Pastors Resign After Seeing Practitioners Radicalize By QAnon
- Pastors are trying to fight conspiracy theories and disinformation that have taken hold of churches.
- Insider spoke with two pastors who left their congregations after seeing members radicalize.
- Some research has found disproportionate support among white evangelicals for the QAnon conspiracy theory.
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The morning of Riot at the Capitol, Vern Swieringa told his wife while out for a walk with their dogs: “Something is going to happen today. I don’t know what, but something is going to happen today.
The Michigan Reformed Christian Church pastor had watched the growth of some members of his congregation for months. captivated by QAnon conspiracy theory videos on social media, openly discussing sex trafficking and Satan-worshiping pedophiles.
He had watched like other spiritual advisers, including the self-proclaimed “Trump prophetMark Taylor, incorporated QAnon’s savage and dangerous beliefs into their sermons on YouTube and as Christian Jericho March organizers gathered in Washington, DC, days before the insurgency, urging supporters to “pray, walking, fasting and rallying for electoral integrity. “
So when hundreds of supporters of President Donald Trump stormed the Capitol hours after his premonition, Swieringa was shocked, but not surprised.
“I think some of the signs were there from the start, and it all turned into a perfect storm,” Swieringa told Insider.
The pastor said he was worried about the so-called Christian nationalism since Trump was elected in 2016. (Neither Swieringa nor any of the other pastors interviewed for this story say who they voted for in 2016 or 2020.)
He became even more concerned when, in 2018, some older members of his own congregation started sending him what he described as “disturbing” QAnon videos. When Swieringa brought them to the attention of his superiors, he said, they were mostly dismissive, telling him they didn’t know what QAnon was.
But when the Coronavirus pandemic hit last year, the problem has become bigger and much more personal.
Swieringa grew increasingly uncomfortable when much of his congregation called the pandemic a hoax.
The 61-year-old pastor was taking the pandemic very seriously, he said, in part because his wife was considered at risk. A pneumonia attack in 2019 had left her with permanent scarring in the lungs.
“That’s when I put my foot down and said, ‘I’m not going to preach to a congregation that wants to sing and not wear masks,’” Swieringa said. “But they still wanted me to preach in front of them without wearing a mask.”
He said the church gave him a plexiglass barrier to preach behind, but felt that wouldn’t make much difference in an enclosed space.
“We agreed to go our separate ways at that point, so it was pretty cordial at the time,” Swieringa said. “But I found out later that there were some very hard feelings among the congregation, and many of them felt like I had abandoned them. It was heartbreaking.”
Swieringa left the church in December after eight years of service.
He now works part-time at Kibbie Christian Reformed Church in South Haven, 30 miles from his original job. His new church has a mandatory mask rule.
Inordinate belief in QAnon among white evangelicals
Swieringa is not the only pastor fighting the rapid spread of conspiracy theories and misinformation in his congregation.
A survey published in January by the Christian research organization Lifestyle research found that over 45% of Protestant pastors said they often heard worshipers repeat conspiracy theories about nationally current events.
Another investigation by the curator American Institute of Business found that more than a quarter of white evangelical respondents believed in QAnon, and three in five believed President Joe Biden’s victory in the 2020 election was “not legitimate.” These rates were the highest of all religious groups.
The trend has prompted hundreds of evangelical pastors and religious leaders to speak out. In February, more than 1,400 of them published an open letter condemning “radicalized Christian nationalism” and the “rise in acts of violence committed by radicalized extremists using the name of Christ”, The Washington Post reported.
Among them is Jared Stacey, a young Baptist pastor from Southern Virginia who ended up quitting the church altogether after QAnon and other conspiracy theories began to divide his congregation.
He moved to Scotland in December, where he is now studying theology at the University of Aberdeen.
He told Insider he left to “create space,” adding that pastor in 2020 was “a struggle” for many religious leaders.
“I think a lot of pastors are overwhelmed right now and need a friend,” Stacey said. “It’s not easy looking at the people you’ve invested the time to radicalize so quickly in front of your eyes.”
He said that while some people might say politics shouldn’t be discussed in churches, there comes “a time when refusing to talk about politics is a false facade to protect the political sensibilities of your stakeholders.”
“This is why there is a theological need to address what the Bible would describe as lying or having a false God,” he added.
But keeping up with news online isn’t always easy, and Stacey worries the church is falling behind in the race to bring Christian messages to a world that spends most of its time online.
“The church is going through the biggest change in information since printing,” Stacey said.
The road to QAnon recovery
Derek Kubilus, senior pastor at Uniontown United Methodist Church in Ohio, is trying to use technology to reach more Christians who have been affected by QAnon.
Kubilus directs the “Cross Over Q” podcast, which offers “healing for QAnon followers and family members from a Christian perspective.”
The pastor started the podcast after the Capitol Riot and received a wide range of listeners, including former QAnon believers who told him the podcast was part of their recovery.
“When I saw crosses being carried next to QAnon banners and a noose as these people walked on the Capitol, I knew I had to do something, but from a Christian point of view,” he said. Kubilus told Insider.
While some pastors, including Stacey and Swieringa, have opted for private conversations with their followers to warn of the dangers of disinformation, Kubilus is doing so publicly.
In his podcasts, he demystifies theories, talks about their dangerousness and preaches the importance of unity.
“Members of the clergy are expected to maintain a certain distance from secular politics (…) both to preserve the unity of our congregation and to ensure that we do not unduly influence the elections,” said said Kubilus.
“But I don’t believe QAnon is inherently political. It starts with politics, but it’s people’s lives, in relationships, that we’re talking about.”
Kubilus is aware that recovery from QAnon’s radicalization is by no means short-lived, but he hopes his efforts will eventually bring Christians home.
“It takes a lot of courage, time and patience,” he said. “But when you hear the stories of people being hurt, in families that are falling apart, you recognize that it is absolutely necessary.”