On January 7th, a day after a photograph of her breaching the Senate chamber during the Capitol riot went viral, Christine Priola quit her job as an occupational therapist with the Cleveland Municipal School District. In the photo, Priola, dressed in a red winter jacket and blue tights with the words “America Great” visibly emblazoned along her leg, carried a homemade sign reading, in red block letters, “the children cry out for justice.” In her resignation letter, Priola wrote she was “switching paths to expose the global evil of human trafficking and pedophilia, including in our government and children’s services agencies.” Priola also complained about demands on her as a public-school employee. She did not want to receive a Covid-19 vaccine to return to in-person learning, she wrote, and opposed paying union dues “which help fund people and groups that support the killing of unborn children.”
The following week, after posting bond in a three-count federal criminal case stemming from her breach of the Capitol, Priola emerged briefly from her ranch-style home in Willoughby, Ohio, to speak to a scrum of reporters camped out in her yard. Wearing a white, long-sleeved T-shirt on which “Save Our Children” was written in black ink, she told the cameras: “This world is run on the blood of innocent children. Please look into it.”
Those three moments — the viral photo, Priola’s resignation letter, and her curbside jeremiad — put the centrality of the QAnon conspiracy theory in the January 6th Capitol Riot insurrection on vivid display. QAnon adherents cling to the delusion that the “deep state” is part of a global cabal of child sex traffickers who abuse children and drink their blood, and that they, along with the salvific Donald Trump, must rescue these terrorized children from the clutches of unspeakable evil.
QAnon did not emerge from a vacuum. It is the latest act in the longest-running morality play produced by the American right: that liberals are bloodthirsty criminals, and it is the patriotic duty of Christians to vanquish them. The prime audience for the play are “pro-life” voters, who, for the past five decades, have been following a narrative of blood, gore, and sin — planning their role in the nation’s salvation. Planned Parenthood has long been the play’s ubiquitous villain. QAnon is the deranged zenith of the right’s protracted crusade against the reproductive and sexual health care provider that each year treats 2.4 million patients while providing services, including contraception and screenings for cancer and sexually transmitted infections, to millions more. Just as the right has defamed Planned Parenthood, portraying it as a perverted and murderous miscreant, QAnon targets another public servant — the federal government — and similarly demonizes it as a “deep state” molester of innocent children and a mortal enemy of the Christian nation.
QAnon’s fixation with pedophilia and child sex trafficking shares ugly roots with the medieval anti-Semitic blood libel, in which Christians falsely accused Jews of drinking the blood of murdered Christian children, or using it to make Passover matzo. It echoes the “satanic panics” of the 1980s and ’90s, when the lives of preschool teachers and day care providers were ruined over false accusations of satanic ritual abuse of children. Like QAnon, the satanic panics drew from factions across the political and social spectrum. But the particulars of QAnon — including its unambiguous orientation around Trump as the savior of a Christian nation besieged by evil liberals — make it both a creature of and attractive to the religious right.
For decades, religious-right organizers have fed their “pro-life” followers a relentless stream of propaganda demonizing Planned Parenthood, the nation’s largest provider of women’s reproductive health care services. Beyond its support for abortion, the organization came to embody, in the right’s fevered telling, everything that was anti-Christian and anti-American about liberalism. Over time, the false narratives about it became more unhinged and dishonest, and increasingly incited violent reactions from people who listened to them. Rusty Thomas, the leader of Operation Save America, whose members blockade “the gates of hell” to prevent women from entering Planned Parenthood facilities, calls them “death camps.” In 2015, the FBI issued an intelligence bulletin warning of “lone offenders using tactics of arsons and threats all of which are typical of the pro-life extremist movement,” amid a spate of attacks on Planned Parenthood facilities around the country.
In the early 1980s, the nascent religious right and its Republican allies in Congress agitated to “defund” Planned Parenthood, an effort that over the decades became as much as a purity test for Republicans as opposing abortion. Like other health care providers, Planned Parenthood received funding under Title X, a federal family-planning program. Although the Hyde Amendment, passed in 1976, bars federal Medicaid funds from being used for abortion services, the religious right persisted in attacking Planned Parenthood on multiple other fronts.
The very public effort to erode the public’s trust in Planned Parenthood was rooted in the right’s hostility to what it portrayed as liberalism run amok. The “New Right,” which emerged in the 1970s to build the infrastructure of what is now the modern conservative movement, positioned its activists as warriors against the “social engineering” of liberal bureaucrats in Washington. Its early campaigns, which its leaders used to enlist conservative white Christians into political battle, centered on portraying children as endangered by liberal machinations to rid public schools of mandatory sectarian prayer, to enforce racial “quotas” and busing, and to redesign curricula to reflect social changes.
The assault on Planned Parenthood was part of a broader campaign demonizing feminism, public schools, teachers’ unions, and even the government itself as enemies of the virtuous and patriotic American Christian family. A 1982 National Right to Life pamphlet accused the organization of “training” teens how to have sex, robbing parents of teaching their kids about sex “in a natural family environment,” a situation that “may ultimately lead to a regressive inability for sexual expression beyond genital gratification.” A 1984 publication from the American Life League claimed Planned Parenthood was bent on “sterilizing the young, destroying the two-parent family as envisioned and created by God, and molesting the minds of men and women everywhere.” The victims were defenseless children; the heroes were the Christian activists committed to rescuing them, thus restoring the nation’s righteousness.
In the early 1980s, religious-right messaging from organizations like the Moral Majority and Christian Voice lambasted abortion, but also stoked anxieties about “kiddie porn,” the “children’s liberation movement,” and the loss of parental control of day care and public schools, with the latter often referred to as “government schools.” Leaders equated homosexuality with pedophilia, charging the “homosexual agenda” would lead to child abuse by teachers. Mel and Norma Gabler, who pioneered religious campaigns against public-school textbooks they deemed anti-Christian or anti-American, made the spurious claim in their newsletter — repackaged and repeated by other religious-right organizations — that while talking, chewing gum, and making noise were the top disciplinary offenses in public schools in 1940, in 1982, as a result of “secular humanism and situational ethics,” top offenses included pregnancies, rape, abortions, and venereal disease.
For the burgeoning religious right, Planned Parenthood became a potent symbol of the multitude of sins unleashed by the enemies of a godly nation. In a 1981 hearing on funding for Title X, Alabama Sen. Jeremiah Denton, one of Planned Parenthood’s leading congressional antagonists, grilled its president, Faye Wattleton, about the organization’s sex-education materials in public schools. “There is a clear message in the movie, as well as in these publications, that the child or teenager should not listen to parents,” he complained. That these materials addressed sexuality, masturbation, and homosexuality, he went on, “seem to me to be an intrusion into value impartation which the pastor or the parent should have priority, if not exclusive jurisdiction.”
Over time, anti-choice activists baselessly accused Planned Parenthood of far worse than indoctrinating teenagers about sex. In 2002, Life Dynamics, a far-right anti-choice organization that claims to be the “pro-life gateway to America’s abortion issues and news,” published a report titled “Child Predators,” which purported to expose the “partnership” between Planned Parenthood “and men who sexually abuse underage girls.” The supposed abuse was not just physical but spiritual, fueling paranoia about demonic forces at war with Christians. “Planned Parenthood sells sex, but merely as bait to steal souls — your children’s souls,” warned a 2004 pamphlet from STOPP, an anti-Planned Parenthood program of the hard-right American Life League. The organization still promotes these materials, along with YouTube videos purporting to show that Planned Parenthood is “hooking kids on sex.”
Within a decade, the internet made slandering Planned Parenthood infinitely easier. Starting in the late 2000s, anti-choice activist Lila Rose began making and distributing undercover videos that she claimed proved the organization promoted trafficking in teenage girls. But the most explosive onslaught against Planned Parenthood came in 2015, when Rose’s colleague David Daleiden, operating a newly formed organization called the Center for Medical Progress, released deceptively obtained and misleadingly edited videos purporting to show that Planned Parenthood harvested fetal body parts for profit.
The videos electrified the religious right, and right-wing media stepped up to provide breathless coverage. Conservative media activist Brent Bozell claimed the videos showed “most horrible atrocities the likes of which have not been seen since Nazi Germany.” (In February, Bozell’s son was arrested in connection with his role in the Capitol insurrection.) LifeSiteNews, a popular anti-choice news site, and WND, a right-wing conspiracy cite, both published an interview with Zachary King, who claimed, without a shred of evidence that, as part of a satanist group, he performed “satanic rituals” inside abortion clinics. Robert Dear, who in 2015 killed three people and injured nine others in a gun attack at a Planned Parenthood in Colorado Springs, said he was angered by the stories he’d heard about “baby body parts,” including those on Bill O’Reilly’s program on Fox.
Daleiden, a 32-year-old right-wing activist who claims to be a muckraking journalist, is now under criminal indictment in California, and Planned Parenthood successfully sued him for violation of federal anti-racketeering laws. (Daleiden denies criminal and civil culpability, and has appealed the civil verdict against him.) But he remains a hero to the anti-choice movement. Spurred by his videos, in 2015 congressional Republicans launched a “Select Investigative Panel on Infant Lives” to investigate his claims that Planned Parenthood mutilated fetal body parts for profit, and that medical advancements including vaccines were sullied by fetal-tissue research. After spending $1.6 million on the probe, in late 2016 the panel released a 400-page report that the science magazine Nature called “science fiction,” in which elected officials “applied their own, distorted, vision of how science works,” endangering the research of scientists who legally and ethically use fetal tissue for lifesaving vaccines and therapies. Under Trump, the Department of Health and Human Services hired March Bell, the panel’s staff director and chief counsel, to work as the chief of staff for Roger Severino, the director of the department’s Office of Civil Rights.
In 2018, under Trump, HHS implemented a regulation that placed so many restrictions and requirements on Title X recipients that Planned Parenthood had no choice but to withdraw from the program. The Title X rollback achieved the “defund Planned Parenthood” goal and allowed Trump’s HHS to tout how the “rule includes a stronger focus on protecting women and children from being victimized by child abuse, child molestation, sexual abuse, rape, incest, intimate partner violence, and trafficking” and “meaningfully encourages parent-child communication in family planning decisions, and requires documentation of such encouragement.” It was one of many actions the Trump administration took that led anti-choice leaders to call him “the most pro-life president in history.”
A recent poll conducted by the American Enterprise Institute found that white evangelicals are more likely even than other Republicans to believe the QAnon conspiracy theory. To the Reverend Rob Schenck, the arc from anti-Planned Parenthood to QAnon seems almost inevitable. For decades, Schenck was a leading figure in the anti-choice movement, notorious for Operation Rescue and blockading abortion clinics in Buffalo, New York, while displaying a fetus in a jar to shame women over what he claimed was murdering a child.
About 10 years ago, Schenck began to have a change of heart. He officially left the movement five years after that, began advocating for gun control, and wrote Costly Grace, a repentant book about his previous life. But he remains in touch with many of his old colleagues.
When I caught up with Schenck recently via Zoom, he immediately fell on his sword, lamenting the countless times he compared Planned Parenthood to the ancient biblical god Molech, who demanded child sacrifice in exchange for financial prosperity. Over the years Schenck came to agree with the Supreme Court’s holding in Roe v. Wade, because, as he wrote in 2019, “I can no longer pretend that telling poor pregnant women they have just one option — give birth and try your luck raising a child, even though the odds are stacked against you — is ‘pro-life’ in any meaningful sense.” But in his former life, he used to accuse women of sacrificing their children to an idolatrous god, Planned Parenthood. “I must have said that thousands of times from a platform, on a video, whatever, published it hundreds of times, where we just said there is no difference between the child in the womb and outside of the womb, and that’s why late-term abortion became such a fixation for us,” Schenck told me. He sent millions of pieces of fundraising mail to supporters, intentionally filled with drama, heroes, and villains. And now, he says, “We saw a lots of fortysomethings, fiftysomethings in the insurrection. They could be the children of people who got those letters, listened, you know, to those sermons, participated in the blockades of the Eighties, and [who] are now adults, saying, ‘We got to take it one step further than our parents did. The blockades didn’t work. Now it’s time to seize power and start jailing and executing these people.’ So that’s also escalating.”
The demonization of Planned Parenthood “set the stage” for the more unhinged permutations of QAnon, which Schenck says many of his old colleagues have fallen for. “I get messages from my old crowd saying, ‘Rob, how can you support baby eaters?’ It’s gone to actually baby eating. You know that people at Planned Parenthood, Hillary Clinton, and her cabal, they don’t just kill infants. They eat them.”
Schenck, who used to share office space with Daleiden, said that for anti-choice activists, the Center for Medical Progress videos confirmed that his own sermons comparing abortion to child sacrifice were not metaphorical. “We said they want to offer up infants as child sacrifice and that meant anything — people imagined stabbing the baby’s on the altar of Molech, slitting their throats, dismembering them, and then immolating, burning them,” Schenck told me. To them, Daleiden proved what they had always suspected was true.
QAnon fulfilled a “longing,” says Schenck, stemming from “a frustration that we were still in the realm of theory.” In this view, Hillary Clinton, their elusive bête noire, was in fact selling children to sex traffickers and eating babies in the basement of a pizza parlor. While anti-choice activists, like Schenck in his former life, claimed to have seen fetuses in garbage dumpsters, anti-choicers now believe that QAnon has at long last proved that Hillary Clinton literally “puts them on her plate.”
For his old anti-abortion friends, Schenck says, it seems logical that such evil forces would steal the election from Trump, America’s redeemer. “If you eat a child’s face, you’re certainly going to steal an election,” Schenck says of this thinking.
Leo Kelly, who, like Priola, broke into Senate chamber on January 6th, spoke to LifeSiteNews, the anti-choice site that has long promoted anti-Planned Parenthood conspiracy theories, after he returned home to Iowa. He described participating with a group of men that prayed in the chamber as one of his cohorts “consecrated it to Jesus. That, to me, was the ultimate statement of where we are in this movement.” As for himself, Kelly said, “I am redeemed by the blood of Jesus Christ.”
In both the long crusade against Planned Parenthood and more recently in QAnon and relatedly Stop the Steal, there is a consistent theme. On one side is America’s redeemer, made clean by the blood of Jesus. The other is an agent of Satan, awash in filth and blood and greed and sin.
In making their case in Trump’s second impeachment trial, House managers steered clear of addressing the role that religion, or even QAnon, played in the insurrection. That was understandable, given the disingenuous but predictable backlash that they are “anti-religion” or “anti-Christian.” But in investigating the events of January 6th, which House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has said a bipartisan commission will do, the role of religion cannot be ignored. The big lie at the heart of our politics right now is that depraved, demonic forces stole the reelection of an anointed leader who had been placed in the White House by God. Religion is not a sideshow.
In religion, people seek truth, and QAnon followers claim to possess it. But now that these delusions have turned deadly and shaken the nation to its core, it is long past time for our politics to confront how religion has been abused to subvert the truth. It is not a mystery where to start examining this question. Just ask Planned Parenthood.