The Apocalypse Never Dies, It Just Gets Weirder
Over the weekend, Madison Cawthorn, the Trumpy young first-term congressman, tweeted out a video showing himself misinterpreting the Bible and pushing theocracy. In the video, an edited clip from a speech he gave at a religious-right conference last month, Cawthorn seems to claim that David, Daniel, and Esther “influenced the governments of their day to uphold Christian principles”—at best a shockingly ahistorical assertion; at worst, a troublingly anti-Semitic comment. Yet what’s most remarkable about Cawthorn’s video pushing Christianity onto civic government and warning apocalyptically that “if we bend the knee to the Democrats today, our country will be lost forever and our children will never know what freedom is” is how utterly unremarkable it is. Cawthorn’s rant is, sadly, nowhere close to the biggest problem in apocalyptic Christianity in America at the moment.
No, not only has the apocalypticism of the last few years not died out, but things aren’t getting better.
Donald Trump may be off of Twitter. Q may have gone silent. Yet the unrest, the conspiracy theories, the anti-democratic forces that launched a coup attempt on January 6 and that promote apocalyptic ideas around the reinstatement of Trump? Those continue to grow and evolve. In 2019, I wrote about the theology of the “last world emperor,” a secular messianic figure used in the Middle Ages as part of apocalyptic circles to push for an active quest for Armageddon, and how and why Trump was being used as a contemporary example of the movement. Now, in 2021, it feels like we are somewhere between the revival of that message and Trump as the actual Messiah. Instead of the apocalypticism calming down eleven months after the 2020 election and nine months after the January 6th insurrection, it has spread, grown, put down roots. Apocalypticism has become mainstream among Trump supporters, and it has brought ever weirder and darker elements from the fringes into the core.
In Fort Oglethorpe, Georgia, for example, someone paid for a billboard at 1827 Lafayette Street with an image of Trump next to a Biblical verse, “Unto us a son is given and the government shall be upon his shoulders” (Isaiah 9:6, but misattributed on the billboard to Romans). The full passage, in the King James Version, is “For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace.” The billboard blasphemously implies that Trump is the Messiah; if that is not the intention, it is at minimum a creepy and confusing exercise in Trumpian adulation.
The conflation of the Christian message in white evangelical churches with support for Trump is an ongoing crisis. The white evangelical demographic is growing, with a nearly 4 percent increase nationwide from 2016 to 2020—fueled almost entirely by white supporters of Trump. According to one March 2021 poll from PRRI, some 61 percent of white evangelicals believe the “big lie” that the 2020 election was stolen from Trump. Numerous evangelical supporters, with “MyPillow” guy Mike Lindell being perhaps the most egregious example, have gone all in in this idea. Belief in the big lie overlaps with a number of other conspiracies: In a January 2021 poll, a majority of evangelical respondents said they believed in widespread voter fraud in 2020, a Deep State war on the Trump administration, and Antifa being responsible for January 6th. QAnon, the apocalyptic partisan murder conspiracy web, is believed in by nearly a quarter of white evangelical Protestants, around a quarter of Latter-day Saints, and about a quarter of Hispanic Protestants. Among both white evangelicals and LDS, nearly a quarter say they are willing to “resort to violence in order to save our country.”
This by itself is enough cause for alarm—QAnon and DezNat, the LDS iteration (or even more alarmingly, the Doctrine of Christ, a Mormon offshoot that incorporates QAnon directly), seemed to be genuinely dangerous ideologies long before January 6. But given the Trump big lie and the events of January 6th, the willingness to resort to violence takes broader meaning.
“Q” himself has not posted since December 8, but the QAnon adherents are moving on without him—a QAnon conference in Dallas on Memorial Day weekend, the “For God & Country Patriot Roundup,” was a three-day event featuring Sidney Powell, Mike Lindell, Michael Flynn, and others. Trump was invoked throughout the event. Meanwhile, some 45 candidates for Congress in 2022 are QAnon supporters. Dave Hayes, a leading QAnon adherent, claims that Q will return “when Trump comes back into office.” And, of course, the usual internet conspiracy-mongers are still following imaginary bread crumbs to say that Trump is already back in power.
The interweaving of QAnon and evangelicals—especially in this context of Trump’s repeated insistence that he didn’t lose and his supporters’ belief that violence may be necessary to restore the true government—takes on dangerous holy war themes. Some of the speakers in Dallas openly pushed Christian Dominionist ideas. Edmee Chavannes called for “those [Christian] disciples [to] have complete dominion over politics, entertainment, the press, business, education, finance, and by God, restoring the integrity of our voting system and get a hold of the global Communist takeover.” This rhetoric was echoed by Rep. Lauren Boebert at another religious right conference on September 11:
Are we going to sit and agree with the enemy? Are we going to agree with what the enemy is doing? Are we going to sit back and complain and murmur? Or are we going to speak life into this nation? Are we going to speak victory? Are we going to declare that God removes these unrighteous politicians, these corrupt, crooked politician, and installs righteous men and women of God?
These political figures are not the worst of it, even if they have the biggest mouthpieces. Vice’s recent piece on the fight against QAnon within Protestant churches, offering examples of Christian nationalism and of congregants stockpiling weapons and joining militias, showcases the danger. There’s the issue of pastors using YouTube to spread QAnon sayings, and pastors such as Greg Locke mixing anti-vaccine rhetoric with calls for violence. The link between QAnon and religion has never been secret—but when it filters out beyond the internet, beyond the churches, spreads among their adherents, including some who are mentally unbalanced, you get horror stories like that of Matthew Coleman, who murdered his children because of his QAnon beliefs.
This is not an apocalyptic movement that’s adhering to a central goal or theology. It’s one where very personal apocalypticisms, very personal conspiracy theories, lead to the murder of children.
While the PRRI survey found that it was Protestant denominations most likely to have incorporated QAnon beliefs, some branches of radical traditionalist Catholics maintain similar beliefs. Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, who had been apostolic nuncio to the United States and now writes conspiracy-laden tracts for the Remnant, an apocalyptic hate site that routinely attacks Pope Francis, gave a speech in July in which he called the modern world “the kingdom of the Antichrist where transhumanism challenges heaven and nature, in the eternal cry of the enemy, ‘Non serviam’ (I will not serve).” Archbishop Viganò further argued that “this rebellious world, enslaved to the devil—especially in those who govern it with power and money—is waging war on us and is preparing for a fierce and ruthless battle, while he intends to gather around himself as many allies as possible, even among those who prefer not to fight, out of fear or interest.” The apocalyptic fights over QAnon and Trump have begun to bleed over into other intra-Catholic disputes, like the fight over the Latin Mass. Readers of Viganò will have heard of his QAnon-like conspiracy theory, “the Great Reset.” And MAGA/Q Catholics certainly made their presence known on January 6th.
In the midst of all this, where is Trump? He has sought out ever more radical ground, spending part of the twentieth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks giving a virtual speech at the “Rally of Hope” event held by the Unification Church, the cult commonly known as the “Moonies.” He is not the only senior member of his administration to appear at their events—Mike Pence, Michael Pompeo, and Mark Esper were featured at a virtual rally by the Unification Church this past May. And the Unification Church had returned the favor—Hyung Jin “Sean” Moon, the son of the cult’s late founder, had campaigned for Trump and organized members to march on the Capitol on January 6th.
Sean Moon runs Rod of Iron Ministries, a gun church that uses AR-15s in its liturgy and ritual and has recently bought a 40-acre compound it dubbed “Liberty Rock” in central Texas, about 50 miles from Waco. The church’s Twitch stream often uses hashtags like #MAGA, #Trump, and, of course, #QAnon—while Sean Moon plans to take his own messianic kingship when America falls. This crazily radical group, technically separate from the Moonies although there is considerable overlap, sounds like it should be too far even for Trump—yet in October 2020 Steve Bannon spoke at the group’s “Freedom Festival” (and will again this coming weekend) and in 2016 Eric Trump attended the opening of the group’s Tommy Gun Warehouse (owned by Sean’s brother Justin Moon). Teddy Daniels, a pro-Trump congressional candidate from Pennsylvania, had Sean bless his campaign when he announced his run. Far from being marginalized, Rod of Iron has managed to become part of Trump’s world.
There is no way to know if Trump knew or cared about any of this when he agreed to speak at the Moonie rally on September 11—but if he did know, that means he intentionally chose to speak at a fringe movement that overlaps with one of the most militant, apocalyptic movements in the country. And as Trump continues his new “Save America” tour—with a name deliberately chosen to provoke fear and anger and to incite action—and presumably to runs for re-election as president (he will be in Des Moines, Iowa this coming Saturday), that combination of guns and God, by whatever means, will only further radicalize his adherents.
As time passes, and as apocalyptic prophecies of Trump’s occupation of the White House fail, the strength of the apocalyptic impulses around Trump does not seem to be diminishing. If anything, the reverse is true: it seems to be growing. The more egregiously that fringe groups are being courted and integrated into the body of true believers, the more that Trump’s faithful seem to become weirder, more dangerous, and more convinced that their apocalypse is coming. We can only hope that deradicalization efforts will be supported and be successful, but until then, the messianic fervor around Trump remains—and remains a threat.