One week after his first drop, Q was already quoting scripture. “The LORD is my shepherd, I lack nothing,” Q posted on the imageboard site 4chan. The line was from Psalm 23, possibly the most well-known of the 150 psalms, and a beacon of hope for Christians going through challenging times. Is it any wonder that the fringe conspiracy theory QAnon has attracted true believers in every sense of the word?
QAnon revolves around the baseless belief that former President Donald Trump is fighting a secret war against a global cabal of Democratic elites who are Satan-worshipping, cannibalistic pedophiles. Much of the lore comes from online posts, called “drops,” written by an anonymous person known as “Q” who claims to have insider knowledge. As the QAnon movement has become more culturally significant — QAnon believers were among those who took part in the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol building — surveys have attempted to identify just how many Americans believe in this conspiracy. While that picture is still murky, it’s become increasingly apparent that this movement has attracted a significant number of white evangelical Christians, which could have implications for the movement’s future. Evangelicals, after all, played an important role in shoring up the Tea Party’s growth and influence.
In its January 2021 American Perspectives Survey, the American Enterprise Institute’s Survey Center on American Life asked a random sample of more than 2,000 Americans to rate the accuracy of a series of statements. One of those statements was about the core tenet of QAnon: “Donald Trump has been secretly fighting a group of child sex traffickers that include prominent Democrats and Hollywood elites.” Of the respondents who rated that statement as “mostly” or “completely” accurate, 27 percent were white evangelical Christians. Depending on how you define it, evangelical Christians make up about a quarter or less of the U.S. population, so they’re at least slightly overrepresented in the QAnon contingent. Looking at the data another way, 31 percent of white evangelical Republicans rated the statement as “mostly” or “completely” accurate. Either way you slice it, there’s significant overlap between Q followers and evangelicals.
Another survey, conducted in October 2020 by Denison University political science professor Paul Djupe and colleagues, looked at a representative sample of more than 1,700 Americans and found that 50 percent of white evangelical Christians either “agreed” or “strongly agreed” with QAnon beliefs. Comparative surveys have also shown a correlation between Christian nationalism and conspiratorial thinking, specifically a belief in QAnon. And it’s something members of the church have been sounding the alarm about for months.
While we’re still learning about the demographics of QAnon believers, surveys that look at evangelicals’ other beliefs can help explain why they may be susceptible to falling down this particular rabbit hole. A majority of evangelical Christians identify as Republicans — 56 percent according to the Pew Research Center’s 2014 U.S. Religious Landscape Study — and they are more likely than Democrats and the general public to express belief in QAnon. In a Morning Consult survey from late January, 24 percent of Republicans said the QAnon conspiracy was at least “somewhat accurate,” compared with 19 percent of Democrats. Republican belief in the conspiracy dropped noticeably after the attack on the Capitol, as a series of surveys months before, immediately after, and several weeks after the attack showed, but Republicans remained more likely to support the belief than the general public (18 percent).
Evangelicals are also significantly less trustful of news media, meaning journalists’ fact-checking and debunking of QAnon is less likely to be convincing.
“I’m actually not surprised that evangelicals are more likely to believe those kinds of things,” said Samuel Perry, a professor of sociology at the University of Oklahoma. “Evangelicals are not socially isolated, but they are informationally isolated.”
That dynamic is apparent in surveys as well. For instance, a Pew survey from 2019 found that 44 percent of the public believed journalists had high ethical standards, while only 27 percent of white evangelical Christians did. And 7 percent of white evangelical Christians said they had a “great deal” of confidence that journalists would act in the best interest of the public, compared with 15 percent of total respondents who felt that way.
While evangelical Christians are less likely to trust the news media, they have a lot of trust in, and enduring affection for, Trump. As recently as October, close to 80 percent of white evangelical Christians said they supported Trump, and they have been much more likely than the general public to call him “morally upstanding” and “honest”; in fact, 15 percent and 23 percent said those respective terms described Trump “very well,” compared with 8 percent and 12 percent of all respondents. Since Trump is cast as the protagonist in the QAnon narrative, the hero who will save us all from the evil cabal of baby-eaters, it’s understanding that those who support him the most could find that idea appealing.
“The narrative of QAnon, of Donald Trump as this lone warrior who nobody understands and nobody believes but who is fighting the good fight, I think they identify with that,” Perry said. “They feel themselves misunderstood and victimized and that they are fighting the good fight that nobody recognizes.”
But perhaps the biggest connection between the world of QAnon and the world of evangelical Christians is one that’s much harder to quantify and capture, but it seems obvious when talking to someone from either group. The QAnon movement has suffered multiple failed prophecies, predictions for events that never came to pass. To continue holding onto beliefs in spite of those disappointments, followers need something many evangelicals have in spades: faith.
“People of faith believe there is a divine plan — that there are forces of good and forces of evil at work in the world,” said Ed Stetzer, an evangelical pastor and executive director of the Wheaton College Billy Graham Center. “QAnon is a train that runs on the tracks that religion has already put in place.”