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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. Wolf

    Remove the supposed divinity and all religions are cults.

    April 17, 2011 at 10:41 am |
  2. james vond

    NO.. lets not rethink the word cult. We have better things to think about

    April 17, 2011 at 10:40 am |
  3. Randy

    The reason he does not want to use the word "cult" is because if we were to be honest, many mainstream religions fit the definition as well. They ask you not to question (sheep), they threaten you if you do not believe (eternal hell) and having blind faith is valued over actual fact and reason. Sounds cult like to me.

    April 17, 2011 at 10:40 am |
  4. Niranva

    Human are creatures of their own beliefs. What they believe they call it Religion, and what others believe is call Cult.

    April 17, 2011 at 10:40 am |
  5. bigboxes

    The Davidians were a cult. I don't think we need to rethink that. Time to move on and let the facts speak for themselves.

    April 17, 2011 at 10:40 am |
  6. John Moyer

    There's nothing wrong with the word "cult" in the moral sense. Much like the word "abuse," it does have some ambiguity and legal limitations. But just like the word "abuse" the word cult is indeed appropriate to describe a psychologically vulnerable and dysfunctional group system, which is why people from troubled families tend to seek them out. The mass suicide of the Jim Jones cult will not be forgotten. I agree that we tend to throw the term around a bit too loosely in the mass media, which is a mistake. That does not take away the validity of the term when used appropriately, otherwise we go into a kind of denial, as if these kinds of groups don't exist. But they do. They are real. They are dangeous.

    April 17, 2011 at 10:39 am |
  7. Anne

    He says "cult" is a pejorative term mis-applied to groups simply because they are "new" and *unpopular." Then he turns around and calls the de-progammers a "new pseudo-profession." Are you kidding me? He is applying the same criteria–"new" and "unpopular"–and coming up with his own pejorative. I'm sorry, Professor Richardson, you have seriously injured your entire argument. Living in a compound with extreme devotion to and worship of a charismatic leader to the point of harm to individuals is not only not healthy or innocent, it can and often does form a threat to the larger community. At all times, society has a responsibility toward the children in these compounds who did NOT "choose" an "unpopular" lifestyle. Furthermore, I can't believe Professor Richardson is coming to the defense of the Children of God. It sounds very much like this scholar has fallen for the PR makeovers this and other groups give themselves. The Children of God way of life resulted in the horrifying murder/suicide committed by RIcky Rodriguez. This is not an "unpopular" belief system–it is a criminal way of life.

    April 17, 2011 at 10:39 am |
  8. Dubious

    All religions are cults. Even the teabag taliban republikkklan movement.

    April 17, 2011 at 10:38 am |
  9. E.W. Swan

    The number one definition of cult, according to a Google search: "1. A system of religious veneration and devotion directed toward a particular figure or object." How, exactly, can David Koresh and his Branch Davidians POSSIBLY be exempt from this definition? More importantly, how can Richardson defend the kind of coercion that led to the tragedies at Waco and Jonestown? How can he condemn the efforts of families to pry their loved ones from the charms of cult leaders? I don't think the average American opposes new religious movements, but when someone demands his or her followers hand over their money and their lives to their 'cause', that's a good place to start the condemnation.

    April 17, 2011 at 10:37 am |
  10. Mark

    Beware of false and new religions they spawn false profits in the name of God!

    April 17, 2011 at 10:37 am |
  11. Al

    You can call a skunk a "rose" if you want: it still wont smell like one. It's a religious order, it's a cult, it's a flaming prune danish, if you want. Call it whatever you want.

    April 17, 2011 at 10:37 am |
  12. Stymie

    All religions are made up. Do you really believe Mary was a virgin? Jesus rose from the grave? Come on people, all you bible thumpers are in a cult.

    April 17, 2011 at 10:35 am |
    • Cazzo

      you will burn in hell for eternity. REPENT NOW

      April 17, 2011 at 10:42 am |
  13. Veritas

    Yeah, cult is not an appropriate word. An organization of mentally ill people is more accurate.

    April 17, 2011 at 10:33 am |
  14. Seattle Sue

    You may call it a cult or call it religion, but when the leader of the group calls themselves God, something is wrong. I personally believe all of them are out to separate you from your money, some of the big name con people, Jim Jones, Falwell, Robertson, Graham and all the leads of the mega churches.

    April 17, 2011 at 10:32 am |
  15. josh

    the Chinese people "chose" Communism because they would have been shot in the head if they hadn't... a crude but effective campaign trick of Marxism

    April 17, 2011 at 10:32 am |
    • Pinga

      koo koo

      April 17, 2011 at 10:40 am |
  16. ELH

    "cult, a system of religious veneration and devotion directed toward a particular figure or object."
    Hmmmm- Jesus, God, Buddha, Muhammad, Brahma and so on and so forth. Every religion is a cult.

    April 17, 2011 at 10:31 am |
    • Jeff

      Outstanding point.

      April 17, 2011 at 10:43 am |
  17. Fido

    Listen up people. Your "God" is not there.

    April 17, 2011 at 10:31 am |
  18. Frank

    Those of you that continue to use the term TEABAGGER only shows your ignorance.

    April 17, 2011 at 10:31 am |
    • Cazzo

      I like to teabag

      April 17, 2011 at 10:41 am |
    • Hadenuffyeti

      "American activists from a variety of political viewpoints have invoked the Tea Party as a symbol of protest. In 1973, on the 200th anniversary of the Tea Party, a mass meeting at Faneuil Hall called for the impeachment of President Richard Nixon and protested oil companies in the ongoing oil crisis. Afterwards, protesters boarded a replica ship in Boston Harbor, hanged Nixon in effigy, and dumped several empty oil drums into the harbor..." Interestingly, Liberals have been to the Party as well so be careful when characterizing a group with your vitriolic rhetoric. Small Government Now!!!

      April 17, 2011 at 10:44 am |
  19. The Watcher

    When I think of a "cult" I imagine a charismatic leader venerated by a counter-culture following. In this broad brushed social landscape, each and every religion becomes a "cult" by definition. However, the "cult" becomes sociopathic when it breaches societal norms and policies. The Davidians chose to fight instead of surrender their illegal practices. Many of their polcies and practices were illegal under the laws of OUR land. So yes, they were a cult, but more importantly they were criminals and I have no empathy for their causes, only saddness for their end. The author would have us believe that the use of the word "cult" has negative connotations. In fact, the negativity is a function of their own doing when they chose to remove themselves from our own society's community. They want a unified belief world, as do many religious systems, and therefore they feel themselves to be of a higher order, closer to their god than the rest of us. Frankly, I liked the American Indian approach to spiritualism.

    April 17, 2011 at 10:30 am |
  20. Pinga

    the magical man in the sky

    April 17, 2011 at 10:30 am |
    • Cazzo

      sitting in the clouds, listening to the world's prayers. LOL, what BS

      April 17, 2011 at 10:41 am |
    • Dave

      You forgot the LDS, now there is a cult.

      April 17, 2011 at 10:48 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.