreciate,” he added. “I have heard that it is gaining in popularity, and from what I hear, these are people … that love our country.”
The reporter asked a follow-up: “At the crux of this theory is this belief that you are secretly saving the world from this cult of pedophiles and cannibals. Does that sound like … ” She trailed off, apparently at a loss as to where to go from there. “Like something you are behind?”
“Well, I haven’t heard that,” Trump answered, “but is that supposed to be a bad thing?”
This isn’t the first time Trump has interacted with QAnon. He has shared posts from QAnon Twitter accounts, and he greeted the primary victory of a pro-QAnon House candidate with enthusiasm. However, this explicit endorsement of the theory’s believers, if not quite the theory itself, is new territory for Trump. It will bring QAnon further into the political mainstream and make this cultic movement a greater threat to the American church.
If you’re among the majority of Americans unfamiliar with QAnon, a pause for definition may be in order. QAnon is a conspiracy theory that claims that a secret cabal in government, the media, and other influential institutions is engaged in child sex trafficking, cannibalism of a sort, and the usual conspiracist bugbear of world domination and human sacrifice. One sub-theory in the movement alleges that there’s footage of Hillary Clinton and her aide “ripping off a child’s face and wearing it as a mask before drinking the child’s blood in a Satanic ritual sacrifice.”
The QAnon movement began when an anonymous poster called Q took to the 4chan online forum—ironically, better known for its implication in child pornography and other foul dregs of the Internet—to predict Clinton would be arrested and massive riots would break out nationwide on October 30, 2017.
That day came and went, and nothing Q forecast came to pass. But here’s the genius of QAnon: For those already convinced, it’s unfalsifiable. According to Travis View, who researches conspiracy theories, “Q will say something very vague, like, ‘Watch the water,’ [and] because water covers most of the planet … there’s going to be a news event eventually that involves Trump and water. And so the QAnon community will look at that and will say, ‘Look, Trump drank a glass of water on camera. Q said, “Watch the water.” That means that Q predicted that event’—which, of course, is nonsense.”
When Q prophecies (or “drops,” as they’re called) don’t pan out, as with the initial Clinton arrest story, adherents simply conclude the cabal interfered.
The cabal is QAnon’s version of the Fall—its explanation for what’s wrong with our world. Q is the movement’s John the Baptist. Drops are its Scripture. And Trump is its messiah, ostensibly working at great personal cost to defeat the cabal and usher in a new age of American greatness.
That religious language isn’t only metaphorical. Among QAnon’s most troubling aspects are its use of the language and style of evangelical Christianity, its misuse of the Bible to disguise its deception, and its increasing function as a syncretic cult of semi-Christian heresy.
A pro-Q politician in Oregon described her involvement by sharing that some “people think that I follow Q like I follow Jesus,” a blasphemous characterization she left unchallenged. That’s unsurprising, for QAnon fashions itself as a “Christian” movement. Q drops often quote Scripture—as even the devil does (see Matt. 4:10)—a tactic that adherents have said helped convince them the theory was worth their time.
The way ardent Q supporters study drops for hidden truths (and also resonance with headlines) resembles nothing so much as evangelical eschatological obsessions in the vein of The Late, Great Planet Earth. There’s even a “church” of QAnon, in which congregants meet for services, pray, take communion, and use incoherent, anonymous posts from filthy online forums to guide their understanding of God’s Word.
QAnon may not be an error to which CT readers are prone. But what I find deeply worrisome about this movement is how insidious it has become. The more Pentecostal moments of my upbringing didn’t stick well enough to make me confident in diagnoses of demonic activity (as opposed to ordinary human evil), but QAnon sure seems devilish. It deliberately preys on well-intended concern about the very real issue of sex trafficking. Q followers glom onto anti-trafficking hashtags, sharing content that casual viewers may not realize mixes truth with malignant lies.
These strategies to infiltrate more normal parts of the internet are working, especially in evangelical and fundamentalist Christian contexts. As former CT editor Katelyn Beaty recently reported, pastors say QAnon “is on the rise in their flocks. It is taking on the power of a new religion that’s dividing churches and hurting Christian witness” among younger generations. Some pastors Beaty spoke with wouldn’t even go on record to discuss Q’s sway among their congregants.
That sway isn’t surprising, because pastors are at a grave discipleship disadvantage here. “A pastor may preach a wonderful 30-minute sermon that is exegetically sound, theologically rich, and has important applicability to the listener's life, but if that congregant goes home and consumes hours of [QAnon] stuff on YouTube every week, I can tell you what the outcome will be,” explained Paul Anleitner, a pastor in the Twin Cities.
One reason Q appeals to Christians, Anleitner argues, is it can feel like a way to live out Jesus’s instruction to “be shrewd as serpents and innocent as doves” (Matt. 10:16, NASB). The problem, he says, “for followers of QAnon who are Christians is that they actually aren’t being shrewd enough.” QAnon is predatory drivel that undermines the authority of Scripture and pilfers trust we owe only to Christ. American Christians have a responsibility to learn to identify it—and flee.
Bonnie Kristian is a columnist at Christianity Today, a contributing editor at The Week, a fellow at Defense Priorities, and the author of A Flexible Faith: Rethinking What It Means to Follow Jesus Today (Hachette).