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QAnon has merged with white Christian evangelicals, experts say — and the results could be lethal

Andrew Feinberg
·7-min read
 (NICHOLAS KAMM/ROBYN BECK/AFP via Getty Images)
(NICHOLAS KAMM/ROBYN BECK/AFP via Getty Images)

The House of Representatives has left Capitol Hill for the week, but the National Guard soldiers standing watch around a hardened post-insurrection security perimeter could have their work cut out for them today.

“We have obtained intelligence that shows a possible plot to breach the Capitol by an identified militia group on Thursday, March 4,” the Capitol Police department said Wednesday in a statement, noting that they were “taking the intelligence seriously”. The FBI and Department of Homeland Security also issued a bulletin of their own, cautioning that domestic extremists had formed “plans to take control of the US Capitol and remove Democratic lawmakers on or about 4 March”.

The FBI and DHS bulletin also warned that the “perception of election fraud and other conspiracy theories associated with the presidential transition… may contribute to [domestic violent extremists] mobilizing to violence with little or no warning”. House leaders were quick to heed both warnings, announcing late Wednesday that the lower chamber would not be in session the next day.

The reason for all the alarm? After the January 6 insurrection failed to stop lawmakers from certifying Biden’s win and the new president was sworn in on January 20, QAnon believers and other Trump-centric cultists repurposed a decades-old conspiracy theory to fit their delusions. In short, their new narrative posits that Donald Trump will be sworn in as the nation’s 19th “real” President on the fourth day in March, which was the date set in the Constitution for presidential inaugurations until the 20th Amendment was adopted in 1933.

The general thrust of QAnon mythology goes something like this: Trump is engaged in a sub rosa battle against a powerful, secretive cabal of baby-eating pedophiles who control Hollywood, legitimate news outlets, the Democratic Party, non-Trump-supporting factions of the Republican Party, and many foreign governments. Every development — even his loss to Biden — is part of a long-running plan that will end with mass arrests and executions of Democrats, journalists, and Hollywood figures. The date for such a putsch, known in QAnon parlance as “the storm,” has shifted numerous times, most recently to March 4 (after Biden took office and Trump did not declare martial law to stop it on January 20).

Trump, the central, messianic figure in QAnon and QAnon-adjacent conspiracy mythology, has tacitly encouraged such delusions. In remarks delivered at the 2021 Conservative Political Action Conference last week — his first public appearance since leaving office — the ousted ex-television star repeated many of his oft-told lies about having won an election which he lost decisively to Biden.

And it’s Trump’s refusal to acknowledge reality, combined with the increasingly intricate nature of Republican conspiracy mythology — theories that are becoming more intertwined with the flavor of evangelical Christianity that dominates the GOP — that have extremism experts and former Republicans warning the violent movement centered on the 45th president is not going away. In fact, they say, it will most likely become more violent.

Colin Clarke, a senior research fellow at The Soufan Center who studies extremist violence, said the upheaval wrought by the Covid-19 pandemic, the recent presidential election, and the continued prosecution of several overseas wars has created a confluence of circumstances that scholars would consider a perfect incubator for belief in conspiracy theories and apocalyptic mass delusions.

Read more: Missouri Christian reform school owners charged with abusing residents

“It’s not going to get better anytime soon, unfortunately… Conspiratorial thinking is very closely associated with high-anxiety situations and endless wars, elections and national tragedies,” he said.

Moreover, Clarke said there has been a “crossover” between the QAnon systems and evangelical Christianity that is going to imbue right-wing extremism with the sort of violent fanaticism more associated with al-Qaeda or Isis.

“Religious terrorism tends to be more lethal, because people believe they’re serving a higher purpose by committing acts of violence, as opposed to secular groups or ethno-nationalists who are fighting over territory or land,” he explained. “You can’t negotiate with these people, and you especially can’t negotiate with QAnon, because how do you assuage grievances that don’t exist?”

Clarke also posited that synergies between QAnon and the American anti-abortion movement — another religiously inspired faction that dominates the GOP — could spark extremist violence in the mould of the string of bombings carried out by Eric Robert Rudolph between 1996 and 1998.

Another prominent researcher of extremist movements and disinformation, former GOP Representative Denver Riggleman, said the connections between QAnon and white evangelical Christianity have “metastasized” into something else that is both “messianic” and “apocalyptic”.

“This has grown well beyond just something that we can categorize as QAnon,” said Riggleman, who was defeated by a far-right primary challenger after officiating a same-sex wedding and is now chief strategist with the Network Contagion Research Institute. “It’s almost become a conspiracy industry that is evangelical.”

Like Clarke, Riggleman said there are parallels between the radicalization process that is being driven by QAnon in the evangelical community and the Islamic radicalism that the US has been trying to combat since 2001: “There certainly is radical Islam, but there’s now radicalism on certain evangelical sides, and I think people have been afraid to call it for what it is.”

But Joe Walsh, the former GOP congressman and conservative radio host who mounted a brief primary challenge to Trump during the 2020 election cycle, said such problems go far beyond QAnon believers in the Republican Party.

Walsh said Trump’s insistence that he, not Biden, won the 2020 election, has been eagerly adopted by a Republican base that is more primed for conspiratorial thinking than ever. “When I ask people specifically about QAnon, it’s only a rare Trump supporter that can give me any specifics, but damn near all of them are just general conspiracists,” he added. “There’s just a huge general overlap in that most of the Republican Party base voters now are conspiracy believers… Because the base is evangelical, the base is now conspiratorial, and they are one and the same.”

Another prominent Republican, ex-GOP Chairman Michael Steele, cautioned that it’s specifically white evangelicals who’ve largely been taken in by QAnon and other mass delusions, driven at least in part by Trump’s insistence that 2020 election results were not legitimate because Black voters in urban and suburban areas played a significant role in the outcome.

Steele predicted that absent a change of course by Republicans in Congress and across the country — or intervention by law enforcement — the potential for violence from radicalized QAnon adherents and others who’ve been taken in by Trumpist election denial is very real.

“It can and likely will get very bad,” he said. “The idea that [Republicans] had better stop before someone gets killed? Well, we’re past that and they’re still engaging, so there is potentially more violence ahead… You’ve got to accept that and be honest about that because… they’re not putting that flame out… They’re finding more matches and fuel to add to it.”

Walsh, who in 2010 won election to the House in part by using often fiery rhetoric on the subject of Islamist extremism, said that the day is coming when US law enforcement will have to take evangelical Christian extremism just as seriously. But he also predicted that his former House colleagues who regularly stressed the need to combat the former will fight tooth-and-nail against any attempt to treat the latter the same way.

“Any religion, the more fundamentalist and extreme they become, the more prone they are to violence. I don’t know if we’re there yet, but when we enter the era when the FBI or whoever can say that fundamentalist evangelical extremism is a domestic terror threat, then our government can do what it has to do,” he said. “If we continue down this road, it’s coming… and we’re gonna fall into the world where all of the people like me — all of these conservative Republicans who demanded that the government do what it has to do to weed out radical Islam in our country — they are going to be the ones standing at the church door, telling the government to stay out.”