NPR’s Ari Shapiro talks with journalist Katelyn Beaty about the spread of the QAnon conspiracy theory in Christian communities in the United States.
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
The false conspiracy theory known as QAnon is moving from fringe Internet chatrooms into mainstream politics. A Republican congressional candidate in Georgia is a supporter. The Texas Republican Party has used a QAnon slogan in campaign messaging. President Trump himself has retweeted QAnon followers at least 200 times and described them as, quote, “people that love our country.” To be clear, this is a group the FBI has labeled a potential domestic terrorist threat. Its followers believe that President Trump is saving the world from a cult of cannibalistic pedophiles.
Reporter Katelyn Beaty writes for the Religion News Service about how this belief is taking hold in white evangelical churches. Welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.
KATELYN BEATY: Thanks so much for having me.
SHAPIRO: Your piece is called “QAnon: The Alternative Religion That’s Coming To Your Church.” Do the people you interviewed really see it as a belief system comparable to organized religion?
BEATY: They do. They are picking up on the overt spiritual language that Q, whoever that is, is using in his messages on the Internet, and they see that as connecting directly to the Bible, to the God of Christianity and to God’s hand at work in the world. So they see the QAnon messages as revealing truth in the world and that they are supposed to take up a spiritual battle to reveal truth.
SHAPIRO: And your reporting suggests that there’s something about this moment that makes it spread that much faster.
BEATY: Yeah. So a lot of pastors I spoke with noted the fact that, you know, their churches are having to continue to do virtual church. They’re not meeting in person as much due to the coronavirus and restrictions on worship. And in that time, the pastors I spoke with sense that there is this isolation and loneliness that their members are experiencing. You know, the pastors only get one hour a week with people in their church. The people in their church are probably spending hours on Facebook, on other social media forums, taking in this information. And the pastors I spoke with just felt like they couldn’t do enough to counter the false messages that some of their church members were receiving through the Internet.
SHAPIRO: One pastor who you spoke with in rural Missouri named Mark Fugitt told you he’s trying to get at this in his sermons, and one way he’s doing it is talking about the theme of dehumanization.
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MARK FUGITT: When our enemy becomes – when they’re not human, when they’re Satan, you know, working for the devil, then we get into – you know, it’s the whole – you know, I can’t hate a – you know, another person. But, boy, if I can make them less than human, that’s the crusade that’s Jewish persecution throughout history, that’s racial issues. And I think we’re starting to see some of that. And, I mean, I’ve heard it. I’ve heard people literally say, you know, hey, this certain political figure, you know, I don’t think they’re human.
SHAPIRO: Besides speaking at the pulpit, what other strategies are these pastors trying?
BEATY: So the pastors I spoke with talked a lot about drawing on tried-and-true Christian principles – for example, the biblical teaching that Christians are not to bear false witness against their neighbors. They’re supposed to be people who speak truth and not falsehood. They’re people who are supposed to create peace instead of division. They’re people who are supposed to speak words of love instead of hate. And so rather than directly take on the truth or falsity of specific QAnon claims, the pastors that I spoke with felt that it was better to really draw people in their church to principles that could then be applied in their daily lives, including in how they conduct themselves online.
SHAPIRO: Many pastors you spoke to are clearly very concerned about this. Let’s hear from Jeb Barr, senior pastor of First Baptist Church in Elm Mott, Texas.
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JEB BARR: As a Christian, as a church, we’re going to be spreading the message of the Gospel of Jesus Christ because that’s the most important message in the world. So if the people spreading that message are also spreading easily debunked, crazy lies, why would the message be believed, right? Why would we listen to my friend Joe, who says he’s a Christian and who’s telling me about Jesus, if he also thinks that Communists are taking over America and operating a pedophile ring out of some pizza restaurant?
SHAPIRO: I guess one question is, if these pastors are the voices of authority within the church community, why aren’t they able to talk their parishioners out of this false belief?
BEATY: The pastors that I spoke with talked about a crisis of authority that they feel acutely as spiritual leaders. They perceive that we’re in this time when traditional forms of credibility, of verifying truth, of looking at authoritative figures as holding truth – we’re in a time when there’s a lot of mistrust of traditional sources of authority and truth. And they feel that themselves as church leaders. So they’re concerned that if they try to take on QAnon directly and speak truth instead of falsehood, that they just – they won’t be trusted. They won’t be believed.
And, also, if they try to point their church members to credible news sources, to mainstream media, that none of that will come through because, of course, according to the QAnon conspiracy theory, the mainstream media is part of the cover-up. So I think a lot of the pastors felt that their hands are tied in this time, and they’re concerned that members of their church are not only accepting falsehood and kind of believing in these falsehoods but also spreading falsehood to other people in the church. And that’s especially problematic when QAnon is being espoused by other pastors in a denomination or by leaders in a particular church.
SHAPIRO: Do you think we would find a growing belief in QAnon in any community that includes a lot of Trump supporters, or is there something specific to the white evangelical church that makes it susceptible to these messages?
BEATY: That’s a great question. I think about a poll conducted by the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College, a prominent evangelical institution in the Chicago suburbs. This was a poll conducted in 2018 that found that over half of evangelicals, as defined by belief, are strongly convinced that the mainstream media produced fake news. And Ed Stetzer, the executive director of the Billy Graham Center, noted that that distrust in mainstream media and that willingness to write off mainstream media information as fake news opens the door for a lot of evangelicals to turn to alternative and fringe news sources, including those that traffic in conspiracy theories. So I certainly think there’s a connection there.
But, also, again, it’s that QAnon uses this explicitly spiritual language that sounds Christian. You know, there’s a clear battle between good and evil. There’s the promise of this great awakening. More people are going to wake up to these prophecies, if you will, that’s coming from Q. And so it’s easy for many white evangelicals to read their Bibles and connect the dots between what they read there and what they’re hearing from QAnon sources.
SHAPIRO: Katelyn Beaty is a journalist who wrote about QAnon and the evangelical church for the Religion News Service. Thank you for your time today.
BEATY: Thanks so much for having me.
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