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Sign of the times

The apocalyptic internet movement QAnon is gaining followers by the thousands, and churches are slow to respond


A May 4 “Liberty Rally” in Massachusetts calling for the end of the state-wide stay-at-home advisory and the reopening of the economy. Mark Peterson/Redux

Sign of the times
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KELLY WOLFE had been dating her boyfriend since January, but it wasn’t until the pandemic hit that she found out he was deep into QAnon. The apocalyptic internet movement’s central tenet is that a secret Satanic cabal is running the world and using sex trafficking and other nefarious activities to preserve its power.

Wolfe’s boyfriend started talking to her about how 5G networks caused the coronavirus and how suspicious it was that Tom Hanks became a Greek citizen recently (QAnon followers allege he and many other celebrities are pedophiles). Wolfe sent him an article from the Gospel Coalition that states how harmful slander and gossip from QAnon is to the church. He broke up with her.

More recently, she watched a Christian friend of hers dive deep into QAnon on social media over the course of a few weeks: The friend started by posting concerns about child trafficking (World Day Against Trafficking was back in July), then other friends responded by sending her posts and videos about QAnon. Before long she was posting more and more about Q and the “cabal” running the world: “She is almost militant about it now,” Wolfe said.

Wolfe and her boyfriend eventually reconciled and started dating again, and they have agreed to conversation boundaries about QAnon. But Wolfe is at a loss in knowing how to respond to such theories, and she knows of no Christian resources for it. She is not the only one.

In the pandemic lockdown, QAnon accounts exploded in popularity as people spent more time online. Many Christians have sunk so deeply into Q that it fills a lot of their conversations and most of their time online. Cult expert Steve Hassan said he is swamped with thousands of emails from family members concerned about their loved ones who are suddenly deep into QAnon.

Family members and friends of QAnon followers know and love them: They know what the backstory is that caused them to distrust the medical, political, or media establishments, and they understand why QAnon is appealing. People I interviewed, like Kelly Wolfe, wanted to make sure their loved ones were portrayed with compassion and respect.

But they don’t know how to respond when someone slides off the plane of reality and then begins actively recruiting others into the movement or spreading misinformation online. And the church hasn’t provided any help.

Churches, pastors, and denominational groups I talked to had no resources or system for approaching this. Church elders might pull someone aside to talk about spreading misinformation online, but otherwise family members I talked to grasped for a few Christian articles or podcasts online that they could send to their relatives who are suddenly into Q.

“I used to appeal to sources, but the entire point is that he doesn’t believe the sources,” Wolfe said. So she has started trying to explore what “the thing under the thing” is that motivates his interest in QAnon: “Are you hating injustice or elitism?” Another idea she has is that he might find human suffering to be difficult to understand in the face of God’s sovereignty, so he “needs to assign a bigger, demonic dark force behind it.”

QAnon followers on one level can be people who are simply suspicious that the system is rigged in favor of elites or that the media isn’t reliable so they have to find their own information. But as they go deeper, Q followers spread conspiracy theories, such as that John F. Kennedy Jr. is still alive or that Mother Teresa was a child trafficker and Dr. Anthony Fauci is her son. Online posts of such false allegations often rest on the ubiquitous Q defense to “do your own research.”

The movement’s prophecies come from an anonymous account, Q, presumed to be someone high up in U.S. military intelligence who posts cryptic messages called “Q drops.” Q posts not just about military intelligence but also writes about rampant Satanism among celebrities and the “bloodletting of children” while quoting from the book of Revelation. Q and his followers emphasize symbolism, noticing for example when 17 boxes were sitting behind President Donald Trump in a particular press conference (Q is the 17th letter of the alphabet).

Followers who consider themselves “digital soldiers” for the QAnon cause take the Q oath, a standard oath to defend the U.S. Constitution with the concluding line added from Q himself, “Where we go one, we go all.” Gen. Mike Flynn, Trump’s former national security adviser, recently posted a video of himself taking the Q oath. Followers take from the online world of Q what they want—some focus more on the military aspect of it, others the trafficking aspect—but the algorithms of social media amplify and reward the most radical posts.

SANDY STAAB IS A CHRISTIAN who lives on a ranch in north central Idaho. He watches QAnon YouTube channels like PrayingMedic, a big QAnon-evangelizing channel, and blogs about some of the ideas himself. While Staab says he doesn’t fully buy into QAnon, he tracks with its main ideas.

Staab was a University of California, Berkeley, graduate and a developer for Microsoft and in 1999 moved his family to Idaho to ride out Y2K on a ranch with its own power grid. Because of personal experiences, he has long distrusted the medical, political, and media establishments: In college a television reporter took a quote of his out of context to make him look bad, he’s seen corruption in both parties, and he felt doctors ignored alternative medicines that might have saved his mom when she died of lung cancer in the 1980s. Some parts of QAnon fit into his preexisting ideas about the world.

“His [Q’s] predictions of future events, though encoded, seem incredibly insightful,” said Staab. The QAnon movement has given him “hope and encouragement that there may actually be an alliance of patriots out there that are on our side” to stop the trend toward a totalitarian “world government.” Staab said the things he thinks are most important for society are to “tell the truth and keep your promises.”

Staab is part of an evangelical church in Idaho, but he thinks back fondly to a previous church he was part of locally that was like “the first-century church.” He explained why he’s not still there: “Y2K was the common point we all held, and it held us together till it didn’t happen.”

His 30-year-old son Jonathan Staab, a Christian who also lives in Idaho with his family, recalled that they grew up reading books like Left Behind and that his dad often reads the Apocrypha and Jewish apocalyptic literature. His dad believes the coronavirus pandemic was orchestrated by governments, Bill Gates, and others to control people. In fact, Q’s lack of posts about the coronavirus being part of a larger plan makes Sandy wonder whether Q might be “another distraction.” Jonathan’s mom—his parents are divorced now—has also been buying into QAnon more and more, and recently sent him an article about nanobots in vaccines.

Jonathan has many years of experience listening to and in some cases agreeing with his dad’s theories about the world, but they’ve had conflicts on such topics: One recent Easter he had to ask his dad to leave in the middle of an Easter egg hunt, and they didn’t speak for several months. They later reconciled, and Jonathan told him he disagreed with him but loved him.

“Just treating them like a person, someone you love, is the most important thing you can do,” he said. “If you dig down and listen hard enough, there’s something there. … Every lie has some sort of truth built into it.”

Every lie has some sort of truth built into it.

He added that he didn’t know of any resources for anyone in a similar familial conflict. What he’s found in his experience is that his dad often covers his true fears and insecurities under the discussion about such ideas and a never-ending search for truth. His dad’s marriage is over, he’s facing charges over burning brush out of season, and he’s in financial difficulty. Sandy says he has lost money because of con artists; his son says he’s too trusting so he gets into bad business relationships.

“He wants to argue with me about 5G. … I’ll say, ‘I want to talk about you,’” said Jonathan. “‘How are the cows on your property? How is your renter? Are you reading the Bible? I like it when you are around my kids because you’re a good grandpa.’”

REV. BOB AND JUDY PARDON are some of the few Christian specialists nationally who do interventions and rehabilitation for people coming out of isolated, authoritarian groups that twist the Bible to their particular purposes. When law enforcement officers or family members need help with interventions for those in certain destructive groups, they call the Pardons.

Last year when I visited them at their recovery home, they told me that these splinter groups were proliferating across the country, but the groups were so small that no one had really noticed it. Many of these groups withdraw from the wider community, medical care, or the financial system—but as they told me at the time, nobody notices “until someone dies or there’s child abuse or a kidnapping.” Quoting cult expert Jan Karel Van Baalen, Pardon has called such groups “the unpaid bills of the church.”

Right now the Pardons have a man staying at their Massachusetts recovery facility, MeadowHaven, who was raised in a controlling Christian cult. The man is also deeply into QAnon and believes Q followers are working to root out the “deep state.”

“This is not some kind of toothless individual from the backwoods who has no experience with the world,” said Pardon, who added the man is “highly educated.” However, he also believes in the theory about a government-funded research program (HAARP) controlling the weather and in the possibility of time travel.

When Pardon asked him about Q’s prophecies that haven’t come true—such as that Hillary Clinton’s arrest was imminent after Trump’s election—the man says Q gives misinformation to throw off “blackhats,” the agents of the deep state. “All very convenient,” said Pardon.

In QAnon, Pardon sees trademark “cult thinking,” where everything is black and white, good versus evil, but he wouldn’t call QAnon a cult because it doesn’t have the authoritarian structure he usually sees in his work. He thinks of it more as a movement that is “a sign of the times,” that people feel there is no solid place to stand.

“Whenever you have these kind of social upheavals, this stuff tends to rise to the surface,” said Pardon. He recalled that the 1970s saw an explosion of cults. “I myself do think there are powers of evil that are beyond what we see with our five senses ... but on this plane of reality that we live in, it’s not always [black and white]. There are gray areas we can’t discern. We’re sinners.”

The Pardons have faced the deep darkness of cults: the Satanists, the child abusers, the murderers—all the types of destructive behavior that QAnon followers see themselves as fighting. What they’ve also seen over and over is the healing process, where people can begin to distinguish “what’s reality and what’s not,” Pardon said, as they slowly disengage from the cult community and reengage with their immediate relationships and the wider world.

For regular churches, he suggests bringing this up in adult education classes or Bible studies, where other current-event subjects might come up that don’t get to the pulpit. And he thinks pastors should address parishioners personally who are sharing slander.

Cult expert Steve Hassan, who sometimes works with the Pardons on interventions, recently did a session with a husband whose wife had gone deep into QAnon. He told them to start marriage counseling, and then asked the wife not to go on her Facebook groups for the time that they were working through it. She agreed.

For the man recovering at MeadowHaven, Pardon said, “If he gets more in touch with a healthier experience of his Christian beliefs, some of this will drop away. Not intentionally, but unintentionally, because his trust will be more in God being in control of all things. If you’re looking at this Biblically, we are to be on the alert [about apocalyptic things], but not to be so obsessed and focused that you’re forgetting everything else.”

Sowing seeds

Christian social media influencers are often spreading QAnon theories to their hundreds of thousands of followers

by Emily Belz

At the height of the COVID-19 outbreak in New York City, I got an email: Would I report on whether the field hospital that Samaritan’s Purse had set up in Central Park was actually treating patients?

A Christian Instagram influencer with 110,000 followers, @roseuncharted, had circulated the idea that the hospital tents were placed over tunnels under Central Park and the organization was using the tents as a cover to free children from sex slavery through the tunnels. “Rose” is a follower of QAnon and spreads many QAnon theories between posts of her children and her beauty products.

I watched the construction of the tents, and I watched sick patients go in and out of the tents. I know some of the doctors who treated patients there. There was no evidence to support this theory, and QAnon accounts could only point to the fact that New York City does have a lot of tunnels. Samaritan’s Purse even had to refute the theory publicly.

“It’s hard; all they’re doing is saying, ‘This is suspicious,’” said Daniel Derrick, whose wife followed Rose, which led to an argument between the couple about the Samaritan’s Purse theory. “You can say it might be baseless, but it’s really hard to fact-check something like Jeffrey Epstein dying.”

QAnon began in 2017, but it has exploded during the pandemic as people are home and spending more time online. Influencers of all stripes promote Q theories—granola moms worried about vaccines and Trump supporters worried about liberal Hollywood. But many of the big accounts make their Christian identity central to their branding.

Several Christian social media influencers spread Q theories in between posts about cute Lululemon shorts or interior design tips. Some also sell QAnon merchandise and offer followers links to their personal Venmo accounts to send donations.

One of the primary QAnon promulgators online is David Hayes, under the YouTube account PrayingMedic (376,000 followers), a Christian who thinks the QAnon movement will help lead to “spiritual revival.” His YouTube channel description is “a virtual classroom on the kingdom of God.” He declined an interview, saying, “I have not found any media outlets willing to write an honest story about Q.”

The Instagram account @little.miss.patriot, which promotes Q theories, started at the end of June and already has 257,000 followers. The account’s biography reads, “Christ follower, truth seeker, digital soldier,” and it shares Q theories such as that Obama adviser John Podesta sexually abused Justin Bieber, that Taylor Swift is a Satanist, or that the furniture company Wayfair is secretly selling children under listings for furniture.

Influencer Instagram accounts pushing Q often start by talking about the evil of sex trafficking. Hillary Cripps, a Christian Instagram influencer with about 62,000 followers, posts Q theories on her stories in between videos of her stylishly dressed children or photos of her redesigned dining room. Cripps declined an interview. Cripps has also used her account to raise money for anti-trafficking organization Bochy’s Place.

Marie Duncan has watched her Christian friends post QAnon material about trafficking on their social media accounts recently, and she wondered why there was suddenly an interest in trafficking this summer, when so much else is going on in the country. She said she approached her friends about it, and they’ve had respectful conversations.

“I somewhat believe their hearts are in the right place,” said Duncan. “The timing of it all seems weird. Trafficking was an issue prior to COVID and the recent racial injustice movements. It seems to be a ‘safe’ issue Christians can rally behind without resulting in any pushback or uncomfortable conversations.”

Anti-trafficking organizations have had to subtly distance themselves from QAnon’s social media drives, as its followers have taken over generic hashtags like #savethechildren. Polaris, which runs the national anti-trafficking hotline, and Save the Children, a humanitarian organization, have both had to issue statements distancing themselves from QAnon. Polaris wrote, “A barrage of conspiracy-related reports from people with no direct knowledge of trafficking situations can overwhelm services meant for victims.”

Meanwhile some groups have raised funds from QAnon supporters through social media drives. Tim Ballard, the founder of the anti-trafficking group Operation Underground Railroad, told The New York Times it was an opportunity: “Some of these theories have allowed people to open their eyes. … So now it’s our job to flood the space with real information so the facts can be shared.”

Christian Instagram influencers promoting Q are mostly women. Rebecca Pfeiffer or @Luvbec, has 119,000 followers and promotes Q videos, with a bio reading, “Believer, Truth Seeker, WWG1WGA.” The Q phrase, “Where we go one, we go all,” is used at the end of the Q Oath.

She posts about QAnon theories in between posts of showing off designer handbags and talking about homeschooling. In one, she is wearing a bikini and wearing a Q hat and writes: “Prayer is SO powerful, y’all! Have you put it into action lately?? Try. And watch Him move grace and holiness through your life like never before. #wwg1wga GOD WINS!” Pfeiffer then has a commissioned link so followers can buy her bikini. “God wins” is another phrase from Q himself.

When Pfeiffer first began posting about QAnon at the beginning of the pandemic, one of her followers happily replied, “My fav beauty blogger … coming out of the QAnon closet so to speak.”

Some influencers are also merchandising the movement. Little Miss Patriot lists her personal Venmo for followers to send her money and has a “shop” selling QAnon merchandise like jewelry and T-shirts. Other Christians who run businesses on Instagram make QAnon merchandise and get promotions from Q accounts. The jewelry maker @Wiredforfreedom (bio: “Kingdom Influencer”) posts Bible verses and videos of herself singing worship songs. Recently, she said she was “honored to be collabing with @little.miss.patriot” in producing a 14k gold Q necklace for sale.

This whole ecosystem might be changing as social media giants like Facebook and Twitter remove more QAnon accounts for violating their guidelines. Google is even filtering out QAnon accounts and websites from its searches. As a result QAnon accounts are pushing their followers to alternate platforms, like Parler, and search engines, like Ecosia. So far YouTube has kept QAnon videos up but placed a Wikipedia entry about QAnon above the title to give viewers context. The censorship of QAnon content plays into its followers’ belief that there is a conspiracy to suppress QAnon.


Emily Belz

Emily is a former senior reporter for WORLD Magazine. She is a World Journalism Institute graduate and previously reported for the New York Daily News, The Indianapolis Star, and Philanthropy magazine. Emily resides in New York City.

@emlybelz

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