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Bruce Gerencser was raised in an evangelical household, was educated in an evangelical school, married the daughter of an evangelical Baptist minister, and soon became a fundamentalist Baptist preacher himself.
He freely admits that the gospel he preached, at times, was extreme.
“Our beliefs were quite fundamentalist. We were young Earth creationists—you know, the Earth was 6,000 years old,” Gerencser told VICE News. “We had a long list of rules and standards that govern human behavior, everything from premarital sex and adultery. We were certainly homophobic, or at least I was personally homophobic. Everything was strictly controlled.”
But in 2005, after 25 years as a pastor, Gerencser gave it all up. Three years later, he renounced Christianity and became an atheist and a humanist, after becoming disillusioned with the church’s lurch to the right.
Now in his mid-60s, Bruce lives with his wife of 43 years just outside the small town of Bryan, Ohio, and he spends his time fighting back against the ills he sees within the church. Most recently that fight has seen him highlight and take on those spreading the gospel of QAnon.
What he didn’t expect was that one of the people he’d be up against was his own son.
Gerencser describes his adult son, whom he didn’t want to name, as a “good kid, polite kid” and an “awesome son,” but he recalls that in January 2020 something changed, and soon he was having discussions about apocalyptic forces of evil and a coming storm.
“Next thing I know, he's buying a large number of firearms and ammunition and a bulletproof vest and warning that he’s preparing for what's coming next,” Gerencser said. “And, you know, and I would say that what's coming next, what we're going to have open warfare in the middle of Bryan, Ohio.”
Like many who’ve fallen into QAnon conspiracy theories, Gerencser’s son has also embraced even more violent extremist groups, joining the Three Percenters militia group and espousing support for the leader of the Proud Boys.
But aside from the guns and militias, what shocked Gerencser the most was when his son one day turned around and said he’d returned to the church, joining a local Southern Baptist congregation.
When Gerencser asked his son why he’d rejoined the church, his son told him: “Because that pastor believes the same things I do.”
Gerencser is part of a small but dedicated group of current and former pastors attempting to counter the threat posed by the spread of QAnon within the evangelical community, something that’s happening from the pulpit and in congregations. While the number of pastors and churches openly embracing QAnon is limited, the conspiracy is spreading silently and quickly within the community, taking hold at a time when the church is hemorrhaging parishioners. Despite the dangers posed by QAnon within the church, very few are speaking up about the threat, preferring to bury their heads in the sand and hope the danger passes.
“The danger in my mind is existential: This is the most serious problem within Protestant Christianity that I've seen in my lifetime,” Pastor Derek Kubilius, vicar of Uniontown United Methodist Church in Uniontown, Ohio, and the host of Crossover Q, a podcast that aims to prevent the spread of QAnon conspiracies within the Christian community, told VICE News.
QAnon likes to portray itself as non-political, non-racist, nonviolent, and non-denominational, but even a cursory look at its tenets and beliefs will quickly shatter that illusion.
“QAnon is a movement targeted at conservative, white, Republican evangelicals, and anyone else who comes along for the ride is welcome but unnecessary,” said a prominent QAnon researcher who uses the name Dapper Gander, a pseudonym designed to protect his family from harassment.
“Its trappings are the trappings of Christian dominionism, assuring followers that ‘God wins’ and predicting that a series of events will unfold that are eerily similar to many of the events of the prophesied end-times in the Bible.”
Apocalypticism has always been present in American Christianity, and its popularity has waxed and waned over the years. But the rise of Donald Trump and his embrace of QAnon conspiracies has intensified these feelings of good versus evil, of dark powers at work, that the end of time is nearing. Add in the pandemic, and you’ve got a perfect environment for QAnon conspiracies to take hold in the church.
“When you look at the numbers of white Christians that have been sucked into this conspiracy theory, it's really a sort of heresy,” Rev. Jennifer Butler, the CEO of Faith in Public Life, told VICE News.
“It's wrong Church teaching. It's a misunderstanding of the Bible, but it's something QAnon built atop decades of bad theology, wrong belief, propaganda, in which people have been mistaught what Christianity actually is.”
The embrace of QAnon in the evangelical church can be traced back to the rise of the American religious right in the 1980s, with pastors such as Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, who brought politics into the church and embraced culture war issues like abortion, homosexuality, and pornography.
They also embraced Christian nationalism, the belief that the United States is fundamentally a Christian country whose laws should be informed by the teachings of the Bible. And it was this, more than anything, that paved the way for QAnon to take hold.
“When QAnon came around, it just lined up so well with everything that a lot of Christians were already thinking and talking about,” Kubilius said.
QAnon is a conspiracy theory that claims a secret group of elites is running a global child sex trafficking ring, and that former president Trump will someday soon expose these criminals and somehow return to the White House.
The conspiracy cult seeks to recruit an army of “digital soldiers” into a war between good and evil, where Trump represents the good while the Democrats and Hollywood elite who are supposedly involved in the sex trafficking ring represents the evil.
Such a narrative would be recognizable to many of those in the evangelical community.
“Being religious sort of predisposes you to believe in certain fantastical things, and QAnon is one of those fantastical ideas,” Ryan Burge, an assistant professor of political science at Eastern Illinois University, told VICE News. Burge is the author of “The Nones: Where They Came From, Who They Are, and Where They Are Going,” a book documenting the increasing number of Americans who say they are not religious, and a pastor in the First Baptist Church of Mount Vernon in Illinois.
While pastors openly promoting QAnon conspiracies from the pulpit is still relatively rare in evangelical circles, that doesn’t mean those conspiracies aren’t taking hold in the community.
A recent VICE News investigation found that pastors on YouTube were using the secret codewords of the QAnon conspiracy to spread these lies while avoiding being banned from the platform.
The evangelical church is made up of tens of thousands of churches across the country. While some of them are part of larger groups, such as the Southern Baptist Convention, in most cases, pastors are independent and operate without oversight from a bishop or other religious leader.
In many cases, pastors don’t even need a physical location to start a ministry.
“It's very decentralized,” Burge told VICE News. “People can sort of start their own ministry that doesn't even physically exist. It's mostly just them online with a webcam and a YouTube channel and a Facebook page.”
Kubilius says he knows of pastors in his own denomination who are guilty of spreading QAnon conspiracies, but he said “steps are being taken to address those problems in-house.”
Groups like the United Methodist Church have a strict set of boundaries determining what can and can’t be preached, and there is a regimented hierarchy where pastors are appointed to churches by bishops, rather than being allowed to simply establish a new church wherever they like.
“That's one of the reasons why some of that extremist ideology is not as likely to be found in main-line denominations as it is in specifically evangelical churches.”
Most evangelical churches are fighting to maintain their numbers, struggling with an aging congregation, and having difficulty attracting new members.
A recent survey by the Public Religion Research Institute found a dramatic drop in the number of white Americans who identify as evangelical Christians, from 23 percent of the population in 2006 to just 14 percent in 2020.
The survey also found that white evangelical Protestants are the oldest religious group in the U.S., with a median age of 56, compared to the median age in the country of 47.
Dwindling numbers of people in the pews means less money for pastors who rely solely on their congregation’s contributions to make a living.
“Asses in the seats equal dollars in the plate,” Gerencser said. “There's a direct connection between those: The more people you have, the more money you have.”
And so, as congregations dwindle, pastors in certain parts of the country have figured out that if they make their churches explicitly pro-Trump and are happy to accept or even preach about QAnon conspiracies, they're going to attract more people, and specifically men, who’ve been abandoning the church in recent years.
“For a lot of pastors, this is an untapped market. And if I want to grow a church quickly, this might be a way to do it,” Burge said.
And Burge warns that while actively promoting QAnon inside churches is still rare within the Christian community, speaking out against QAnon is equally rare.
The pandemic was a boon for QAnon, allowing it to flourish on mainstream social media platforms throughout 2020 at a time when a lot more people were stuck at home with more time on their hands to “do their own research.”
Kubilius says that since launching his podcast, he’s spoken to several pastors across the country dealing with this problem, and he says one pastor told him that when his congregation finally returned to in-person services, many of them had been radicalized into QAnon.
“Eventually he had to leave his church because this thing had been growing under his nose and he didn't even realize it,” Kubilius said.
“It's kind of baffled me, why the likes of the National Association of Evangelicals, for example, the largest umbrella group for evangelicals, or some of these megachurch pastors who pastor 10 or 20,000 people and should take a firm stand on these things, but they don't,” Gerencser said.
When asked about the issue, the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) told VICE News to speak to Ed Setzer, a member of their board of directors.
Setzer wrote an article in USA Today a year ago warning that evangelicals need to deal with the QAnon horrors in their midst. “I found that a whole lot of people got mad at me for that, saying, ‘This is not an issue; you're just exaggerating.’ And then on January 6th, those people stopped saying I was exaggerating,” Setzer told VICE News.
But other major groups within the evangelical movement seem even less inclined to address the issue.
When the Southern Baptist Convention appointed Ed Litton as its new president this past summer, he was asked about how he plans to address the issue of QAnon within the evangelical movement. Litton dismissed it as “a fringe problem."
While Kubilius’ podcast and Gerencser’s website reach large numbers of people, neither has the reach of a national organization like the NAE. However, there are some groups attempting to put a more structured system in place.
One of those is Faith in Public Life, a multifaith political lobby group, whose CEO Jennifer Butler is well aware of the scale of the problem in the church.
“I lead a network of 20,000 religious leaders, and what I'm hearing is that everybody is grappling either with how to talk to their congregants about QAnon or to help their congregants talk to friends and family members. A lot of people are very distraught at seeing family members and the country get pulled into this,” Butler said.
The group is currently working with experts in the field of cults and conspiracy theories to put in place a training program that would equip pastors with the skills necessary to fight the spread of QAnon.
“We see congregations as being really watering holes of democracy, and truth, and we're trying to train folks to be able to handle this in a compassionate pastoral way but to also really equip their congregants to be able to stand up against conspiracy theories on a personal level while also helping them dismantle these erroneous beliefs,” Butler said.
But QAnon is a unique conspiracy that entices followers with the lure of secret knowledge, convincing them that they’ll be part of a great battle between good and evil, that they will be a digital soldier fighting on the front lines and saving the children. It’s alluring, and difficult to let go of.
“It’s very hard for these people to give up, even the ones who know its complete hogwash, because what it does is it injects a kind of purpose and meaning in people’s lives,” Kubilius said.
“It turns people into heroes; it convinces them that they are soldiers in a digital war for the soul of America. It’s very difficult to leave something like that behind.”