Theorizing Modernities article

QAnon, Conspiracy, and White Evangelical Apocalypse

Zombies as portrayed in the movie Night of the Living Dead (1968). Public Domain. Via Wikimedia Commons.

And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

-W.B. Yeats, “The Second Coming,” 1919

Rather than an aberration, the fascination with conspiracies at the heart of Trump-era White evangelical Christian nationalism is symptomatic of a distinctively modern manifestation of evangelicalism’s obsession with end-time prophecies. These form a surging and resurging current throughout late twentieth and twenty-first century evangelicalism. Confronted by an ever more rapidly changing socio-political context, and now inextricably intertwined with Republican Party politics, end-time apocalypticism and messianism have come to infuse evangelical approaches to contemporary politics and culture. Caught in the siren-song of Trump and QAnon conspiracy ideology, this fixation has leapt from the folk theology pages of popular Christian fiction and populism-inflected evangelical church pews, into voting booths, political rallies and activism, and onto the lawn of the U.S. Capitol at the January 6th, 2021 insurrection. Together, apocalypticism and messianism form a recurring dynamic, pattern, and logic that drives the latest resurrection of White evangelical nationalism—a dynamic, pattern, and logic I describe as “zombie nationalism.”

The Zombification of White Christian Nationalism

Studies of the American religious landscape produced in the second decade of the twenty first century claim that White, Christian America is rapidly ageing and diminishing in population, its institutions receding, its influence waning. If demography is destiny, the argument runs, the relevant demographic trends indicate that White Christian America is dying.

Amid these projected realities, Robert Jones warns of the emergence of a white evangelical Christian “Frankenstein’s monster” (231)—an entity stitched together from the remnant fragments of formerly hegemonic, gradually declining, cultural and institutional bodies. Though long decaying, they become reanimated and propelled by the surging currents and organizing shocks of mobilizing for political power and specific culture war causes. Frankenstein’s monster stands in as a metaphor for the kind of aggressive, concentrated culture war resurrection that White evangelicalism opted for in its political resurgence under Trump and in successive waves of Trumpism (which has outlasted the Trump presidency itself).

And yet, in contrast to Jones’s analogy of a White evangelical “Frankenstein’s monster,” the ethno-religious nationalism that animates contemporary U.S. White evangelicalism is fashioned much more in the image of the zombies of George Romero’s film, Dawn of the Dead (1978), the follow up to the his first zombie film, Night of the Living Dead (1968). Like George Romero’s zombies (and in diametric contrast to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein), the latest mutation of this ethno-religious nationalism demonstrates little capacity for the kind of self-discovery, hyper-self-reflexivity, critical-reflectiveness, and desire for nurturing relationships that Harold Bloom describes as the tragic vulnerability of Victor Frankenstein’s creation.

In the Romero original, the zombies emerge slowly. They traverse the terrain with seemingly infinitesimal motions. Their power inheres in the ways they pursue their objectives in mindless, lock-step conformity, and with undeterrable resolve. So it is for the social and ideological patterns that inspirit the latest resurrection of White, evangelical Christian political resurgence. These patterns are reflected in dynamics of reanimation born of motivating commitments and beliefs that are not amenable to contrary evidence. Such recurring dynamics are fueled, moreover, by U.S. White evangelical Christians conceptualizing themselves as an increasingly marginalized remnant in a society that (putatively) originally did, and (allegedly) should still, reflect their central identity and values. It entails the self-perception of being perennially marginalized—and progressively more endangered— victims of an aggressively anti-Christian “secular” society. For White evangelicals, these grievances infuse (and further propagate themselves through) pop-culture genres in evangelical Christian culture that amplify accounts of spiritual warfare, end time apocalypticism, and messianism. As Edward G. Simmons, David C. Ludden, and J. Colin Harris show, these forms of “pop-theology” (or folk theology) prime White evangelicals for forms of cognitive dissonance. Such dissonance is fertile soil for conspiracy fascination that graduates into—sometimes subtle, sometimes flagrant—radicalization. Many Trump-era evangelicals embrace “end-time” and messianism-inflected conspiracy theories that permeate Trump-driven Republican politics and policy-making. From this ensues a proclivity to position their political and cultural opponents on the far side of a Manichean divide and to imbue contemporary politics with cosmic urgency.

During the Trump presidency, for example, White, evangelical Christians were absorbed in ever-expanding numbers into QAnon conspiracy ideology. Some evangelical scholars sounded the alarm about this trend. They declared the active evangelical embrace of—or impassive acquiescence to— QAnon as a departure from true evangelicalism, into an altogether different, heretical religious movement. And yet, this response by evangelical elites makes denial of White evangelicalism’s relation to QAnon all too convenient and un-self-critical. Much like the basic principle of addiction recovery, denying that one even has a problem is a primary indicator that the problem is not only present, but has become, in fact, quite fundamental.

Clearly, not all evangelicals became QAnon followers—though startlingly large numbers have. Evangelical and non-evangelical analysts alike document that captivation with QAnon conspiracies has spread through the ranks of White evangelicalism like wildfire. Careful inspection through the lens of ethno-religious nationalism illuminates that many White evangelicals are primed to embrace QAnon ideology for reasons intrinsic to 20th and 21st century White evangelical culture. Indeed, ethno-religious nationalism—and the distinctive logic and dynamics of zombie nationalism— forms the connective tissue creating a symbiosis between much White evangelicalism and QAnon conspiracy ideology.

QAnon and White Evangelical Nationalism

QAnon theories, and the internet “drops” wherein “Q” would leak putative secret information about government officials and the media, emerged in the second year of Trump’s presidency. They quickly evolved into an increasingly mainstream religio-political movement promoted by Trump (via Twitter). “Q” portrays Trump as a messianic figure who is a bulwark for U.S. White evangelicals and other putatively “patriotic” populations against assaults upon American Christian culture. “Q” is a clandestine (that is, “anonymous,” hence, “QAnon”) internet presence whose viral posts and YouTube videos—frequently sprinkled with quotations from Christian scripture (e.g. 2 Chronicles 7:14) and soliciting prayer from his/her followers—purport to expose the insidious inner workings of the so-called “deep state,” and the intrinsic deceptiveness of “mainstream media.”[1] “Q” purports to reveal how Trump’s alleged struggles against these are infused with apocalyptic significance and spiritual warfare, cohere with end time biblical prophecy, and require the retrieval and defense of America’s “true” identity as a Christian nation.

QAnon flag at Virginia 2nd Amendment Rally in January 2020. Photo Credit: Anthony Crider. Via Flickr.

At its most acute, the QAnon conspiracy ideology asserts that the Democratic party is controlled by a cabal of global elite (“globalist”) and “deep state” anti-Christian and anti-Trump actors (specifically naming the Rothchilds, George Soros, Bill and Hilary Clinton, Bill Gates, and “Hollywood” figures, among others). This cabal allegedly engages in pedophilia, child sex-trafficking, ritual cannibalism of children, and worships Satan. Further, this ideology amplifies the “big lie” or Trump’s baseless claims that he won the 2020 presidential election “in a landslide,” and that the election was stolen from him and his followers. Though seemingly so extreme as to be dismissed out of hand, in fact, White evangelicals in the U.S. embrace these claims at rates far higher than their non-evangelical, Republican counterparts.

Examined in terms of their religio-cultural structures, these conspiracy-fueled patterns of scapegoating and demonization of opponents are neither novel, nor especially unusual. They reanimate distinct features of widely circulated antisemitic conspiracy theories, such as the Protocols of the Elders of Zion—an early 20th century Russian Czarist fabricated account of a Jewish economic and political elite allegedly controlling global politics and economics. QAnon crosses various “Protocols” tropes with the recurrent “blood libel” accusations that inspired numerous Christian pogroms against European Jews, namely, claiming that Jews kidnapped Christian children and used their blood in ritual observance. QAnon demonizes and scapegoats its targets in similar ways, and similarly inspires violence. The antisemitic contours of QAnon ideology make it especially attractive to self-avowed White supremacists and White nationalists (for example, the Proud Boys). These antisemitic contours are “plausibly deniable” for many White evangelicals in virtue of the self-averred, seemingly philosemitic, pro-Zionist policies of the Trump administration. QAnon’s ethno-nationalist elements, intermingling with its religious dimensions, create an intoxicating elixir for White evangelicals who may think of themselves as sharing nothing in common with avowed White nationalists or card-carrying White supremacists. Yet, QAnon brings the elective affinities between these groups into clear and distinct focus. Those affinities form the warp and woof of the ethno-religious nationalism that is the (sometimes camouflaged, often denied) connective tissue between them.

Trump-era White evangelicals have widely adopted various messianic interpretations of Donald Trump. Many of these feed directly into QAnon claims that Trump is an “end time” defender of U.S. Christian culture. This is the same culture previously captivated and emboldened by Franke Peretti’s best-selling spiritual warfare Christian fiction, which generated warnings from some evangelical elites against a looming obsession with “spiritual warfare.” The U.S. White evangelical culture-industrial complex amplifies these claims and dynamics exponentially. QAnon is, in effect, one part Frank Peretti spiritual warfare, one part Left Behind series apocalypticism, and one part Elders of Zion antisemitic conspiracy theory, packaged together in a tantalizing, self-involving variation on Celebrity Apprentice reality television and social media.

Apocalypse Again

End-time, apocalyptic, messianic drivers of White, evangelical Christian nationalism are not new. They form a recurrent dynamic in contemporary White U.S. evangelicalism. The best-selling, end-time prophecy publishing industry emerged in the 1970s and 80s. It was launched by Hal Lindsey’s The Late Great Planet Earth (1970), which the New York Times identified as the best-selling non-fiction book of the 1970s. This, along with other phenomena of Christian rapture culture (for example, the A Thief in the Night film series of 1972–83), influenced the upsurge of evangelical political engagement in the 1980s. Evangelical apocalypticism surged forward again with the release of the bestselling Left Behind book and film series, and ensuing multimedia franchise, throughout the 1990s and early 2000s. All of these are prior examples of the various apocalyptical entanglements that re-emerge in evangelical Christian enmeshment in QAnon conspiracy ideology.

These examples are not merely benign instances of “Christian fiction,” niche Christian nonfiction, or “Christian entertainment.” They have recurring real world implications. For example, 1970s and 80s end-time prophecy and apocaplypticism shaped White, evangelical attitudes toward U.S. national politics in the Cold War. It informed evangelicals’ views regarding the prospects of nuclear war—which many viewed as the form that biblically prophesied apocalypse might take. Hal Lindsey claimed it was the Anti-Christ that would “delude the world with promises of peace” (144). As Matthew Sutton shows (see chap. 11), throughout the 1980s Ronald Reagan catered to his White evangelical base by occasionally entertaining their apocalypticism at various points throughout his presidency. Selling upwards around 80 million copies altogether, the Left Behind series of the 90s and early aughts shaped evangelical views about the State of Israel’s end-time significance in the present, and fueled Christian Zionism. Indeed, the dispensational theology modeled in the Left Behind series spurred Trump to move the U.S Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem in 2018.

QAnon conspiracy ideology symbiotically feeds upon populist White evangelical impulses toward apocalypticism and messianism. It captures them through their fusion with Republican political ideology. It retrieves and synergistically reanimates—even as it mutates— earlier religious nationalist patterns. These occur, for example, in re-emergent concepts of the White Christian nation (peoplehood) as a victimized-yet-faithful and long-suffering remnant, that conception’s inter-wovenness with embattled, originally Christian identity and culture (a myth of origin), and the exceptional role of the U.S. as a “chosen nation” (or “new Israel”) in God’s providential plan within world history (exceptionalism). The cyclical resurgence of these dynamics exemplifies “zombie nationalism.”

Hence, the capture of White evangelicals by the siren-song of Trump-amplified ethno-religious nationalism through QAnon conspiracy ideology is no momentary deviation from true evangelicalism. It is the culmination of more than a half-century of evangelicalism’s surging and resurging fixation upon end-times apocalypticism, and its concurrent progressive enmeshment in, and symbiosis with, Republican Party ideology. It is intrinsic—not extraneous or incidental—to White evangelical religion.

Rather than the demise prognosticated by social scientists, the case of “the end of White Christian America” is an example by which to examine how forms of religious authority and identity navigate conflicts precipitated by rapid change and relativized significance in a diversifying context, and how they vie for retrenchment through radicalization in the shifting contexts of modernity. Any hope for evangelical resistance to these trends, much less constructive transformation, will entail grappling with the very changes that appear to them to be the sources of their precarity. This entails working in registers that have emerged in U.S. society more broadly—registers of race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality. Responding intelligently and intentionally requires that White Christians, in a spirit of teachability, come to terms with past—and recurring—patterns of racism, ethnocentrism, heteronormativity, and patriarchy, in which they are implicated. I examine how race energizes the ethno-religious nationalist impulses of zombie nationalism in Part 2 of this series.

[1] A 2018 poll conducted by the Wheaton College Billy Graham Center Research Institute found that 46% of self-identified evangelicals and 52% of those whose beliefs tag them as evangelical “strongly believes the mainstream media produces fake news”—a central tenet of QAnon. Indeed, the more active respondents were in their church, the more mistrusting of news media they were. This is one trend, along with their widespread embrace of Donald Trump, that has rendered White evangelicals especially susceptible to the central claims of QAnon theories. See Stetzer “Evangelicals need to address the QAnoners in our midst,” USA Today, Sept 4, 2020.

Jason Springs
Jason Springs is Professor of Religion, Ethics, and Peace Studies at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame.  Springs’ latest book, Healthy Conflict in Contemporary American Society: From Enemy to Adversary (Cambridge University Press, 2018), develops conceptions of healthy conflict and strenuous pluralism that are realistic about the challenges and limitations of religious tolerance in a society that is both deeply religiously plural and politically volatile. Springs is also the author of Toward a Generous Orthodoxy: Prospects for Hans Frei’s Postliberal Theology (Oxford University Press, 2010), and co-author (with Atalia Omer) of Religious Nationalism: A Reference Handbook (ABC-CLIO, 2013).

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