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Since the Waco siege, interest in religious cults has revived both in Britain and America. This article explores the growth and appeal of cults in America and raises questions about the appropriateness of public perceptions. American Studies Today On-line

Religious cults in twentieth century America

by Dr Anne Eyre, Westminster College

What is a cult?

The Anti-Cult Movement

Suggested Reading

What is a cult?

What is a cult? Sociologists tend to distinguish cults from more established religious organisations based on such factors as group size, membership characteristics and types of beliefs. While the term 'sect' classically refers to a breakaway movement from a mainstream church, the term 'cult' became a popular way of referring to new and different religious groups, particularly those groups surfacing in the 1960s and 1970s in America. The most prominent and well-known cults include, for example, The Unification Church (known as the 'Moonies' after their leader Sun Myung Moon), ISKCON (known as 'Hare Krishna'),Scientology and the Children of God. Unlike sects, cults provide radical alternatives to western Judaeo-Christian traditions, for example in the form of groups influenced by eastern religions such as Hinduism or Buddhism. However because of the negative connotations associated with the term 'cult', researchers prefer to use the more neutral term 'new religious movement' (NRM) to refer to those groups in particular that emerged and came to prominence in the west after about 1960.

While it may seem pedantic to spend time arguing about how to define something that seems straightforward, this is not just an academic exercise. It is important to be clear about exactly which groups come under the definition of NRM and which do not, especially if governments consider introducing legislation to curb their activities. We also need to be clear about exactly what activities are considered to be acceptable and unacceptable in society and to be sure that there is sufficient evidence to justify curtailing what some may seem as their religious freedom guaranteed under the constitution.

Why do people join such groups? In a modern largely secular society such as America, many find it hard to understand the appeal of religious groups, especially those appearing to adopt strict codes of behaviour and anti-social values. Two types of explanation have been forwarded to explain the rapid growth of NRMs in the 1960s and 1970s.

Firstly societal explanations looked at the nature of American society at this time and suggested that this was a time of social unrest. Many young people became disillusioned with materialistic values and questioned the values of a society engaged in controversies such as the Watergate Affair and the Vietnam War. While some rebelled through drugs or popular resistance, others turned to alternative lifestyles on offer in the religious marketplace. Changes in the immigration rules in the 1960s had brought an influx of Asian immigrants including teachers espousing the faiths and philosophies of the East. For some these were attractive alternatives to mainstream American culture.

Individualistic explanations focused on the personalities of individuals attracted to NRMs and suggested that groups preyed on young, insecure people searching for the certainty that these religions provided. The idea of 'brainwashing' is still used to suggest that it is possible to disorientate individuals and to redirect their allegiance by physical and mental means e.g. depriving them of food and sleep, and coercing them through emotional blackmail. While this is still an attractive explanation, there is much controversy over brainwashing, particularly the suggestion that joiners are passive victims with no active choice in their decisions. (Most joiners do in fact decide to leave: very few stay long-term in NRMs.)

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The Anti-Cult Movement

Public responses to cults have been largely hostile. Indeed most people's fascination with cults is based on impressions of exotic, dangerous and even satanic behaviour. The media has been particularly influential in informing the public consciousness through the press, magazines and films, usually highlighting personal stories. The media treatment of Waco, for example, had all the ingredients of the media's approach to cults, emphasising newsworthy events rather than exploring in depth the beliefs, motivations and feelings of individuals involved, not least those of members.

Such sources portray cults as a widespread and increasing threat to society. Experts though have highlighted the inaccuracy of such sensationalist responses. They also question the appropriateness of such overwhelming hostility given that only a relatively small number of people join and the leaving rates are very high.

In America the national anti-cult organisation is the American Family Foundation (established after the Jonestown deaths in 1978). As the name suggests, such groups regard cults as a threat to American family life and the the basic values of society. They are largely supported by parents whose 'children' (though many are of course adults) are members of cults and thus tend to be highly emotive in their attack.

Experts criticise the anti-cult movement for failing to recognise both the wide diversity amongst cults and the freedom of choice exercised by joiners and leavers. The anti-cultists have been particularly influential in applying the idea of 'brainwashing' to cults and in extreme cases have been involved in attempts at kidnapping and 'deprogramming' members. However evidence suggests that deprogramming can be very traumatic and damaging and in fact the practice declined markedly in the 1980s (Melton).

Interest in cults in America has been revived since the events in Waco, Texas brought national and international attention in 1993. There under the leadership of David Koresh, a self-styled messiah, lived the Branch Davidians - a breakaway sect from the Seventh-Day Adventist Church. It is interesting to note that what drew the media's interest was not so much the existence of the Branch Davidians themselves (they had been living there for some time), but rather the intervention of the ATF and the FBI. Despite attempts at a peaceful end to what became a siege scenario, the authorities lost control of the situation resulting in the deaths of 75 people, the vast majority of them members of the group. The events at Waco perhaps teach us as many lessons about the intolerance and suspicion amongst influential sectors of American society with respect to religious minorities as about the potential for religious ideologies to produce harm as well as good. David Koresh's lawyer made the following comment in the aftermath of events at Waco:

The true test of a free society is not in how it treats its best citizen but how it treats its worst, its most despised; and if we consider that because (we think) 'Oh they're religious nuts,' or 'they're a little bit different' then we can do that to you or me or anyone else - and that troubles me. (Panorama BBC1 1993)

Academic research into cults suggests that we should be cautious in generalising about the character and effects of such a diverse social phenomenon. Perhaps our questions should be directed as much towards the nature of society as to individual personalities in trying to understand the appeal, behaviour and treatment of marginal groups.

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Suggested Reading

  • Barker, E. (ed) New Religious Movements: A Perspective for Understanding Society. 1982
  • Barker, E. The Making of a Moonie. 1984
  • Beckford, J. Cult Controversies. 1985
  • Bromley, D. & Shupe, A. Strange Gods: The Great American Cult Scare. 1981
  • Melton, J. Encyclopaedic Handbook of Cults in America. 1986

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