When the news becomes religion

Seth Wenig/AP Photo

Last year, a week before the end of winter on Staten Island, a blue pickup truck backed into a silver Cadillac Escalade parked outside a tasteful, expensive house with a swimming pool in the backyard on Todt Hill. The Escalade’s owner was Frank Cali, the alleged boss of New York’s Gambino crime family, once convicted of extortion and widely accused of being the Gambinos’ emissary to the Inzerillo Mafia clan in Sicily. 

Cali walked outside to investigate, where he was confronted by the driver, Anthony Comello, a baby-faced twenty-four-year-old man with a pair of handcuffs. According to court documents filed on his behalf by his former lawyer Robert Gottlieb, Comello shook Cali’s hand and informed him that he intended to make a citizen’s arrest. Cali declined the offer. Comello reached into his truck and pulled out a 9mm pistol, then shot Cali in the face. Comello drove away. 

Cali crawled under his Escalade, where he died. It was Wednesday, March 13. 

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Comello was not a hit man, nor was this his first bizarre attempt at a citizen’s arrest. The month before, he had gone to Carl Schurz Park on Manhattan’s Upper East Side to arrest Mayor Bill de Blasio at Gracie Mansion. The mayor’s security detail declined to make de Blasio available. “Shortly thereafter,” Gottlieb writes in his court filing, “on another occasion, the defendant tried to arrest and detain California Congressional Representatives Maxine Waters and Adam Schiff in the vicinity of the Southern District of New York Federal Courthouse,” this time unsuccessfully soliciting help from the US Marshals Service’s office downtown.

Anthony Comello, Gottlieb wrote, was an obsessive follower of QAnon, a growing movement, born on the internet, that believes President Trump is secretly at war with the forces of darkness, in the shape of a sprawling conspiracy that alleges pedophilia and cannibalism at the highest levels of society. Trump’s fiendishly complex moves in this war are revealed in posts written by a user calling him-, her-, or themselves Q on online message boards. When Comello appeared in court, he had scrawled a large Q on his hand, along with “Patriots in charge USA” and “maga forever.”

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It is something of a parlor game to try and attach meaning to QAnon and other similar conspiracy theories that have gained traction in recent years. To me, it seems clear that, stripped down to its essentials, QAnon fulfills a very understandable need to make sense of the torrents of news we are inundated with, free from any context, daily. 

QAnon does this in a manner that is startlingly similar to a news-obsessed strain of Christian theology called premillennial dispensationalism, which takes metaphorical passages in the Bible and tries to decode them into both individual prophecies that refer directly to current events, as well as a larger meta-prophecy ending in the Rapture of believers to heaven, the coming of the Antichrist, and the battle of Armageddon.

“QAnon is always sucking in new things that have happened,” says Will Sommer, a reporter for the Daily Beast who covers the far right. “There was a weird light a couple of years ago off the coast of Oregon, and people were like, ‘Oh, that was a missile trying to take down Air Force One as Trump flew to North Korea.’ ” 

Scrape away at even its weirdest beliefs, and you will find media commentary. Dave Hayes, who goes by PrayingMedic on YouTube and Twitter, carefully chronicles all of Q’s posts and lays them out in the manner of a media columnist crossed with a Bible-study leader. He helpfully explains what punctuation means here, what the original drop meant there, how this post refers back to an earlier dispatch. 

In a long thread from November 11 about Q’s drops, Hayes engaged in a long exegesis about John Durham, a United States attorney for the District of Connecticut, into which he attempted to weave the material posted by Q and Comello’s murder of Cali. (All punctuation and styling is Hayes’s.)

“Durham has specialized in prosecuting public corruption, including abuse by the CI_A,” Hayes writes. “Q noted that this article says Durham Also spearheaded mob prosecutions of the [Gambino], Genovese and Patriarca crime families. Gambino is in brackets = [Kill box].” 

“Q people refer to clues like Bible verses,” Sommer explains. “They’ll say, ‘As we know in Drop #300’ the way people would say, ‘As we know from John 3:16.’ ”

 

I GREW UP AN EVANGELICAL CHRISTIAN. While I am still a Christian who attends church sometimes and prays regularly and reads Bible stories to his kid, I am not an evangelical. I don’t believe that I have a duty to trick my Jewish friends into changing religions, that the Bible is a series of texts in different genres that cleverly interlock like a David Mitchell novel when read correctly, or that gay marriage and abortion are sinful. And I do not believe in QAnon.

As a journalist, I’ve had to rethink a lot of what used to be my most basic assumptions. Like anyone, I am most comfortable when things make sense, whether because the Bible tells us so or because Q has made it clear to us in his drops. Journalism, for me, is a process of perpetual self-frustration—reading interviews against one another for inconsistencies and then bothering the people involved until the inconsistencies go away, which often leads to whole stories unraveling and becoming unprintable or changing so radically that they have to be rewritten and whole other interviews conducted. 

It’s the opposite of reading the Bible the way charismatic Christians—including my younger self—do, in which you’re looking for obscure connections, not obscure contradictions. But, as I have watched the rise of Q, and dozens of similar conspiracies, the two parts of my life have merged. 

This has happened literally. A church called the Omega Kingdom Ministry is the first to formally cross-pollinate Q’s gnomic news-oid drops with the charismatic Christianity that QAnon has always sort of resembled. There are plenty of evangelical Christians in the QAnon community, although no denominational bodies have said anything positive about the conspiracy theory. 

It has also happened metaphorically, as the ways in which Americans interpret the news have become increasingly similar to the ways the faithful interpret their lives. Morgan Lee has observed QAnon for Christianity Today; she says she thinks the draw to an intriguing new system is especially easy for the faithful. “The threshold for believing things that are unbelievable might not look the same [as it would for atheists or agnostics],” she says. “What looks like a leap to those people?”

Lee thinks the failure of institutions has tempted people to deliberately seek out weirder, more outré ideas. As the government, the media, and even the church have neglected the people they are meant to serve, they have bred a general resentment. “Is that something you keep confined to an institution” that failed you especially badly, Lee asks, “or do you feel resentful of people who you think are flaunting the fact that they have more education than you, who feel they should be taken more seriously than you?”

“I think QAnon appeals to this sense that people have that the devil is real and that satanic forces walk the earth,” Sommer says. “It blends in to that because it gives you an opportunity to be this spiritual warrior. Religion otherwise might be a little blander—go to church, be a nice person—but QAnon gives you the chance to rescue children in dungeons.”

It is, in other words, what happens when the news becomes religion—a religion whose prophets are not journalists, but the people who interpret their words.

 

I ALSO REMEMBER ideas from evangelicalism that can help us navigate this moment. For example, that the more passive the approach to proselytizing, the more effective: You have to behave kindly toward your neighbors, and hope that they will respond to your kindness with openness, if you want them to take your opinions and ideas seriously. Few people will thank you for winning an argument with them. Far more likely, they will resent and dislike you for humiliating them, which, as Lee observes, is often the root of the problem.

A frustrating aspect of evangelicalism—indeed, one that ultimately drove me out of it—is the refusal of conservative Christians to see nuance outside their own views. Scot McKnight, writing at his blog for Christianity Today, says that liberalism “is vacuous at the level of ethics and morality.”

For me, liberalism is not vacuous. It is the hope that, given a fair hearing, some kind of measurable sliver of reality to which we can cling will present itself through honest inquiry. It is the foundation of the natural sciences and the parent of the suspension of disbelief and judgment that gives us the arts—indeed, that gives us language itself. As journalists, it is our faith.

It has been overrun in recent years by a series of groups that claim to stand for an unassailable truth—one that simply cannot be questioned. Many insist that little earthbound things like the names of the dead, the risks of catching an infectious disease, earnings reports citing suspicious beneficial ownership, and the text of Scripture be subsumed to a broader, capital-T Truth, to which they have special access. The who, what, where, when, and why of our profession, by comparison, are too small. 

Increasingly, we must maintain that what seem like inconsequential details matter at all. In this, the source of our destruction can be the source of our inspiration. Like evangelical Christians, we must learn to maintain our claims gently, without arrogantly contending them. It may be a far stronger ally to the facts than facts themselves can be.

The stakes could not be higher. No matter the details of Frank Cali’s life—whether he was a Mob boss, or even if he really was secretly abetting a giant satanic conspiracy—he is now dead in part because the American information economy is broken.

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Sam Thielman is the Tow editor at the Columbia Journalism Review.