QAnon isn’t a cult.
I know we want it to be, as numerous pundits have argued. I know it would be comforting, to believe that it’s a weird fringe, in the grasp of charismatic leaders, that the people are brainwashed and alien, that it is Not Us, Not American, foreign and Othered in as many ways as we can say it.
We want QAnon not to be our neighbors. The pastor at the megachurch we drive by on the way to work. The nice couple at the farmer’s market. The cashier, the bank president, the people two pews over, your friends from high school you only see on Facebook.
We want QAnon to be something out of sight and out of mind.
What we want, sadly, isn’t what is.
The PRRI survey in March 2021 on QAnon believers should have killed that idea. About one in five white evangelical Protestants, Hispanic Protestants, and Latter Day Saints are QAnon believers, but between ten and twenty percent of every other Christian denomination surveyed also believed. And there are plenty of studies on QAnon and churches, asking why faith groups believe in QAnon. This is certainly a good question—but maybe missing the point. QAnon already adopted ideas from evangelical Christianity.
QAnon’s white supremacy is certainly not divorced from Protestant ideas of the 20th century—more Ku Klux Klan than the church down the street, with an eschatology that goes through The Turner Diaries more than Revelation—and the conspiratorial thinking at its heart is the recycling of Christian conspiracy crises and calls for violence from medieval blood libel through 1980s Satanic Panic. Even the churches that have openly embraced “Q drops” as scripture, like Omega Kingdom Ministry, are still operating within a neo-charismatic framework.
I preface with this, because most of QAnon is an even more conspiracy-laden call to arms in a Christian context—vile, dangerous, and weird, but unfortunately built on innumerable pre-existing blocks and ruptures within contemporary societies and the plethora of Christianities that live within them.
But there are other currents in QAnon too.
New Age religions have also been part of the bedrock of QAnon. Whether we dub them “pastel QAnon” or “Woo-anon,” the interrelationship is long and deep. And these are, by and large, also not cults—but they bring in so many different ideologies and ideas, mainstreaming QAnon into other communities and even into other countries.
These New Age religions bring their own ideological and intellectual baggage, be it the X-Files-esque alien conspiracy of “starseeds” or “lightworkers,” or merely the pushing of “do your own research” (DYOR) in the most bizarre and dangerous ways. And then there’s the Ascended Master movement, which made QAnon news with Michael Flynn’s sermon in the fall, but whose theosophic ideas exist far beyond that.
QAnon has innumerable flavors—its conspiracy theories, and the recombinations of them, are myriad and bizarre—but most of them aren’t in and of themselves a religion. And the use of “cult” as a descriptor is incredibly problematic—as Megan Goodwin has pointed out, “the word “cult” gets used to mark certain groups as legitimate targets of state surveillance and violence.”
We use it as a marker of a “religion we don’t like,” or a group with “predatory, abusive, irrational behaviors,” or a dangerous group, as she writes in her review of Richard Kent Evans’s MOVE: An American Religion, and she’s absolutely correct. Because of course all of those definitions can be and are true for any religion, and the term, therefore, is largely about how dominant groups shape narratives about others. As Catherine Wessinger has pointed out, this is not only detrimental to the discourse about these groups, but dehumanizes members and leads to specific patterns of law enforcement behavior. She writes,
“[T]he public perception of small religious groups and their behaviors as deviant is intensified when the “cult” stereotype is applied, and that has led law enforcement authorities to take actions against both the Branch Davidians and the [Yearning for Zion] community that could potentially, and in the Branch Davidian case did, cause harm to children instead of saving them from harm.”
The use of the term provokes specific reactions, and those reactions often include state violence against the people we claim to want to protect.
All of this is important, because when I say the ~Negative48 group, based in Dallas, surrounding Michael Protzman, is a cult, I do so knowing full well the problematic baggage behind the word.
The media likes to follow Protzman’s group for the sensationalism, and I do not pretend that that isn’t a part of his appeal. When they gathered in Dallas in early November 2021 to wait for JFK Jr. to appear, it looked from the outside like yet another in a series of Q-adjacent prophecies, a whole branch believing JFK Jr. was in hiding, warring against the Deep State, and would return to run as Trump’s vice president.
Protzman makes prophecies based on three particular strands of QAnon (and outside) thought: English Gematria, originally a Jewish numerological system in which Hebrew letters are substituted for their corresponding numbers, but English in this case; a complex genealogical narrative that Lincoln is descended from Jesus and is also the ancestor—through his sons Willie and Tad, who died as children in reality—of the Kennedys, Trump, Patton, Elvis, and innumerable others; and the incredibly seductive notion in the midst of a worldwide pandemic that beloved celebrities are not in fact dead, but have been in hiding and walk among us. All of these exist beyond just the group he’s gathered in Dallas.
The reason why I call it a cult, however, is where professor Ori Tavor sees the semantic change in the discussion of cults in American pop culture—Jonestown, the People’s Temple and their leader, Jim Jones. As Tavor says, “That makes Jonestown the quintessential cult. Pictures of the dead bodies were on the cover of Time magazine. Jonestown is a seminal moment in U.S. history to popularize the term ‘cult.’”
The group that left their families to join Protzman in Dallas in November is STILL THERE. The number is certainly down from its height as many have stayed and cut off contact with their families. They recently took a road trip to Arizona to attend Trump’s rally, which garnered national attention with Protzman’s claim that Trump was really JFK Jr. in disguise. Protzman’s followers claimed that their seats meant Protzman had contacts with Trump, which renewed interest in the group from their casual online followers, despite any proof of this.
On the drive back members went sightseeing and posted videos—and here’s where we need to be paying close attention. Protzman’s group is incredibly fringe, even within QAnon, but incredibly controlled from the top, isolated from family, and engages in dangerous behavior. Stephen Tenner, part of Protzman’s group, made a video on the way back saying, “Jesus is coming, you guys ready, it’s going to be pretty awesome.” That same day, other members of the group posted this image:
TheKool-Aid reference is, of course, about Jonestown. And making a joke out of it is not particularly funny, it’s incredibly scary. Jonestown was a murder-suicide, but predominantly a murder of the congregation by their leaders—over 900 died on the last day, when Jones forced his followers to drink cyanide-laden punch, beginning with the children, and Jones either shooting himself or having his nurse shoot him before she shot herself. And the horrific aerial image from Jonestown, of the bodies around the central church, is the predominant image of a “cult.” As Megan Goodwin writes, “it MATTERS that when you hear ‘cult’ you think pile of bodies, brainwashing, charismatic leader, (some? All?) religion is dangerous.”
Protzman’s group is playing with that same language in their self-description. The Kool-Aid image is deliberate. But we also have a credible report that the members of Protzman’s group in Dallas have been drinking a mixture, including industrial bleach, out of a giant punch bowl as part of communal rituals. We have a November trip by the group to Waco, near where the Branch Davidian compound at Mount Carmel once stood, a famous example of popular media use of the term “cult” and how that goes wrong, as Wessinger shows. And we have the core fixation on the idea that the dead are not really dead, just in hiding, and a rhetoric coming out of the Trump rally in Arizona, and ramping up as they head to Trump’s rally in Houston, that feels very Second Coming-esque, between Tenner’s “Jesus is coming” and his new video that “There will be a king in attendance.”
Protzman’s group heading to these rallies has revitalized his clique, bringing people back to Texas from out of state to join him. And all the while, the rhetoric is maintained—secret codes in the numbers, the dead are really alive, and the group should stay together.
We know that “cult” is not an appropriate term for just any religious grouping. It’s a political term for a movement. But Protzman’s group bears all of the hallmarks of that problematic term, in the way we mean it post-Jonestown, post-Heaven’s Gate. And while they may make a distracting spectacle to write about, I hope we’re watching for ways to get their members out, before it can become the next media sensation to use the term after a tragedy. Protzman’s group is embracing the problematic political term; we need to make sure they don’t embrace the ending that often goes with it.