When I was in High School, at my Fundagelical institution of indoctrination, I got caught reading a book by Thomas Merton. One of my teachers scolded me for reading a “Catholic” book. She told me that Catholics aren’t real Christians. She trotted out the old doggerel about Catholics worshipping Mary instead of Jesus and that Catholics weren’t allowed to read the Bible for themselves. However, she added some new anti-Catholic information I had never heard of. She told me that Catholic priests and nuns were known to have orgies, and then when nuns got pregnant, they would strangle the babies and bury them in secret tunnels under the convents.
Even as a Sophomore, I knew the story was highly doubtful. It wouldn’t be until graduate school that I would come across the source of that salacious bit of propaganda.
I was tracking down information on the Satanic Panic, specifically the “testimonies” of people who claimed to be former witches and Satanists. While searching the shelf of religious biographies, I came across an old copy of Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk, or, The Hidden Secrets of a Nun’s Life in a Convent Exposed. It was sitting next to a copy of the book I was searching for at the used bookstore. (Irene Park’s The Witch That Switched. More on that in a later post)
The book Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk sparked a public outcry and investigation into the Montreal convent that Monk claimed was involved. After all the panic, an inquiry into Monk’s life revealed that she was a patient at a mental asylum when she claimed to have lived in the convent. One of the nuns that she claimed lived with her was a fellow patient at the asylum. Her story was most likely fabricated by her publisher and a ghostwriter capitalizing on the anti-Catholic spirit of the 18th century and trying to cash in on some of the money made from a previous “tell-all” book Six Months in a Convent by Rebecca Reed. Reed’s book had caused riots in Boston, and anything that can create that kind of publicity is sure to be imitated. Maria Monk was young and fragile and perfect as the public face of the victim.
The testimony of insiders and victims is a common theme for most conspiracy theories. Reed and Monk were supposedly inside the convents. Alleged insiders of high Masonic rank write Anti-Mason books. During the Satanic Panic, supposed insiders like ex-witches and Ex-Satanist gave testimony (often contradictory) that it created a kind of proof. However, the only evidence they could offer was their unsubstantiated stories. I always found it amazing that none of them could lead investigators to where all the thousands of supposed victims’ bodies were buried.
Maria Monk’s story became popular during a time of social stress. (The mass immigration of Irish and German Catholics into cities.) The Satanic Panic arose at a time of societal stress. (Civil Rights, Woman’s Rights, Gay Rights, Political Assassinations, the Vietnam War, Watergate.) Conspiracy gives people a way to understand the world and make sense of chaos. Conspiracies also give people a scapegoat to blame for that chaos.
What’s this got to do with QAnon? When you considered how it started, it follows a familiar pattern. The 4Chan account “QAnon” wasn’t the only “Anon” account floating around the board. There was FBIAnon, WH InsiderAnon, CIAAnon, and HLIAnon. (HLI stood for High-Level Insider.) They all claimed to be insiders in various government agencies. Again, it’s “insider testimony.” Like supposed former nuns, former masons, former Satanist, former witches, these guys claimed to have the real inside scoop. If you have been on any social media, you run into so many people claiming special knowledge. You might have run into posters of commenters that tell you they are former Navy Seals, Former FBI agents, CIA operatives, etc. What evidence do we have that any of these people are who they claimed to be?
Claims like this are where we are confronted with a choice between “healthy skepticism” and “overriding suspicion.” Healthy skepticism leads us to say that yes, the government lies to people, but is there evidence that QAnon is an insider with Q-level security clearance? Healthy skepticism leads us to seek evidence and react to it. Overriding suspicion leads us to think that the government always lies and that the only possible way the Truth can come out is on an anonymous 4Chan post from an insider.
Maria Monk was exploited for financial gain. QAnon was used by other 4Chan posters (Pamphlet Anon and BaruchtheScribe) and a vlogger (Tracy Diaz) to increase their “likes” and subscribers. It was a message people wanted to hear, so they started amplifying it. Like Battlestar, Galactica would try to capitalize on Star Wars success; QAnon recycled #PizzaGate and other conspiracy canards to increase subscribers. People wanted to believe, so they jumped down the rabbit hole, and some never found their way out.
After Trump was inaugurated as president, I started following a Twitter account called Rogue POTUS Staff. Supposedly some insider staff members were posting the inside scoop of what was going on behind closed White House doors. They had just enough believability that I subscribed for several months. Whoever was behind the account was probably a good fiction writer, a good propagandist, or a very low-level staff person. When they published their book, I knew I had been had. Rogue POTUS Staff was just one of many “Rogue” accounts selling supposed insider information. I was getting sucked in by an unverified claim I wanted to be true.
Here’s the bottom line, testimonies and insider information can be evidence if it can be verified. However, healthy skepticism and a commitment to Truth demands that we don’t take these at face value just because they confirm what we want to be true. QAnon made so many failed predictions, yet people overlook the failure because they want the conspiracy to be true. The Evangelical church has been infested with the QAnon conspiracy. The conspiracy supports their worldview and the Right Wing politics. However, as people who value the Truth, where is the evidence that QAnon is who they claim to be? Once again, the church is accepting testimony without proof.
These unproven insider testimony driven conspiracies have real-world consequences. #Pizzagate ended with a gunman. QAnon led to insurrection in the US Capital, and there may be more violence. There was no proof that Maria Monk was ever a nun; there is no proof that an insider with Q-level security clearence runs the QAnon account. I could claim that I was QAnon, and the amount of evidence would be the same.
Sensationalist claims without evidence only support our bias and are antithetical to who we are as Christians. Hear me, Christians, either we start engaging our brains to seek Truth, or we will see our reputations shattered when another lie we promote, like the Satanic Panic, is exposed.
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