In the Cult

The word “cult” has fallen out of favor with religionists.  The reason for this is the problematic claim that any one religion makes to being the “only true” religion.  If that religion then sets about to study other religions there is a built-in bias that the study is being done from the perspective of those who know the truth looking somewhat bemusedly toward other religions.  A cult was defined as a relatively new religion with a fairly small number of adherents.  The more correct term is a “New Religious Movement.”  The idea of brainwashing is controversial, but it is clear that people can be made to follow the leader against their better judgment.  We’ve seen this time and time again and not just in places like Jonestown or Waco.  The word “cult” seems to fit.

Branch Davidian compound in Waco; photo credit: FBI, courtesy Wikimedia Commons

A friend recently pointed me to the work of the psychologist Jeremy E. Sherman.  Sherman has been studying the behavior of Trump followers and has illustrated quite well how it is a cult.  This is one place where the use of the term becomes essential.  I’ll lay aside my objections to the word to point out that a cult denotes a group that follows a leader without critical assessment of that leader.  You’ll have noticed that Democrats are quite critical of one another.  They think about and assess what each other say and do.  When someone like Trump, who is well known as a Pez-dispenser of lies, becomes a saintly paragon of his party, capable of no wrong, we’re in the land of cults.  What Sherman does that I can’t, is suggest how to deal with such thinking.

Most of us try to reason with our interlocutors.  If reason is turned off, as in blind following, it simply falls on deaf ears.  The public record of Trump’s doings speaks for itself.  Those who refuse to see it or engage it will never be reasoned out of it.  The parallels with Hitler’s Germany are extremely frightening.  Not even a decade after his death Hitler was understood to have been clearly unstable and driven by evil impulses.  Many of those alive today overlapped with the lifetime of this dictator.  There’s no doubt that Nazism behaved like a classic cult.  Presented with credible evidence of breaking the law while within office, Trump’s followers blithely acquitted him.  Those who study cults would expect no less.  We need to arm ourselves with knowledge of how religious thinking works.  To do otherwise is dangerous, despite what our economically driven bastions of higher education may say.  (See?  I’m critical of those on my side!)  Or we can lay down reason and simply follow.

The Cargo of Cults

Among religious studies scholars “cult,” in the popular sense, is a swear word. Professionals in the field don’t use it because it implies that a belief system—usually modern—is somehow less important than an established religious tradition. Instead, we’ve been taught to call these “New Religious Movements,” or NRM for short. Looking around it seems that political correctness is now gone and open advocacy of white power is the new norm. After all, the minority of the American electorate voted for it so we can change the rules on that basis. Even before the election, however, Rebecca Nelson wrote an important article on GQ about the cult of Trump. As a person, what’s there not to dislike? A long history of shady business deals, lawsuits, and sexual harassment (we just couldn’t get beyond Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky just a couple of decades ago, but all that’s water over the dam) such a man couldn’t have been elected even in the W era. Well, cult thinking explains that.

Nelson cites the work of Rick Alan Ross, an expert (back from in the days when we still had those) on cults. The rise of Trump followed exactly the pattern of how cults work. A single man (nobody voted for Pence) who is able to fix this great broken machine called America. He can do it by referring to a black box that nobody may open to examine, but yes, believe me, the solution’s in there. Stir the muck and tell people things are awful when life expectancy is better than it’s ever been, everybody has health care, and the economy’s finally starting to stabilize, and you’ve got yourself a cult leader. As Nelson insinuates, the Kool-Aid is in the future.

We learned a sum of zero from Jim Jones, David Koresh, and Marshall Applewhite. We wrote them off as weirdos getting off on a power trip. Swept away by the mere fact of being followed. Mentally unstable with delusions of grandeur. Narcissistic to a fault. Wait, what? We ignored them so well that we’ve elected a candidate who took not just a page from their playbook, but an entire chapter. Back in the days of political correctness, when there was still such a thing as experts, I sensed that things were pretty good. As horror movies should’ve taught me, too good. Caligula insisted that his statue be set up in the Jerusalem temple next to where Yahweh resided. The temple may be gone, but the desire to be worshiped will always be with us.

Wait, that's not the Washington Monument is it?

Wait, that’s not the Washington Monument is it?

No Cult

MakingAmericanReligiousFringeThe image of hundreds of lifeless bodies in the jungles of Guyana foregrounded by a metal tub of poisoned Flavor Aid is a difficult one to forget. If it were not for the media, however, most of us never would have heard of Jonestown. The term “cult” was applied to Jim Jones and the People’s Temple, just as the word was increasingly becoming a pejorative term for those with “other” beliefs. Sean McCloud’s Making the American Religious Fringe: Exotics, Subversives, and Journalists, 1955—1993, is a probing study into what makes a religion “mainstream,” versus a “cult.” (I know, too many “scare quotes.”) McCloud considers the role that journalists, as reporting in major news magazines, have had on determining American views of what is normative religion. If, that is, normative religion can be posited at all. It is quite clear, upon reflection, that any religion has some odd beliefs: you can’t wear this or eat that, you have to be at this place on this day, you must shave your head, etc., etc. The question McCloud explores is why some end up being called cults and others do not.

Scholars of religion have abandoned the term cult, for the most part, because of its arbitrariness. The defining markers of “cults” are unclear, and one religion influences another so that a continuum forms from Moses to Moonies. That’s not to say religions are all the same, but it is to say they are not so different either. The declaration of a religion as a cult, if based on belief systems, is tenuous. All religions make claims impossible to verify. Some, very traditional, are also very small in membership. Religions have been fabricated from antiquity to present, and even as I write this new religions are likely being conceived somewhere. McCloud points out that the popular media gave us the distinction between “mainstream” and “cult.” That distinction itself may be more telling than the differences between various groups of believers. It is the language of exclusion—true religions versus false religions. And any more than one religion, if considered seriously, is problematic.

Religions, old and new, large and small, make truth claims. These claims cannot be tested this side of eternity, so they must be taken by faith. The minds of many will be turned toward extreme actions motivated by idiosyncratic understandings of religion today. McCloud shows us that fringe is an integral part of the fabric—religion is woven from the experience of people through the millennia of our existence. And yet we still have no consensus. We have enough experience, however, to know that when one religion unravels another will be woven from the dangling threads. Some will be misguided, although all will claim to have the truth. Until that ultimate truth is definitively known, the best policy seems to be avoiding the temptation to call those of a different faith a “cult,” when “religion” does just as nicely.

Believer’s Market

It seems that the world has lost another messiah. Sun Myung Moon, founder and leader of the Unification Church, died yesterday in South Korea. When I was younger “the Moonies” were known as a cult, but scholars of religion have abandoned both terms (Moonies and cult) as pejorative ways of referring to alternative religious beliefs. Monotheistic religions tend to be, by their nature, supersessionistic. They claim that they are the final revelation, but then as the world ages new religions appear and those of more time-honored traditions wonder how to define the new-comers. Accompanying the speed of technological development, religious developments keep apace. Now we are so accustomed to a world full of religions and most people are ill-equipped to tell the difference. Other than the highly public mass marriages, what can the average non-Unificationist tell you about the religion?

This dynamic illustrates a basic fact of human beings—we are meaning-seeking creatures. Founders of New Religious Movements, often convinced that they have something valuable to offer, seldom have difficulty locating followers. We are not trained to think for ourselves in religious matters; in fact, most religions would prefer to have unquestioning followers. Not based on the same logic as physics or mathematics, religions are easily backed into the “it’s a mystery” corner when logic breaks down. That is not to suggest that logic is the only way to know the world, but it does mean that the choice of correct religion often comes down to a feeling, an emotional satisfaction. Problems frequently arise when practitioners of a religion mistake it for science (or when a religion itself makes that mistake).

Over time the New Religious Movements that survive become benign elements of the religious landscape. Although many Americans are still scratching their heads about what exactly Mormons are, they are certainly nothing new or unusual. As a religion the Latter Day Saints are less than two centuries old, but since many people have trouble distinguishing a Baptist from a Presbyterian (on a theological level—the political spectrum is fully represented in both traditions) and could tell you very little about when either tradition began, what do they know of Joseph Smith’s followers? We are far too busy to spend time researching religion. Most people stay with the one they’re born into, and every few years a new one makes it onto the radar of public awareness. The Unification Church, which has at least five million members, may or may not survive the death of its messiah. Either way, there will be plenty of new options for anyone shopping around for a new faith.

Stuff and Nonsense

I don’t pretend to know much about politics. Beyond the required social studies classes through which I was channeled as a high school student and as an undergraduate I glimpsed the halls of power and they seemed pretty dirty to me. Not that studying religion was a much better choice, but then, enough Bible-dust in the eyes can obscure any vision. So I see some political pundits claiming that Santorum’s victories in the southern states demonstrate that his conservative platform resonates with the electorate. In their sense of surprise, I wonder why the elephant in the room is generally ignored. No matter how enlightened the modern political scientist may be, the fact is that Mormonism is held to be a “cult” by many evangelical churches. Religion specialists have long made the mistake of dismissing right-wing conservative Christian groups as an aberration, a mirage that will disappear when the coolness of evening settles the turbulent air over the pavement. The Republican primaries should shatter such illusions, but it won’t.

Just an ordinary guy, with his millions

While many of us have been trained to treat all religions as striving after the amorphous other, many others are raised to believe that Mormonism is a danger to society. Not that I agree, but I know from personal experience this is what they teach. I was raised on the tracts and texts that spelled it out in black-and-white claiming Mormonism to be a “cult.” The very word “cult” is eschewed by scholars of religion as a description for non-conventional theologies. As a term it is so 1980’s. Tell that to the electorate. The political pundits, it seems to me—and I may be wrong—underestimate how much people vote with their faith. Over the past twenty years, the Roman Catholic Church has demonstrated itself a champion of conservative causes. It has gone from pariah among the parishes to pontiff of the politicos. When evangelicals can’t stay in the race, it is difficult to distinguish Catholics from Pentecostals. Even scholars of religion should be scratching their heads.

The fact is we simply do not know enough about religion. Media treatment of the field is often dismissive or facile. Meanwhile, it is fueling the political engines that will lead to a showdown of worldviews in November. Maybe the Maya were correct after all. I don’t know much about politics. I’ve studied religion long enough to admit that I know little about it as well. I fear the experts with too many answers. If I turn out my pockets I find they are full of nothing but questions. (And lint.) Religion is what wins elections, yet our universities dismiss its study as juvenile and irrelevant. I read the headlines from the primaries—only a farce like this could make me miss Sarah Palin.

Bread Alone

The sad story of the death of an eight-year old girl from Irvington, New Jersey bears uncanny echoes to a case a year and a half ago of a mother who starved her children believing God would provide. The current case of Christiana Glenn’s death is heart-wrenching and the outlook is not improved when it appears that the girl’s mother had religious motivation to abuse her child. Christiana died from untreated physical wounds and malnutrition, prompting columnist Kathleen O’Brien to write about how food and religion often come together in unusual ways. As O’Brien points out, religions generally safeguard children from food privations, but less scrupulous leaders of what are frequently termed “cults” do not have the same strictures. The only real difference between a religion and a cult is society’s attitude toward it—religions tend to be larger and with finer pedigrees, but beliefs are beliefs. When religions seek control over believers’ lives, they often delve into the practice of deprivations, generally mild. More extreme groups take the idea to fatal limits.

Even the Bible records from near the very beginning that deprivations are part of the religious expectation. One of the most complex and frightening stories from Genesis is that of Abraham’s near sacrifice of Isaac. No matter how theologians wash it, this story retains its stain of an adult—whether directed by God or not is a mute point—attempting to harm a child in the name of faith. The story, many centuries later, still sent Søren Kierkegaard into a tailspin that came out as Fear and Trembling. What kind of deity asks for a child to be harmed, even in jest? For Christiana Glenn, there’s no taking it back. The Bible tells us nothing of how the interior life of Isaac responded to this episode.

Food and religion are among the most common elements abused in American society. For our bifurcated (if not bipolar) outlook, one sustains body and the other sustains soul. While science still lacks evidence for the soul, the body remains the only basis upon which we have to base our ethics. Even biology dictates that care of one’s own young is an evolutionary imperative. It is tragic indeed when a religion overrides what all cultures respect as the ultimate “should” —take care of your children. In a world overpopulated by religious experts the street value of the soul will never face a recession. Believers, characterized my many religions as sheep, will go wherever their leaders tell them to go. As a culture suspicious of funding the study of religion, it may not be food that is reaped at the end of this harvest.

Thou shalt not...