A conspiracy theory that holds that many in the elite are part of a sex trafficking cabal, QAnon’s supporters have increasingly moved into the mainstream. Many also attend evangelical churches. It’s appeal in our world is World magazine’s cover story for this week and also was the subject of recent longform story for MIT Technology Review.

But the phenomena is not limited to the United States, as Mark Sayers, the senior leader of Red Church in Melbourne, Australia, witnessed when he recently saw followers in shirts with symbols tied to the movement in his city.

“It's really interesting, cause as I looked at it, I began to see it less as a conspiracy—I mean, there are elements of conspiracy theory—but it's really a new religious movement,”said Sayers, who is also the author of Reappearing Church: The Hope for Renewal in the Rise of Our Post-Christian Culture. “And I wonder if it's the first great internet religion. It’s not the only one out there, there are other online internet religions growing and other conspiracy theories flying around—this is just one of them. But I think there is some concern in it.”

Sayers joined global media manager Morgan Lee and editorial director Ted Olsen in a discussion for listeners who are trying to reach family members or other loved ones who have accepted these beliefs.

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Quick to Listen is produced by Morgan Leeand Matt Linder

The transcript is edited by Bunmi Ishola

Highlights from Quick to Listen: Episode #229

Why don't you start by telling us what QAnon is?

Mark Sayers: I guess my succinct explanation of what QAnon is would be that QAnon is a rapidly growing global, cultural, and political movement that is centered around a crowd-sourced conspiracy theory.

To break down the big idea or architecture of what really the movement centers itself around is the idea that the world is controlled, and also held back, by a cabal of basically elite pedophiles. These elites are global elites, ranging from a varied cast of characters from members of the Democratic party, the Clintons to people like the Rothschilds, the great banking family to various Royals, to the Vatican, to members of Wall Street and celebrities.

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And essentially this evil nefarious force in the world is, at this moment, being pushed back essentially by President Trump, who's being aided by various patriots within this sort of US political world, but particularly the military and military intelligence. And the moment that we're in is moving towards something called “The Storm,” which is really the sort of reckoning, a judgment day, for this cabal of global elites and pedophiles.

There’s a lot of variants within this movement; it's quite big and broad at the moment, but essentially this storm will come and bring judgment. Some people would see that as imprisonment, others would see this actually as death. And then after this Golden Age for American and the world will come.

And all of this has been sparked by a mysterious internet board poster, who posts on various places like 4Chan and so on, who is known as Q. And Q puts out these things called “drops,” which are these leaky bits of information about things that could happen, and he claims to have insight and knowledge of what's happening in the Trump White House, but also the world.

And Q appears to be someone who claims to be a personality who's linked to military intelligence and is telegraphing plays that are going to happen in this grand drama happening in the world.

When did QAnon actually start? Is this something that precedes things like the Jeffrey Epstein’s arrest or was it accelerated by the Jeffrey Epstein arrest?

Mark Sayers: One of the really interesting things in looking at the QAnon phenomenon is that you see that it emerges from this political and cultural milieu from around the mid-2010s, so just before the 2016 US election and just the after that. So obviously Epstein was in that discussion, and already online Epstein was being brought up as a case, which seemed corrupt before it gained mainstream media attention.

It was happening around the incident, but also other things like information war, the rise of Anonymous, the hacker collective, to WikiLeaks, Julian Assange, to the Clinton e-mail leak around the 2016 elections, and all this milieu of disinformation and the emergence of Q, who emerges with these first posts in October 2017, emerges from that space.

So it's definitely linked to real-world things happening which accelerates its power. But some of it would predate the actual will emerge and Q as someone posting a particular message. Before that, there were already people going through the huge amounts of data released by WikiLeaks, and there was a number of things floating around—Pizzagate, the theory that the Clinton and other political elites were linked to a particular avant-garde artist, that Beyonce was engaged in satanic rituals—but then it takes this name and becomes the QAnon phenomenon when Q starts posting.

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Can you kind of summarize Pizzagate, for those who don't know it?

Mark Sayers: So basically when all this trench of emails was released—which was politically incredible; it was this incredible moment and a game-changing moment in the 2016 election—they were put up online by WikiLeaks, and people started pouring through them.

And because there was just such a vast amount of information, it was crowdsourced. And so you had people who were doing genuine journalism looking at what was in there. And there were all kinds of interesting things but there was a repeated mention where people did word searches for “pizza.” And in some ways, I see this as a sort of pattern recognition. So people began to say, what if “pizza” actually meant something else? And then some people threw it back to early internet culture, particularly around pedophilia and child pornography online, that “pizza” was some sort of code word for that.

The theory begins to be crowdsourced and grow. And this sort of eventually comes to this point where they found that there was some sort of fundraiser or dinner with some leading Democrats at a particular pizza restaurant and a young man, who was quite radicalized by this experience, then turned up with an assault rifle, wanting to free the children. And that's when Pizzagate exploded into the public mainstream.

And some people had alleged that this was used by various people practicing the dark arts of political influence and using and people who would traditionally use oppositional research. And there are some names out there of people who boosted this online.

What are the claims that QAnon is making that are specifically attractive to Christians?

Mark Sayers: Well if you look back over the last 10-plus years in the evangelical church, there has been a serious justice effort to free people from child trafficking and sex trafficking. So there's an element that people are already interested in those things. This would be attractive to them.

Also, there’s a real sense that there is high-level corruption in the world, particularly after the global financial crisis. And for people who may be living in areas where they felt that they've been ripped off in a sense by the elite, there is a resonance with that as a story which explains their experience of the world.

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I think also, particularly for American evangelicals, there's a consolation of returning to a time of national greatness when America feels as if it's in decline. And there's also a sense that as America feels that it's divided, one of the things about QAnon is that it's this unifying thing which people can join in at a time of division.

It also speaks to them in the language of spiritual warfare and has these contours of end-times theology. It uses biblical verses. It has a sense of the apocalyptic. If you look at the idea of “The Storm,” this golden era coming for America and the world, there are some messianic elements.

One of the beliefs held by some sort of the QAnon followers is that John F. Kennedy, Jr., who died in 1999 in a plane crash, is going to come back almost as a messianic figure. There are actually people expecting that to happen and turning up to events that he would appear. And there was even a belief that he would be Trump's running mate. So you see a lot of Christian sort of elements there.

I made up a term thinking about this, which I would call post-post-Christianity. And there's a sense where the US is dealing with the reality of moving to a place of post-Christianity, and as an Australian, I'm often asked if America will become more post-Christian like in Australia or Europe. But I see something emerging in the U.S., which is very different from our post-Christianity or European post-Christianity, which is much more religious. It’s almost a secularization of spiritual warfare. There's a satanic elite, but instead of like in a book like Frank Peretti's, This Present Darkness, it's politicized. So instead of these spiritual strongholds over places, it's members of the Democratic party or the British Royal families.

And I think we’re also in a time of hyper-publicization of everything in American life. It offers an interface between the spiritual experience and the political experience for a lot of American Christians.

And what's interesting too, is it's providing a unifying space during COVID and where there's been an acceleration of disconnection from being physically in church. And a lot of people got online and have been radicalized or discipled in this.

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There are a lot of people out there who don't know how to have conversations with those they're concerned to have been influenced by QAnon. So if I have a loved one who is adopting some of these beliefs, where should I start in how I want to engage them?

Mark Sayers: Well, the first thing, it sounds obvious, but I would pray for them and I wouldn't just pray for them, I would get a bunch of people praying for them.

My belief is that there are actually spiritual forces that are at play here when I see something going so fast across the world, that's affecting so many things. I was contacted by a lot of people whose families are being broken up by this, and churches are being led astray by this. I see this as there are actually spiritual forces that are at play, and to not enter into this without real prayer covering for this person and that the spirit of truth will come. So get prayer covering for this person.

The second thing is that I think it's really important to love people. I think there have been different times in this conversation where you hear things like time travel or John F. Kennedy, Jr. coming back, or people in Berlin acting in this completely unusual way and trying to storm Parliament, there's an element when you can laugh at this. There are bits where it just seems so outlandish. But there's an element that I think a lot of what these people are looking for is love and acceptance.

I think the fact that this is accelerated doing COVID, when so many people have become disconnected, that a lot of these people are finding a sense of meaning in these online communities. I think also we're in a moment where it's really hard—particularly in American life—to talk about what you actually feel. And there's an element of cancel culture, people are afraid, and everything's so politicized that people look to go into a space where they can share without fear of judgment. So I think loving people, not mocking them.

Finally, I think just asking Socratic questions. So very gently putting the burden of proof back on people. Like, “I'm really interested in that idea. Can you share some more? Cause I'm struggling to believe that the government could organize something that big. Help me out there.” So, engaging with the person but doing that in a loving way.

How much do we think of this as a kind of a dangerous cult? How much do we think of this as a new religious movement or an alternative religion? If we have a loved one who is starting to watch YouTube videos on this kind of thing, how worried should we be?

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Mark Sayers: It's really interesting, cause as I looked at it, I began to see it less as a conspiracy—I mean, there are elements of conspiracy theory—but it's really a new religious movement. And I wonder if it's the first great first internet religion. It’s not the only one out there, there are other online internet religions growing and other conspiracy theories flying around—this is just one of them. But I think there is some concern in it.

We’re seeing this spill over into real-world violence. There was a man who went in an armored truck on the Hoover Dam, there was another man who became radicalized and tried to kill the Canadian prime minister, Justin Trudeau.

I can understand people concerned about child trafficking, but there's a very, very old and really horrible idea, which goes way back to the early Middle Ages of something called the “blood libel,” which goes back to the idea that in Europe, there was a Christian slander that Jewish people were drinking the blood of children. And when we think about Jewish people, they are often maligned as a global elite.

And throughout the Middle Ages, we saw the blood libel often turn into pogroms that spread into the Islamic world—Jewish people experienced the same thing in the Islamic world. And here's a famous document that says there's this secret cabal of Jewish people who run the world and the Rothschild’s, the great European banking family who were Jewish, are often linked into that.

So many conspiracy theories end up echoing antisemitic tropes. A lot of the echoes of this are that there is a global elite somewhere who are controlling the world and who were eating the blood of children. So even though a lot of people don't realize this, there is a definite antisemitic element to this. So I think there are some of the things alongside the spiritual dangers that we need to be aware of.

Lastly, I've not seen something move this fast and have the ability to affect politics this radically. So there's an element where we can say, here's this phenomenon online and still be respectful, but in the American political system there'll soon be people making decisions who operate from this world view, which I think has dangerous potentials.

So what would you say to leaders and pastors who are in the States right now? What does your outside perspective offer you as far as what you can relay back to them?

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Mark Sayers: My outside perspective is that there's a definite tone in the United States at the moment—which I think you see echoed not just in QAnon—but there's a definite sense of the system is overwhelmingly corrupt and needs to be burnt down.

I think the internet has meant that there’s nuance in that. So what elements are systemic injustice, what elements of corruption, what elements of political discourse have become decayed? And I think pastors have a real weapon in nuance. Their problem is we have an online environment that works against that. My experience in talking to friends is they're getting it from multiple angles, but there's an overarching theme of “this country is heading to a crisis.”

I would say to invite people into humility. Inviting people to pray for our country from a position of real humility versus the grandstanding that happens from so many different people at the moment.

There’s an Australian pollster and they just did a massive global poll asking what sort of leadership do people want during the pandemic. And the two things were inspiring and innovative. And I think there's an element of moving from a defensive position to actually inspiring people of what an innovative vision of what America and the church could look like after this period.

It’s doing apologetics on your feet and painting and inspiring, innovative vision of what God could do in the United States.

What are some of the triggers that would make you as a pastor address something like this with your congregation versus focus on individual counseling and discipleship?

Mark Sayers: I always notice when something goes beyond just a couple of voices to where it gets bigger and when something crosses over into the media. So when you realize this isn't just a couple of people.

And whenever I’ve tried to approach something like this, I always come at it from a much more meta angle. I feel like if you just hit it front on and say, “Let's talk about QAnon” versus talking about the fact that as a culture we're seeing these big trends where people are frustrated with their leaders and it can look like this on the left, it can look like this on the right, it can look like this online.

So always sort of looking at the bigger pattern and talking about it in that way. I find people are much more receptive than when you just come directly front on with something like this.

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I think laying a biblical framework first is a really helpful way to begin to show how the Bible offers a greater hope, how the Bible looks at where history is going, how the Bible looks at justice and then playing off that.

From your outsider perspective, specifically to American Christianity and American evangelicalism, what are you seeing that made the American church vulnerable to this? Are there ways you want to specifically encourage us in this area, or potentially offer feedback or rebuke?

Mark Sayers: As an Australian, I'm a minority as a Christian. The first church in Australia was burnt down, and I've never expected to have power as a Christian in my country. My sense is that what America is going through is a shaking of cultural Christianity.

I've always thought of America as a much more Christian culture than Australia but based on a recent Barna report, in the breakdown of millennials who are resilient disciples and those who are habitual Christians, the number of resilient disciples—those who followed the Bible—is almost per capita the same amount in Australia as in the U.S. The difference, and the reason why the American church is bigger, is there's a heck of a lot more habitual Christians or cultural Christians.

And I feel like what's happening is you're going through an intense shaking off of those people. I don't have many of those people in my church, so in a sense, I'm free from a lot of that. I realize in the post-Christian society of Australia, I'm building a remanent church. I'm looking for those who really believe this stuff. The average young adult at my church has no Christian friends.

I think you guys are coming into this space and it's scary and there's a sense of loss of power, there's a sense of a loss of position.

I believe there's an invitation in front of the American church to step into a redemptive, humble moment. A moment of actually hungering after God because you don't have things of the world. You don't have power and influence.

I feel like QAnon plays into the sense of people have lost power, so this gives them an explanation. But I think the gospel would just offer a much better explanation. It’s not the size of the church, it's the size of the God who we worship.

So I have a sense that America is going to go through a reckoning, but I have a real hope and prayer that something will rise after this, and it's actually going to be much healthier. That there's actually a bunch of leaders out there who don't feel like they have a place or position but are currently being prepared for the next season that God has in the United States.