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April 17th, 2011
01:00 AM ET

My Take: Rethinking the word 'cult'

Nearly 20 years ago, 76 people lost their lives during an FBI raid near Waco, Texas. CNN's Drew Griffin looks at those events at 8 ET/PT and 11 ET/PT Sunday night in "Waco: Faith, Fear & Fire."

Editor’s note: James T. Richardson, J.D., Ph.D., is Professor of Sociology and Judicial Studies at the University of Nevada, Reno, where he specializes in new religions. He is the coauthor of the forthcoming Saints under Siege (New York University Press).

By James T. Richardson, Special to CNN

I remember being struck by one of the early stories about 1993’s siege of the Branch Davidian compound near Waco, Texas.

Shortly after an initial raid by federal authorities ended in a gun battle that left 10 dead (six Davidians and four ATF agents), a lengthy story appeared in my local paper, the Las Vegas Review Journal, about the history of the Davidian group, which had existed at Mount Carmel, Texas for decades.

The story noted that Branch Davidians were a spinoff sect of the Seventh Day Adventists, a Christian denomination. The term “cult” did not appear in the story at all. And yet the headline of this front-page piece screamed “Cult Standoff in Waco” in inch-high capital letters.

Some headline writer had decided that the Davidians were in fact a cult, no matter what the story said.

The term cult also factored into the federal trials that grew out of the Branch Davidian tragedy.

Some survivors of the fire that ended the siege, which left 76 sect members dead, faced a criminal trial in 1994. Early in the trial, the defense made a motion to disallow the use of the term cult in the proceedings.

The federal judge presiding over the trial quickly rejected the motion.

I was intrigued by use of such a powerful, pejorative term to refer to the Branch Davidians, a decades-old offshoot of a Christian denomination that did not fit the definition of the type of group to which the term cult had traditionally been applied.

The term had, over the previous couple of decades, been used to refer to unpopular new religious groups like the Unification Church (the “Moonies”), Scientology, the Hare Krishna and the Children of God. These groups, although usually quite peaceful in orientation and practice, were all newer, and most were promoting religious beliefs and practices that were definitely outside the mainstream of American religious history.

But the term cult had not been used with older groups that were spinoffs of more traditional religious movements, such as the Davidians.

When used against one of the newer religious groups, which most scholars call new religious movements, the term cult suggested that such groups are not “real religions” at all, but trumped-up facsimiles designed to take advantage of allegedly gullible American youth.

Research showed that these youth were members of the best educated and most affluent generation that America had yet produced. But they had rejected American values and culture, which they viewed as racist, sexist and imperialistic, and were exercising their volition to try out some new, usually non-Western, religions. This rejection upset many parents and political leaders.

These new groups became quite unpopular and, as Americans grappled with why many joined them, a theory developed suggesting that these young people must have been brainwashed by gurus who had developed some powerful psycho-techniques unknown to the rest of us.

This assumption was derived crudely from efforts to explain what took place in the 1940s in Communist China and in the 1950s in Korean War POW situations.

Americans needed some explanation for why Chinese people came to accept Communism as their governing ideology and why a couple dozen American POWs chose to remain in Korea after the war ended.

Brainwashing became the accepted rationale, even if scholars have since asserted that this was more propaganda than real explanation. In the 1960s and onward, this same rationale came to be a useful tool to use against unpopular religious groups including, eventually, the Davidians.

This approach gained considerable traction and helped justify claims that so-called cults were not “real religions” and that therefore First Amendment protections did not apply to them or their adherents.

The term cult became a social weapon against unpopular religious groups, new or old. That’s what happened with the designation assigned in the news media to the Branch Davidians during the 1993 siege and during the 1994 criminal trial of the surviving Davidians.

Such thinking about unpopular religious groups in America was mainstreamed in our society and helped justify the kidnapping of thousands of young people out of some of the more controversial groups. A new pseudo-profession of deprogramming was born, with parents of group members paying "deprogrammers" to kidnap their kids.

Many of these young people were then forced to undergo a form of radical and coercive resocialization. The practice continued until the 1980s and still happens in other countries, including Japan.

The practice of deprogramming led to a wave of so-called cult/brainwashing cases in which former members were awarded significant damages by juries who were infused with popular anti-cult sentiments.

It took years for the courts to finally accept the fact that most of those joining new religious movements were of age, that they were exercising their own volition, and that they had rights, including religious freedom - even if they were participating in unpopular movements.

The Branch Davidians lost their criminal case and the civil cases they brought. So the legal victories eventually won by some of the controversial NRMs did not directly translate into similar outcomes for the Davidians.

But most so-called cult cases were eventually either settled or overturned on appeal, as courts recognized that “cults” and their members had rights that were associated with other religious groups.

One such case, which involved the Unification Church, made it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1982. The Unification Church aimed to overturn a Minnesota law requiring any religious group that obtains more than 50% of its funding from non-members to seek government approval before doing fundraising, and to submit annual reports on its fundraising and expenditures.

In a 5-4 decision, the high court ruled in favor of the Unification Church, though a strong dissent questioned whether the UC had standing as a religious group to challenge the law.

So it’s clear that the application of the term cult has become a battleground, and that those opposing the spread of new religious movements have won the war over how to designate them.

But more and more courts have recognized that members of so-called cults have the same rights as other believers. I hope ordinary people are coming around to that point of view, too – and that they begin to rethink the term “cult.”

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of James T. Richardson.

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Cults • History • Opinion

soundoff (960 Responses)
  1. Darryl

    I watch over and over the Waco tragedy and the ATF must take responsibility for their action against shooting tear gas and firing into the compound. What the government fail to realize that cult leaders like David Koresh have a martyred mentality, thus paranoid, and on the fringe of mass suicide. It is a tragedy both law enforcement officials and many of the victims of Waco compound, especially women and children had to end up dying in the horrors of flames of fire at the infamous leader of David Koresh. It was once said, "Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it again."

    February 29, 2012 at 7:56 am |
  2. Michael

    Joseph R Loehering that is the voice of a son!

    July 18, 2011 at 1:48 am |
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About this blog

The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.