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How QAnon uses religion to lure unsuspecting Christians

(CNN) Parker Neff was scrolling through conservative posts on Facebook when he saw an unfamiliar hashtag: #WWG1WGA.

Recently retired after serving as a Southern Baptist pastor for more than 20 years, his time was free and curiosity piqued.

"I started looking into it online," Neff said. "Doing some research."

And with that, the 66-year-old retiree, and soon his wife, Sharon, fell down one of the internet's most dangerous rabbit holes.

It didn't take long for Neff to find the hashtag's meaning. "Where We Go One We Go All" is one of several mottoes of QAnon, a collective of online conspiracists.

The pastor and his wife, who live in Arcola, Mississippi, began watching the vast collection of QAnon videos posted online by "researchers" who decipher the cryptic messages of "Q," an anonymous online persona who claims to have access to classified military and intelligence operations.

Since its inception in 2017 QAnon has quickly metastasized, infiltrating American politics, internet culture and now -- religion.

A woman holds up a QAnon sign at a President Trump campaign rally on September 22, 2020, in Moon Township, Pennsylvania.

According to QAnon, President Donald Trump is secretly working to stop a child sex cabal run by Hollywood and political elites who will one day be revealed during an apocalyptic event known as The Storm.

During the pandemic, QAnon-related content has exploded online, growing nearly 175% on Facebook and nearly 63% on Twitter, according to a British think tank.

Although QAnon's conspiracy theories are baseless -- they allege that a famous actor is a secret sex trafficker and a leading Democrat participated in Satanic rituals -- the dangers the movement poses are very real.

The FBI has called QAnon a domestic terror threat and an internal FBI memo warned that "fringe conspiracy theories very likely motivate some domestic extremists, wholly or in part, to commit criminal and sometimes violent activity."

Facebook finally pledged to ban QAnon content earlier this month. And YouTube announced Thursday that it is "removing more conspiracy theory content used to justify real-world violence," including QAnon videos.

Still, some Christian conservatives are falling for QAnon's unhinged conspiracies.

"Right now QAnon is still on the fringes of evangelicalism," said Ed Stetzer, an evangelical pastor and dean at Wheaton College in Illinois who wrote a recent column warning Christians about QAnon. "But we have a pretty big fringe.

"Pastors need to be more aware of the danger and they need tools to address it," he told CNN. "People are being misled by social media."

Pastors who preach QAnon-aligned ideas

Some Christian pastors are actually leading their followers to QAnon, or at least introducing them to its dubious conspiracy theories.

To cite a few examples:

  • During services in July, Rock Urban Church in Grandville, Michigan, played a discredited video that supports QAnon conspiracy theories. "The country is being torn apart by the biggest political hoax and coordinated mass media disinformation campaign in living history — you may know it as COVID-19," the video says. The church did not answer requests for comment and has removed the video from its YouTube channel.

Bethel Church in Redding, California. One of its leaders has shared QAnon ideas on social media.

"If you are just learning about QAnon and The Great Awakening, this is the right spot for you," reads the ministry's website. Representatives from the ministry did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Paul Anleitner, an evangelical pastor in Minneapolis, said he's seen worrying examples of conservative Christians preaching from QAnon's bible: Pastors warning about the "Deep State," congregants trading conspiracy theories during Bible studies, and, most concerning to him, unsuspecting Christians lured to QAnon through respected church leaders.

"I see this circulating through conservative and Charismatic churches and it breaks my heart," said Anleitner, who spent time in Pentecostal churches, where he says QAnon's influence is distressingly pervasive.

"It's pulling families apart, pulling people away from the gospel and creating distrust among people searching for the truth."

Pastor John MacArthur speaking at his California church in August. CNN has blurred a portion of this image to protect a child's identity.

Earlier this year a young Christian friend of his recirculated QAnon ideas posted online by a national Christian leader, Anleitner said. (He declined to name the pastor on the record).

"I reached out to my friend and told him the stuff he posted came directly from QAnon," said Anleitner. "He had no idea."

And that, Christian leaders say, is a big part of the problem.

Some followers see QAnon messages as sacred texts

QAnon is complex, said Brian Friedberg, a researcher at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government who has studied the movement.

It churns out an almost endless stream of content, from memes to anti-Semitic tropes to Christian Scripture. From its anonymous message board, the dubious ideas circulate through social media, sometimes finding their way into the Twitter feed of Trump and his allies, who have repeatedly boosted QAnon accounts.

Q himself (or herself, or themselves for that matter -- no one quite knows who Q is) has posted nearly 5,000 messages since 2017.

In QAnon, some observers see a mass delusion, others see a political cult, and still others claim to see the sprouts of a new faith.

According to the religious view of QAnon, Q is a postmodern prophet, "Q drops" (aka his messages) are sacred texts and Trump is a messianic figure who will conjure "The Storm," an apocalyptic revelation exposing evildoers.

A QAnon flag is flown during a rally in support of President Trump on October 11, 2020 in Ronkonkoma, New York.

If QAnon is a new religion, it bears the birthmarks of our truth-deprived time: Born on an obscure internet image board, it spreads through social media, preaches a perverted form of populism and is amplified by a president who has demonstrated little regard for facts.

But in Mississippi, the Neffs said they see QAnon as a source of "behind the scenes" information -- not as a religion.

"It's kind of like checking Fox News or CNN," -- that is, a place to find the latest news, said Park Neff, who has a master's in divinity and a doctorate from New Orleans Baptist Seminary. "It just seemed to be good, solid conservative thought."

Like her husband, Sharon Neff said she saw no contradictions between QAnon and Christianity. Instead, she saw important connections, as did many of her friends and fellow church members.

"What resonated with me is the idea of moving toward a global government," she said, "and that actually goes along with the Christian belief about the End Times."

QAnon's 'red pill'

In some ways, QAnon echoes the concerns of politically engaged, ultra-conservative evangelicals.

It interprets world events through the lens of Scripture or Q posts. It's obsessed with a grand, apocalyptic reckoning that will separate good from evil, deeply distrusts the media and finds an unlikely champion -- and hero -- in President Trump.

Neff also said she likes that Q quotes Christian scripture extensively and claims to be exposing child trafficking, a problem that she said she and other Southern Baptist women have been fighting for years.

That's no accident, say experts who have studied QAnon. The group intentionally uses emotionally fraught topics, like suffering children, to draw Christians to their movement.

"That's a recruiting tactic," said Travis View, a host of "QAnon Anonymous," a podcast that seeks to explain the movement. "It's their red pill." (Travis View is a pseudonym he uses for safety. )

A man wears a QAnon sweatshirt during a pro-Trump rally on October 3, 2020 in the borough of Staten Island in New York City. The event was held to encourage supporters to pray for Trump's health after he contracted Covid-19.

View compared it to a religion that proselytizes by offering potential converts seemingly mundane services before laying the hard sell on them.

"The 'Save the Children' messaging is very effective, because everyone wants to protect children."

It's also tailor-made for evangelicals, View said.

Lately, he added, QAnon has been holding "Save the Children" rallies, while carefully concealing its involvement.

The tactic has been effective, said Anleitner.

"People who start with 'saving the children' don't stay there -- and that's the problem," he said. "It's like Alice in Wonderland. They follow the rabbit and enter a totally different framework for reality."

Ready for the Great Awakening

Friedberg said he sees elements of his experience as a young evangelical in the QAnon movement: Its seamless blend of Christianity and nationalism, its promise of spiritual knowledge and the primacy of scripture, and, finally, the desire to evangelize to friends and family.

But Friedberg said he doesn't see QAnon itself as a religion.

"This is an information operation that has gotten out of the direct control of whoever started it," he said. It's an operation, he added, that likely would not exist in a less polarized, confusing and frightening time.

Under somewhat similar strains, a group of 1840s Baptists called the Millerites predicted the Second Coming of Jesus.

When Jesus didn't arrive, the Millerites were greatly disappointed, but they adjusted their apocalyptic timetables and soldiered on, eventually becoming the Seventh Day Adventist Church.

A QAnon supporter at Mount Rushmore National Monument on July 1, 2020 in Keystone, South Dakota.

Travis View said he sees echoes of the Millerites in QAnon. Numerous QAnon "prophecies" have proven false. Hillary Clinton was not arrested in 2017, Republicans didn't rout Democrats during the 2018 midterm elections and Trump has not imprisoned his political enemies at Guantanamo Bay.

These days, Q shies away from giving specific dates, View noted, suggesting a shift in tactics. Even so, believers attempt to explain away any contradictions between QAnon and reality, just as the Millerites did centuries ago.

Park Neff, the Baptist pastor, said the failed prophecies are all part of QAnon's master plan.

"Some of it seems like deliberate misinformation to throw off the other side," Neff said, "as should be apparent to anyone who watches the news. Sometimes he (Q) does it to rattle their cages, sometimes to keep them guessing. It seems to work."

Meanwhile, Neff, like many interested in QAnon, looks forward to the Great Awakening. The pastor said it won't be like the other Great Awakenings, the religious revivals that torched through early America.

This one, he said, will concern the state, not the church.

It will start when the prevailing evil in our government is finally revealed, he said, and end with Trump validated and all the bad people jailed on an island far, far away.