There’s a “strong authoritarian streak” that runs through parts of American evangelicalism, warns Elizabeth Neumann. What should be done about it?
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By ZACK STANTON
02/04/2021 06:21 PM EST
Zack Stanton is digital editor of Politico Magazine.
For two decades, the U.S. government has been engaging with faith leaders in Muslim communities at home and around the world in an attempt to stamp out extremism and prevent believers vulnerable to radicalization from going down a path that leads to violence.
Now, after the dangerous QAnon conspiracy theory helped to motivate the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, with many participants touting their Christian faith — and as evangelical pastors throughout the country ache over the spread of the conspiracy theory among their flocks, and its very real human toll — it’s worth asking whether the time has come for a new wave of outreach to religious communities, this time aimed at evangelical Christians.
“I personally feel a great burden, since I came from these communities, to try to figure out how to help the leaders,” says Elizabeth Neumann, a former top official at the Department of Homeland Security who resigned from Trump administration in April 2020. The challenge in part is that, in this “particular case, I don’t know if the government is a credible voice at all,” she says. “You don’t want ‘Big Brother’ calling the local pastor and saying, ‘Hey, here’s your tips for the week.’”
Neumann, who was raised in the evangelical tradition, is a devout Christian. Her knowledge of that world, and her expertise on issues of violent extremism, gives her a unique insight into the ways QAnon is driving some Christians to extremism and violence.
She sees QAnon’s popularity among certain segments of Christendom not as an aberration, but as the troubling-but-natural outgrowth of a strain of American Christianity. In this tradition, one’s belief is based less on scripture than on conservative culture, some political disagreements are seen as having nigh-apocalyptic stakes and “a strong authoritarian streak” runs through the faith. For this type of believer, love of God and love of country are sometimes seen as one and the same.
Christian nationalism is “a huge theme throughout evangelical Christendom,” Neumann says, referring to teachings that posit America as God’s chosen nation. Christians who subscribe to those teachings believe the United States has a covenant with God, and that if it is broken, the nation risks literal destruction — analogous to the siege of Jerusalem in the Hebrew Bible. In the eyes of these believers, that covenant is threatened by cultural changes like taking prayer out of public schools and legalizing abortion and gay marriage, Neumann says.
“[Christian nationalists] see it in cataclysmic terms: This is the moment, and God’s going to judge us,” she says. “When you paint it in existential terms like that, a lot of people feel justified to carry out acts of violence in the name of their faith.”
How should the country, and the new administration, approach concerns about extremism among American Christians? What role can faith leaders play in trying to keep vulnerable believers from the temptations of conspiracy theories? And do the totems of American evangelicalism look at all different through the eyes of a national security expert?
To sort through all of this, POLITICO Magazine spoke with Neumann this week. A condensed transcript of that conversation follows, edited for length and clarity.
In May 2019, an FBI memo described QAnon as a domestic terror threat. You were still working at the Department of Homeland Security at the time. Do you remember when you first became aware of QAnon?
I remember asking my staff about it. I’d probably seen a news article about it and said, “Hey, are we concerned?” At the time, it struck us as this very random set of conspiracy theories. People in this country have followed conspiracy theories for years, and there are always those fringe elements you worry could be motivated to do something violent. It was definitely not seen as a high-level threat. It was kind of localized — you’re informing state and local law enforcement, “Hey, we’re seeing this activity,” so they might be better equipped to understand what’s driving it.
The DHS and FBI often put out bulletins that are just: “This is an incident that happened, this is what we assess it to mean, and here are the motivations or ideology.” It’s really there to provide context for law enforcement. In 2019, QAnon was more of the “huh, that’s new, but not really of concern” category.
When did it become a security concern for you?
The pandemic. QAnon was this fringe thing, it was concerning. Then, in 2020, it went on steroids.
In March, even before the shutdowns, I had my staff look at the research we use for developing behavioral indicators of individuals who might mobilize to violence. If we go down this path of having to all stay home, does that increase stress factors? Does it increase risk factors known to be common in people who carry out attacks? The answer was yes.
“QAnon was this fringe thing, it was concerning. Then, in 2020, it went on steroids.”
You started hearing the anti-government conspiracies — which was totally predictable. Anybody who has spent any time in Republican or libertarian politics knows you’re going to have people unhappy about the government. That’s fine; you can predict that. The question then is that if you know that’s going to be a challenge, what can the government do to help individuals understand why it is issuing stay-at-home orders, why it’s necessary, why it’s legal and constitutional? If the government had done a better job at that, we would have seen slightly less anger, slightly less of that victim-persecution complex.
With the pandemic, you had what was perceived to be government overreach; you had social isolation, which is a known risk factor [for extremism]; you had some people with a lot more time on their hands because they were not commuting, not taking kids to ballgames and not going to happy hour after work; you had economic stress — another known risk factor — as people lost jobs or moved to part-time status; you had people who lost loved ones. There was this great sense that people had lost control; our lives as we knew them had been upended.
People who had a strong, healthy sense of self or community were able to mitigate their isolation. But for individuals already on the cusp, this made them vulnerable. We use that word, “vulnerable,” to describe people who are not necessarily radicalized yet, but have factors in their lives that make it easier for them to move on a pathway towards extreme radicalized thought — and then, for a smaller subset, mobilizes them to violence.
That’s what we saw in 2020. We saw any number of people spending more time online looking for answers. You had increases in militia movements. The Moonshot CVE Group, which studies radicalization, said that in states with stay-at-home orders that lasted 10 days or longer, [online] searches for white-supremacist content increased by 21 percent. In states where there either weren’t stay-at-home orders or they lasted nine days or fewer, that increase was only 1 percent. We weren’t sure how it was going to happen, but we predicted that we would see violence in some form or fashion. The militia that attempted to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer — that was horrible, but not really shocking. The violence at protests? Not surprising. And the fact that you had white-supremacist groups using the protests to commit accelerationist violence was also not surprising — even though the president thought it was Antifa. We knew we were going to see more radicalization and violence.
“For people who studied disinformation, it became clear that the call was coming from inside the house.”
The combination of that on top of a pandemic, on top of a campaign where the president was sowing his own conspiracy theories and laying the groundwork for what eventually became [the lie] that the election had been stolen — well, some would say he started laying the groundwork four years ago. For people who studied disinformation, it became clear that the call was coming from inside the house. That kind of primordial soup makes conditions ripe for vulnerable individuals to move into this space. QAnon is not designed to be logical; it’s designed to meet these emotional and psychological needs.
Over the last year or so, a number of evangelical Christian leaders have shared their alarm at what they’re seeing with members of their churches being pulled into the QAnon world. You are a Christian raised in the evangelical faith. Do you see anything about the evangelical tradition that could make its believers more susceptible to QAnon?
I really struggle with this question. I’ve been trying to figure out how it is so obvious to me — and I don’t mean to pat myself on the back. I actually do read the Bible. Yet there are people who read scripture and attend church but are also die-hard into believing the election was stolen or have gone down the QAnon rabbit hole. What’s the distinction there? I find that hard to answer.
There is, in more conservative Christian movements, a strong authoritarian streak, where they don’t believe in the infallibility of their pastor, but they act like it; they don’t believe in the infallibility of the head of the home, but they sometimes act like it; where you’re not allowed to question authority. You see this on full display in the criticisms of the way the Southern Baptist Convention is dealing with sexual abuse, which is so similar to the Catholic Church [sex abuse scandal]. There is this increasing frustration that church leaders have [this view]: “If we admit sin, then they won’t trust us to lead anymore.” But if the church is not a safe place to admit that you messed up, then I don’t know where is — or you clearly don’t believe what you preach.
“There is, in more conservative Christian movements, a strong authoritarian streak.”
The authoritarian, fundamentalist nature of certain evangelical strands is a prominent theme in the places where you see the most ardent Trump supporters or the QAnon believers, because they’ve been told: “You don’t need to study [scripture]. We’re giving you the answer.” Then, when Rev. Robert Jeffress [a prominent conservative Baptist pastor in Dallas] says you’ve got to support Donald Trump, and makes some argument that sounds “churchy,” people go, “Well, I don’t like Trump’s language, but OK, that’s the right thing.” It creates people who are not critical thinkers. They’re not necessarily reading scripture for themselves. Or if they are, they’re reading it through the lens of one pastor, and they’re not necessarily open to hearing outside perspectives on what the text might say. It creates groupthink.
Another factor is Christian nationalism. That’s a huge theme throughout evangelical Christendom. It’s subtle: Like, you had the Christian flag and the American flag at the front of the church, and if you went to a Christian school, you pledged allegiance to the Christian flag and the American flag. There was this merger that was always there when I was growing up. And it was really there for the generation ahead of me, in the ’50s and ’60s. Some people interpreted it as: Love of country and love of our faith are the same thing. And for others, there’s an actual explicit theology.
There was this whole movement in the ’90s and 2000s among conservatives to explain how amazing [America’s] founding was: Our founding was inspired by God, and there’s no explanation for how we won the Revolutionary War except God, and, by the way, did you know that the founders made this covenant with God? It’s American exceptionalism but goes beyond that. It says that we are the next version of Israel from the Old Testament, that we are God’s chosen nation, and that is a special covenant — a two-way agreement with God. We can’t break it, and if we do, what happened to Israel will happen to us: We will be overrun by whatever the next Babylon is, taken into captivity, and He will remove His blessing from us.
What [threatens] that covenant? The moment we started taking prayer out of [public] schools and allowing various changes in our culture — [the legalization of] abortion is one of those moments; gay marriage is another. They see it in cataclysmic terms: This is the moment, and God’s going to judge us. They view the last 50 years of moral decline as us breaking our covenant, and that because of that, God’s going to remove His blessing. When you paint it in existential terms like that, a lot of people feel justified to carry out acts of violence in the name of their faith.
“When you paint it in existential terms like that, a lot of people feel justified to carry out acts of violence in the name of their faith.”
The elections in 2016 and 2020 were a fight in existential terms for believers of this teaching — meaning, if we allow Hillary Clinton or Joe Biden to be president, they are going to put the nail in the coffin [of the covenant], and the next thing we’re going to see is that Christianity is going to be outlawed, pastors will not be able to teach the Bible and Christians will become persecuted.
Now, here’s the caveat: Some of that fear is not out of thin air. There is a real “cancel culture,” where you see a mob mentality swarm on somebody who holds a biblically based viewpoint on, say, gay marriage, and you see someone forced out of a position or lose sponsorships or advertising. But they follow that to what they think is a logical conclusion — that eventually, pastors will not be able to preach against homosexuality or abortion, and if [they do], they’re going to end up arrested and unable to preach. I’ve heard that argument made multiple times over the last 10 years. The irrationality is the idea that there are no protections, that the courts wouldn’t step in and say, “No, the First Amendment applies to Christians as well.”
It tries to assert that they are losing power and must regain that power by any means necessary — which is why you can justify voting for Trump, so that we can, for God’s purposes, maintain this Christian nation. But that’s nowhere in scripture. Scripture, when it talks about what “Israel” is in the New Testament, it explains that it’s the church — which is not owned by any one nation; it’s a global church. And even if somehow you wanted to say that the American church is what [scripture is] referencing, [the Bible] tells us [to do] the exact opposite of what they’re talking about. We are told not to seek power. We’re told to be humble. We’re told to turn the other cheek. Jesus, in confronting Caesar’s representative at his trial, says, “My kingdom is not of this world.” “My fight is not here,” basically. Our purpose as believers is to be salt and light; it’s not to force everybody else to hold our beliefs.
To fix that, you really have to go back to scripture. You can’t just be like, “Christian nationalism is wrong.” You have to go back to what the Bible says, versus what you were taught as an American Christian, where it was so interwoven. It took me a while to even discover it. Once somebody pointed it out, [I was] like, “Oh, my gosh. I was taught that, and you’re right, that’s not correct.”
But it’s a very hard thing for people to [address], because it requires acknowledging that how you were raised or the people that you trusted either intentionally lied to you or were just wrong. It’s hard. It takes humility to go there. It’s a hard thing for people to recognize and escape from. But sadly, it’s a security issue that we have to address, because it has led to this.
“It requires acknowledging that how you were raised or the people that you trusted either intentionally lied to you or were just wrong.”
It sounds like you’re describing a reality for some evangelical Christians where their church is based more in culture than scripture — and that this makes them more susceptible to things like QAnon?
Oh, absolutely. Here’s the thing, and I will do my best to explain it from a secular perspective: There’s text in the New Testament where the Apostle Paul is admonishing a church he helped establish: “You should be mature adults now in your faith, but I’m still having to feed you with milk.” He’s basically saying, you should be 18, but you’re still nursing, and we need you to get it together.
There was a big movement in the ’90s called Seeker-Friendly Churches. Willow Creek [one of the most prominent of these churches] did a self-assessment about 10 or 15 years ago, and one of the things that they found is while they had converted people to Christians, there was a lack of growth in their faith. They were not learning the scriptures. They were not engaged in community. They were not discipling anybody. And [Willow Creek’s] assessment was: We failed. We baptized some people, but they’re not actually maturing.
One of my questions is: Are we seeing in the last four years one of the consequences of that failure? They didn’t mature [in their faith], and they’re very easily led astray by what scripture calls “false teachers.” My thesis here is that if we had a more scripturally based set of believers in this country — if everybody who calls themselves a “Christian” had actually read through, I don’t know, 80 percent of the Bible — they would not have been so easily deceived.
For the nearly 20 years since 9/11, to counter violent extremism, the U.S. government has done outreach to imams and other faith leaders in Muslim communities. In light of the QAnon problem, should we be doing the same with leaders in evangelical Christian communities?
I think we need to learn from the mistakes of the last 20 years. And I am very mindful that there are places where things went very well [with Countering Violent Extremism outreach], and there are also places where things did not go well. It’s a mixed bag.
I personally feel a great burden, since I came from these communities, to try to figure out how to help the leaders in those communities. I don’t know that I’m a credible voice anymore because of my political outspokenness, but there certainly are pastors who are struggling with these questions: How do I help somebody that has gone down the QAnon rabbit hole? Or, to put it in biblical terms, how do I help somebody who has made Trump an idol?
Pastors, church leaders, faith leaders — when you frame it that way for them, the answers start to come: “Oh, we know how to do this.” Usually, pastors have done a lot of counseling or shepherding in their lifetimes. They know that you don’t approach people head-on with dogmatic arguments; that tends to not work. You need to recognize that there’s often something else going on that has made somebody vulnerable to being deceived, and coming out of that deception can be painful and humbling. But faith leaders — the good ones, at least — are perfect for that kind of work. So even though the particular topic itself may be different than they’re used to, they have many of the skill sets you need.
“For QAnon, January 20 may historically be looked at as a light-switch moment.”
Some of [what we need to do is] supporting them, because it’s disheartening work. It takes a long time for somebody to disengage. It’s usually not a light switch — although for QAnon, January 20 may historically be looked at as a light-switch moment. [QAnon lore has long held that on January 20th, Joe Biden would not be inaugurated, Donald Trump would remain president, declare martial law and many prominent political leaders would be arrested.] You’ve seen many people go, “Oh, I was conned,” and they’re out. But for others, it may be a longer journey.
Certainly, what they teach from their pulpits [is relevant], even going back to the basics. Scripture teaches us not to spend time in conspiracies. You don’t have to say anything about “stop the steal” or whatever. Or teach the Ten Commandments and the fact that bearing false witness and slander are actually what conspiracy theories do: You are believing made-up sets of “facts” about people you don’t have firsthand knowledge of.
There are ways pastors can address it. But it’s hard, and they need a community where they feel safe to be encouraged to do this work.
Your question is about the government. And I’m intentionally avoiding that — in part because, in this particular case, I don’t know if the government is a credible voice at all. They probably would do more harm than good. The best thing they can do is provide fact-based resources — for example, threat briefings to educate [ordinary citizens] on signs of individuals who might be radicalizing into violence. Providing that information would be helpful, but you kind of want there to be a cut-out. You don’t want “Big Brother” calling the local pastor and saying, “Hey, here’s your tips for the week.” That’s just going to breed more conspiracies.
What can government do? Well, they’re resourced to help state and local governments, to do research, to identify best practices, to keep us informed about the threats, to give grant funding for prevention work. But those concepts are inherently built around the idea that it’s a multidisciplinary approach. And when we say “multidisciplinary,” it’s mental health, it’s human services, it’s education.
The disinformation problem is not going away. We can build more resilience. We can put more guardrails in place. But it’s going to be a problem for us for a long time.