QAnon Didn’t Just Spring Forth From the Void — It’s the Latest From a Familiar Movement

A man wears a Trump/Q shirt at a Trump rally in Minneapolis in 2019. Image: Tony Webster/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

If you’ve been online at any point in the past year—if not, welcome!—your aimless clicks and doomscrolling may have brought you glimpses of the “world” of QAnon: the conspiracy theory that argues that US President Donald Trump is in the midst of a secret war against sex-trafficking, Satan-worshipping pedophiles. Its increasing prominence and power, especially as a worldview dissociated from fact, have compelled many an analyst, journalist, and pundit to festoon their analyses of QAnon in religious language. According to this speculative genre, QAnon is a new American religion, or even a cult. It’s an abusive cabal unlike any other form of belief and practice preceding it. 

Enter religious studies scholar Megan Goodwin, co-host of Keeping it 101: A Killjoy’s Introduction to Religion, and author of Abusing Religion: Literary Persecution, Sex Scandals, and American Minority Religions. Fluent in the place of religion in the media, and with a recent book on the religio-political history and power of sex abuse allegations, Goodwin contends that QAnon is far from unprecedented. Goodwin traces the group’s prominence and lineage, as well as its zealous determination to “save the children,” to the rise of the New Christian Right and the Satanic Panic of the 1980s. 

Calling QAnon a cult or religion marks the movement for its alterity and supposed irrationality, and hides how its practices are born of American social and political traditions. Its apocalypticism and accusations of pedophilia are but a contemporary symptom of a religiously-inflected political strategy older than Christianity itself. Historical precedents further suggest that the state lacks the tools and incentives to curb the group’s rise. 

QAnon certainly holds power as both a political force and a site of projected public scrutiny. The realistic range of political options may seem exasperatingly curtailed, but Goodwin closes by discussing the strategies and extant projects that hope to birth greater solidarity between media professionals and religious studies scholars. These practices may sensitize and historicize the public discourse surrounding—and responses to—QAnon, or whatever comes next. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Adam Willems: I’ve been upset reading the otherizing, voyeuristic accounts of QAnon coming out of publications that should know better but seem not to. I feel like that’s just the frustration of your entire field of work. 

Megan Goodwin: [Laughs] Correct.

So I feel like you’ve managed to compartmentalize it in ways that perhaps I haven’t yet. But I saw Columbia Journalism Review come out with this article that talks about how “The QAnon cult is growing and the media is helping.” 

It’s like, first, you are the media. 

Yeah, and there’s this virtue signaling to the shortfalls of the fourth estate, but then the first half of that title, “The QAnon cult is growing,” is itself deeply harmful. It’s a rhetorical device that makes QAnon seem like this unprecedented thing when it totally isn’t.

Well, unprecedented and irrational. Not even irrational. For me it comes back to this assumption that ‘cults’ equals brainwashing, so people have been tricked or forced into behaving this way rather than making decisions that seem logical to them. Internally consistent worldviews are a thing, and they’re making choices. They need to be held accountable for the choices that they’re making. 

No one’s forcing them to consume this media. No one’s forcing them to be out in the streets, and certainly no one’s forcing them to take rifles into the non-existent basement of Cosmic Pizza in DC. It’s an extension of the way that we talk about Fox News, too. We’re like, “Oh no, my dad has been brainwashed by Fox News.” No, your dad is an adult human who made a choice to turn on rabidly biased news, and it has become a habit. It’s a way that he is in the world. And he made choices based on that choice. So there’s an accountability piece there. 

What would it actually mean for media to have that kind of accountability lens in the way that it talks about things like Fox News and QAnon?

I mean it would have to be something like a ProPublica, where you’re doing data-driven analysis that’s backed up by thorough research and that doesn’t have to sustain itself on clicks. The reason—one of the reasons—that we see “cult” in a headline so often is because it makes people click the headline. Even talking about QAnon as a religion isn’t as provocative. The problem is so much bigger than just Q or the election cycle, it’s profit-driven journalism.

As long as revenue is click-driven, I don’t think we’re going to get there. If in a magical world such a thing were possible, I think it would be important to start by asking ourselves: Why do we want to think about QAnon as a cult or as a religion? What are we trying to say by saying, Oh, this is a cult or even this is religious? Am I trying to say they’re dangerous? Why do I think religion is dangerous? Or am I trying to say that they’re fanatical, that they’re irrational? Then why is religion my go-to there? 

You had pointed out the novelty piece, the idea that this is brand-new, and of course we know new religious movements are never wholly new. Everything builds on something else. But the idea that it, specifically Q, doesn’t fit into a really clear broad political trajectory for the last 40 years is either willfully ignorant, or just damagingly naive about the role that politics has been playing in the United States for at least the last 40 or 50 years. Not that religion hasn’t always been politics, full stop. 

When you look at QAnon, how would you describe it in your own words, and what kind of trajectory do you chart? 

I see them as the absurd logical conclusion of the New Christian Right, the hyper-patriotism and the sense of embattlement, and particularly the conviction that political disagreement or progressive values must equal not sexual perversion but sexual predation. It really gains momentum in the 1970s with the New Christian Right and the unprecedented allegiance between conservative Protestants and conservative Catholics. Even 20 years prior that would have been completely unthinkable. 

So 1973-74 is when we start seeing the Moral Majority take off. In 1960, Kennedy’s having to get in front of the Southern Baptist convention and assure them that he’s not going to let the Pope run the country. By the time George W. Bush is in office, he’s showing up in front of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, assuring them that their concerns and their agenda around contraception and abortion will drive his presidency. There’s this broad trajectory of conservative Christianity that includes both Protestantism and Catholicism for the first time that leads to this. 

But also very specifically QAnon is coming out of a Satanic Panic “us versus them” mentality, and the “them” has to be not just different from us but evil. We know they’re evil because they prey on our children. This is governed by a very Catholic way of seeing the world as well. 

There are a lot of tendrils to pull out from there.

I mean the most interesting one that I’ve seenor the most interesting to me because I work on sex and sex abuseis the way that the Q discourse has been looped into anti-trafficking movements. And anti-trafficking activism is a problem all on its own, but watching folks who don’t even realize that they’re having conversations with Q members or conversations with Q overtones is bizarre, and it really is coming out of the same rhetoric from the Satanic Panic. This “save the children,” “believe the children” rhetoric has conservative LDS members and Mormon fundamentalists and lefty white celebrities all on the same page and not realizing that this is a Q event. 

Looping back to what you stated previously about how people often frame something like QAnon as religious when they really mean irrational, how do you reconcile that statement with QAnon at the same time being a product—or an absurd outcome—of the New Christian Right? 

Absurdity doesn’t necessarily have to be irrational, and the space where QAnon does actually map pretty neatly onto new religious movements is the idea of an internally rational worldview, or an internally consistent worldview that is unrecognizable and seems irrational from the outside. 

We saw something similar when we were looking at the Branch Davidians, where you look at an apocalyptic sect and go, “Okay. Well, they think the world is ending. This is stupid. This is crazy.” But no, if you’re following the texts and you’re following the teachings, they have explanations for everything. They’re not explanations that everyone would accept, but they are compelling to folks in a certain historical moment in a certain social location. And I mean that it is absurd in that truly, I cannot believe in the year 2020 we are talking about a satanic conspiracy to pervert children that somehow also incorporates a risotto recipe in a meaningful way—

It’s almost canonical. 

That’s the thing. The frustrating thing with conspiracy theories is the more you push back against them, the more compelling they are to folks who have bought into them. It’s honestly one of the things I think is damaging about the novelty angle around Q in the media. I get that journalists want to cover them because they’re weird and also they’re making giant messes all over Facebook. That’s interesting, That’s novel. That’s funky. It very much speaks to that. 

I don’t know if you’re familiar with Bob Orsi’s chapter from Between Heaven and Earth called “Snakes Alive.” He talks about snake handling and the way that Dennis Covington covered snake handlers in Appalachia, where we want to look at the foreign or the exotic or the grotesque and just remind ourselves that we’re smart and right by looking at them and then pulling away. 

I feel like that’s a lot of what happens with media coverage of Q. It’s the, Oh, they’re weird. They’re funky. This is so interesting, but also whew this is not me, I would never be taken in, I am smarter and more rational and more modern.

So, QAnon is basically the outcome of religious movements but isn’t necessarily religious itself? 

I’m not sure that the question about whether or not they’re religious is interesting to me. In the early 20th century, white nationalism manifests as an explicitly, identifiably religious phenomenon. The Klan says, “We are white Protestants, Jesus would have been a Klansman.” What you see to some extent with QAnon—and certainly with white nationalism—is not a coherent religious coalition anymore. It’s not all white Protestants going, “We hate the Jews.” It’s a number of groups, many of them atheists, many of them non-traditional religious, and also many of them Christian, identifying against specific religions, but also wanting to call them something other than religion. So the Anti-Semitism and Islamophobia are positions against religion, but also trying to argue that Islam and Judaism aren’t “real” religions. This thinking then argues, That’s why we know they’re dangerous, and the government should intervene, or that private citizens should intervene, since the government has failed us.

So it’s much larger than a purely religious thing, and focusing solely on whether or not it’s religious is almost a distraction from a much larger set of social and political demands and consequences. 

Yeah, I think that’s fair. The other thing that I want to pay a lot of attention to is using religion as a diagnostic tool, rather than as something folks would claim for themselves. When I’m thinking about religion in terms of groups of people, I want to pay attention when people say that what they’re doing is religious. Q is not saying that what they’re doing is religious. So to go in and say, Ah, but really what you’re doing is religious! is to impose your understandings, your assumptions, your biases about what religion is—and frankly, why it’s stupid—onto a group of people you also think are stupid, or dangerous, or both. 

Nobody who’s thinking critically about religion is going to look at Q and say, “Uh, this is religious, no further questions.” We can look at the ways that it tastes religious-y: there are costumes, there is iconography, but this gets into that territory of, like, is sports religion. I do want to pay attention to systems that use religious assumptions, even though they don’t realize they’re religious assumptions, like the US legal system. But Q is using religious assumptions about what does and doesn’t count as religion when they’re being Islamophobic or when they’re being anti-Semitic. That is a space I want to think about. 

Well speaking of legal systems, I read your new book, Abusing Religion. And I felt like contraceptive nationalism as a framework makes a lot of sense in this context too. I wonder if you could briefly describe what that means. 

When we’re talking about contraceptive nationalism, we’re talking about a narrative strategy. It’s about stories that try to protect the American body politic, the “us” as a country, the idea of America as a cohesive unit that has specific relationships to things like bodies and sexuality. It’s a narrative framework that tries to protect the American people by discouraging invasion, impregnation, or insemination, by religious and sexual outsiders. 

So we tell ourselves these stories about what happens when white American women and children are either forced into—or choose to come into—sexual contact with religious outsiders who are also raced. The violation of a Betty Mahmoody [the author of Not Without My Daughter] also becomes the violation of the American body politic, because the white woman gets to stand in for us as a country. Her violation becomes our violation, and her escape, her resistance, gets to be our resistance and our resilience. The story provides justification, explanation for, and perpetuation of, things like religious intolerance particularly based on suspicion of sexual difference.

I had a moment during my read of Abusing Religion. The Jesse Helms bill, passed unanimously, which revoked tax-exempt status from any group “which has a substantial interest in the promotion of… power derived from evil spirits.” I want that in every US History textbook.

This is your Congress! This is who we let make laws! In the year 1985, the entirety of the US Senate was like, “Oh sure, we’re not going to fund Satan.”

The idea that tax brackets are going to eliminate witches— 

Yeah, that’s how you do it!

You know, like garlic or daylight for vampires, it’s going to make them go away. And there are probably still members of that Congress who are incumbents.

Oh, a hundred percent. And the thing is, because Trump is in many ways being run by super far-right conservative Christians, it’s made space in this administration and in several branches of government for folks who really do subscribe to these apocalyptic, bifurcated us-versus-them, good-versus-evil, views. This is why you’ve got people, and again in front of the entire country, casting out demons, and preventing against demonic pregnancies. And Pompeo endorsing the president from Jerusalem trying to bring on the end of the world. It’s gross, but it’s also been going on since the 1970s, So again, nothing new here. 

It’s maybe just more wildly symptomatic for people who weren’t looking for it. 

I think that’s it. It used to be a lot harder to convince particularly my liberal white students that politics and religion had anything to do with each other. That was a thing that I had to go out of my way to prove, and now they’re just throwing it out there. It’s just in your face all the time. “Jerusalem, we did that for the Evangelicals,” said it out loud. 

I’ve been thinking a lot about the Helms Bill as a historical precedent. Obviously there’s the jump to incarceration and criminalization that occurs with episodes like the Satanic Panic, but it seems as if the United States government as a monolith has no real way to respond to something like QAnon. If I look at something like the Jesse Helms bill, the way that the state tries to “defeat” things it sees as other and ‘cultish’ is through something like taxes. 

Or Supreme Court cases. We got a ton of adjudication around disestablishment and particularly free exercise if we’re talking about new religious movements or marginalized or minoritized religions. There’s no benefit for the government to even acknowledge that they know Q exists, although they clearly do. They are signaling in a lot of ways that, “Oh, we’re not necessarily endorsing this, but—wink, wink, nudge, nudge—here it is.” 

Same thing with 2016: David Duke didn’t get Trump elected, white women did that, but refusing to acknowledge that he knows who David Duke is, or the vague gesturing to good people being on both sides, allows more conservative, more fringy, people to reflect onto him and this administration the stuff that they want to see. And it’s mobilizing QAnon supporters in primaries, which on the one hand is disturbing and super scary, but then ultra-conservative white, either Christian or fringe conservative, politics is nothing new. We saw the same thing with the Tea Party in 2010. The Tea Party seemed very exotic at the time, because nobody was shooting up pizza parlors to stop imaginary sex trafficking. But again, not new.

It’s just one instantiation. 

This is where we’ve been the whole time. Apocalypticism is one of America’s favorite pastimes. We’ve been predicting the end of the world since before we were a country. Again, we’ve just kept doing it. The idea that our political opponents are sexual predators is also so much older than America. It’s a standard way of defaming an outsider group. We see something very similar in European anti-Semitism in the Middle Ages: “They go after babies, and they do weird sex things.” It’s coincidentally deployed against early Christians: “They eat babies and they do weird sex things,” first century CE. It’s how we make an other: by accusing them of preying on vulnerable populations, especially children, and of doing sex weird and wrong.

With such a long scope of this being a go-to in the politics playbook, it seems like there’s no impetus for QAnon to be responded to.

They don’t care if it’s true, they care if it works and it’s working for them. Carole Cusack has a very compelling way to think about religion. The question that folks want to ask from the outside is like, Does anybody really believe that stuff? The emphasis on belief is a really Protestant impulse. And Carol Cusack says Who cares if they believe it? What does it do for them? What does it do out in the world? What do we know about a society because something like a Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster exists? 

So rather than expect high-level religious studies analysis from journalists, although I live in hope, I think maybe our role as religious studies scholars is to sit back and go, What does it tell us about America and American media that, when we see something we think is irrational or dangerous, we want to call it religion?

I guess the question then is how that kind of reckoning and intervention can happen. 

I mean, I’m trying! Both in my own personal work, but also the organization—

Sacred Writes.

That Liz Bucar and I pulled together is very specifically trying to make interventions so that we’ve got people with training in religious studies doing more public analysis of what religion is doing in the world. And incentivizing those relationships between scholars and journalists so that it feels like we can work together, and that we have a common goal. The contemporary media landscape is really abusive, particularly to journalists, and I think it can really be hard to be in solidarity with folks who seem like they’re trying to jump into your very tiny wading pool. 

We’re trying to set up these collaborative relationships so that it’s not like, we’re taking your jobs or we think we can just show up and be journalists. What if we work together and try to make Americans—and hey, maybe people all over the world—just think a little bit more carefully about what religion does and why it matters?