QAnon's weirdest obsession: Why does the radical far right fear the Masons?

Anti-Masonic prejudice goes back to the Nazis — and well before that. Somehow the QAnon cult has reanimated it

Published August 13, 2023 12:00PM (EDT)

A man waves a QAnon conspiracy flag at a protest of coronavirus skeptics, right-wing extremists and others angry over coronavirus-related restrictions and government policy on August 29, 2020 (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)
A man waves a QAnon conspiracy flag at a protest of coronavirus skeptics, right-wing extremists and others angry over coronavirus-related restrictions and government policy on August 29, 2020 (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

In my most recent nonfiction book, "Operation Mindf**k: QAnon & the Cult of Donald Trump," I focused extensively on a "QTuber" named Rick Rene, because I viewed him then and now as the perfectly imperfect microcosm of the entire messed-up QAnon universe, which perceives the Democratic Party as an elaborate cover for Satanic/Masonic pedophiles seeking to transform the Earth into a "one-world government."

In an email he sends out to all new subscribers, Rene relates his superhero origin story: "I'm a dad and a Christian and love the Bible. I used to fill my time teaching Bible classes at my church and coaching my kids in sports." Then his son, he says, started sending him links to various online right-wing conspiracy theorists. They "seemed pretty out there," Rene writes, definitely not material he was seeing "from the Mainstream Media or the News Apps on my phone." But the more he listened, Rene says, the more he "became intrigued enough to research these 'crazy theories,'" or, in the now-familiar phrase, to do his own research. Rene claims he didn't vote for Trump in the 2016 Republican primary (another familiar theme) but soon had "taken 'the red pill,'" which in QAnon speak means choosing to believe that everything Donald Trump says is true, along with a lot of other implausible things Trump doesn't quite say. 

Rene no longer teaches Bible classes at his church. Instead, he advocates for the destruction of American intelligence agencies. In his Sept. 30, 2021, episode, Rene casually said of the FBI that we need to "blow it up and start over again from scratch!" On July 6, 2021, he waxed poetic about what he hoped would be the imminent destruction of the Washington Monument and the Statue of Liberty. 

Why would a purportedly churchgoing, God-fearing Texas patriot pray for the violent destruction of such American landmarks? Because he and thousands of other evangelicals believe they were secretly constructed by Freemasons, who are essentially Satanists, and therefore must be obliterated. 

This rhetoric has led not just to increased threats against such landmarks but to actual acts of destruction. On July 6, 2022, a curious monument known as the Georgia Guidestones (often referred to as "America's Stonehenge"), one of that state's most popular tourist attractions, was largely destroyed in a late-night bombing under the cover of night. That came just a few weeks after Republican gubernatorial candidate Kandiss Taylor (whose red, white and blue campaign bus was emblazoned with the slogan "JESUS GUNS BABIES") had announced that destroying the "Satanic" guidestones was a key element of her platform. 

Stonehenge was built by pagans, the Washington Monument was built by Masons and the Statue of Liberty was built by the French. All are Satanic (according to QAnon theory) and must be destroyed.

An AP news report on the Georgia bombing quoted Katie McCarthy of the Anti-Defamation League observing that conspiracy theories "do and can have a real-world impact. These ideas can lead somebody to try to take action in furtherance of these beliefs. They can attempt to try and target the people and institutions that are at the center of these false beliefs."

Rene could barely contain his exuberance while commenting on the Georgia bombing in his podcast the next day. It was "exciting," "amazing" and "awesome," he declared, and despite security camera footage showing a man placing an object at the base of one of the stones, it might not have been a bombing at all. 

Guys, this is, to me, just awesome, particularly if this ends up being lightning or something natural versus a bombing to show that God is not putting up with this. He told us he's going to take these down, and He is going to. … This is the blessing, guys. We see these [prophetic] words coming true. … I believe the Stonehenge of Europe will be on the horizon as well, the Washington Monument, the Statue of Liberty, and many, many other things in the D.C. area will be destroyed.

Let's try to untangle the logic here, if that's even the word for it. Stonehenge was built by pagans; therefore, it's Satanic and needs to be destroyed.

The Washington Monument was built by Freemasons; therefore, it's Satanic and needs to be destroyed.

The Statue of Liberty was built by the French; therefore, it's Satanic and needs to be destroyed. 

Ironically enough, the Georgia Guidestones were apparently conceived by an Iowa doctor with far-right beliefs about race and religion. QAnon folks like Rick Rene and Kandiss Taylor either don't know that, don't believe it or don't care. No one has ever accused extreme right-wing conspiracy theorists of being good at understanding actual history.

*  *  *

Rick Rene's obsession with eliminating "Masonic monuments" is by no means unique. I'm not exaggerating for effect or trying to be funny when I say that people who believe as Rene does think that Freemasons are perhaps the most destructive and poisonous influence infecting America today. Anti-Masonic prejudice, while a 19th-century hangover in many ways, is still common among certain strata of evangelical Christians, and this fear is being actively stoked by the QAnon movement. Those who hold antisemitic beliefs are often anti-Masonic as well, since they believe that Kabbalism, or Jewish mysticism, is a central pillar of Freemasonry. 

Adolf Hitler explicitly attacked "Jewish Freemasonry" in his infamous manifesto "Mein Kampf," and according to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, Nazi policy toward the Freemasons moved rapidly from discrimination to outright elimination. It was at first limited to merely excluding those who refused to sever their Masonic connections but soon ramped up to far more aggressive measures. By 1935, even conservative Masonic lodges that had promised loyalty to the regime had been dissolved and had their assets confiscated. 

Nazi propaganda continued to link Jews and Freemasons; Julius Streicher's virulent publication Der Stürmer (The Assault Trooper) repeatedly printed cartoons and articles that attempted to portray a "Jewish-Masonic" conspiracy. Freemasonry also became a particular obsession of the chief of Security Police and SD, Reinhard Heydrich, who counted the Masons, along with the Jews and the political clergy, as the "most implacable enemies of the German race." In 1935 Heydrich argued for the need to eliminate not only the visible manifestations of these "enemies," but to root out from every German the "indirect influence of the Jewish spirit" — "a Jewish, liberal, and Masonic infectious residue that remains in the unconscious of many, above all in the academic and intellectual world."

The Nazis mounted anti-Masonic exhibitions in Paris, Brussels and elsewhere in occupied Europe. Wartime Nazi propaganda claimed that a Jewish-Masonic conspiracy had provoked World War II and was behind the policies of Franklin D. Roosevelt.

To this day, conspiracy theorists such as Holocaust denier Michael A. Hoffman essentially believe that the Freemasons are the puppet masters of the New World Order, the Jews are the puppet masters of the Freemasons, and both groups worship Satan. Satanism is, of course, running rampant in the modern world.

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More than 20 years ago, I ordered one of Hoffman's self-published pamphlets about a series of alleged assassinations he blames on the Masons. The supposed victims were Capt. James Morgan, an anti-Masonic writer who disappeared under mysterious circumstances in 1826; Joseph Smith, founding prophet of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (aka the Mormons); and Edgar Allan Poe. I was somewhat able to follow Hoffman's fractured account of the first two alleged murders, but his accusations regarding Poe's death are another story. His central evidence seemed to be Poe's famous story, "The Cask of Amontillado," in which a man named Montresor bricks up a drunken man named Fortunato, evidently an old friend, behind a wall of masonry. According to Hoffman, the Freemasons interpreted this parable as an affront and decided to get back at Poe by murdering him three years after the story was published. 

Why did the Masons murder Edgar Allan Poe (according to one conspiracy theory)? The answer lies in "The Cask of Amontillado."

I wrote Hoffman a letter asking him to explain this evidently unhinged notion, claiming that I was a professor at Cal State Long Beach and that my academic colleagues were skeptical about his claims. That wasn't true. I wasn't even a student at the school then — but ironically enough, I actually am a professor there now. I suppose I shouldn't have bothered, but Hoffman's response was instructive: He wrote back an extended rant about the stupidity of college professors and claimed he had adequately explained the whole thing and no further elaboration was necessary. He did not, of course, offer any concrete evidence that the Masons had murdered Poe.  

If you're thinking that someone like Hoffman is a fringe character at the outermost edge of the far right, well, sure. But the fact of the matter is, such people are not as fringe as they used to be. Once upon a time, this kind of quasi-Nazi paranoia was only found in DIY 'zines and on the dark web. QAnon changed all that, galvanizing the lunatic fringe and propelling its views into the mainstream of the Republican Party. Threats of violence against Freemasons, and acts of vandalism against their lodges, have increased considerably all over the world during the last few years. Consider these examples, all drawn from an eight-month period:

On July 10, 2022, a Tennessee firefighter set a Masonic lodge on fire. Two weeks earlier, on June 27, a man broke into the Scottish Rite Masonic Center in Houston and held two men hostage, claiming, according to a local news report, that "he wanted to talk to them [the Freemasons] about their belief system."

Less than a month before that, on June 2 or 3, two large sphinx sculptures located at the entrance of the Scottish Rite Temple in Washington, D.C., were "severely damaged" and smeared with "filth."

The Masonic temple in San Bernardino, California, was heavily damaged in an arson fire on March 13, 2022 — after nearly being destroyed in another arson attack just over a year earlier. A few weeks earlier, on Feb. 18, a man was arrested for vandalizing Masonic lodges across central Illinois, causing "massive damage."

In an especially instructive example across the Atlantic, on New Year's Eve of 2021, someone tried to burn down the Grand Lodge of Ireland. Anti-vaccination graffiti was spray-painted on the sidewalk directly outside. According to the Irish Times, "The graffiti is understood to be a reference to mRNA, the technology used in some Covid-19 vaccines." Philip Daley, grand secretary of the lodge, told the newspaper that there had been previous demonstrations by anti-vaccination activists outside his hall and other Masonic halls in Ireland. "The view is that we created the virus and we are part of the new world order and we have to be stopped," he said.

*  *  *

Christopher Hodapp, author of "Heritage Endures" and other books about Masonic history, has expended considerable effort on tracking perpetrators of anti-Masonic crimes as well as professional agitators who spread anti-Masonic propaganda. In a Feb. 15, 2022, blog post, Hodapp wrote about Pastor Greg Locke of Tennessee, "who regularly urges his audiences to 'destroy everything Masonic,'" and had recently held a book-burning event in Florida, "consigning 'Harry Potter' and 'Twilight' books to the flames (along with, by the way, 'Fahrenheit 451,' with absolutely no sense of irony whatsoever). Declaring Freemasonry to be Satanic … his anti-Masonic rant from that event has been endlessly forwarded" on social media.

As a Religion News article explains in depth, Locke also claimed he had identified a group of "full-blown, spell-casting" witches within his church, two of them members of his wife's Bible study group. "In recent years Locke has used his sermons to attack LGBTQ people, accuse Democratic politicians of child abuse, spread claims about election fraud, denounce vaccines and claim that the COVID-19 pandemic is a hoax," the article continued.

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All of this brings us to perhaps the main reason Freemasons and Democrats are so often accused of being pedophiles by these unhinged conspiracy theorists. As I wrote in "Operation Mindf**k," "Among corporations and intelligence agencies — not to mention certain high-profile political figures — it's standard operating procedure to accuse your opponents of offenses you yourself are committing." For the sake of completism, I should have added "churches" to the list. 

Considering the sexual abuse scandals within the Catholic church and the Southern Baptists, I find it strange that so many Christians are concerned about Freemasons and Shriners and "the Illuminati" molesting their children.

Considering the massive scale of the sexual abuse scandals within the Roman Catholic Church and the Southern Baptist Convention — by far America's two largest religious denominations — I find it strange that thousands of supposedly devout Christians are so concerned about Freemasons and Shriners and "the Illuminati" molesting their children. How many documented cases of child abuse involving Freemasons are there, and how does that compare to the documented cases of child molestation among the Protestant and Catholic clergy? If you're one of those God-fearing, churchgoing "digital warriors" who yearns to help Q and his cohorts wipe out all the demonic pedophiles behind the U.S. government, you are statistically far more likely to find a pedophile abuser preaching the gospel behind a pulpit on Sunday morning than among the modest crowd eating potato salad in a Masonic Lodge on a random Monday night.

To be fair, not all the anti-Masonic perpetrators and agitators mentioned above can be identified as white racists or Christian nationalists. That's part of the genius of QAnon, from a propaganda standpoint. This particular conspiracy theory has successfully repackaged hundreds of years of antisemitic and anti-Masonic disinformation into a secular religion that extends its influence among all sorts of people who would never spend 10 seconds listening to a religious fanatic like Pastor Locke.

 In a recent interview with the Times Union of Albany, New York, historian Mitch Horowitz, author of "Occult America" and "Uncertain Places," observed that "with the advent of QAnon, we may be a whisker away from a new Satanic Panic":

That movement swept the United States and Britain in the 1980s and early '90s on account of a cultural myth and canard that child-sacrificing Satanic cults were at work. In time, and after some really tragic and disruptive criminal trials and false accusations, media coverage exposed the Satanic Panic as a widespread hoax and a kind of cultural spasm. It may have been a reaction against changes in the workforce and the economy, in particular women entering the workforce en masse, and people turning to childcare centers and other alternative forms of daycare.

This theme has reasserted itself through the work of Alex Jones and people adjacent to the QAnon movement, and it's now commonly encountered online. And despite the news coverage and the widespread debunking of the Satanic Panic, we seem to be going through this cultural amnesia in which we're revisiting it.

*  *  *

Every weekday afternoon, on the Los Angeles talk-radio station KFI, a pair of  conservative hosts named "John and Ken" take to the air to berate what they perceive to be the ultra-liberal views of "hack, snowflake Democrats." I've listened to John and Ken intermittently for the past 20 years, and I've never heard John admit to being wrong about anything.

Sometime in August of 2020, when my five-part series about the madness of QAnon began appearing on Salon, John expressed frustration and confusion as to why anyone would waste time writing about the subject. The people who had burrowed deep into QAnon conspiracy theories, he said, were basement-dwelling "morons" who couldn't have any effect on the real world and certainly not on national politics.

On Jan. 7, 2021, I heard John admit that he had been badly wrong about that one. 

In the months before the 2020 election, pundits on both the left and the right were encouraging "reasonable" people to ignore QAnon. Among the many comments posted by Salon's readers in response to my initial articles were numerous pleas that I should stop drawing attention to all this silly, right-wing gooney-bird nonsense. Didn't I know I was just giving voice to a despicable cause?

Not long ago, I received a message via my website directed to "the dude who wrote 'Cryptoscatology: Conspiracy Theory as Art Form,'" which would be me. The correspondent was concerned that "the PTSD of the Trump Admin sure seems to have driven you into the arms of DNC group-think conformity" and went on to claim that Q followers were "victims of state abuse, their good intentions weaponized against them, and they should be pitied for their gullibility and lack of media sophistication. The belief that they represent our national demons, or god forbid a domestic terror threat, is a divisive tool that distracts from the actual powers that threaten the Bill of Rights, among many other things."

While I agree with this person's concluding claim that "sh*t is not normal," the message was accompanied by a link to a nonsensical 20-minute video that attempted to convince its viewers that Ashli Babbitt's death during the Jan. 6 Capitol riots was "a charade staged by law enforcement actors." The windows of the Capitol building, according to the video, were made of "Hollywood glass" — they broke far too easily after being smashed by hordes of enraged Christian patriots! — and the blood seen on Babbitt's face after she was shot could only have been the result of "a Hollywood squib." 

This was very likely another example of a conspiracy theorist getting lost in the ethereal hall of mirrors known to many students of the genre as "Chapel Perilous," a hazard I warned my readers about in the introduction to "Cryptoscatology," the same book this correspondent had apparently enjoyed. Had this person trapped themselves in a labyrinth with no exit? I wouldn't be surprised. QAnon has been a dead end for many "digital soldiers," the five-star roach motel of embittered conspiracy buffs. 

*  *  *

Full disclosure: I became a Freemason in 2002 and a 32nd Degree Scottish Rite Freemason in 2004. Ever since, I've been amused and bemused by the emotions that people display when the subject comes up. First of all, most people have never heard of Freemasonry, but those who have generally react as if they've just discovered I was a member of House Slytherin. Either they know almost nothing about the subject, or what they think they know has been so distorted by misinformation and disinformation that it might as well be fantasy.

Most people have never even heard of Freemasonry, but those who have often react as if I'd told them I was a member of House Slytherin.

According to Jay Kinney, co-author of "Hidden Wisdom: A Guide to the Western Inner Traditions," "Freemasonry as it evolved in the 18th century was influenced by the Enlightenment and … incorporated the emerging ideas of brotherhood, freedom of thought, and freedom of association." Maybe that's a simple explanation as to why so many authoritarians and outright fascists have been so hostile toward Freemasonry and its traditions throughout the years.

Several years ago, a woman asked me with complete sincerity if Freemasons really controlled the world from behind the scenes. One of my students told me that he'd always assumed Freemasonry was connected to white supremacy. I told him that well over 90 percent of my lodge were people of color. I don't think he believed me. But after Donald Trump was elected president, I began to notice a radical tonal shift in these anti-Masonic attitudes. 

In 2015, I interviewed my friend Richard Schowengerdt, a longtime Mason who was a Defense Department engineer for more than 50 years. Where did the intense bigotry against Masons come from, I asked him? After all, the supposed "secrets" of Freemasonry haven't been secrets for a long time; you can read about them in any number of books and online sources. Richard told me that 

The governments of many countries were afraid of Masonry because it openly taught freedom and the concepts of the Renaissance, freedom of thought and all of this, and I'd say more than 50 percent of it was political. The leaders of these countries were afraid of Masonry, that it would take away their power and eventually they would crumble, you know? Through the Renaissance and the upheaval of Protestantism, through Martin Luther and all that, Freemasonry changed the world. Masonry and a lot of the esoteric groups were associated with people like Martin Luther and anyone who might upset the Roman Catholic hierarchy. … [T]he other half of it was, there were some fears such as you've mentioned: the occult and practices that were considered to be devilish, but almost all of this was fabricated by people who were dead set against Masonry and wanted to discredit it in any way they could find.

The most paranoid anti-Masons I've encountered, either online or in the real world, have never bothered to speak to a Freemason. Their attitudes are based on misinformation they've absorbed through the internet thanks to extremist platforms like 4chan and 8kun, where QAnon and other 21st-century right-wing ideologies were born.

One of my creative writing students at CSU Long Beach — who admitted that he spent much of his free time burrowing into internet rabbit holes devoted to dubious conspiracy theories — told me that he and two friends had attempted to attend a Masonic Lodge meeting despite not being members. They had even rented tuxedos in hopes of slipping past the imaginary dragons at the gate, but even so their infiltration was not well planned. When they arrived, they were informed by the sole Mason in the building that monthly meetings were still being held remotely. He then gave them the code for the Zoom meetings, so they could follow along from home. 

"So we went home and managed to enter the Zoom meeting," my student told me in hushed tones. "It was incredible! These Masons kept talking about a 'chili cookout' they were planning in some remote park out in the middle of nowhere. We knew 'chili cookout' had to be code for something else, but we couldn't figure out what. That's why that old Mason guy gave us the code to crash the meeting. He knew we couldn't figure it out! We think it had something to do with Pizzagate, like maybe 'chili cookout' was code for some weird pedophilia ritual. What do you think?"

I didn't even bother to tell him that I was a Mason, and that sometimes — in fact almost always — a chili cookout is only a chili cookout. He wouldn't have believed me anyway.

By Robert Guffey

Robert Guffey is a lecturer in the Department of English at California State University, Long Beach. His books include the novel "Until the Last Dog Dies" and "Chameleo: A Strange but True Story of Invisible Spies, Heroin Addiction, and Homeland Security." Visit his website.

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