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How to talk to your family about QAnon

As March 4 came and went without incident, and without Donald Trump re-claiming the U.S. presidency, the latest conspiracy theory from QAnon flopped.

A woman holds a poster of Jesus wearing a MAGA hat, featuring the QAnon slogan WWG1WGA, outside the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021 in Washington, DC. Credit: JMesserly/wikimedia CC BY SA 2.0

According to cryptic theories promoted by anonymous conspiracy poster “Q”, March 4 was the day Donald Trump was going to be inaugurated as president, or reveal that he had been president all along. As it happened, Capitol Hill security forces were on heightened alert all day, but nothing happened.

Why March 4? Because until 1933, incoming U.S. presidents were inaugurated on March 4. Some QAnon adherents believe there has not been a legitimate president since 1871, the year which Q claims that the U.S. secretly became a corporation.

QAnon, a mostly online far-right fringe conspiracy group whose founder (or founders) remains unknown, holds that there is a battle between a cabal of Satanic pedophiles who control much of the government, and Donald Trump, who is believed to be leading a movement to unseat and unearth them.

Since March 4 didn’t work out, QAnon followers are setting their sights on March 20, or some other day in March, as the day Donald Trump will be inaugurated: Either as the 19th president of the true United States, or as the first president of a “new era” in the U.S.

There is not hard data about how many Americans believe all or some of the QAnon conspiracy theories. But a recent survey from the American Enterprise Institute found that 15% of Americans believe that “Donald Trump has been secretly fighting a group of child sex traffickers that include prominent Democrats and Hollywood elites.” Forty-one percent of Americans say they are uncertain whether or not that claim is true.

Some figures in the Catholic Church, including Archbishop Carlo Vigano, a former papal ambassador to the U.S. who has claimed the pandemic was exploited to enable a one-world government, have been affiliated with the movement. And Facebook groups and YouTube or Instagram accounts promoting the QAnon idea have hundreds of thousands, and in some cases millions, of followers. Some of them are Catholics. And some Catholics have found that QAnon has divided their families, and changed their loved ones.

Kate, a woman on the East Coast who spoke with The Pillar on condition of anonymity, said her conservative Catholic sister became an avid QAnon follower in the months leading up to the election. Kate’s sister, like many other QAnon followers, thought Donald Trump would win the 2020 presidential election and thereby save Western civilization.

Kate thought her sister’s obsession would stop after November 4.

“I figured, you know, once the (2020) election happened the way it was going to happen...that it would go away,” Kate said. “But it didn’t.”

Kate’s sister kept sending her videos and messages, insisting that the election was stolen, that John F. Kennedy Jr. is still alive, that the military is secretly in charge of the U.S. right now, and other “wild” theories.

For a while, Kate and her other siblings simply chose not to engage their sister in talking about QAnon. But they felt compelled to speak up when their sister tried to talk their elderly parents out of getting the COVID-19 vaccine.

“I think it was my brother that was basically like, I don't want to hear about these conspiracy theories anymore, enough already,” Kate said.

Kate is just one of many American Catholics struggling to understand how some members of their conservative, Catholic family or friends started believing some of the far-flung theories of conspiracies like QAnon, and how, if at all, they can start talking them out of it.

Demonstrators in Washington, DC, Nov. 14, 2020. Credit: Geoff Livingston via flickr. CC BY SA 2.0

‘It hits too close to home’

Joseph, a conservative Catholic from Texas, said his parents started following QAnon conspiracies a few years ago.

“It hits a little too close to home for me to find it really interesting,” he said, “but from an outside- -looking-in kind of view, it’s interesting, because I've seen the evolution of how they got from point A to point Z.”

Joseph said his parents have long been “Fox News conservatives” - and several years ago, they started watching the station day in and day out.

“They took it as the unerring, gospel political truth,” he said, something that he found irritating, but that was easily avoided by just not talking politics with his parents.

“But since Trump was elected, I noticed that they had begun to fall into...the very ideological camp of ‘Trump can do no wrong,’” he said. As the 2020 election neared, things got worse.

“My sister started sending me text messages expressing legitimate concern for my parents, particularly my mom,” he said. “Because my mom was telling my sister all sorts of things about...and I don't use this word lightly, but this really insane stuff that QAnon believes.”

As one example, Joseph said his parents believed the QAnon theory that the tents set up in April in New York City for overflow COVID patients were actually set up by an elite ring of Democrat pedophiles, who were bringing “mole children” up from under the streets in order to harvest and ingest their blood, “so that the pedophile people can somehow or another achieve eternal life,” he said.

Joseph, who works as a mental health professional, said the further detached from reality the conspiracies were, the more he worried he became.

“It’s jarring, emotionally,” he said.

QAnon has also impacted his parents’ faith. While they used to be somewhat lukewarm Catholics, they’ve “completely switched churches. They don't attend Mass or anything. Now they attend First Baptist Dallas.”

Dr. Robert Jeffress, senior pastor at First Baptist Dallas, was called “Trump’s Apostle” by Texas Monthly, and is an outspoken defender of former president Trump. Jeffress oversees the 14,000-member megachurch with a $135 million campus in downtown Dallas.

Joseph said in some ways, his parents now seem more devoted to their faith - they talk openly about praying and reading Scripture. But on the other hand, he said, some of the worship services at First Baptist Dallas seem to be “only a little bit” about Jesus Christ, and much more about worshiping the American flag and the United States.

Joseph said his parents’ obsession with QAnon has created tension in what had otherwise been a good parent-child relationship, and it has made him more reticent to share his own personal beliefs, or more general things about his life. He said he guards what he tells them now, because has heard too many stories of families being torn asunder due to arguments over politics and conspiracy theories, and he would rather keep the relationship intact.

“There's always been some political distance between us, but now that their political views have been wrapped up in this pseudo-spirituality kind of thing….I just don't want to risk irreparably fracturing the parent-child relationship that we have over something as stupid as politics,” he said.

When he spoke to The Pillar in late February, Joseph said his parents had been quieter about QAnon theories in recent days, which he took as a “glimmer of hope.” But he thinks it will take a while to undo the damage that QAnon has done.

“They've warped their own sense of reality so much, that now they are having to basically confront what is real,” i.e., that Donald Trump lost the 2020 election. “And that's a difficult thing to do when you're middle-aged or approaching an elderly age and this has been your life for the past three or four years.”

A QAnon demonstrator in Ohio, holding a sign alluding to the theory that Donald Trump is working to end a global pedophile ring. Credit: Paul Becker via Flickr. CC BY SA 2.0

Why Q?

Dr. Peter Malinoski is a Catholic clinical psychologist in Indiana and the president and co-founder of Souls and Hearts, an online Catholic mental health resource.

Malinoski, who has worked with people who are in the process of extricating themselves from cults and other dangerous groups, said that people look to groups like QAnon to fill their attachment needsL the need to be seen and known, to be safe and secure, comforted and reassured, or to have a sense of meaning, purpose or direction in life.

“There are a lot of reasons to feel unsafe and insecure in our culture,” he said. “And then (in a group like QAnon) there's a sense of connection and community, and perhaps a sense of protection, if you're part of this larger organization. And that's particularly important because in our day and age, a lot of traditional sources of security have been sorely challenged. A lot of things that people rely on for being seen and known, that they rely on for comfort and reassurance, have been stripped away.”

The coronavirus pandemic shut down major sectors of society, like in-person school or work or worship for many people, and the confusion surrounding the pandemic, at least in its early days — to mask or not to mask? —  led to an erosion of trust in leadership and government, he said.

That erosion of trust was already happening, he added, the pandemic just sped things along. Political mishaps like the spectacle of the Mueller investigation, and, for the Catholic Church, sex abuse and financial scandals, were already contributing to a drop in trust in authority figures.

In September 2019, in the blessed days before anyone had even heard of COVID-19, a Pew study indicated that 79% of adult Americans felt that members of Congress admitted to mistakes or took responsibility for their actions either “only a little” or not at all.

“I think what's going on is that there's this disaffected, disenfranchised sector of the population that is looking for something to hang on to where the traditional ways of having security, the traditional ways of having safety, the traditional ways of being seen and known...they have not resonated with those folks.”

A QAnon flag at a Virginia rally, January 2020. Credit: Anthony Crider via flickr. CC BY SA 2.0

‘You can’t use logic as a cudgel’

Tom Ruby, a Catholic in Kentucky, said that the conspiracy theories popular among some of his friends and family span both political and religious realms.

“They’ve married their conservative political position with their faith, to the point where one is driving the other, and it’s not the one it ought to be,” Ruby said.

The theories he has heard range from the pandemic being a sham, to the COVID-19 vaccines causing infertility, to none of the U.S. bishops being trustworthy, and everything in between.

Ruby said he has tried to talk to one of his friends about these beliefs, with some degree of success. He said he has found it helpful to ask questions about the process of how something might work. For example, he said, one QAnon theory that his friend believed was that John F. Kennedy Jr., who died in a plane crash in 1999, is secretly still alive and will emerge from hiding at some point to support Donald Trump.

Ruby said he started asking his friend how the logistics of a massive government conspiracy would work.

“The generation of leadership and turnover in any organization is about five to seven years in government,” Ruby said. “How many generations of people has the CIA gone through...for that story still to have been protected? Talk me through the process.”

The question was enough to get his friend to start questioning his own thought process on some of the conspiracies. Ruby said he’s found listening and asking questions to be more effective than arguments and evidence about why the theories are wrong.

“You can use logic as a cudgel, and as a weapon, right? But if you do that, and try to say how stupid they are, you're literally going in the opposite direction,” he said. “You can't use logic as a cudgel to embarrass people.”

‘Start with yourself’: Listening vs. reacting

Ruby’s experience matches Malinoski’s advice for talking to friends and family about conspiracy theories, which is to keep it non-reactive, and to keep oneself in check, first and foremost.

“You need to start with yourself. I'm going to recommend a real searching self-assessment. In other words, asking yourself these questions: How am I reacting to this loved one, or this friend being involved with this group or with these ideas?” he said. This helps “to get an inventory of what's going on inside of you.”

“What's getting triggered in me around safety? What’s getting triggered in me around security? In being seen and known? Being comforted, reassured and all those attachment needs? I'm taking a hard searching look at how much of my motivation (for confronting this person) is self-protective,” he said.

After the self evaluation, Malinoski said a relationship evaluation is necessary.

“What is the history I have with the other person? What is the credibility I have with the other person? What's the current relational climate or connection I have with the other person? Does the other person believe I really care about them or not?” he said.

Too often, people will enter into these discussions with the intention of “knocking some sense” into the other person, which ends up coming across “in a very condescending, derogatory way, that’s not interested in why the person involved in this,” Malinoski said.

That approach accomplishes neither the goal of maintaining a relationship with the person, nor the goal of changing their mind.

Instead, he said, “you're going to be much more likely to win that person's heart and mind by shining on them with warmth, and with kindness, and with understanding, and in doing that, providing an alternative way of having the attachment needs met.”

Credit: xplayer2/wikimedia CC BY SA 4.0

If a self-assessment and relational assessment suggest a conversation might be fruitful, discussion should start with listening to understand, Malinoski said.

Some people might think that listening to understand is the same as being affirming or complicit in a person’s beliefs. But they are not the same thing, Malinoski said.

“People really feel like they're not being Christian, and they're not being virtuous, if they don't argue with the person, but that's not what you’re doing.”

“You can win the argument but lose the arguer, so we want to think about it in that way,” he warned.

Questions like “What is the best thing about being a part of this group?” might help draw out some of the deeper reasons a person has become interested in things like QAnon, he said.

“And that's really a much harder road, to actually love somebody, to really enter into their worlds to be able to sort of see what the underlying need is that’s driving their membership in a group like this. Appreciating how serious that all can be is a much harder road, than arguing with them, or telling them to snap out of it,” he said.

Understanding the perspective of a person who believes in conspiracy theories, and what needs they are acting out from, can help Catholics better understand how they can pray for that person, and potentially how they can help them, Malinoski added.

Malinoski said it might help to suggest a friend or family member talk to a trusted priest or other trusted person about their concerns. That suggestion might open up a line of dialogue where questions like “Where do you see this theory going in the future?” can be asked, and the conspiratorial thinking can be gently questioned.

It is also important for a concerned person to exercise prudence about how much conversation to have, he said.

“There's wisdom in the Hippocratic oath, and that was primum non nocere, which means first do no harm. Don't make it worse, right?” he said. If this is the case, sometimes conversations about the sensitive topic are best avoided, at least for a time.

“But that doesn't mean that you move to passivity and,a hands-off, helpless approach,” he said.

“Because all of these challenges, all of these trials, they're all gifts from God, if we really believe in a providential worldview. You can look at this and say, ‘Okay, how is this a gift for me? What work do I need to be doing internally, with my own self, in order to be in a better position to love this person I’m close to, or this relative, or whoever it is?’ There's a call to doing your own work, to removing the beam from your own eyes, to equipping yourself in terms of your human formation and your spiritual formation, to being better able to love that person.”

That work might include therapy, spiritual direction or both for the concerned family member or friend, Malinoski said.

Souls and Hearts, Malinoski’s online mental health ministry, offers a free course called “A Catholic Guide to Helping a Loved One in Distress”, which goes into some of these steps in more detail. It is not specifically tailored to people whose family or friends are followers of conspiracy theories or groups, he said, but the principles it offers apply.

Malinoski does not suggest going slow if someone is in immediate physical danger and needs immediate professional help. But otherwise, he counsels a long-term approach.

“People in groups and organizations like this are exquisitely sensitive to agenda,” Malinoski added. “And if your agenda really is not to understand, but to really get them to do something, they're going to know the difference. So there's a lot of purification and motive that has to happen.”

“When I work with folks that...have been in cults, they can tell whether I'm really interested in their experience, or whether I'm really trying to pry them away from a group,” he added.

“And so what I want to do is be with the other person in a way that supports their search for truth, their search for goodness, their search for love, their search to have their needs met, and not to control them, not to try not to take on the responsibility for their life or responsibility. God respects their capacity to choose. So my job is to be with them to support their own search for truth, and that's what I think is ultimately going to win their hearts.”