By Paul A. Djupe, Denison University
I was just interviewed for the Radicalized podcast (Apple, Spotify) by Liz Wahl, talking about religion and extremist movements, especially focused on what I’ve been researching intermittently over the past few years: American religion and QAnon. One of the points I made toward the end was that extremist beliefs that high ranking Democrats are satan-worshipping, pedophiles who will strip the rights of Christians could simply ebb. Q has not posted in months, Trump is out of office, and social media platforms have banned people and groups pushing QAnon conspiracies pressing the stolen election narrative. Pretty standard social science would suggest that without reinforcement, a belief will fade. Has it?
I am fortunate to have data from two sources that enable an initial comparison of QAnon support in the post-Trump era. The first survey was administered to about 1750 respondents from October 23 to 29th, 2020 using Qualtrics Panels. This is not a probability sample, but employed quotas on gender, region, and age to match 2019 Census estimates. We then generated raking weights by adding race and education to help match the Census on these crucial metrics. The March, 2021 data were collected with Jason Adkins (Morehead State University) and Jake Neiheisel (SUNY, Buffalo). We collected about 3,550 respondents through the panel provider Lucid. This also is not a probability sample, but we applied raking weights to make the sample look representative of the nation.
The QAnon support statement used in October, 2020 and March, 2021 was the same:
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 October data (weighted), we found that 39.8 percent agreed or strongly agreed with our statement. Nearly a third were in the middle, probably signaling that they didn’t know enough to take a stand, while just under 30 percent disagreed. Those numbers were not far off the mark in March, though we do see some slippage (4 percentage points) in agreement to 35.9 percent with a 4 point gain in their middle option (“Neither agree nor disagree”). The support levels we find are higher than those found by PRRI (also in March 2021), which asked whether “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.” So, question wording matters, as usual.
Is the decline (if it is an actual decline) occurring equally across partisan lines? The evidence is not unequivocal, but seems to suggest that it is fading more strongly among Republicans. There is a very slight dip among Democrats (and an increase among not so strong Democrats), but sizable, near 10 point drops among leaning Republicans and strong Republicans. We perhaps should not get too excited because 60 percent of strong Republican still believe in the substance of the Q conspiracy, but a drop is a drop.
A clearer, more consistent trend can be seen with worship attendance, with a drop of about 5 percentage points at each level from attending never to weekly or more often. The drop is smaller in absolute terms for those who never attend, but a bit higher in terms of a rate – a 2 point drop is a 10 percent drop from the base level of 20% agreement. Which means, even a 5 point drop among weekly+ attenders leaves them a long way to go to flush QAnon out of the pews since a majority still evinces belief in the conspiracy.
I still find a strong link between Christian nationalism and QAnon belief, following up on previous posts. But, as with the other figures, we can see some small reductions in support across the board and greater in absolute terms among the top two Christian nationalist categories (effectively those in the top 50 percent). There are smaller drops among those in the bottom half, but of course they had less support for QAnon back in October.
To be sure, March was still the very early stages of recovery from the end of the Trump era, and the surveys are from different panel providers that do not interview the same people 5 months apart – the declines could be a fluke of the samples we had. But, if they’re not the product of survey error and only time and more data will tell, we are seeing some ebb in belief in the conspiracy theory that dominated the final two years of the Trump administration and fed the January 6 Insurrection.
In her comprehensive review of QAnon in The Atlantic, Adrienne LaFrance argues that, “To look at QAnon is to see not just a conspiracy theory but the birth of a new religion.” I have sincere doubts about that. It’s fashionable these days to describe things as new religions – e.g., partisanship is the new religion – but generally they don’t seem to fit definitions of religion unless we really dilute the definition. Though QAnon worked traditional religious beliefs into the tangled web, the actors were humans (rather than supernatural forces), there is no forthright statement of values, there is no holy text except for Q’s cryptic posts across platforms. My own view is that QAnon hitched a ride on a vulnerable public at just the right time. And especially without continued posts to keep the game going, it will fade to obscurity within a relatively short span of time. That’s not to say that other conspiracies do not fill that void for those disposed to believe such things. But perhaps they will return to more innocuous ones like the devil’s communications uncovered when rock records are played backwards.
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.