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As organized religion declines, is conspiracy the new religion of Republicans?

As organized religion declines, is conspiracy the new religion of Republicans?
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As politically active Democrats, we’re familiar with the Republican playbook when it comes to religion.

Before the 2020 election, Robert Jeffress, a Dallas pastor who advised former President TrumpDonald TrumpChinese apps could face subpoenas, bans under Biden executive order: report Kim says North Korea needs to be 'prepared' for 'confrontation' with US Ex-Colorado GOP chair accused of stealing more than 0K from pro-Trump PAC MORE, told a former Fox Business host that Democrats are a “godless party.” Trump himself declared that President BidenJoe BidenChinese apps could face subpoenas, bans under Biden executive order: report OVERNIGHT ENERGY:  EPA announces new clean air advisors after firing Trump appointees |  Senate confirms Biden pick for No. 2 role at Interior | Watchdog: Bureau of Land Management saw messaging failures, understaffing during pandemic Poll: Majority back blanket student loan forgiveness MORE, a devout Catholic, “hurt the Bible. Hurt God. He’s against God.” House Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiYoung Turks founder on Democratic establishment: 'They lie nonstop' Hillicon Valley: Senate unanimously confirms Chris Inglis as first White House cyber czar | Scrutiny mounts on Microsoft's surveillance technology | Senators unveil bill to crack down on cyber criminals 'It's still a BFD': Democrats applaud ruling upholding ObamaCare MORE (D-Calif.), also a Catholic, has had her faith challenged because of her political beliefs. The same goes for Hillary Clinton, a practicing Methodist.

The GOP messaging about being the “party of family values” isn’t nearly as effective if they acknowledge that the current president not only attends Mass weekly but also knows Scripture. That might also apply to Transportation Secretary Pete ButtigiegPete ButtigiegHigh-speed rail getting last minute push in Congress Buttigieg: Bipartisan deal on infrastructure 'strongly preferred' OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Biden ends infrastructure talks with key Republican | Colonial Pipeline CEO grilled over ransomware attack | Texas gov signs bills to improve power grid after winter storm MORE or Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenOvernight Health Care: Takeaways on the Supreme Court's Obamacare decision | COVID-19 cost 5.5 million years of American life | Biden administration investing billions in antiviral pills for COVID-19 Democratic senators press PhRMA over COVID-19 lobbying efforts  Schumer vows to only pass infrastructure package that is 'a strong, bold climate bill' MORE (D-Mass.), who regularly quote the Bible.

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Beyond the politics of deriding Democrats’ faith — an obvious, battle-tested approach — there appears to be an important shift going on when it comes to religion and the Republican Party. 

We undoubtedly have seen a decline in religiosity across the board. American church attendance is at an all-time low and there continues to be a faith vacuum. According to a Gallup study released in March, Americans’ membership in houses of worship has continued to decline, dropping below 50 percent for the first time, compared to 70 percent attendance in 1999. Democrats showed a 25 percentage-point decline in church membership since 2000, but Republicans registered a real drop as well — a 12-point decline.

New data from the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) reveal there is evidence that while organized religion is losing its luster in some circles, some Republicans apparently are finding comfort and community somewhere else: in conspiracy theories.

The most notable amongst them, QAnon — which revolves around the theory of Satan-worshipping pedophiles plotting against Trump and what they call a “storm” that soon will come to wipe out the evil forces working against Trump — has taken a special grip. According to PRRI, 15 percent of Americans overall and 25 percent of Republicans identify as QAnon supporters, compared to 7 percent of Democrats and 12 percent of independents. One-fifth of the poll respondents also believe that the coming storm will sweep away elites and “restore the rightful leaders” (Trump).   

There is more to the story of GOP support for QAnon. PRRI created a sub-category called “QAnon doubters,” made up of those who “mostly disagree” with the tenets of QAnon. Fifty-five percent of Republicans fall into that group, along with almost half of independents and 35 percent of Democrats. As far as those who fully reject QAnon, a majority of Democrats — 58 percent — see no truth in the conspiracy theory, compared to 21 percent of Republicans. 

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While it’s disappointing to see any Democratic adherents, the percentage of GOP deniers is flat out astonishing. The founder of PRRI, Robby Jones, offered that “thinking about QAnon, if it were a religion, it would be as big as all white evangelical Protestants, or all white mainline Protestants. So it lines up there with a major religious group.” 

We have had our fair share of debates when it comes to the veracity of religious documents such as the Bible and the Torah. But the notion that QAnon, a conspiracy rooted in the outrageous, has taken on this level of prominence is chilling. And its impact may be spreading to other major disinformation campaigns.

Russell Moore, former president of the Southern Baptist Convention, warns that evangelical pastors are “exhausted” trying to combat QAnon and other conspiracies that have taken hold in their congregations. “It is a situation where conspiracy theories are going through not just churches, but the entire community. As a Christian, I am concerned about this because we are people of truth, and we are people supposed to be looking for truth revealed by the words of God, not conspiracy theories around social media,” Moore told CNN.

Some “people of truth” apparently are disconnected from reality. Besides support for QAnon, adherence to “the Big Lie” — the myth that President Biden and the Democrats stole the 2020 election from Trump — is widespread. A recent Reuters/Ipsos survey found that 53 percent of Republicans believe that Trump is the “true president,” 55 percent say the election was the result of illegal voting or election rigging, and over 60 percent either strongly or somewhat agree that the election was stolen from Trump.

All this is to the benefit of Trump and his enablers who have no interest in combating these myths, which motivated the Jan. 6 attack at the Capitol and continue to motivate some GOP members — so much so that some state Republican parties have made it a point to censure Republican members who aren’t drinking the Kool-Aid. Arizona is even performing an “audit” of 2020 election ballots in the quixotic belief that Trump’s loss will be overturned. They’re not the only ones interested in this. New York Times reporter Maggie HabermanMaggie Lindsy HabermanBiden vs. Trump is a compelling contrast for Democrats Schumer bemoans number of Republicans who believe Trump will be reinstated: 'A glaring warning' 3 in 10 Republicans believe Trump will be reinstated as president: poll MORE says Trump apparently is “laser focused” on state vote counts and telling confidants he expects to be reinstated to the White House by August.

For those who think these falsehoods are harmless, or that they happened in the past and couldn’t possibly happen again, think again. Trump’s disgraced national security adviser Mike Flynn, quite familiar with flirting with “martial law,” appeared to make an appeal that a Myanmar-style military coup is needed in the United States during a Memorial Day weekend conference in Dallas organized by QAnon activists. (Flynn later denied this in a post on Parler, but a video exists of his comments.)

For those who pooh-poohed the notion that Trump wouldn’t accept the election results, we hope you’re happy. 

Those of us living in reality see things clearly: Conspiracy and disinformation appear to be the new religion of many in the Republican Party. Leaders are using this as an excuse to distort reality and desecrate our democracy for purposes of clinging to power. Desperate to take back the majority, they risk allowing QAnon conspiracies, the Big Lie and winning at all costs to usurp the Bible and other religious doctrines as the only principles that matter.

Jessica Tarlov is head of research at Bustle Digital Group and a Fox News contributor. She earned her Ph.D. at the London School of Economics in political science. Follow her on Twitter @JessicaTarlov.

Jeff Le is a political partner with the Truman National Security Project. He was deputy cabinet secretary to former California Gov. Jerry Brown (2015 to 2019). Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyDLe.