The U.S. Needs Deradicalization—for Christian Extremists
Programs designed to reform violent jihadis could help tackle the spread of QAnon and other conspiracy theories in evangelical communities.
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In a video posted to YouTube on Jan. 8, Joshua Matthew Black, a resident of Alabama, reminisced about his unlawful entry into the U.S. Capitol. Black, along with hundreds of other Trump supporters, violently stormed the Capitol building in protest of a presidential election he believed Democrats had stolen. Hours before surrendering to the FBI, Black recorded a confession where he explained, “I wanted to get inside [the Capitol] so I could plead the blood of Jesus over it. … I just felt like the spirit of God wanted me to go in the Senate room.”
That Black would storm the Capitol in the belief that he was carrying out God’s will should come as no surprise to anyone who has followed the troubling relationship between white evangelical Christians and conspiracy theories over the past four years. In the summer of 2020, Christianity Today drew attention to the correlation between evangelicals and a strong belief in conspiracy theories. Research has shown that half of all Americans, regardless of religion, believe in at least one conspiracy theory. Religious people, however, are particularly susceptible to conspiracy theories due to their belief in the supernatural and their endorsement of a good-versus-evil worldview.
In the weeks and months following the 2020 presidential election, pastors nationwide worried that members of their congregation were rapidly incorporating conspiracy theories into their worldviews, using social media to share the debunked documentary Plandemic, sow distrust toward traditional media outlets, and promote QAnon conspiracy theories hailing former U.S. President Donald Trump as leader of an underground force working to destroy sex trafficking cabals run by global elites. Lifeway Research, an organization that conducts surveys on behalf of the Southern Baptist Convention, found in January that 49 percent of pastors frequently heard conspiracy theories from members of their church.
Evangelical Christians are not a monolith; on the whole, they represent a broad spectrum of social and political viewpoints as well as a range of socioeconomic identifiers. Across denominations, churches brim with debate as to how Christians should respond to such issues as abortion, LGBTQ+ rights, and immigration. Collectively, Christians nationwide represent a diverse subset of people who endorse a variety of beliefs. Still, it is undeniable that conservative white evangelicals overwhelmingly favored Trump in the 2020 election.
Evangelical support of Trump solidified throughout his presidency. Nearly 50 percent of white Protestants who attended church once or more than once a week also believed that Trump was divinely anointed by God. Throughout his 2020 campaign, Trump continued to woo evangelicals by attacking Biden’s faith, at one point claiming that if Biden were elected as president, “there will be no God.”
Throughout his four years in office, Trump endorsed policies that resonated with many white evangelical Christians, particularly his support for the pro-life movement and the appointment of conservative judges. White evangelical support for Trump has continued despite the former president’s lack of any devout faith. Christians have professed a fierce loyalty toward the president, and prominent clergy, such as Robert Jeffress, Franklin Graham, Pat Robertson, and Jerry Falwell Jr., have even proclaimed him as God’s chosen one.
Though QAnon conspiracy theories are not unique to Christianity, evangelical Christians have nevertheless embraced the bogus claims with unusual enthusiasm. In the days surrounding the Capitol siege, prominent QAnon personalities posted scores of Bible verses in support of their cause to Twitter and Parler. Former military general Michael Flynn, who pleaded guilty twice to making false statements to the FBI during the Mueller investigation only to later be pardoned by Trump, has emerged as one of Trump’s strongest supporters and a leading proponent of QAnon theories. He posted a link to Parler on Jan. 10 depicting Trump as the messiah.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, social media usage among Americans has exploded. From March to June 2020, QAnon posts grew 175 percent on Facebook, 77.1 percent on Instagram, and 63.7 percent on Twitter. Behind those numbers is the difficult reality that a significant number of evangelical Christians have, through social media, descended into QAnon’s conspiratorial depths. This phenomenon appears to be, thus far, unique to white evangelical Christians. QAnon myths are infused with anti-Muslim and anti-Semitic rhetoric. Theories abound with claims that mask ordinances are a part of a long conspiracy by Muslims to install sharia law within the United States and that underground cabals of child sex slaves are funded by Jewish investor George Soros.
One year ago, as COVID-19 raged, churches across the nation restricted or canceled live meetings. This absence of human interaction only propelled churchgoers’ thirst for online connection and provided ample time for them to read about QAnon theories on social media. Echo chambers of online QAnon networks offered a safe haven for Christians trying desperately to make sense of the world in tumultuous times. QAnon theories in many cases incorporated excerpts from the Bible, and, in fact, reading the online prophecies was easier than trying to make sense of the world alone.
Christian communities have suffered extreme damage from divisions among believers caused by QAnon theories. Online support groups have sprung up in recent months to offer support for family members of QAnon members. In a recent op-ed, New York Times columnist David Brooks aptly observed, “there is strife within every [Christian] family, within every congregation, and it may take generations to recover.” QAnon conspiracies are just the latest iteration of a long tradition of right-wing extremism, rooted in white supremacy and anti-Semitism.
Christians have denigrated Jews since medieval times, depicting them as the “eternal conspiratorial enemy of Christian faith.” The online forum Just Security traced the ideas that proliferate on QAnon websites to Nazism. The Ku Klux Klan has promulgated for more than 100 years a combination of white Protestant nationalism and xenophobia. Most evangelicals peddling political conspiracy theories are likely unaware of their extremist origins while others have clearly embraced the most horrific aspects of the movement. Subsequently, clergy have watched in horror as their members descended into right-wing extremism within the past year, many wondering how best to help.
Beth Moore, a prominent Bible study author and speaker within the Southern Baptist Convention, spoke pointedly against the rise of conspiracy theories among Christians. In December 2020, she posted to Twitter, “I have never seen anything in these United States of America I found more astonishingly seductive & dangerous to the saints of God than Trumpism. This Christian nationalism is not of God. Move back from it.” On March 5, Moore announced that she no longer identified as a Southern Baptist, explaining, “I love so many Southern Baptist people, so many Southern Baptist churches, but I don’t identify with some of the things in our heritage that haven’t remained in the past.”
Nothing, however, has shifted the narrative regarding evangelicals and QAnon as much as the Capitol insurrection. No longer is QAnon seen as a fringe belief among white evangelicals; rather, it is the basis for a newly emerging violent Christian extremism. Elizabeth Neumann, a former top official at the Department of Homeland Security, has acknowledged the national security threat posed by those who are violently motivated by QAnon conspiracy theories.
In 2019, the FBI designated QAnon a “domestic terror threat” based on its potential to incite extremist violence. On March 2, FBI Director Christopher Wray testified before Congress that the domestic terrorism threat within the United States is “metastasizing.” Days later, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence released a report concluding that domestic violent extremists pose an elevated threat to the U.S. homeland.
With QAnon conspiracy theories proliferating within white evangelical Christian communities, it is imperative that these religious communities consider how to purge themselves of an ideology that is explicitly linked to extremist domestic terrorism. In doing so, it is time for Christians to consider lessons learned from other religious communities who have contended with extremist ideas prospering within congregations.
In recent years, Denmark, the United Kingdom, Saudi Arabia, and Singapore have all experimented with various approaches to aid individuals in their transition from extremism, largely Islamist extremism. These myriad strategies and approaches range from utilizing cognitive development, community reintegration, ideological reform, and mental health counseling, to name a few. Just as governments have sought to stop the spread of Islamist extremism in the past two decades, they must now confront the rise of Christian fundamentalism.
Findings by the FBI and social scientists now substantiate the view that domestic terrorists—specifically acts of violence carried out by white males—are a greater threat than actions carried out by Islamist extremists like al Qaeda or the Islamic State. The brutal white nationalist terror attack in New Zealand in 2019, which left 49 Muslim worshippers dead, is the most recent example of this. In the United States, the most salient example was the case of Coast Guard Lt. Christopher Hasson, who stockpiled weapons, hoping to eventually use them to establish a “white homeland,” and created a digital spreadsheet identifying House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, as well as other high ranking Democrats, as targets.
All of this raises the question of how the U.S. government should respond to the threat posed by terrorists at home and those attracted to extremist ideologies that could lead to violent radicalization.
The United States has historically relied on strategies to prevent radicalization to combat Islamist extremism but has rarely taken stock of, let alone utilized, the unique skills of individuals who are or have been involved in extremist activity to deradicalize others. Instead, officials opt to quickly prosecute these individuals. Furthermore, partisan politics represents a formidable obstacle to the formation of organized off-ramping programs, such as those seen in the U.K.
In October 2018, the Trump administration released its national strategy for counterterrorism, demonstrating cautious optimism regarding its views on rehabilitation. In particular, the section titled “Counter Terrorist Radicalization and Recruitment” lays out the administration’s list of priorities, but the following statements stood out the most: “Institutionalize a prevention architecture to thwart terrorism,” “combat violent extremist ideologies,” “increase civil society’s role in terrorism prevention,” and “support intervention, reintegration, and counter-recidivism efforts.” Though the Trump administration might be seen as addressing the threat posed by these groups, by action, the previous administration was less hard on white and Christian nationalists.
The Biden administration’s acknowledgement of the importance of prevention, rehabilitation, and reintegration is a promising sign that the United States is at least moving in the right direction. One of us previously served as a government analyst and now works outside of government, a background that helps us see the need for more holistic approaches. There is now a unique opportunity to readjust and offer new innovative solutions to tackle domestic extremism in light of the changing threat environment.
At present, a uniform and comprehensive deradicalization program does not exist, but there are organizations that have engaged with this issue. Organizations like Free Radicals and Take Charge provide opportunities for individuals in and out of extremism and aid in diverting individuals from violent actions, drugs, and gangs. And initiatives like the American Muslims Against Terrorism and Extremism effort lead by Masjid Muhammad shows the importance of clergy and interfaith dialogue to combat extremism, all which will be helpful in confronting domestic extremism.
As the U.S. government seeks to come up with the best approach for deradicalization programs, officials should learn from efforts that are already working, which are primarily based in cities but can be applied to rural communities as well.
Any long-term and sustainable deradicalization program in the United States must confront the new threat environment—which includes large numbers of militarized white nationalists. Officials must draw on the expertise of civil society groups as well as religious, governmental, and lay communities alike. Like imams, artists, mentors, social workers, and influencers who have been helpful in combating Islamist extremism domestically and globally, U.S. officials need to build on this model to aid Christian communities and deradicalize QAnon conspiracists who are employing similar recruitment techniques with potentially lethal consequences.
Melissa Graves is an assistant professor of intelligence and security studies at The Citadel, a member of the Presbyterian Church USA, and the author of Nixon’s FBI: Hoover, Watergate, and a Bureau in Crisis.