Wild At Heart: QAnon, Sex Trafficking, and Evangelical Masculinity
The Capitol insurrection and its immediate aftermath may be over, but the movement that fueled it remains a threat. As footage of the insurrection has filled our screens, the religious rhetoric and imagery of this movement have been hard to miss. Many have called attention to the Christian slogans and symbols as well as the New Age beliefs of some insurrectionists, especially the so-called “QAnon Shaman,” Jacob Anjeli.
However, there is another thread to untangle as we look for the ways in which religion and violence coalesce in the fight for white masculinity within this moment.
Angeli’s car is emblazoned with the slogans “Child Lives Matter,” “Save the Children,” and “Do Your Research.” He is one of many who is motivated by more than just conviction that the election was stolen. Anjeli held a sign that read “Q sent me,” and though he displayed a range of religious symbols, his various associations with Christianity and QAnon are the product of a deep link that has been brewing for years.
The QAnon conspiracy was born in 2017 on the 4chan message board — source of false news stories, hoaxes and online harassment. The conspiracy claims that “Q” is an anonymous military or intelligence officer with clearance level “Q.” Q’s cryptic posts have led followers to believe an event— called “the Storm” or “the Great Awakening”—is imminent, in which elite pedophiles will be arrested and the truth revealed. Q offers as “the truth” the idea that an underground network of powerful elites has been operating an international child sex trafficking and pedophilia ring.
As the ethnographer and spirituality scholar Susannah Crockford writes,
The conspiracy theories that Angeli references are all familiar to me through my research into New Age spirituality in Sedona, Arizona. I was told that there was a secret underground base underneath the town where alien experiments were undertaken, that free energy was possible if only the dark cabal hadn’t kept it from us to continue profiting from our labor, and that the banking system and wage labor were designed to keep us enslaved. Spirituality, they told me, was the route to freedom from these third dimensional machinations. The dark cabal wants to block spiritual evolution because it threatens their control.
What’s new is the emphasis on child trafficking. Angeli seems to sit at the intersection where QAnon meets New Age spirituality. They share themes of awakening from a sleep in which the “sheeple” still dwell.
The connection between spirituality and child trafficking may be new in New Age spirituality, but it is one that has been common for years within evangelicalism. There is a unique connection between QAnon conspiracy theories and the long-standing evangelical interest in uncovering and fighting human trafficking worldwide, with a particular focus on a growing dark network of child sex trafficking rings in the U.S. and abroad.
Though sex trafficking is often dismissed by outsiders as simply fake news, there is actually more to the religious underpinnings of the insurrection than meets the eye. This confluence of aggression and protection is the natural product of widespread evangelical conversations about child sex trafficking and global crime, and the role of religious believers in stopping it. Those who see the insurrection as a fringe group of disgruntled Trump supporters who did not get their way are missing the movement’s deep and widespread roots in American religious rescue ideology and white supremacy.
Indeed, there is nothing more foundational to American evangelicalism than racism, and the co-constitutive forces of white supremacy and U.S. Christianity have been linchpins of American culture from its inception. The historical precedent of this specific flavor of mob-and and-militia violence is noteworthy, given that violent enforcement of anti-Black anxieties has so frequently been justified by a call to protect the sexual purity of white women and/or children.
As we know all too well, lynchings and mob violence were often justified as a way to punish an alleged rapist or would-be rapist, and this violence was often, in turn, justified with religious ideology. Anti-Blackness has often been hidden under the concern for sexual purity, and the rhetoric of protection and rescue has historically been a testing ground where white masculinity could be strengthened, tried, and proven.
The idea of endangered sexuality as a motivating and justifying force for mob violence is a natural product of the toxic combination of America’s white supremacist roots and evangelical attachment to the missionary imperative to rescue.
What I see happening now in insurrectionist religion is a kind of gendered rescue paradigm around sexuality, vulnerability, and global conspiracy that is not only fairly common and mainstream in the white evangelical world, but one that has been building throughout America’s “original sin” of slavery, the white Southern reaction to the Civil War and Reconstruction, and the rise of evangelical Christianity’s link with conservative politics in the later twentieth century.
As a sex and intimacy coach, I frequently spend my days unpacking clients’ religious pasts — and this work is mostly done in a language of shame, guilt, purity and reclamation. I work mostly with women who want to unwind years of sexual shame that emerged, typically, within a confluence of their religious histories, personal experiences of sexual assault, and the ramifications of living in a culture that slammed them with conflicting and violent messages of what sex is all about.
The work I do now draws on my dissertation research on gender, sex trafficking, and anti-trafficking movements. It also draws on many parts of my own history– on my fluency in the language of evangelical purity culture and on my experiences with the contemporary evangelical missionary movement. A decade ago, I began to research evangelical involvement with global anti-trafficking missions while I worked for International Justice Mission, a religious NGO that began as an evangelical anti-sex trafficking organization.
I had been a missionary in college on a very short-term trip to Phnom Penh, Cambodia. The foundation of the mission connected to a broader commitment within evangelicalism: that we were called to give up comfortable parts of our lives, like summers in the United States, and become global citizens, concerned more with community abroad than at home. While I was there, I learned more about all of the different organizations and mission trips who arrived in Cambodia, referred to as “NGO-land” by many of the ex-pats we met, and just how many were evangelicals there to fight what sex trafficking, or forced prostitution/sex work, particularly of minors.
We heard horror stories and tales of rescue, and I noticed something both strange and familiar about the language we heard in these descriptions. These were stories in which Christian missionaries, evangelical pastors, or other short-term visitors used language like “oppression,” “objectification,” and “empowerment.” This was not just a series of tales about delivering the gospel to the non-Christians of the world, an assumption that those unfamiliar with modern evangelical missions might be tempted to make, but instead, a complex tangle of evangelical Christianity, American disenchantment with globalization, and anxieties about gender and sexuality.
Sexual trauma, and sex trafficking in particular, had become a prism through which modern evangelical identities were reflected and refracted. The way American Christians talked and thought about sexual assault and sex trafficking felt like a secret code to cracking so many other issues, including patriarchy, sexual sin, mission work and global travel, gender roles at church, marriage, and sex.
In Cambodia, I saw a narrative of vulnerable children abroad in need of rescue, and brave soldiers for Christ who were ready to go rescue them. I realized eventually, too, that the mission field of sex trafficking victims was and is a testing ground for evangelical gender roles.
The evangelical women and teenage girls who, like me, went abroad as missionaries to be with the children and women of the sex industry in Kolkata, Manila, Phnom Penh, and elsewhere were looking for ways to serve, save, heal, and help, while also experiencing their own agency, autonomy, and freedom in ways that were rarely available in the “right” roles for women at home.
At the same time, these missions and movements offered men the chance to take part in something they saw as a heroic rescue mission– a way to put traditional models of masculinity into action.
The insurrection can be understood as an insurgence of an evangelical masculinity that has been galvanized by the fight against child sex trafficking. In a world where economic opportunities have dwindled, campaign promises have run dry, God feels distant, and divorce rates are high—is this the battlefield on which men can prove that they are still in the fight?
As many of us probably remember, in 2016, a 28-year-old man, Edgar M. Welch, showed up at Comet Pizza in Washington, D.C., with an assault rifle, allegedly assuming he would find a basement of children trapped inside as part of a global conspiracy of pepetrators of a child sex-trafficking ring. This incident, which became dubbed “Pizzagate,” helped illuminate the dangers of fake news and the suspicion so many held toward “global elites,” like Hillary Clinton, but a crucial part of the story was overlooked by many.
The New York Times reported, “According to court documents, Mr. Welch said he had come armed to help rescue the children.” He told the Times reporter that “he felt his ‘heart breaking over the thought of innocent people suffering,’” and though he regretted how he handled it, he had shown up to help when he arrived at the D.C. pizza parlor with a rifle.
The Times noted two things. First, Welch was not a Trump supporter (obviously he was not a Clinton supporter, either), and he specifically referenced a favorite book, Wild at Heart: Discovering the Secret of a Man’s Soul. Listed among things he likes, presumably to paint a picture for Times readers of a classic fake-news-believing simpleton (the book is referenced between a mention of Alex Jones, drinking the occasional beer, and a Bible verse tattoo), his mention of the book points to so much more than that.
Wild at Heart, first published in 2001 by Jonathan Eldridge, sparked what Jonathan Merritt has referred to as a “Christian manhood” cottage industry. Eldredge “sought to empower men to realize ‘dreams of being the hero, of beating the bad guys, of doing daring feats and rescuing the damsel in distress.’”
While the book was immediately critiqued as old-fashioned at best and dangerously prescriptive at worst, it also resonated with millions. Books with titles such as Act Like Men: 40 Days of Biblical Manhood, Manhood Restored: How the Gospel Makes Men Whole, and The Dude’s Guide to Manhood soon followed.
Meanwhile, in Seattle, Mark Driscoll, an evangelical pastor at the growing Mars Hill Church, was beginning to rise in popularity and notoriety. Mars Hill was technically founded in 1996, but its heyday was in the early 2000s up through 2014 when Driscoll resigned. By 2006, the church counted 4,000–5,000 weekly attendees at three campuses in the Seattle region. Driscoll became infamous as well as celebrated for his combination of modern Calvinist doctrine, deeply gendered rules about what men and women were meant to do (both at home and at church), and most notably, the macho swagger with which he delivered those ideas.
Driscoll strove to be a man’s man, and to convince Christians and would-be Christians that Jesus was a man’s man too. Women were instructed to submit to their husbands and to men in their midst, and Driscoll also demanded (often with profanity) that men rise up and behave as if they truly deserved such submission. Driscoll yelled at men to grow up, to become rescuers, providers, producers. He frequently chastised boys and “guys” whom he saw as delaying adulthood. Although most critiques of Driscoll focused on what he instructed women to do or not do (quit their jobs outside the home, focus on submission, be readily available for sex), he had equally strong instructions for men. Often his violent, misogyinist rhetoric toward women reflected what he saw as a failure of masculinity, rather than of femininity. Or, at the very least, the modern world’s failure of them both.
Like many evangelical churches, Mars Hill in the early- to mid-00s funded anti-sex-trafficking outreach, both in Seattle and abroad. Like Eldredge, Driscoll looked out at the world and saw a sea of damsels in distress. Together they contributed to a cultural moment in which it felt clear that evangelical men in particular were meant to rise up as the heroes who would beat the bad guys and rescue the damsels.
These men, like Welch (and, I would argue, many of the QAnon believers), are not simply racist, sexist conservatives upset about a liberal tide turning in Washington, D.C.
Many of them imagine themselves as gladiators and soldiers, inspired by texts like Wild At Heart and pastors like Mark Driscoll. They long to be the hands and feet of Christ, seductively mixed with a macho masculinity that helps make sense of a crumbling economy, few jobs, insecure attachments, and the increasingly unstable prominence of the straight white male in American society.
Of course, there is a role for white women within this paradigm as well. We saw white women participate in the insurrection, and safeguarded purity/femininity is a large part of what this rescue paradigm upholds.
White women’s investment in the movement becomes much more intelligible when we look at it through the lens of both heroic rescue and the violent policing and punishing of threats to purity. In this narrative, white women get to be both part of the action (in a way that they are almost never permitted to have within traditional evangelical gender roles), and they find common cause with the victims, their own purity a stand-in for that which is perpetually in need of rescue.
In the insurrection, as elucidated by the evangelical lens, whiteness positions itself as both the hero and the damsel, when of course we know whiteness is the perpetuating force of violence itself.
The insurrection brought together many middle-class to wealthy people—cops, financially secure ex-military folks, entrepreneurs, and others—illuminating that this evangelical ideology pertains not just to the stereotype of financially poor, left-behind, working-class whites. White evangelicals of any class can be activated by this ideology around sexuality, gender, and religion.
The rise of QAnon conspiracy is rooted in the same fantasies of rescue as those found in much mainstream evangelical mission culture, and we ignore this link at the risk of missing the next insurgence of this disenchanted fairytale. Insurrection ideology isn’t just in the halls of the Capitol or in the depths of Parler. It’s in religious bestsellers, popular theology, worship services, Bible studies, prayer meetings, mission trips, and NGO’s. It’s in old and new ideas about religion, sex, and gender that are all around us.
This has been brewing.
Kimberly Rose Pendleton is an intimacy and leadership coach who teaches Women's Studies courses at Johns Hopkins University. She has an MA from Yale Divinity School and a PhD in American Studies from George Washington University, where her research focused on sexual freedom and global sex trafficking.