QAnon, Spiritual Warfare, and the Orthotaxies of America
By Kate O'Brien-Nicholson
25th November 2020
By S. Jonathon O’Donnell
The global conspiracy movement QAnon has been the subject of multiple think pieces since its emergence in mid-2017. Originating on anonymous online message board 4chan with the posts of the eponymous ‘Q,’ QAnon has displayed remarkable endurance, surviving multiple shifts in venue and many alterations in its beliefs. At its heart, the conspiracy claims President Donald Trump has been secretly at war with a global network of Satanists—mostly establishment Democrats and Hollywood stars—engaged in child trafficking and acts of ritual cannibalism to harvest an elixir of immortality. Adherents hold that Trump is about to bring this war to its climactic finale in a purge known as ‘The Storm,’ in which conspirators will be jailed or executed.
While the actions of adherents have led to its classification as a domestic terror threat, QAnon’s religious aspects have led to framings of it as a “cult” or “new religion.” Yet QAnon is deeply rooted in the American religious landscape, specifically white conservative evangelicalism. Its conspiracy claims draw on ideas of Satanic Ritual Abuse and the New World Order that remain common in such circles. Adherents speak of a coming ‘Great Awakening’ as both moment of religious revival and realisation of cosmic deception. ‘The Storm’ echoes wider apocalyptic visions in which evil will be overthrown and justice delivered. QAnon imagines America as fallen, ravaged by demonic progressives that threaten ‘our’ children—for all assertions about child protecting, adherents remain broadly silent on those detained near the Southern border, or simply missing—and then fantasises about its violent restoration.
Under the shifting layers of conspiracy and absurdity, QAnon’s core exists as part of a genealogy of reactionary Christianities that seek to exert power over the shape of the American social body. Its narrative is one about what ‘America’ is, or rather should be. QAnon here exhibits what in my new book Passing Orders: Demonology and Sovereignty in American Spiritual Warfare I refer to as an ‘orthotaxic’ religiosity: a mode of religious expression fixated less on ‘correct’ beliefs and behaviour (although these can form constituent parts) than on ‘correct’ patterns, structures, and orders. A vision of orthotaxy is a vision of the ‘right order’ of things—of the social order, of individual bodies, of history itself. And in the United States, these visions are almost invariably imbricated in histories of exceptionalism, ethno-nationalism, and empire management.
In Passing Orders I explore visions of orthotaxy in evangelical ‘spiritual warfare’ discourses, analysing a growing subset of evangelical texts in which combat against demons—whether with ‘militant’ prayer or more overt political activism—has become a critical element of religious life. QAnon, although not a focus of the book, circulates amidst this wider spiritual warfare milieu, sharing in its fixations on cosmic war and eschatological yearnings for judgment, revival, and the restoration of ‘right’ order. As in QAnon, claims over this ‘right order’ are opposed to a legion of demonic threats against which they must be defended; threats incarnated in demonised others who represent of alternative visions of the social order: feminists, queer and trans folk, Muslims, Indigenous peoples, and activists for racial justice, most recently Black Lives Matter. Flattened and folded together, these groups are figured as a unified Satanic threat to a model of Christian America imagined on cisheteropatriarchal, settler colonial, and white supremacist lines.
Mobilizing a history of using property-related imagery traceable at least to Billy Graham, spiritual warfare writers cast demons as ‘illegally’ controlling space, possessing only ‘squatter’s rights,’ to be evicted through re-establishment of ‘proper’ ownership. For some, like the self-proclaimed prophet and QAnon advocate Mark Taylor, notions of demonic illegality are mapped directly onto the bodies of undocumented immigrants, whose expulsion from the United States becomes figured as the material reflection of spiritual victory in the unseen realm. For others, they come to reflect broader notions of bodily autonomy and institutional control, ‘sinful’ forms of being and belonging that must be exorcized and normativized, brought in line with a vision of divine will whose triumph is invested with providential certainty and enforced with sovereign violence. In all cases, demonized models of social and spiritual order become figured as transgressive, as transient, as passing. They are figured only as counterfeit orders destined to pass on, scattered in an apocalyptic instant of closure; in the lingo of QAnon, ‘The Storm is Coming.’
Passing Orders follows the trace of these demonized orders, offering both an analysis of American political demonologies and a subversive counter-reading of them. It excavates the declension narratives of contemporary America, chronicling their reliance upon structures of queer- and transphobia, antiblackness, Islamophobia, and settler colonialism. But in doing so it unearths archives of resistance and refusal: the projects of dissent buried inside the proclamations of decline. Through critical readings of demonologies of three figures in spiritual warfare today—Jezebel, Antichrist, and Leviathan—I show how demonologies enframe narratives of queer dissidence and belonging, of anti-racist and anti-colonial revolt, of the collective work of solidarity, subversion, and survival. I show how each demon captures a spirit of dissidence in the face of normative America, and argue that learning to think with these demons represents an unexpected resource with which we might imagine alternative futures that could yet be forged.
QAnon, within and apart from the wider spiritual warfare milieu, constructs a vision of what America ‘should be’—an orthotaxy—and inspires adherents to bring that orthotaxy into reality. The roots of this vision run deep, ineluctably entwined with American white evangelicalism’s history of demonization. As such, it is likely this vision will survive Trump; despite his centrality to its eschatology there is no reason to think its prophets will not simply adjust their predictions after his departure. The Storm could still be coming, and it may be up to us to weather its impact and its wake. But demons, Passing Orders shows, are very good at weathering storms, and a critical reading of their demonization may provide exactly the resources we might so desperately need.
S. Jonathon O’Donnell is a postdoctoral fellow in American Studies at University College Dublin.