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QAnon conspiracy theories infect American churches

QAnon conspiracy theories have burrowed so deeply into American churches that pastors are expressing alarm — and a new poll shows the bogus teachings have become as widespread as some denominations.

Why it matters: The problem with misinformation and disinformation is that people — lots of people — believe it. And they don't believe reality coming from the media and even their ministers.

Russell Moore,one of America's most respected evangelical Christian thinkers, told me he's "talking literally every day to pastors, of virtually every denomination, who are exhausted by these theories blowing through their churches or communities."

  • "Several pastors told me that they once had to talk to parents dismayed about the un-Christian beliefs of their grown children," Moore added. But now, the tables have turned.

That stunning window into the country's congregations came in response to a major poll, out last week: 15% of Americans, the poll found, agree with the QAnon contention that "the government, media, and financial worlds in the U.S. are controlled by a group of Satan-worshipping pedophiles who run a global child sex trafficking operation."

  • That's more than 1 in 6. The online poll was taken by Ipsos in March for the Public Religion Research Institute and Interfaith Youth Core. (Poll: 5,625 U.S. adults. Margin of error for full survey: ±1.5%)
  • "For those who hope that the events of January 6 are in our past, I think this data gives little in the way of assurance," said Kristin Du Mez, a Calvin University historian of gender, faith and politics, and author of "Jesus and John Wayne."

The poll found that Hispanic Protestants (26%) and white evangelical Protestants (25%) were more likely to agree with the QAnon philosophies than other groups. (Black Protestants were 15%, white Catholics were 11% and white mainline Protestants were 10%.)

  • As a New York Times headline put it: "QAnon Now as Popular in U.S. as Some Major Religions, Poll Suggests."

Du Mez told me that the factors that produced this result include the decades conservative evangelicals spent "sowing seeds of doubt about the mainstream media":

  • "There's also an emphasis in certain circles on deciphering biblical prophecies that bears some similarities to decoding QAnon conspiracies — the idea that there is a secret meaning hidden within the text that can be discerned by individuals who have eyes to see."
  • "This isn't just a problem for faith communities, of course," the professor added. "It is deeply troubling in terms of the health of our democracy."

Catch up quick: QAnon is more a movement than an organization — there's no HQ or public leader. The conspiracies were spread by followers of President Trump, and "Q" signifiers were common at Trump rallies.

  • Moore, who recently joined Christianity Today magazine after serving as the top political voice of the Southern Baptist Convention, said that for many, QAnon is "taking on all of the characteristics of a cult, from authoritarian gurus ... to predictions that don't come true."

Context: Q first took hold on social media with a videogame-like structure, inviting the curious on a quest to unlock successive layers of hidden knowledge, Axios managing editor Scott Rosenberg points out.

  • Then its anonymous gurus promised a series of millenarian-style big reveals that never materialized.
  • Experts hoped the failure of Q's promises after President Biden's inauguration, along with a near-total ban of Q buzzwords from online platforms, would stifle the movement. 
  • Conspiracy theories thrive in turbulent times, as traumatized people desperately try to put unbearable losses and novel challenges into a framework that makes sense (to them). Half a century later, the U.S. still hasn't fully exorcized the JFK assassination conspiracy theories.

Natalie Jackson — research director at PRRI, which released the poll — said the finding doesn't mean 15% of Americans "are spending their entire lives only paying attention to Q ... but it does mean this group is amenable to believing these conspiracy theories."

  • She notes that Republicans have no "unified voice pushing back on these forces, which could allow it to continue to grow."

Share this story. ... Explore the poll. ... QAnon 101.

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