Last month, Seth Brown, the executive editor of the Biblical Recorder, a Southern Baptist newspaper in Cary, N.C., delivered a stark warning to Christians. He had become increasingly concerned about the posts some of his fellow Southern Baptists were sharing on Facebook. “If you start clicking through, it doesn’t take long to find out some of this is coming from accounts that are QAnon,” Mr. Brown told me, referring to the viral conspiracy theory that claims a cabal of left-wing, satanic pedophiles is secretly plotting a coup against President Trump.
Mr. Brown, an evangelical who has served as a volunteer pastor himself, knows all too well that pastors have little time to tumble into an online labyrinth of convoluted Q theories. So he wrote an explainer on QAnon’s ever-evolving machinations, cautioning readers that as Christians, they must “reject the movement’s fanatical and dangerous messages.”
Some of QAnon’s dizzying pileup of false claims — that the Covid-19 pandemic is overstated or even nonexistent, for example — have been embraced by Trump fans, Republican congressional candidates and the president himself. Mr. Brown and others say they are proliferating in white evangelical circles, even as many of the people sharing the content may have never even heard of QAnon.
Warren Throckmorton, an evangelical who is a psychology professor at Grove City College in Pennsylvania, says the Q-adjacent claims he has seen on social media relate broadly to the notion that the president “is being unfairly maligned.” Evangelicals are drawn to these posts, Dr. Throckmorton added, because they reinforce their belief that Mr. Trump is under attack. “It’s a way of trying to justify their support for the president,” he said. “Anything that makes Donald Trump look honest or compassionate or good, they’ll spread, without checking out where it comes from, who posted it, who the source is.”
QAnon began with an October 2017 post on the far-right message board 4chan, thought to be the first time the anonymous poster “Q” issued a conspiratorial missive, known as a “drop,” to the world. The Atlantic’s Adrienne LaFrance, who wrote a definitive investigation of QAnon, told NPR, “I never got to the point where I was confident enough in Q’s identity to say with certainty who it is.”
But one thing we can say about Q is that he, she or they are highly unoriginal, mining conspiracy theories as ancient as the anti-Semitic blood libel. If you’ve been around the corners of evangelical America as I have, it’s apparent that Q is at least a student of, and perhaps an adherent of, the conspiracies that have long permeated conservative evangelical culture.
Many QAnon posts and merchandise feature a Bible verse that is popular among white evangelicals, 2 Chronicles 7:14: “If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land.”
In the evangelical world, this verse means that God will heal America of abortion and human trafficking, which is often described as “modern-day slavery.” In the QAnon world, it means God will free America of the satanic denizens of the “deep state” who are running a global child sex trafficking ring. In both worlds, Mr. Trump is under siege. And online, the two worlds are converging.
There are also connections between QAnon and end-times prophecies. In the most common version of this scenario, before Jesus returns, believers will be raptured to heaven and will be spared a period of tribulation, during which the Antichrist will attempt to rule via a “one world government” and force people to adopt the “mark of the beast.” Over the decades, many technological and governmental innovations, like grocery store bar codes, Social Security numbers and vaccines (including a potential coronavirus vaccine), have been suspected of being such “marks of the beast.” The United Nations and the European Union have been decried as precursors of that “one-world government.”
Some white evangelicals speculated about whether Barack Obama was the Antichrist, or just a “sign of the times.” Of course the point was not to actually determine, definitively, whether the first Black president was the Antichrist. The point was to make people wonder aloud about it or post about it on social media.
Long before QAnon mystified journalists with its special brand of nonsensical permutations, end-times prophecies were full of speculation and inconsistencies. That didn’t stop them from engaging followers in an incessant quest for meaning and certainty — a form of entertainment and diversion from reality.
Even as one prophecy is proved wrong, or doesn’t pan out, the broader theory is pliable enough to survive. Evangelicals are told to study their Bible; QAnon adherents are told to do their own research. Any needed adjustments keep things exciting, as if one is living in a perpetual cliffhanger upon which nothing less than the outcome of a cosmic battle between good and evil rests.
And that brings us to the Clintons. During Bill Clinton’s presidency, the Rev. Jerry Falwell Sr. sold conspiratorial pseudo-documentaries about the Clintons through his television program, “The Old Time Gospel Hour.” The first, “Bill Clinton’s Circle of Power,” which by 1994 had sold more than 100,000 copies, accused Mr. Clinton of being connected to assaults and murders of political opponents. The sequel, “The Clinton Chronicles,” was shown in churches across the country. An Arkansas journalist, Gene Lyons, has described it as a “near-delusional concatenation of preposterous falsehoods and conspiracy theories” that “presented the then-president (and his wife) as an embezzler, drug smuggler and serial killer.”
That October 2017 “drop” that kicked QAnon off? It read: “HRC extradition already in motion effective yesterday with several countries in case of cross border run.” Other tenets of QAnon: Hillary Clinton should be arrested (“Lock her up”); she will try to escape (because, like her husband, she is a wily criminal); and she and her cabal are out to get President Trump. He beat her once. He can vanquish her and her secret cabal of sexual predators inside the “deep state” again, but only if their persecution of him is brought to light.
Televangelists and other self-styled apostles and prophets were claiming to receive divine messages about current events many decades before QAnon. And warnings and prophecies about Mr. Trump predate QAnon as well. In July 2017, for example, the televangelist Rodney Howard-Browne (a friend of Paula White, Mr. Trump’s personal pastor and a White House adviser), told the conspiracy theorist Alex Jones that the deep state had “started a war” against Mr. Trump because of his alignment with evangelicals.
Many such people were once considered fringe elements of American evangelicalism; they are now validated by their close relationship with the president.
After the Mueller investigation, Ms. White appeared on the podcast of Stephen Strang, an influential evangelical publisher and author of several pro-Trump books, where the two discussed the inquiry as a deep-state connivance. Ms. White has also partnered with a group called Intercessors for America to encourage followers to engage in “spiritual warfare” on Mr. Trump’s behalf. It recently published a prayer guide on the “deep state.”
Although many evangelicals may still be sharing QAnon content unwittingly, a new poll shows that the conspiracy theory has been gaining favor with Republican voters; 33 percent said they believe QAnon is “mostly true,” and 23 percent believe “some parts are true.”
That worries Seth Brown. QAnon adherents claim to be searching out a truth they insist has been diabolically hidden from the public. But evangelicals like Mr. Brown see Q’s quest for “truth” as deeply at odds with their most fundamental beliefs.
“Southern Baptists, and evangelicals more broadly, we care about truth, we believe God is truth and we believe his word is truth,” Mr. Brown told me. “We can’t compromise those beliefs or that witness for some wacky conspiracy theory whose followers claim to care about truth when they really don’t.”
Sarah Posner is the author of “Unholy: Why White Evangelicals Worship at the Altar of Donald Trump.”