Cults in America

May 7, 1993 • Volume 3, Issue 17
Is the alarm new religious movements justified?
By Charles S. Clark


WASHINGTON -- Cults, for many Americans, are a memory from the 1970s. They recall an array of troubling images -- the mass suicide at Jonestown, kidnappings by deprogrammers and squadrons of saffron-robed Hare Krishnas accosting travelers at airports. But in the spring of 1993, this notion of a bygone phenomenon went up in flames as cult leader David Koresh led armed Branch Davidians to their doom near Waco, Texas.“News editors thought cults had gone away with Jonestown, but they've been growing in size and numbers,” says Margaret Singer, a psychology professor at the University of California-Berkeley who has counseled more than 3,000 former cult members. From 10 million to 20 million Americans have been involved with some form of cult in recent years, Singer wrote in a recent letter to the White House Health Care Task Force prompted by the 51-day standoff in Texas.Singer estimates that there are between 2,000 and 5,000 cults in the U.S., but others say there are only about 700. Whatever the number, interest in the cult phenomenon is growing.“Not a week goes by without a local paper or radio station calling us to do a cult story,” says Cynthia S. Kisser, executive director of the Chicago-based Cult Awareness Network (CAN), a nonprofit group with 2,000 members that says it receives about 18,000 inquiries a year. “It's clearly an ongoing problem, but it doesn't gain national attention until something explodes into violence, gets extremely costly or has a sensational side,” as when a prominent family is involved.If flower-vending cult members have been less visible in recent years, it's because the groups have “spiffed up their image to rely less on street recruiting and more on commerce,” says Marcia R. Rudin, director of the New York City-based International Cult Education Program. The subtle approach is more profitable and draws less attention, she says.Though seldom given front-page coverage, the major cults that grew up in the 1970s have remained active and controversial. The Church of Scientology has a $416 million lawsuit pending against Time for a scathing 1991 cover story that called the group “a hugely profitable global racket that survives by intimidating members and critics in a Mafia-like manner.”Two Russian students are suing the Rev. Sun Myung Moon's Unification Church for allegedly luring them to the United States for a conference on human rights that turned out to be an indoctrination session. And in Alexandria, Va., in December, a federal jury acquitted E. Newbold Smith, a member of the wealthy du Pont family in Philadelphia, of conspiracy-to-kidnap charges after he and a deprogrammer allegedly tried to “rescue” his son from organizations headed by jailed political extremist Lyndon LaRouche Jr.Friends and families of people who join cults have watched many of them abandon their jobs and turn over their savings to a newfound “family.” Many cut off all communication with their relatives while pursuing an exhausting lifestyle fueled by little sleep or food and imposing constant duties or monotonous chanting. “They all had glassy eyes, like two eggs sunny-side up, open so wide that the pupils seemed to bulge out of their faces,” a former follower of the Unification Church told Police Product News.In recent years, religious cults have been joined by groups embracing such themes as therapy, business, politics and New Age philosophy. “It's no longer the counterculture, or youth objecting to their parents' values of success,” Rudin says. “It's older people, middle-aged people, entire families.”Of particular concern to critics are the recruiting tactics of cults that often misrepresent their true purposes and that exert great impact on media and politics. “Some cults have expanded into an international growth industry with hundreds of millions of dollars,” notes Louis Jolyon West, a psychiatry professor at the University of California-Los Angeles and a longtime observer of cults. “What concerns me increasingly is the harm to members and their families. Parents essentially lose a child to a cult.”The more-secretive cults pose problems for surrounding communities. Children in the groups are often schooled within a cordoned-off compound, there is no outside medical care and births and deaths go unrecorded. The state of Oregon spent hundreds of thousands of dollars caring for 51 children removed from a cult called Ecclesia in 1988. Corporal punishment within cults has been reported regularly by former members, in one case causing the death of a 12-year-old boy.Cults can also play havoc with traditional religious beliefs, overwhelming priests, rabbis and ministers with complaints from families of cult member. “A cult has to have original revelations, a new twist on reality that no one else has, its patented Coca-Cola formula,” says Tal Brooke, a former follower of Indian guru Sai Baba who heads the Christian fundamentalist Spiritual Counterfeits Project in Berkeley, Calif. “The revelator is usually a charismatic leader, the group is exclusive and the world is seen as a dangerous place. The side effect is to blunt the critical functioning and critical thinking of the followers.”Were cults as purely evil as their critics maintain, however, it would be hard to imagine why anyone would join. Clearly the groups have their attractions. “The whole room dissolved into a golden light,” an 18-year-old enthusiast told Newsday of her first attendance at a lecture by the Long Island-based spiritual and business guru Frederick “Rama” Lenz. “I saw his face change into an Indian warrior, a Buddhist monk....I was totally high. I couldn't wait to see him again.”Some mainstream religious bodies and scholars of religion have long warned that efforts to monitor or investigate so-called cults by what they call the “anti-cult cult” risk violating constitutional rights. Particularly offensive, they say, is the technique of deprogramming. “People ought to be free to follow whatever religion they want without being forcibly rescued,” says Dean Kelley, who has advised the National Council of Churches on religious liberties for 32 years.“Movements are like persons -- you can pick their bad habits and portray them in the worst possible light,” says James Lewis, a professor of religious studies at the University of California-Santa Barbara. He recently organized the Association of World Academics for Religious Freedom (AWARE), a group of scholars seeking to form a “neutral information center” for new religious movements.What is clear is that the recent tragedy involving David Koresh and his Branch Davidians has prompted many Americans -- particularly government officials -- to examine a phenomenon that many had not considered relevant to their responsibilities.“Hello, mama. It's your boy,” the self-proclaimed prophet said in a message on his mother's answering machine after he was apparently wounded by federal agents in March. “They shot me and I'm dying, all right? But I'll be back real soon, OK? I'm sorry you didn't learn the [seven seals from the Bible's Book of Revelations], but I'll be merciful, OK? Tell [younger brother] Roger I love him. Tell grandma I tried. I'll see y'all in the skies. Bye.” AMERICAN FAMILY FOUNDATION, P.O. Box 2265, Bonita Springs, Fla. 33959; (212) 249-7693. This tax-exempt research and education center assists former cult members and their families. It publishes Cultic Studies Journal. CULT AWARENESS NETWORK, 2421 W. Pratt Boulevard, Suite 1173, Chicago, Ill. 60645; (312) 267-7777. This national, nonprofit educational organization disseminates information to “promote public awareness of the harmful effects of mind control.” It says it focuses on unethical practices and does not judge doctrines. FRIENDS OF FREEDOM, Suite 194, 72 Cranbrook Road, Hunt Valley, Md. 21030; (410) 628-7629. This advocacy and research group run by religious scholar George Robertson seeks to challenge the efforts of anti-cult activists

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
Religious Movements