On January 6th, 2021, thousands of rioters stormed the U.S Capitol Building after Donald Trump instructed them to ‘fight like hell’ and interrupt the certification of electoral votes from the 2020 presidential election.1 Amongst a sea of Uncle Sam costumes and American flags, one rioter known as ‘the QAnon Shaman’ stood in the Building’s Senate Chamber and thanked God for allowing America to be ‘reborn’.2 Dressed in a fur headdress and horns, the QAnon Shaman, otherwise known as Jacob Chansley – an ex U.S navy soldier turned activist, fervently pledged his devotion to God, America, and an individual named ‘Q’. As a scholar of New Religious Movements, I watched Chansley’s actions that day with great intrigue and pondered the possibility of whether the world was witnessing the emergence of another new religious movement.
‘Q’ is the anonymous founder of the online movement known as QAnon. In late 2017, a user named ‘Q’ began to post a series of cryptic posts onto a dark corner of the online messaging forum 4chan.3 These posts formulated a narrative comprised of topics relating to satanism, far-right politics, evangelicalism, and millenarianism. Q’s first post, seen in the image below, initially appeared inconsequential in comparison to the much more extensive networks of extreme internet subcultures that resided in the shadows of 4chan. However, Q’s prediction of the imminent arrest of Hillary Clinton tapped into a larger pre-existing narrative known widely as ‘PizzaGate’: the belief that Hillary Clinton is running a child sex trafficking ring from a Comet Ping Pong pizza restaurant in Washington D.C.4 Considering this reference, Q’s early posts quickly gained traction and sowed the seeds of what would become one of the most complex, yet well-known, movements in contemporary America.
Although Q took the internet by storm in a matter of months, the identity of this anonymous user remains unknown. Most adherents, like Chansley, use the male pronouns of he/him when referring to Q; however, it is unknown whether Q is male, and some people even believe that Q is multiple individuals working under one name. One popular theory suggests that Q is Jim Watkins, the owner of 8kun: another controversial online messaging forum that Q has frequented in the past.5 However, this is largely speculation, and Q’s identity remains mysterious to this day.
In its simplest form, the QAnon worldview centres around a hidden war between forces of apparent good and evil. Most QAnon adherents believe that Q is a Government intelligence officer attempting to assist Donald Trump in revealing a secret cabal of evil world leaders who are torturing children in a large paedophile ring.6 This belief is referred to as ‘the storm’ and followers believe it will be extremely violent and apocalyptic. In the QAnon worldview, the forces of good are The Patriots (QAnon followers) and the White Hats (Government officials who support QAnon), and the forces of evil are The Deep State (the cabal).7 Once ‘the storm’ takes place, and the cabal is revealed to the world, adherents believe that there will be a ‘great awakening’ in which the public will become aware of the evils of The Deep State and Donald Trump will lead followers into a new age of global salvation and peace.8
Despite the little information about the true identity of Q, the QAnon movement has continued to grow and is showing no signs of slowing down. A report from The Public Religion Research Institute published in February 2022 suggested that approximately one in five Americans still believe in at least one key feature of the QAnon worldview.9 This is interesting considering that Q stopped posting between December 8th, 2020, and June 25th, 2022. Q returned briefly in June 2022 to ask adherents ‘Shall we play a game once more?’ (Q-Drop 4954), but has since been silent once again. The reason for this silence is unknown, but it appears that it has not had a detrimental impact on the larger QAnon movement.10
Due to the unique nature of their worldview, QAnon is frequently described using specific buzzwords that often label the movement as a ‘cult-like’ ‘conspiracy theory’ that has ‘crazy’ and ‘extremist’ followers.11 A prominent example of this is the 2019 intelligence bulletin from the Federal Bureau of Investigation that labelled QAnon adherents as ‘conspiracy-theory-driven domestic extremists’.12 Although the QAnon worldview is rooted in topics that can be connected to larger conspiracy theory beliefs, such as PizzaGate, I argue that this choice of language is troubling and dangerous. By framing QAnon in such a way, crucial features of the movement, such as their fundamentally religious worldview, are bypassed. Furthermore, followers are also being placed into a one-size-fits-all category that assumes they are crazy or brainwashed. In many ways, this issue draws parallels to the late 20th century when many scholars of religion chose to adopt the term ‘new religious movement’ over ‘cult’.13 This terminological shift, proposed by the sociologist of religion Eileen Barker, was an attempt to create a more inclusive term that moved away from the generalised and pejorative nature that the term ‘cult’ had acquired.14
Although QAnon has therefore been understood commonly as a conspiracy theory, I argue that a new religious movement definition is more applicable. Labelling QAnon as a new religious movement is an extremely contentious decision because many scholars of religion still disagree massively over this claim.15 While different scholars have contrasting definitions of what classifies as a new religious movement, it commonly describes a variety of new and alternative spiritual and religious movements that are either new or breakaway in origin.16 Eileen Barker identified that many movements also have first-generation believers and a form of charismatic leadership.17 A new religious movement definition for QAnon allows us to explore Q’s charismatic leadership role, group structures, the QAnon worldview, and their propensity for future violence, in a refreshing and alternative way.18
The sociologist Max Weber defined charisma as a concept where followers believe that leaders are endowed with ‘supernatural, superhuman, or at least… exceptional powers and qualities’19 When leaders of new religious movements are recognised to have this unseen source of charismatic authority, it can often result in adherents becoming exceptionally devoted and loyal to both the leader and the movement overall.20 Some examples of charismatic new religious movement leaders include Jim Jones (The People’s Temple) and David Koresh (The Branch Davidians). When observing QAnon through this lens, Q’s anonymity can be understood to be a mysterious and supernatural form of charismatic authority that has resulted in adherents, like Chansely, becoming extremely dedicated to Q and the movement. Furthermore, it can be argued that Donald Trump also functions as a charismatic leader within QAnon, as he is believed to be the key part to achieving salvation and the ‘great awakening’. Thus, both Q and Trump are described by adherents as ‘prophets’ and ‘messiahs’ within the movement.21 This use of divine language reiterates their charismatic authority within QAnon.22
The use of divine language and ideas of collective salvation are also common features of catastrophic millenarian new religious movements.23 Traditionally, ‘millenarianism’ or ‘millenniumism’ refers to the belief expressed in Revelation 20:1-6, which prophesied that Christ would establish a one-thousand-year reign on earth before the last judgement. In modern scholarly discourses, millenarianism is understood as a synonym for the belief in collective terrestrial salvation where someday earthly evils and limitations will be overcome, and a millennial kingdom will be erected. According to the scholar of religion Catherine Wessinger, millenarianism can be practised in both progressive and catastrophic ways. As a new religious movement, QAnon adopts a more catastrophic type of millenarianism: referring to the belief that the millennial kingdom will only be established after a violent and apocalyptic final battle with the old world.24 For QAnon adherents, ‘the storm’ acts as a form of violent apocalyptic prophecy that must occur before the ‘great awakening’ can take place and collective salvation can be achieved.
In an assessment of all Q drops from October 2017 to June 2022, I found that Q employs specifically violent religious language that can be linked to catastrophic millenarianism. For example, in Q-drop 4429, Q instructed adherents to ‘Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit’. This reference can be interpreted to mean that for salvation to occur, QAnon adherents must arm themselves with the sword of the spirit and be ready to use violence if necessary. Furthermore, a common feature of catastrophic millenarian movements is the embodiment of an ‘us vs them’ mentality. In Q-Drop 1432, Q discusses the Bible story of ‘Ephesians 6:10-18’, which instructs Christians to put on the armour of God and fight Satan. Once again, Q’s language connects themes of violence and religion and mirrors Wessinger’s discussion of catastrophic millenarian movements seeing the world as a battleground between the ‘good and evil, God and Satan, us and them’.25
Therefore, I argue that QAnon possesses the hallmark features of a new religious movement. Understanding QAnon as a catastrophic millenarian new religious movement allows us to explore the movement, and the events of January 6th, 2021, in alternative lights. For true believers like Chansley, the QAnon worldview is not a ‘baseless and debunked conspiracy theory’, but a genuine religious belief system where Q and Trump function as prophets and messiahs that are working towards establishing a new world order.26 If we are to attempt to understand the possibilities of whether adherents will engage in future violent acts, we must consider QAnon to be a new religious movement. This allows us to understand that, in this movement, true believers are so devoted to the millenarian QAnon worldview, and the promise of salvation, that they may be willing to commit violence in order to protect it.
— Ruby Forrester
(Sources in the footnotes.)
- CBS News, ‘”We will never concede”: Trump rallies supporters with false claims he won reelection’, in YouTube.
- The New Yorker, ‘A Reporter’s Footage from Inside the Capitol Siege’, in YouTube.
- 4chan is a fringe online messaging forum that hosts a variety of topics that range from cooking, to politics, and conspiracy theories. It is also known for its extreme views and was described by the Guardian in 2022 as the ‘racist and conspiracy-oriented online message board’ that assisted with the radicalisation of the 18-year-old Buffalo massacre shooter, Payton Gendron. Read more here.
- Adrienne LaFrance, ‘The Prophecies of Q: American Conspiracy Theories are Entering a Dangerous New Phase’, in The Atlantic Online.
- 8kun is one of the many platforms that Q has posted on in the past. Read more: Rachel Greenspan, ‘Who is Q? Why QAnon’s ringleader may have been hiding in plain sight all along’, in Insider.
- LaFrance, The Prophecies of Q.
- Jo Banks, ‘QAnon Factsheet’, in Inform, <https://inform.ac/wp-content/uploads/2022/01/QAnon-2022.pdf>.
- Erin Prophet, ‘Fulfillment of Prophecy? Yes, some evangelicals really do believe Trump is the “chosen one”’, in Salon Online.
- PRRI Staff, ‘The Persistence of QAnon in the Post-Trump Era: An Analysis of Who Believes the Conspiracies’, in The Public Religion Research Institute. It is necessary to point out that it is difficult to establish accurate data on membership within QAnon. Issues arise because the movement appears to have no official membership criteria and beliefs exist on a spectrum for adherents, with some being more devoted than others. These devotees are commonly known as ‘true believers’, according to LaFrance, The Prophecies of Q.
- Some followers have adapted to Q’s silence and have turned to figures like Pastor Greg Locke, who have taken on prominent roles in preaching the gospel of Q. Read more: David Gilbert, ‘Evangelical Pastors Are Secretly Spreading the Gospel of QAnon on YouTube’, in Vice News.
- In a survey of some of the top ‘QAnon books’ stocked in a popular online retailer, bookshop.org, I discovered that over 50% had the word ‘conspiracy’ in the main title. In addition, the FBI described QAnon adherents as ‘extremists’ in 2019.
- The Soufan Center, Quantifying The Q Conspiracy: A Data-Driven Approach to Understanding the Threat Posed by QAnon, (New York: The Soufan Center, 2021), <https://thesoufancenter.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/04/TSC-White-Paper_QAnon_16April2021-final-1.pdf>
- For more information about the prominent terminological debate between ‘cult’ and ‘new religious movement’, read: Eileen Barker, New Religious Movements – A Practical Introduction (London: HM Stationery Office, 1989).
- Barker, Practical Introduction, p.4.
- The American Professor of religion Benjamin Zeller has labelled QAnon as a new religious movement in the past. See Benjamin Zeller, ‘New religious movement responses to COVID’, Approaching Religion, 11:2 (2021), 62–81 (p.74). However, scholar of religion Megan Goodwin argues that QAnon is ‘disturbingly mainstream’, and a new religious movement definition is mislabelling something that is simply an offshoot of Christian fundamentalism. See Stephen Bradford Long and Megan Goodwin, ‘Sacred Tension: QAnon, Satanic Panic, and New Religious Movements with Prof. Megan Goodwin’, in Stephen Bradford Long Website.
- Anna Kira Hippert and Sarah Harvey, ‘Factsheet: New Religious Movements’, in Religion Media Centre, <https://religionmediacentre.org.uk/factsheets/factsheet-new-religious-movements/>.
- Hippert and Harvey, NRM Factsheet.
- It should be noted that the new religious movement label does not suggest that adherents are brainwashed by charismatic leaders. Instead, it helps to understand the dynamics between leadership authority and followers’ agencies within movements. Read more: Barker, Practical Introduction, p.17.
- Max Weber, On Charisma and Institution Building (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1968) p.48.
- Barker, Practical Introduction, p.13.
- This topic is discussed by Erin Prophet in ‘Fulfillment of Prophecy? Yes, some evangelicals really do believe Trump is the “chosen one”’, in Salon Online, and by Joseph Gedeon in ‘Trump Is a Messianic Figure in the QAnon Calls’, in Politico.
- It is important to note that although Q has been mostly silent since late 2020, this does not take away from his role as a charismatic leader. Many other new religious movements have continued after their leaders have died or been replaced, like the Unification Church.
- Catherine Wessinger, How the Millennium Comes Violently (New York: Seven Bridges Press, 2000).
- See Wessinger, How the Millennium Comes, pp.15-18.
- Wessinger, How the Millennium Comes, pp.15-18.
- Sophie Moskalenko, ‘Many QAnon followers report having mental health diagnoses’, in The Conversation.