Why are evangelicals more likely to believe in political conspiracy theories? Because they believe in a religious one.
In December 2020, Pastor Vern Swieringa separated from his home church after his congregants began voicing support for various conspiracy theories, specifically QAnon. He wasn’t the only one, as Business Insider found in a round of interviews. Another pastor, Jared Stacey, left his church “after QAnon and other conspiracy theories began to divide his congregation.” Pivot to Jon Thorngate, a Milwaukee pastor who called QAnon a “real problem” in U.S. churches. The anecdotes are plentiful.
But objective data provide a basis for their experiences, as survey after survey shows that an outsized number of white evangelicals are likely to express a belief in QAnon:
Another survey, conducted in October 2020 by Denison University political science professor Paul Djupe and colleagues, looked at a representative sample of more than 1,700 Americans and found that 50 percent of white evangelical Christians either “agreed” or “strongly agreed” with QAnon beliefs. Comparative surveys have also shown a correlation between Christian nationalism and conspiratorial thinking, specifically a belief in QAnon. And it’s something members of the church have been sounding the alarm about for months.
Pastor Ed Stetzer, speaking with FiveThirtyEight, made the connection as he cited to the church’s belief in a “divine plan” that pits good against evil, and that, “QAnon is a train that runs on the tracks that religion has already put in place.” I think Stetzer is, likewise, on the right track, but is perhaps being too general. After all, other religions also subscribe to a divine struggle between good and evil. White evangelical belief in QAnon really is a different animal.
I think there is an overlooked connection between evangelical belief and QAnon, and it is centered around one of the core tenets of white evangelicalism: Very soon, Jesus Christ is coming back to save the church from an outpouring of judgment against all of the evildoers in the world. That belief — which is fully accepted by the great majority of evangelicals — is in a coming event called, “The Rapture.”
I have some knowledge about white evangelical belief in the Rapture, mostly because I happen to be a white evangelical. Like most of my friends growing up, I accepted it as an uncontroversial, obviously biblical teaching. That’s probably why I — like many other Christians in the 1990s — began reading the Left Behind series, a well-known novelization of the Rapture that now spans over a dozen books and has even made its way to the big screen. The series itself lays out the general timeline of the biblical “story” pretty well: At some point in the future, millions of Christians all over the earth disappear (the aforementioned “rapture”) and general chaos ensues. A one-world government forms, and a global dictator — the Anti-Christ —rises up. He begins forcing people into submission, murdering innocents, and making people swear allegiance to him by taking a “mark of the Beast.” This entire period — which lasts for seven years — is called The Tribulation, where non-Christians all over the planet suffer under the Anti-Christ’s reign and general turmoil. Christians, however, have already been spared, since they were all raptured by Jesus prior to the onset of The Tribulation.
It wasn’t until I got to the third novel in the series, Nicolae (the titular Anti-Christ) that I began to see a few issues with the entire theology of the Rapture. I remember reading it as a teenager and thinking, “If we know everything that the Anti-Christ is going to do beforehand, why would anyone ever follow him during the Tribulation? Why wouldn’t some government that had a copy of Revelation handy just nuke the Anti-Christ?” I was at an Assemblies of God conference in Syracuse, New York, when I finally worked up the courage to ask a friend about it (who, incidentally, is now a pastor) and express my skepticism. He dropped the boom on sixteen year-old me: The central idea of the Rapture, which involves God sparing only His church and allowing the rest of the world to suffer, runs counter to the entirety of New Testament theology, which outlines over and over again that Christians will not only suffer and be persecuted for their faith, but that they should endure through that suffering and persecution.
It is perhaps fitting that I was at that conference listening to Dr. Michael Brown speak with a group of other Pentecostal pastors. Dr. Brown currently serves as sort of a bridge between the evangelical and reformed Christian community, as he reaches his viewers through a YouTube channel with about 125,000 subscribers. Although Dr. Brown is pretty safely defined as a Charismatic-Evangelical, he does not believe in the Rapture. In a video explaining his viewpoint, he said that when he went back to the Bible, “I don’t see [the Rapture] in scripture.”
Dr. Brown is actually in good company: The overwhelming majority of Christians around the world do not believe in the teaching. It is rejected by nearly all Catholics, Anglicans, mainline protestants, Presbyterians, and the Eastern Orthodox Church. In other words, it is an eschatological belief that is unique to evangelicals.
It is also not the historical belief of the Christian church. That would be amillennialism, the belief that we are currently living in a “realized” millennium that began with the resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is also the current belief of most Christian churches around the world (at least officially), as Kim Riddlebarger writes in The Case for Amillennialism:
In point of fact, it is the amillennial position that has been the predominant eschatological view of Christianity since the days of St. Augustine. It is the position held by the vast majority of Reformed and Lutheran theologians and set forth in all the Reformed and Lutheran confessions. […] Even its critics have acknowledged that amillennialism has been the majority position of the Christian family.
The Rapture actually first emerged as a teaching in the 19th Century, with John Nelson Darby. Darby — a preacher in England — had a devoted following that included a few influential thinkers, namely Cyrus Scofield. Scofield’s translation of the Bible fell into widespread use in the United States, and it contains multiple references to Darby’s interpretation of the end times, which helps explain the Rapture’s spread in evangelical America.
However, it’s not just the recency of Darby’s theory that makes it wrong or untrustworthy; the Rapture itself has no real support in scripture. Jeramie Rinne points this out:
But the secret rapture faces biblical challenges as well. There are no biblical texts that explicitly teach it or anything like a two-stage coming of Jesus. Passages that supposedly describe the secret rapture could just as easily be read as referring to the glorious second coming, and in fact have been read that way throughout the church’s history.
Although Darby’s Rapture theory was novel at the time, it did build on an older tenet of Christian eschatology that was believed by portions of the early church: Premillennialism. In fact, one of the great theologians in church history, Augustine of Hippo, was a premillennialist. That is, until he later adopted amillennialism. His reasons for doing so are illuminating; mainly, Augustine saw the real-time consequence of premillennial belief in the actions of his peers:
He became more concerned with the [premillennial] teachers of his day, who went too far. Many Christians, who took this view, had come to the belief that the future, literal millennium would start at any moment. They saw the sack of Rome as a prophetic sign that the end of the world was at hand. Augustine became increasingly alarmed by the “End Times” speculations that were typically associated with this belief.
To put it simply, Augustine saw that premillenialism led to an unhealthy fixation on earthly events rather than the spiritual. Belief in the Rapture suffers from this same problem. Tony Weber gets to the heart of this in Christianity Today:
Premillennialists made much of the current problems of society and interpreted them as “signs of the times.” Political corruption, pornography, alcohol abuse, the rise of monopolies, labor unrest, the desecration of the Lord’s Day by immigrants, worldliness in the church, liberal theology, international conflicts, forest fires, earthquakes, revivals, the rise of cults like Christian Science and Millennial Dawnism (Jehovah’s Witnesses), polio and influenza epidemics, changing weather patterns, the rise of Zionism, the sinking of the Titanic, the partitioning of Europe after World War I, radio — these and countless other events and trends were seen as proof that premillennialism was correct and the end of the age was rapidly approaching.
Throughout Trump’s term as President, it was fascinating to watch how seamlessly the actions of his Administration were folded into the doctrinal beliefs of American evangelicalism. It feels like ancient history now, but during the lame-duck months after the election, Trump-supporting evangelicals — who had previously prophesied his victory in November — went one step further and began to weave QAnon into their spiritual messaging as they promised Trump would hold on to power. Mark Taylor, who is quite possibly the original pro-Trump prophet, eventually gave QAnon his full endorsement. When you look into some of the language used by the Trumpist section of the evangelical movement after and leading up to the election, you can see why QAnon — which explicitly ties itself to Christianity — seems like a natural fit:
“I said, ‘Lord, Joe Biden don’t need to be president.’ And just like this…just like if you’d answered me, He said, ‘He won’t.’” — Robin Bullock
“Trump will win. He will be president of the United States. He will sit in that office for four more years, and God will have His way in this country.” — Kat Kerr
“And the Lord said [to me], ‘Because what I intend to do through him will take two terms to do, and I need with you to run with him in the Spirit…so that he can fulfill the mandates of God upon his life.” — Robert Henderson
“This is a word from the Lord and He is not happy with what’s going on. He’s not happy with some of these things that have been decided [Biden being declared the winner of the election] and He’s not happy with the opposite direction of where he wants to go. And He’s saying, ‘Watch me work.’” — Pastor George Pearsons
These quotes on their own almost provide a complete validation of Augustine’s warnings about premillennialism, but they also show how QAnon really is prepped to run on the set of tracks that Stetzer talked about. However, it’s not just the “battle between good and evil” that he alluded to; it is the evangelical belief that the American Nation is the ultimate fulfillment of God’s plan. QAnon links itself to American, fundamentalist Christianity not because it is a struggle between the good guys and the bad guys, but because it specifically promises that America is God’s “promised nation.” For obvious reasons, you don’t see a lot of QAnon members flocking to Episcopalianism.
The Rapture is a neat bow that ties all of this together. QAnon and the Rapture even have direct similarities: QAnon teaches that an evil, global cabal of Satanic pedophiles will eventually meet their end at the hands of Donald Trump; the Rapture teaches that the Anti-Christ and his followers will eventually be defeated by Jesus.
Both theories also have factual issues that should be red flags: QAnon initially predicted that Hillary Clinton would be arrested in the fall of 2018, which hasn’t happened. And, as noted above, the Rapture teaches that the Anti-Christ will rise to power during the Tribulation, even though the word “Anti-Christ” does not appear anywhere in the book of Revelation.
But it’s the deeper elements of evangelical Christianity that make it more vulnerable to the QAnon conspiracy theory. The Rapture simultaneously teaches American evangelicals that they — rather than God — have an important role in the Creator’s ultimate plan for the universe, and it also teaches them that God will not allow His (American, in this case) Church to suffer. I have personally seen evangelicals that I know espouse this exact reasoning for why they believed Trump would be inaugurated on March 4th, the date QAnon had to revert to after Biden was sworn in on January 20th (spoiler: Trump is still not the President). The Rapture is actually beloved by many evangelicals because it teaches them that they are special and God looks upon them with more favor than others. Why would America be any different?
This element of the Rapture’s theology is contradicted by nearly every scripture in the Bible. 1 Peter says:
But if when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God. For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly (my emphasis).
While it is accurate to say that evangelical Christianity in America does currently suffer from a Qanon problem, the heart of the matter is that it suffers from bad theology. Jesus Himself made it clear:
So Pilate entered his headquarters again and called Jesus and said to him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus answered, “Do you say this of your own accord, or did others say it to you about me?” Pilate answered, “Am I a Jew? Your own nation and the chief priests have delivered you over to me. What have you done?” Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world.”
A healthy chunk of American Christianity blends its theology with American nationalism because it misunderstands a fundamental truth about the Bible: It is not a book written about us. It’s a book written about Jesus.