By Paul A. Djupe and Ryan P. Burge
Image credit: CNN.
One of the more dangerous developments of the past two years has been the apparent explosive growth of the QAnon conspiracy movement, moving steadily from the fringe to the mainstream by dint of its size and now a member of the House of Representatives. As Ed Stetzer argues, evangelicalism has “a pretty big fringe.” Republican candidates, including the president, have voiced support for the movement and leaders from a wide range of conservative churches have expressed their concerns about the degree to which their members have become “infected,” though a few appear to be actively encouraging it according to a CNN report. How could traditional American believers be enthralled with theories that Democratic elites are engaged in, among other things, a widespread, child sex trafficking ring?
A number of notions have been advanced for why American believers would be susceptible to this collection of wild, fringe conspiracy theories. Fortunately we are in a position to test many of them. Perhaps the most obvious reason is that conservative Christians have long believed in widespread conspiracy theories arranged by a vibrant, evil presence in the world. As Sarah Posner argues, evil lurks ever present, always open to the possibility of corrupting those without sufficient concern or care. Such beliefs work hand in hand with belief that the end times are imminent when a great, final battle will be fought between good and evil. In part, this may be why Adrienne LaFrance argued, “To look at QAnon is to see not just a conspiracy theory but the birth of a new religion.” Caroline Nyce has also made this claim.
But that’s not all. Many conservative Christians have been nudged out of mainstream media, which makes it far easier for innovative ideas like Q to propagate among them. Combined with a belief structure that urges reliance on fervent individual belief rather than on elites and you have the possibility for quite a storm.
Until now, no one has analyzed survey data gauging Q support among American religious groups. In our survey of American adults, we included two questions directly measuring support for Q, one by name and the other by substance. The data were collected through Qualtrics Panels via a quota sample – we used quotas defined by the Census Bureau so respondents would look like the national adult population. We then used raking weights to match other demographics including race and education.
Capturing those connected to a social movement is a difficult business. QAnon itself is peculiar in that it has no organization, but clearly exists in social media posts, t-shirts, hats, and ideas. While QAnon may be “highly unoriginal” by drawing on existing conspiracy theories, their combination at this time under the Q label arguably constitutes a movement. It has an anonymous leader, but also has many other leaders, including Republican candidates running for office as open Q supporters. We focused our attention on feelings toward the QAnon label using a feeling thermometer (running from 0 “cold” to 100 “warm”). And we also asked for agreement or disagreement with this statement which we adopted from Eric Oliver,
Within the upper reaches of government, media, and finance, a secretive group of elites are thwarting Donald Trump’s efforts at reform, fomenting street violence, and engaging in child trafficking and other crimes.
In our data, 27 percent have a positive view of QAnon (a score of 50 or higher), though the mean is just 27, which tells us about the long right tail. Republicans have a higher median and mean score, though only by a handful of percentage points. One problem with these measures is that participants still give scores even when they may not know what QAnon is, which is likely why there is a bump at 50. We would be loath to rely on this measure as our only indicator of Q support.
An alternate strategy is to ask about support for the substance of the QAnon conspiracy theory and the results are quite different. In this case, a strong majority (almost 60 percent) agreed or strongly agreed with the “upper reaches of government” statement listed above. It’s not wholly owned by Republicans, however, as a quarter of Independents and thirty percent of Democrats agreed as well. It’s hard to know which result to trust – the identity or substance measure – except that a September poll by Civiqs Analytics found essentially the same distribution for Republicans and Independents indicating that “the QAnon theory about a conspiracy among deep state elites is true?” Moreover, evangelicals interviewed have suggested that they see people sharing QAnon-driven information without knowing the association. It is possible to be a believer without a Q identification (see this note for more).
Of course, we’re interested in the degree to which QAnon has made inroads into American religion and our evidence suggests the answer is “extensively.” Notably, evangelicals are not #1 and both non-denominational and other faiths agree with Q at slightly higher rates. Still, about 45 percent of evangelicals profess belief in the conspiracy theory, validating the previous reporting that has been done thus far. The least agreement with our statement came from the religious nones at just over 20 percent.
Though there is no science of QAnon quite yet as social scientists are just beginning to study the movement systematically, some of the explanations have suggested there are religious reasons that make some people susceptible. And one account suggests that Q is using religion to pursue followers. As shown below, those who believe that evil forces are active in the world are much more likely to believe in the QAnon conspiracy theory. Only for those who tend to agree with all three questions in the index does belief in Q really trend upward, which gives us more confidence that this set of religious beliefs, and not simply something correlated with it, helps people adopt Q beliefs.
Those who believe in a fallen world, where evil acts unfettered, also tend to believe in the idea of an end times, when heaven and earth will be reunited, perhaps after the forces of good and evil meet for a final battle (there are many versions of the end times tale). We asked if “We are very likely entering the prophesied ‘end times’” and 42 percent of the sample agreed. Validating the arguments in early reporting, end times believers are more likely to believe in Q, too. The pattern looks quite similar to what we just saw above with the link to a belief in active evil forces – only among those who agree that we’re in the end times does belief in Q skyrocket. Not all believe in Q, but nearly two-thirds of people in the end times agree with the conspiracy.
Arguably the more dangerous association is with Christian nationalism, which marks off the purpose of the US to serve Christians and advance Christianity. Put together with the religious beliefs in evil, Christian nationalists could be susceptible to the idea that a vast conspiracy has taken root opposed to God’s anointed champion of their cause – Donald Trump – a belief that has been growing through his term in office. The figure below shows that this link is present and very strong. Only an eighth of the least Christian nationalist believe in Q, but huge numbers of the most ardent Christian nationalists are QAnon believers. Almost 80 percent of politically interested Christian nationalists believe in Q, though it is a bit less among those with less political interest.
We included political interest here to highlight that there are connects to the information environment. That is, political interest indicates awareness of the media environment and a greater flow of political information. Of course, we suspect that the information ecosystem of Q believers is quite a bit different from that of other Americans. And this final figure (below) highlights just how different. Following our previous research, we included items asking if survey participants had heard anyone making the claims that Christians will be persecuted by a Democratic Administration (e.g., ban the bible, take your guns, lose your religious freedom, etc.). Q believers report hearing more of these arguments, though there are some differences in levels by partisanship. Partisans are more likely to have heard them, reflecting their engagement with the political process, but Q-believing Republicans have heard these persecution arguments at the highest rates.
There is so much left to say and investigate, but let’s conclude with a few thoughts. Given this evidence, it is no surprise that white evangelicals remained steadfast in support of their standard-bearer in the 2020 elections. They believe, more often than not, that he has been anointed by God to serve them, they believe overwhelmingly that the United States is a Christian nation whose success is part of God’s plan, and they believe that the Democrats are part of a vast criminal conspiracy not just working against Trump but against the interest and rights of Christians. We’ve suggested before that the 2020 elections were apocalyptic for those who believe these things, but this is perhaps the first time that we’ve closed the loop on the true constellation of conspiracy that defines their intertwined political religion.
We can’t ascribe all of this to evangelicals, though evangelicals are most likely to have religious beliefs that pave the way to conspiratorial thinking. Apparently QAnon is bigger than a single religious group or party affiliation. From our data, many religious groups need to worry and begin to discern how to coax Q beliefs out of their members. Just as religious groups have had a tremendously hard time retaining some amount of independence from Republican Trumpism, we are likewise not optimistic that religious elites have the authority to challenge belief in QAnon.
Paul A. Djupe, Denison University, is an affiliated scholar with PRRI, the book series editor of Religious Engagement in Democratic Politics (Temple), and co-creator of religioninpublic.blog (posts). Further information about his work can be found at his website and on Twitter.
Note. To show just how slippery identification with QAnon and belief in the substance of the conspiracy are, the following figure shows that there are identifiers who do not believe and believers who do not identify. Only 55 percent of those who feel warmly toward QAnon (over 50 on the 0-100 scale) identify with the movement. And 34 percent of those feeling cool/negative toward QAnon also express belief in the substance. It’s safe to say that this has not coalesced into something solid and organized as of yet.