One month after the 2016 election, a gunman stormed into a pizza parlor three blocks from my house and fired three shots from an AR-15 before being disarmed and arrested. His attack was fueled by the baseless conspiracy theory that Democratic elites were running a child sex ring out of the restaurant’s basement. He thought he was rescuing trafficked children.
As we approach the 2020 election, this same delusion is a hallmark of QAnon — a cult-like movement seeping into Christian Facebook groups, Youtube channels, and churches. This phenomenon is both physically and theologically dangerous. Not only does it incite potential violence, it also drips with religious language about a “Great Awakening” and positions the anonymous Q — a fount of cryptic clues that fuel this alternate reality — as something akin to a prophet.
If disabusing Christians of false teachings were simple, pastors would have a lot more spare time and a lot less stress. Here are some important tips for defusing QAnon if it emerges in your congregation or community:
- Start with the big picture in mind. Seeking to educate and seeking to win an argument are very different things. Enter this work in a spirit of education and dialogue, not competition. Find points of agreement such as “we all agree that protecting our children is incredibly important. That’s why I’m so careful about recognizing which dangers are real.” Try to avoid using the word “but.” It sets off defensive reactions.
- Do your homework. Make sure you understand the subject before wading in. Nothing kills conversations faster than starting off without a mischaracterization of people’s views. The Atlantic’s cover story from this summer is a good place to start. Katelyn Beaty’s recent column in Religion News Service provides informative background as well. Examine the sources these articles cite, too.
Model thoughtfulness. Showing that you are thinking carefully will trigger others to do the same. Use verbal cues like “when I reflect on it” or “when I take a step back” and describe how you arrive at your viewpoint. Most importantly, walk the walk — be thoughtful.
Appeal to Scripture and your shared faith. QAnon believers reject “fake news,” but one of their mantras is “do your own research.” Faith leaders have done a LOT of our own research on humanity’s deepest questions about truth. Show that your study of Scripture and church history make you skeptical of those who claim secret knowledge about the true, unseen nature of the world.
- Let people save face, especially on social media. When people are put on the defensive in front of others, they dig in. Avoid litigating, particularly on Facebook. Sharing relevant information online from credible sources is okay, but offering to continue the discussion one-on-one is a useful way to reset.
- Be patient, but protect your time. People take time to change their minds, but we can’t afford to devote an undue share of our time to winning over one or two particular people who cling to QAnon with determination. Know when to take a break. Be sure to tend to the entire flock, not just a hardcore few.
I think often about the conspiracy theorist who shot up the pizza joint in my old neighborhood, and about the dangerous narratives taking root in churches. We can’t passively wait for all this to go away. Now is a time to lead in a spirit of truth, and faith over fear.