In his NBC Town Hall last Thursday with Savannah Guthrie, President Trump awkwardly danced around the subject of what he supposedly does not know about QAnon. Friday morning’s headlines left sane audiences everywhere scratching their heads regarding the extent to which so many Christians are willing to shill for the man. Actually, it’s not even a stretch for them. They do so eagerly.
With his drug-fueled “recovery” from COVID-19 on recent display after leaving Walter Reed hospital, pundits scrambled to describe what they were seeing. Joy Reid notably referred to the president’s stunt on the balcony Monday night as a “Mussolini moment.” Others saw something different on their screens. Trump’s evangelical supporters beheld a positively biblical moment unfolding before them. “Is there anyone like unto him?” tweeted evangelical radio host Eric Metaxas, echoing Moses’ post-Exodus awe at the wonder-working powers of the Lord God himself (Exodus 15:11). Shortly before his diagnosis, Kaitlin Bennett, another Trump booster, had posted a photo of herself on Twitter in a t-shirt that read, “Trump is my KING!”—not “just my president.”
These days, the evangelical political imagination is so impoverished it’s not enough to see Trump as a hero or strongman fighting for them. For right-wing America, there’s only one move left: Trump has to be the Messiah incarnate.
Trump didn’t have to work so hard for palm fronds to be laid at his feet while he headed out on the 2020 campaign trail. Instead “Q,” that “ubiquitous, iniquitous, enigma”—a designation I’ve repurposed from Adam West’s Batman description of the Joker—began describing the 45th President of the United States in messianic terms. To restate well-trodden territory: QAnon followers believe that Donald Trump heroically labors behind the scenes to resist, subvert, and disrupt a vast network of liberal and Hollywood elites who are secretly operating a massive sex ring of Satan-worshipping pedophiles and cannibals.
For his own part, Trump has embraced the veneration, telling the press core when asked if he’s fulfilling the mission with which QAnon has anointed him, “If I can help save the world from problems, I’m willing to do it, I’m willing to put myself out there and we are, actually. We’re saving the world from a radical left philosophy that will destroy this country and, when this country is gone, the rest of the world will follow.” The world! It does, after all, have to be global. Still, despite his as-usual acceptance of praise, Trump nonetheless seemed uncharacteristically cagey in his response to the Q question.
To be Messiah, or so it seems, is the only political move remaining for the religious right. It’s irresistible to those who revel in such labyrinthine conspiracy theories. As Katelyn Beaty revealed in her recent Religion News Service op-ed, pastors across America sense that they are losing a battle to QAnon quackery. Other church leaders have joined right in, playing Q-friendly propaganda videos during their own worship services.
Placed upon Trump’s shoulders, the mantle of savior marks a significant departure from the tack of evangelicals in the ramp-up to the 2016 election. In those days (seemingly a lifetime ago), “The Donald” was seen by straight-laced Christians as an imperfect vessel, whose crass, rough-around-the-edges style was nonetheless being used by God to disrupt unholy hierarchies. Their take was not unlike Pope Leo X’s descriptor of Martin Luther being “a wild boar from the forest” in Christ’s vineyard. Embarrassed by the man himself, he was compared to King Cyrus—a pagan ruler who nonetheless had the best interests of God’s people at heart. But in 2020, that’s just not good enough. The ratcheting effect means that Trump has to be far more than just a reformer—he has to be some kind of Savior himself.
Lately, I’ve been thinking that this entire scenario echoes a tension within the New Testament about what it meant to be God’s anointed King. In the early twentieth century, German scholar William Wrede noticed a strange phenomenon in the Gospel of Mark. Namely, why does Jesus strictly forbid his disciples and others whom he healed to mention that he was, in fact, the long-awaited Messiah—the King of Israel? (Mark 1:43-45, 8:29-30). Since Mark has long been held by most experts as the first gospel written in the first century, the phenomenon seemed to be a stumbling block in the quest for the historical Jesus. Did Jesus not fully realize the scope of his divine mission during his earthly ministry?
The general conclusion, both from Wrede and those who subsequently modified his theory, took form in a theological rather than a historical explanation. Jesus purportedly wanted secrecy about his activities and miracles so as to forestall misunderstandings about his mission—since there were many conceptions about who or what the Messiah was supposed to do in first century Palestine. Just so, everything had to remain cloak and dagger until Jesus was vindicated by God after the humiliation of the cross in his triumphant resurrection.
This “secret” is a literary motif that is hard to resist. After all, J.R.R. Tolkien cast Aragorn in similar fashion—from his early appearances as a ranger named “Strider” in The Lord of the Rings to the one who is ultimately revealed to be Gondor’s true and coming king. For Trump supporters in 2020 who take Q’s word as gospel, it’s not enough for Trump merely to be “God’s man on Pennsylvania Avenue.” He’s got to be something greater—a mythical hero standing athwart of history yelling stop to “political correctness” and “critical race theory”—all while permanently ridding the nation of God’s enemies (i.e. progressives).
As in Oz, this time around we find white evangelicals saying, “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!” Forget that he’s the man who cages children, a eugenicist who allegedly demands hysterectomies on immigrant women, and a demagogue who lies about the coronavirus while hundreds of thousands die. “Just hang in there,” whispers Q, standing in as the Holy Spirit. “The scrolls are about to be broken, although we but see dimly right now. Your salvation is nigh!” All you have to do is vote on November 3rd, one more time, “and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh will see it together.”
Gregory Alan Thornbury, Ph.D., is a theologian and author of Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music: Larry Norman and the Perils of Christian Rock.