On Feb. 23, I logged onto Zoom to observe the first public service of what is essentially a QAnon church operating out of the Omega Kingdom Ministry (OKM). I’ve spent 12 weeks attending this two-hour Sunday morning service.
What I’ve witnessed is an existing model of neo-charismatic home churches — the neo-charismatic movement is an offshoot of evangelical Protestant Christianity and is made up of thousands of independent organizations — where QAnon conspiracy theories are reinterpreted through the Bible. In turn, QAnon conspiracy theories serve as a lens to interpret the Bible itself.
OKM is part of a network of independent congregations (or ekklesia) called Home Congregations Worldwide (HCW). The organization’s spiritual adviser is Mark Taylor, a self-proclaimed “Trump Prophet” and QAnon influencer with a large social media following on Twitter and YouTube.
The resource page of the HCW website only links to QAnon propaganda — including the documentary Fall Cabal by Dutch conspiracy theorist Janet Ossebaard, which is used to formally indoctrinate e-congregants into QAnon. This 10-part YouTube series was the core material for the weekly Bible study during QAnon church sessions I observed.
The Sunday service is led by Russ Wagner, leader of the Indiana-based OKM, and Kevin Bushey, a retired colonel running for election to the Maine House of Representatives.
What is clear is that Wagner and Bushey are leveraging religious beliefs and their “authority” as a pastor and ex-military officer to indoctrinate attendees into the QAnon church. Their objective is to train congregants to form their own home congregations in the future and grow the movement.
Argentino points out that the number of participants in this church is relatively small (300 or so). Still, the point from his research is to document the birth of a new religion in real time.
This puts me in mind of what I now regard as one of the past decade’s most important essays about contemporary religion: a long 2016 piece by the Evangelical theologian Alastair Roberts about the Internet and the breakdown of authority in the church. Excerpts:
People’s hunger for truth is easily mistaken for a pure rational desire for accuracy and certitude. Yet our hunger for truth is, at a deeper level, our desperate need for something or, more typically, someone to trust. Where radical distrust in the ordinary organs of knowledge and thought in society prevails, most don’t cut themselves off from everyone else in unrelenting suspicion. Rather, in such situations we typically see a dangerous expansion of credulity, of unattached trust, just waiting for something to latch onto, for someone or something—anything!—to believe in. Alongside this expansion of credulity, we also see a shrinking of the circle of trust. Hence, wild and fanciful conspiracy theories gain traction, and new dissident and tribal communities form around them.
The Internet has occasioned a dramatic diversification and expansion of our sources of information, while decreasing the power of traditional gatekeepers. We are surrounded by a bewildering excess of information of dubious quality, but the social processes by which we would formerly have dealt with such information, distilling meaning from it, have been weakened. Information is no longer largely pre-digested, pre-selected, and tested for us by the work of responsible gatekeepers, who help us to make sense of it. We are now deluged in senseless information and faced with armies of competing gatekeepers, producing a sense of disorientation and anxiety.
Where we are overwhelmed by senseless information, it is unsurprising that we will often retreat to the reassuring, yet highly partisan, echo chambers of social media, where we can find clear signals that pierce through the white noise of information that faces us online. Information is increasingly socially mediated in the current Internet: our social networks are the nets of trust with which we trawl the vast oceans of information online. As trust in traditional gatekeepers and authorities has weakened, we increasingly place our trust in less hierarchical social groups and filter our information through them.
The power of traditional gatekeepers was largely established by public, civil, and religious institutions. These institutions typically had established standards to which their gatekeepers were held and processes by which they were selected. The trust in the gatekeepers arose in large measure from a trust in the institutional means by which they were selected, tested, and held accountable. These institutions—universities, political parties, churches, newspapers, publishing houses, etc., etc.—themselves provided the ‘gates’ to public discourse and participation. The keepers of the gates—selection committees, publishers, editors, pastors, theologians, etc., etc.—were produced by and defended their institutions. They were subject to training and a standard of excellence.
There are neither gates nor gatekeepers in the same way online. Instead of a well-ordered and bounded public square, a realm of discourse is thrown open for all and sundry. Much of the Internet functions as a radically egalitarian society, where no clear differentiation is made between people who are qualified to speak and those who are not. Everyone can now be a self-appointed opinionated expert, courtesy of Google and Wikipedia. It is also so much easier now to form movements and discourses that are independent of the institutions and agencies that could once maintain the standards of the public conversation and vet its participants.
In the rampant populism of the Internet, the notion that everyone has the right to their own opinion can go to seed. An egalitarianism and democracy of opinions neglects the reality that most people’s opinions on most subjects are unformed, untested, and quite worthless. The differences between mere opinionators and people with the authority and responsibility of office, extensive experience, or advanced research become blurred.
Roberts talks about the factors that have damaged trust in traditional institutional sources of authority. And then he gets to Evangelical churches. More:
Church leaders are increasingly facing a situation where members of their congregations have an ever-growing and diversifying interface with a dizzying array of different figures. Congregants are following people on Twitter and Facebook, reading various blogs, listening to podcasts, watching Christian videos on Youtube, participating in online forums and communities, reading a far wider range of books than they probably would have done in the past, watching Christian TV shows, listening to Christian radio stations, etc., etc., all within the comfort of their own houses. The sheer range of sources that the members of a congregation will be exposed to nowadays is entirely unprecedented. Although some may expect pastors to keep on top of all of this, I really don’t see how they realistically can.
The result has often been a situation—similar to that faced by vaccination programmes—in which pastors and church leaders urgently have to protect the spiritual health of their congregations against false teachings that untrained people have adopted through their independent ‘research’. In such a situation, few things are more important than a strong bond of trust between lay people and those in authority over them, who are responsible for their well-being.
However, that bond of trust has come under extreme and sustained assault in the last couple of decades. With the revelation of scandals of spiritual and sexual abuse and subsequent cover-ups and gross mishandling, pastors and church leaders are subject to much more suspicion. Pastors, prominent Christian leaders, and teachers may commonly presume that authority is something that comes with the job position. However, this election is just going to provide further evidence of how profoundly mistaken this assumption actually is. Especially among the up-and-coming generations, the older generation of prominent evangelical leaders has less and less influence. Their widespread support of Trump will just be the final nail in the coffin of their credibility for a large number of younger people. ‘Authority’ counts for little where trust no longer exists. Not only will this mean that their future statements won’t carry weight: they will be actively distrusted. Once again, there is a dangerous situation of unattached trust, ripe for the establishment of counter-communities.
Many people now privilege online bloggers, speakers, and writers over the pastors that have been given particular responsibility for the well-being of their souls. The result is growing competition among Christian gatekeepers, which increasingly positions the individual Christian, less as one fed by particular appointed and spiritually mature local fathers and mothers in the faith, and more as an independent religious consumer, free to pick and choose the voices that they find most agreeable. Sheep with a multitude of competing shepherds aren’t much better off than sheep with no shepherds whatsoever.
Roberts talks about how with the collapse of traditional authority within Evangelicalism, the vacuum has been filled by online “influencers” and others. “To understand the future of evangelicalism, there are few things more important than attending to currently shifting networks of trust,” Roberts says. He claims that Evangelicalism 25 years from now is going to look very different than it does today, in large part because the leaders of contemporary Evangelicalism have little trust among young Evangelical adults. Roberts puts the blame on leaders for squandering their authority, but I think that, in light of his analysis in this piece (read it all — it’s good, and it’s important), even the best, most morally sound Evangelical leaders would struggle in the face of the scattering power of the Internet and contemporary culture.
It’s interesting to think about Roberts’s points applied to the cultures of American Catholicism and American Orthodoxy. Though I am, of course, Orthodox, I know far less about the culture of American Orthodoxy than I do about Catholicism. This is because I have deliberately stayed out of online Orthodoxy; sometimes an Orthodox friend will write to say, “Oh man, did you see what they’re saying about you on [Orthodox online forum]?” I tell them no, I don’t read them, and I don’t read them on purpose. Plus, Orthodoxy in America is so small that it’s hard to get a good sampling of how American Orthodox think.
Orthodoxy is hierarchical and traditional, and I can only guess about the extent to which American Orthodox submit to the teaching authority of the bishops and the institutional Church, and the extent to which they believe that they are their own magisterium. I would be surprised, though, if my fellow US Orthodox had avoided the general dissipation of authority within our culture. But I really don’t know. Orthodox bishops are like I imagine Catholic bishops and the Pope were before John Paul II: as pillars that hold up the institution, but who aren’t heard from much. You can be confident that they’re not going to do anything crazy, theologically, so you don’t really have to pay attention to them. One of the most striking things about going from Catholicism to Orthodoxy is the massive difference between how religiously engaged intellectuals talk about the hierarchy. It almost never happens in Orthodoxy. One reason for that, I think, is that the tradition is regarded as so stable that the bishop is not going to mess with it, and doesn’t see innovating or otherwise messing with it as his role. This is good.
In Catholicism — the American version — it has long been noted that there are broadly three churches: progressives, conservatives, and (by far the biggest), the great non-ideological middle. In terms of shifting authority, it has been fascinating to observe how under Pope Francis, conservative Catholics who were staunch institutionalists under JP2 and BXVI are now more or less dissidents, whereas progressives who lauded freedom of conscience and so forth under the previous popes are now … staunch institutionalists! Of course conservatives would say that they are loyal to the authoritative teachings of the Catholic Church, and that that loyalty compels them to criticize Pope Francis when he departs from those teachings. I get that, and I think that if they are correct in their judgment of the Pope’s orthodoxy, then they are right to speak out. The loyalty of a Catholic is to the magisterial truth, not to the person of the Pope.
But consider how bizarre it is that any Catholic can question the orthodoxy of the Pope! Or, to put it another way, consider how bizarre it is that a pope could give faithful Catholics reason to doubt his orthodoxy, ever. This is the risk Francis has been running by frequently pushing the boundaries in his papacy. It has been disorienting for theologically conservative Catholics, who are accustomed to no daylight between the Pope and the Magisterium. On top of that there is the sex abuse scandal, in which the US Catholic episcopate savaged its own authority.
I don’t know how things roll with progressive Catholics, who have not been taking traditional authority within their church seriously for a long time. But for conservatives, I surmise that many of them rally around particular figures and websites. Through his popular YouTube ministry, Taylor Marshall, for example, probably exercises more de facto authority in the lives of Catholics who follow him than does their bishop.
Note well, readers: I don’t want to start an argument about whether this or that influencer is on the side of the angels or the demons. The point is that cultural and technological trends are widely dispersing authority within churches and church communities. The Covid-19 experience will advance this trend. The syncretistic QAnon church is a radical outlier, but it’s probably not as far from the experience of most of us as we would like to think.