Cults in America and Public Policy

April 13, 1979

Report Outline
Rising Concern Over Cults
Cults Ancient and Modern
Questions of Public Policy
Special Focus

Rising Concern Over Cults

New Awareness After Jonestown Deaths

The word “cults,” rooted in antiquity, has been used by the religiously orthodox in every age to put down contemporaries who marched to a different drummer. Now, five months after the Rev. Jim Jones led more than 900 of his Peoples Temple followers into a mass ritual suicide at their Jonestown commune, “cults” has become for many Americans a pejorative term connoting a mindless commitment to evil in the name of good. Many citizens seem now to perceive the recent rise to prominence of cults in America as evidence of a new, alien and threatening social disease.

The shock and enormity of the Peoples Temple disaster raised the nation's consciousness of cults overnight. That aberrant behavior can lead to sudden death is no surprise to a society permeated by televised violence and exposed to such real life events in the past decade as the Charles Manson “family” killings, the Symbionese Liberation Army shootout, and Hanafi Muslim terrorism. Only five weeks before Jonestown, the bite of a diamondback rattler introduced many Americans to Synanon, a California cult molded by Charles E. Dederich; two members of Synanon's “Imperial Marines” were soon charged with placing the snake in the mailbox of attorney Paul Morantz, winner of a $300,000 judgment against Synanon for an ex-Synanite.

Yet these dramas were only the most compelling of cult-related stories to make the headlines and newscasts of recent years. The recruiting and alleged “brainwashing” of young Americans by the Unification Church of America, the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, the Church of Scientology, the Children of God and other cult-like groups have spawned countless news reports of confrontations between angry parents and emboldened cults in and out of the courtroom.

ISSUE TRACKER for Related Reports
May 07, 1993  Cults in America
Apr. 13, 1979  Cults in America and Public Policy
Apr. 24, 1970  The Occult vs. the Churches
Religion and Politics
Religious Freedom
Religious Movements