The tent was getting hot by the time Pastor Greg Locke finished his sermon at Global Vision Bible Church, an evangelical ministry in Mt. Juliet, a suburb of Nashville, in late June.
Locke had thrown off his suit jacket as he enthralled his audience of hundreds, raving about child-trafficking "tunnels" under the White House and accusing President Joe Biden, Oprah Winfrey, and Tom Hanks, among others, as “a bunch of pedophiles.”
He also repeatedly said former President Donald Trump was the legitimate president and “you gotta smoke a lot of dope in your momma’s basement not to believe that fact.”
Then he turned to the audience, assembled in a tent set up to accommodate his fast-growing congregation, and wondered aloud “why more pastors don’t talk about this stuff?”
Locke didn’t leave his audience wondering for too long. “I guess they don’t want to seem crazy,” he said, before shouting, “Well, I’m already crazy.”
Locke’s conspiracy theories match perfectly with those spread by the QAnon movement in recent years, but the pastor is careful to never mention QAnon, and when asked about it, claims he’s opposed to the movement.
“People call me a QAnon conspiracy guy. I ain’t no Q. I'm not in all that nonsense,” Locke told VICE News at his church last month. “I'm a truth seeker and a truth teller.”
But Locke, like many other evangelical leaders spreading these conspiracy theories to their congregations, has a huge reason to avoid any mention of QAnon. Mentioning it would mean banishment from the platform that has given his church its lifeblood for the last 18 months: YouTube.
The uber-conspiracy theory QAnon, which has destroyed families and inspired followers to commit political violence and even murder, is officially banned on YouTube. But that doesn't mean it doesn't exist on the platform, and a VICE News investigation has found that evangelical leaders are successfully circumventing YouTube’s rules to spread QAnon conspiracies to millions of people. Indeed, through YouTube, QAnon conspiracies are becoming endemic in the most popular evangelical channels, even though they never mention QAnon at all.
The investigation was conducted in collaboration with data analysts at Pendulum, a data science company that uses machine-learning technology to track misinformation on YouTube. The researchers found at least 1,800 Christian evangelical channels that have posted at least one video with a signature QAnon phrase. In total, the data shows that in the space of three years, those channels have posted a combined 20,000 videos mentioning one of a list of common QAnon phrases. Together, they’ve garnered over 208 million views.
Evangelical pastors for the most part have been careful to avoid openly endorsing QAnon, knowing it would draw attention and criticism on them and their church, as well as a possible ban from YouTube. So instead, they have spread the conspiracy theories that are core to QAnon, including the claim that Democrats are running an underground sex-trafficking ring and that Trump is working to unmask them, a moment QAnon faithful call “the great awakening” that will see people like Hillary Clinton executed.
“The number of evangelical Christian leaders who are straight-up QAnon believers is very small, but the larger sort of narrative has made its way into the evangelical movement where, even without being a straight-up QAnon follower, they will still embrace a lot of the conspiracy theories that QAnon, and followers, promote,” Kyle Mantyla, a senior fellow at progressive advocacy group People for the American Way, told VICE News.
While the vast majority of the channels have hundreds or thousands of views on their videos, the Pendulum analysis identified 47 channels that have over 1 million views of videos with QAnon phrases in their descriptions, a significant signal that the video itself will contain even more QAnon conspiracies.
A number of channels on the list have been removed, but the vast majority remain active.
Phrases include “great awakening” and “child sex trafficking.” The list also included “white hats” a reference to the people working in secret with Trump to unmasks the “cabal” of pedophiles. Also among the phrases on the list is “we the people,” a reference to the U.S. Constitution that QAnon followers use to identify themselves.
YouTube told VICE News that its Trust and Safety team is aware of the QAnon-linked code words but said these weren’t the only factor it uses when determining if a video should be taken down.
“We remove content based on what’s said and the context in which it’s presented,” Ivy Choi, a spokesperson for YouTube, sad. “This means that while the presence of terms often associated with groups like QAnon is one important element we use to analyze and enforce our policies, it is not the sole determining factor.”
The channel with the most views is one run by televangelist Sid Roth, an octogenarian whose talk show “It’s Supernatural” is also broadcast on TV stations. Roth’s channel has posted a total of 23 videos featuring phrases such as “child sex-trafficking,” ”great awakening,” “cabal,” and “ritual abuse.” In total, the videos have been viewed 9 million times.
The coded language employed by pastors mimics how QAnon became mainstream in 2020 when the conspiracies were shared on Facebook and Instagram not under the QAnon banner but under more benign slogans like #SavetheChildren.
The #SavetheChildren hashtag was leveraged by QAnon promoters in 2020 to portray the movement’s efforts as similar to those of real children’s charities, when, in fact, all it did was make the work of real charities even harder.
The data from Pendulum shows that throughout 2020 mentions of the QAnon code words rose, peaking in late December just days before the Capitol riots in January. While mentions have declined somewhat since then, they remain at relatively high levels, Sam Clark, the data scientist who founded Pendulum, told VICE News.
More recently QAnon followers have been disavowing the Q branding altogether, Referencing a post from Q from October 17 of last year that said: “There is Q. There are Anons. There is no QAnon.”
This has led many QAnon believers to claim that QAnon is simply a media concoction despite the fact that those same believers were openly using the QAnon brand for years before the movement’s high-profile participation in the insurrection.
Now, pastors are doing the same thing.
“A lot of them don't openly embrace QAnon, they don't talk about Q, they don't follow Q,” Mantyla said. “But the overarching QAnon conspiracy theories are all things that they believe.”
Some major evangelical leaders “flat-out reject Q, but still believe that Hillary Clinton's part of a cabal that tortures children,” he added.
One reason so many evangelical pastors have embraced conspiracy theories first promoted by QAnon could be that congregations are dwindling fast. When the pandemic hit, churches had to shut their doors, and their income dried up. So as pastors sought new revenue streams online, many of them embraced QAnon conspiracies to entice a new online congregation who had already been radicalized on Facebook.
The number of people identifying as white evangelical has dropped precipitously from 23 percent in 2006 to 14.5 percent last year according to the 2020 Census of American Religion, a survey of half a million Americans conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute.
White evangelicals are also the oldest religious group in the U.S. with a median age of 56, the survey found, meaning evangelical pastors across the U.S. need to find new ways to engage and attract young people to their churches.
Embracing conspiracies is nothing new for right-wing evangelical groups, who have in the past boosted narratives around chemtrails or the Illuminati. But QAnon is different in one very important aspect, Mantyla said: “The age of the internet is making it a lot more prevalent.“
The internet means that the barrier to entry for pastors who want to take advantage of the spike in interest in QAnon conspiracies has fallen dramatically.
While in the past a pastor would have needed a physical space to call a church, now all they need is an internet connection.
“There's no difference between a megachurch pastor who's streaming his service online, and somebody who may not even have a church, who is streaming their services online,” Mantyla said. “From the viewers’ perspective, it's all the same. So somebody might have a church of 20,000 people and somebody might have a church with no people, but to the viewer, there's no real difference between the legitimacy of those two people, and who's ever saying the things that you like the most is the one toward which you gravitate.”
While many of the major churches had slick media operations in place prior to the pandemic, last year’s lockdowns saw the number of churches streaming their content online explode, as they sought to attract news audiences online.
But with thousands of other pastors fighting for attention, it was inevitable that some would embrace conspiracies and extremist ideology to carve out a niche for themselves.
“You can build an audience for yourself on social media by getting in among the right-wing conspiracy theorists and the QAnon people,” Mantyla said.
“Even though you have your local church with your local congregation, everyone's streaming their stuff on YouTube, posting videos on Twitter and all that stuff, and you build up a much larger audience from that and you get invited to conferences, and you get invited to speak, and people who don't attend your church are sending you donations. So there is an incentive.”