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. Goat of Evil

    Religion, cult...to-may-to, to-mah-to. If you think your religion is any more logical than that of the Branch Davidians, you are not thinking logically.

    April 17, 2011 at 10:54 am |
  2. Akhmed El-Salabin

    we should have Sharia law here in us, so all people will be happy and go to heaven. Yes to allah!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    April 17, 2011 at 10:54 am |
  3. Rationalist

    Obama is a religion. His followers make Jonesville look like a G rated movie. And don't make be copy paste all the Obama Cult youtube videos to show you what I'm talking about. It truly is scary. That being said, how would all the Obama worshippers like it if the ATF came blowing through their door with assault rifles to tell them to stop?

    April 17, 2011 at 10:52 am |
  4. Mike

    All religions are cults

    April 17, 2011 at 10:52 am |
  5. xlion

    What this article says is that if "cult" members are consenting adults, those who attempt to justify kidnapping, false imprisonment, psychological torture, brain washing under the guise of de-programming, and use the word "cult" to condemn the beliefs, are criminals who deny religious freedoms to those they purport to save. How can anyone disagree with that?

    April 17, 2011 at 10:50 am |
  6. Mikky_H

    An excellent article. I thank the author for an educating read!

    April 17, 2011 at 10:50 am |
  7. Woody

    Man is but a mammal that likes living by fairy tales !

    April 17, 2011 at 10:49 am |
  8. Edward Kelly, MD, JD

    The Branch Davidians were more than just a "spin-off" of the Seventh Day Adventist Church. David Koresh was expelled from the SDA Church, not spun-off. There is a difference. Beyond the heretical theology of Koresh, SDA's do not believe in using violence, homicide, and probably suicide, as did Koresh if not all Branch Davidians. David Koresh and the Branch Davidians were rather, false prophets that SDA's and other Christians warn about. Every society and oragnization has had weird, wacky, malignant, or malevolent individuals come out of it.

    April 17, 2011 at 10:49 am |
    • Dennis

      You can see all the false prophets but your own.

      April 17, 2011 at 11:01 am |
  9. IanA1

    People are afraid to call things for what they are. The only difference between a nutty individual, a cult, and a religion is the number of people involved. Insanity = 1 person saying an invisible being/beings are controlling the universe & "inspiring" them to follow, do, and say things. Cult = a small group of people saying this. Religion = millions of people saying it. In terms of politics, it is indeed true that psychological studies have repeatedly demonstrated that those of a conservative mindset are vastly more likely to be duped into all three, mostly due to a high incidence of death fear, paranoia, and an odd persistence in repeatedly falling for the classic appeal to authority fallacy.

    April 17, 2011 at 10:48 am |
  10. Religion Sucks

    Cult: "an instance of great veneration of a person, ideal, or thing, especially as manifested by a body of admirers: the physical fitness cult; the object of such devotion. (Dictionary.com)

    Islam, Christianity, Mormonism, Science Fictionology, etc. They're all cults!

    April 17, 2011 at 10:48 am |
  11. MikeyNYC

    I love it! Idiots argue about semantics instead of doing something about these criminals who broke US law. You can call them whatever you want, they were still CRIMINALS, regardless if you referred to them as a "cult" or as a "religion" or as my personal favorite, "crazy-a** f***tards". We spend so much time worrying about how we should refer to them instead spending that time finding them, arresting them and putting them in prison for breaking the law.

    April 17, 2011 at 10:48 am |

      not to mention, lets put them in jail, cause that system works wonders and doesn't cost every american hundreds of tax dollars every year, lets pay to feed them to house them to bath them and give them a place to socialize with all the bad people in the world, you realize more people run gangs from in jail then on the streets, that prison is a huge recruiting center for gangs?

      April 17, 2011 at 11:53 am |
  12. Mary Con

    respect your mama and your uncle sam

    April 17, 2011 at 10:48 am |
  13. Mike

    All religions are 'cults'. It is only a matter of degree after that.

    April 17, 2011 at 10:47 am |
    • Leo

      Succinct and accurate. I couldn't have said it better.

      April 17, 2011 at 11:02 am |
  14. Mary Con


    April 17, 2011 at 10:47 am |
  15. RB2

    Regardless what word is used to define these groups, we can sugar coat it all we want. A cult is a cult. We just generally refrain from calling any respectable or reputable religions cults so we dont step on toes. When we find a religious group that we dont understand or agree with, we simply call them a cult.

    In any case, any religious organization that is willing to use violence and force to either recruit or just general practice is not a cult or a religion. Its a terrorist group, plain and simple. People generally dont follow these leaders for the thought of all the good stuff they somehow get. They usually follow them for the fear of what is going to happen if they dont or arent saved.

    Just a con man with a mental disorder preying on those with lesser, weak, or gullible minds looking for an answer in life.

    April 17, 2011 at 10:46 am |
  16. Mike

    This article is interesting but ultimately frustrating because the author never tells us how he thinks the word "cult" should actually be used.

    April 17, 2011 at 10:46 am |
  17. CB

    CULT – a system of religious veneration and devotion directed toward a particular figure or object : the cult of St. Olaf.
    • a relatively small group of people having religious beliefs or practices regarded by others as strange or sinister : a network of Satan-worshiping cults.

    So Christianity started as a cult. Jesus would have acted like David Coresh in his time and day. THat is why he was killed. I think it is funny that Christians won't acknowledge this.

    April 17, 2011 at 10:45 am |
    • Matt

      Jesus never collected weapons, and never tried to isolate his followers from mainstream society.

      April 17, 2011 at 10:59 am |
    • your out of your mind

      In reply to the comparison of Koresh to Christ – which would be laughable if it wasn't so scary – you really need to read the bible or read up on Koresh before you write cat turds on blogs again. According to my version of the bible Christ didn't hide on a mound somewhere stockpiling machineguns and procreating with everyone’s wives and children (and by children I mean pre-menstrual). I just can’t see Jesus firing at and killing ATF agents. Sounds like your bible is a bad action flick – does it have Vin Diesel?

      April 17, 2011 at 11:13 am |
  18. Stev-o12

    All religions are cults.

    April 17, 2011 at 10:45 am |
  19. May 21, 2011 is the beginning of the end

    May 21, 2011 is the beginning of the end

    April 17, 2011 at 10:43 am |
    • Mary Con

      I thought it was Dec 21, 2012

      April 17, 2011 at 10:49 am |
  20. joann

    I,suggest you all stay away from ALL the CULTS. And,stick with RELGIONS that are BORN AGAIN. Thanks, JoAnn

    April 17, 2011 at 10:42 am |
    • May 21, 2011 is the beginning of the end

      yeah, what scam. born again. get the h3ll outta here!

      April 17, 2011 at 10:45 am |
    • You Idiots

      @ Joanne...Oh Please get real! Are you not watching the news? Its to late for false religion.

      April 17, 2011 at 10:46 am |
    • Mary Con

      also learn how to spell and use punctuations properly.

      April 17, 2011 at 10:49 am |
    • Leo

      The "born again Christian" folks have one of the biggest cult mentalities. Most religions are actually cults if you look at the strict definition. You're supposed to believe what they teach you to believe. How about "born again rationalist" instead?

      April 17, 2011 at 10:50 am |
    • TlD

      ":Born again" are a cult

      April 17, 2011 at 10:51 am |
    • Fake god

      All religions are scams!
      If you are religious, you are either a sham such as Pastor Long Dong, or you are a fool. Period.

      April 17, 2011 at 10:52 am |
    • Lee S

      Dont you think youve been brainwashed too. Youre telling me that you decided to think like that one day and profess your undying love for your savior? Someone pounded that into your mushy little brain until you actually believed it. The sad thing is about people that have been brainwashed is that they have no clue that they have been.

      April 17, 2011 at 10:54 am |
    • kelly

      Religion is the biggest scam in history.

      Faith is believing in something you know ain't true -mark twain

      April 17, 2011 at 10:55 am |
    • Andy

      The Born Again cult has to be right, they say they are right and everyone else is wrong. Oh, hold it, that's what ALL the CULTS say.

      April 17, 2011 at 10:56 am |
    • gloriousspring

      Check the OED - all "religions" are cults. Including yours. They provide comfort and succor for the broken and weak, and purpose for the feeble minded. But healthier solutions are available. You should look into those.

      April 17, 2011 at 10:56 am |
    • Dennis

      I have no idea if this was suppose to be tongue in cheek or serious.

      Poe's Law.

      April 17, 2011 at 10:58 am |
    • Steve C

      As described by the dictionary, ALL RELIGION'S are CULTS!!!

      April 17, 2011 at 11:02 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.