Editor’s Note: QAnon again! As more is known about QAnon and specifically about the its role in the insurrection at the US Capitol, it appears that we’ll learn more than we ever expected about the breadth of its influence. How could something like QAnon happen? Then again, how could a sweet 2000-year-old story about a savior born to a virgin cause so much trouble in modern times? /Linda LaScola, Editor
By David Madison
We’re Still in Deep Trouble
“Jesus 2020” and “Jesus is my savior, Trump Is My President.” These were two of the big signs I saw during TV coverage of the Capitol insurrection. I wondered just how many of the insurrectionists thought of themselves as Christians. Many evangelical leaders have identified Trump as a godsend—literally. So maybe these were Christian soldiers, “…marching as to war, with the cross of Jesus going on before. Christ, the royal Master, leads against the foe; forward into battle, see His banners go!” Contemporary crusaders.
Of course, many, many Christians watched the insurrection in horror. How did these fringe fanatics happen—and how fringe are they? How were their minds formed? I search for answers, some of which may be found in popular culture.
It was in 1958 that Edward R. Murrow issued his famous warning about television:
“This instrument can teach, it can illuminate; yes, and even it can inspire. But it can do so only to the extent that humans are determined to use it to those ends. Otherwise, it’s nothing more than wires and lights in a box. There is a great and perhaps decisive battle to be fought against ignorance, intolerance and indifference. This weapon of television could be useful.…”
But humans have an insatiable desire to be entertained, and in the six decades since Murrow spoke, television has offered an abundant menu of sitcoms, soap operas, talk shows, police and crime dramas, sports—unending sports broadcasts—TV evangelists, and too much news as entertainment. It has fallen far short of engaging in the battle against ignorance, intolerance, and indifference. There are exceptions, but on the whole the results have been disappointing.
I suspect this has contributed mightily to the dumbing down of the citizenry: millions of us, for endless hours, get our laughs and thrills from the box with lights and wires. Then along came the Internet. Obviously we now have instant access to data that we once had to dig for in encyclopedias. It’s an unprecedented access to information. I found the Ed Murrow quote in a minute or two with just a few clicks. My doctoral research, so many years ago, would have been much easier with Google. But the downside is the easy spread of disinformation. As John Lombard wrote in his article on this topic,
“QAnon doesn’t rely on lack of evidence; it relies on an overwhelming deluge of information, courtesy of the Internet.”
Quick sharing of information online no doubt played a role in orchestrating the 6 January Capitol insurrection.
Deeply imbedded ignorance has been given a boost. At Trump rallies we have seen Confederate and swastika flags, with variations on both. For example, on the top of one banner: TRUMP, with PENCE at the bottom—and the swastika in the middle. Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric has brought these folks out of the woodwork, but they’ve always been there. How does it happen that millions of Americans, a century and a half later, resent the Union victory over the Confederacy? And it’s been seventy-five years since our defeat of the Nazis; how does admiration of Nazis still survive, since the horrors they perpetrated are so thoroughly documented?
Blindness to history—distressing lack of curiosity about it—seems to be a major human failing; so it is hardly a wonder that QAnon gained traction. Another factor, of course, is the madness of the Trump cult, fired by the enthusiasm of evangelical Christians. However, the failure of the Capitol siege was a smackdown:
“Followers of the extremist ideology QAnon saw their hopes once again dashed Wednesday as President Trump left Washington on the final day of his presidency, without any of the climactic scenes of violence and salvation that the sprawling set of conspiracy theories had preached for years would come.”
QAnon online posts for the last few years reflected belief that
“…Trump was secretly spearheading a spiritual war against an elite cabal of child-eating Satanists who controlled Washington, Hollywood and the world. Believers in these false, rambling theories had counted down the hours waiting for Trump to corral his enemies for military tribunals and mass executions in a show of force they called ‘the Storm.’”
(Both quotes: Drew Harwell and Craig Timberg, The Washington Post, 20 January 2021)
Despite President Biden’s call for unity—and his commitment to be an agent for that—the QAnon radicals are far too lost in their delusions. How far off the deep end do you have to be to join a mob storming the Capitol, driven by sacred obligation to keep Trump in power? Evidence made no difference—overwhelming evidence that the November election was fair and untainted by fraud. But to this day Trump loudly proclaims otherwise.
What a letdown for these insurrectionists in the wake of Trump’s failed coup; delusions may take a hit, but the danger has not passed. Harwell and Timberg, in the article cited above, mention comments made by conspiracy theory researcher, Travis View, in which he
“…predicted that the QAnon community may shrink in the coming months but also become more fervent in their commitment to its ideas…. “History has taught us far-right movements don’t cool off during a Democratic administration. The people who stick with it are going to become even more radicalized and potentially more dangerous.’”
Deprogramming QAnon true believers is probably unlikely; deeply embedded crazy ideas—or even banal wrong ones—are difficult to dislodge. Which brings us back to Jesus. One of the most successful of all conspiracy theories is that there is a controlling god who is angry with our species, but who, once upon a time, devised a scheme by which humans can divert this anger. It’s a complicated conspiracy theory, involving a human sacrifice and believing exactly the right things. But the centerpiece is Jesus, with whom his devotees can remain in contact.
“How is your walk with the Lord going today?”
This was a question that a friend—who was raised in an evangelical family—told me was a common daily greeting in his circles. The devout are pretty sure they’re getting regular input from Jesus.
But that’s part of the problem. John Lombard noted that the QAnon folks, thanks to the Internet, rely on an “overwhelming deluge of information.” So too with Christians who get input from Jesus, speaking via the Holy Spirit — entailing so many conflicting pieces of advice. Well, that’s awkward; something is amiss. Some of the insurrectionists appear to have heard Jesus telling them to storm the Capitol. Robert Conner, author of Apparitions of Jesus: The Resurrection as Ghost Story, proposes an alternate explanation:
“The Holy Spirit is flitting around the world whispering into the temporal lobes of billions of people urging them to have their very own close encounters of the crazy kind.” (Debunking Christianity Blog, 23 February 2018)
We know from watching the antics of Christian apologists that the Christian conspiracy theory—an angry god trying to save us—is defended at all costs and with considerable ingenuity. The centerpiece of Christian doctrine is the resurrection of the human sacrifice; although the resurrection stories in the gospels are threadbare and contradictory, apologists have spared no effort. Again, Robert Conner:
“The Evangelical Resurrection Industrial Complex (ERIC) has churned out scores of scholarly tomes, hundreds of erudite disquisitions in professional journals, dissertations and commentaries, as well as debates and conferences beyond numbering, and the tsunami of dishonest verbiage shows no signs of receding.” (Debunking Christianity Blog, 6 September 2017)
QAnon fanatics will be just as busy spinning the Capitol and Trump debacles. But what if we encounter those for whom these events were a wakeup call, pushing them back toward reality? There may be parallels here with people who have abandoned the Christian conspiracy theory. Those of us who have lost the faith—or seen through it, as others put it—know the trauma and despair involved in abandoning a belief in which there was intense emotional investment. Visit www.clergyproject.org for more information on how these folks cope with the disruption.
We didn’t need scolding or ridicule for what we once believed. We appreciated encouragement and coaching on how to come around to reality-based thinking. As Edward R. Murrow said,
“There is a great and perhaps decisive battle to be fought against ignorance, intolerance and indifference.”
We should engage in this battle, but it will help to set the right tone when we come across folks who are trying to break the conspiracy theory habit. Kindness can go a long way.
**Editor’s Question** Those of you with experience leaving religion, how would you imagine being kind to someone trying to break to conspiracy theory habit?
Bio: David Madison, a Clergy Project member, was raised in a conservative Christian home in northern Indiana. He served as a pastor in the Methodist church during his work on two graduate degrees in theology. By the time he finished his PhD in Biblical Studies (Boston University) he had become an atheist, a story he shares in the Prologue of his book, published in 2016: 10 Tough Problems in Christian Thought and Belief: a Minister-Turned-Atheist Shows Why You Should Ditch the Faith. He is a regular contributor to the Debunking Christianity Blog, where this post will appear on 5 February 2021.
>>>>Photo Credits: By Anthony Crider – https://www.flickr.com/photos/16086041@N00/49416341132/, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=86145734 ; By US Information Agency – https://www.britannica.com/biography/Edward-R-Murrow, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=63497776 [ By TheUnseen011101 – https://www.flickr.com/photos/191776019@N08/50818536171/, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=98694270 ; https://www.amazon.com/Apparitions-Jesus-Resurrection-Ghost-Story-ebook/dp/B07D9CNHTH ; by Andrea Reese