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. wowlfie

    All religions worldwide should be banned as well. They all practice persecution of non-believers (witness the Europeans who blocked to America's shore to escape the religious purging going on and outright mass killings, then today with Islam as they do the same). All religions practice discrimination under their right as god fearing people. If you live in an area where almost everybody is one religion–then those members LOOK DOWN on you and won't respect your right to live your way without being discriminated against. They do this by not giving you a job or other ways where you live to make you feel 'not wanted' because you don't belong to their religious group. The Moral Majority got their name not just because they LOOKED DOWN on people but because they tried to push their beliefs on others by threatening 'alienation'. The same thing goes on in the Amish community today. It pushes their way or the highway (ex-communication). ALL RELIGIONS are bad for mankind.

    April 17, 2011 at 11:01 am |
  2. Frank

    I don't think that Jesus acted like David Korish. David Korish was a child molester and a murderer. Just another anti religious person spouting off without any idea as to what they are really saying.

    April 17, 2011 at 11:01 am |
    • Lourie

      Matthew 10:34

      Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword.

      April 17, 2011 at 11:13 am |
  3. Darryl Schmitz

    Great column, James! Thank you for establishing a dialogue about this topic (for both good and bad, fortunately/unfortunately, from the comments we see posted here).

    April 17, 2011 at 10:59 am |
  4. Stephanie

    I almost feel foolish commenting here as I generally walk away from the ridiculous as I assume it will destroy itself but this is more to clarify for the wavering "good" rather than address the weird writer:

    Um, cults are groups that carry guns (or other deadly substances) and people are afraid to leave. That's a cult. I highly doubt a woman would be writing this. Um, don't forget, guns. Yeah. That's why they're so "demonized."

    April 17, 2011 at 10:59 am |
    • Stephanie

      P.S. The writer is a crime waiting to happen (if he hasn't already :b)

      April 17, 2011 at 11:08 am |
  5. Lee S

    It doesnt matter what religion you belong to, in the United States the laws of MAN come first. This country was built upon that. The pilgrims and founding fathers escaped persecution from the CULT of the Church of England who had garnered too much power and demanded citizens obey their interpretation of the "law" of god. Common sense should come before any kind of religious semantics or nonsense when the law, peoples lives, and well being is at stake. Especially when you freakin board up a bunch of kids that know nothing more than what you tell them into your "compound" that is loaded up with weapons. What do you think is gonna happen? Morons.

    April 17, 2011 at 10:59 am |
  6. Zachary

    Please clear up this little fact. THIS WAS NOT IN WACO. It was in Mt. Calm, which is 30 minutes away from Waco....Please get this right.

    April 17, 2011 at 10:58 am |
  7. Waste of time article

    The Waco Branch Davidian led by David Koresh was a cult:

    He thought that he was the Son of God, found ways to make his followers rely on him and him alone, and he was nuts.

    April 17, 2011 at 10:58 am |
    • Lourie

      Um.. don't ALL Christians and Muslims thing they are the children of God?

      And all Gods children say AMEN! As far as bedding teenagers... Christian ministers have been doing that since the dawn of Christianity... well except for Catholic priests. They like their kids a little younger than teens.

      April 17, 2011 at 11:08 am |
  8. Mike Brooks

    The term "cult" pretty accurately descrIbes the political movements in this country; everything from the Tea Party to Planned Parenthood, from the Brady Foundation to "Free Trade", and including everyone a member of either political party. Seeing Obama as David Korean and Romney as Jim Jones makes a great deal more sense than seeing eithe one of these bankrupt self serving clodhoppers as "leaders".

    April 17, 2011 at 10:58 am |
  9. Marc

    The leader of the Davidians proclaimed himself God, and impregnated multiple women, including a 14 year old girl. He is said to have slept with pre-pubescent girls as well. I undestand you needed to tag your argument to something in the news, and picked that group, but it doesn't work here. Sure these groups have the same rights, but when they cross into the territory of stockpiling weapons and effectively saying "it's okay for me to bed these girls because I'm God," not many people are going to take your point that they have a right to be called something other than "cult."

    April 17, 2011 at 10:57 am |
    • Jared

      It's because the religious believers and their leaders make the world a violent dangerous place. We are sick of a world that is full of so much hatred and distruction all so you can live in your mythological little fairytale. If you really believe in the fable then simply stop ruining the world , live your life, die and then experience your afterlife.

      April 17, 2011 at 11:14 am |
  10. kirk

    I am so amazed about how many non-believers, "non-religious" bigots spend all their on the Religion section. Very interesting... I figure they are genuinely interested but closet in those interests. I might be that are just mean spirited bigots looking to stir up trouble and hate.

    April 17, 2011 at 10:57 am |
    • bill

      if you you're body had cancer would you ignore it?

      April 17, 2011 at 11:07 am |
  11. stosh

    Cults and religion are fundamentally the same animal - it's just a matter of how omniscient the operators pretend to be, and just just how much "control" the organization attempts to exert over the flock.

    As for "mainstream" American religion, what exactly does one have to do to fail to fit into that group? Catholicism passes for part of the mainstream, right? Well, a bunch of folks (many of whom willfully protect child molesters), who dress up in 14th century clothing, wave incense around, take "confessions" from sinners, and pay homage to some random creep holding court at the Vatican - that sound pretty cult-like to me.

    April 17, 2011 at 10:57 am |
  12. Lourie

    No.. we shouldn't single out certain religious beliefs from others and refer to them as cults..

    ALL religions are cults. Every one of them consist of nothing but a bunch of brainwashed idiots giving money, time, possessions, and/or their children to a man, woman, or organization that claims to be the representation of a fictional invisible god-head.

    It's mass insanity at it's "finest".

    April 17, 2011 at 10:57 am |
  13. Akhmed El-Salabin

    too many infidels.

    April 17, 2011 at 10:57 am |
    • Stephanie

      Then leave

      April 17, 2011 at 11:15 am |
  14. Akhmed El-Salabin

    sharia law only in america

    April 17, 2011 at 10:56 am |
    • Lee S

      too many trolls

      April 17, 2011 at 11:00 am |
  15. wowlfie

    Exactly why Islam is a Cult. It's whole underlining 'attachment' is based on brainwashing the young with up to 6 hours of rote memorization daily and only Cults practice suicide to either revenge or as methods in which to exterminate other competing religions–usually Christian or Jewish. Islam is a Cult and NOT a religion and should not be afforded protection rights anywhere in the world. In fact, it's a debased Cult that attempts to eradicate all other religions and will not peacefully coexist with others. It should be banned worldwide.

    April 17, 2011 at 10:56 am |
  16. get real

    What about Jonestown & the "Rev" Jim Jones? Cult or delusion or both?

    April 17, 2011 at 10:56 am |
    • Lee S

      You could ask the same question about all organized religion.

      April 17, 2011 at 11:01 am |
  17. Fake god

    If you are religious, you are either a sham or a gullible followers. I bet Pastor Long Dong would agree with me.

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

      ^^ What he said/

      April 17, 2011 at 11:04 am |
  18. Linnie

    What part of "under-aged brides" do you not get?

    April 17, 2011 at 10:55 am |
  19. stevie weevie

    Yeah, forget that the "religion" is named after its charismatic, egotist leader. That's no cult. Nope. No cult here. Please disperse.

    April 17, 2011 at 10:54 am |
    • khaotix2

      All religions are cults, good sir.

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

      religions are make believe fables.

      April 17, 2011 at 10:59 am |
    • Carlito

      you are a weenie

      April 17, 2011 at 11:00 am |
    • sbamk

      stevie, I agree that Koresh's group was a cult, but actually his group was an offshoot of the original Branch Davidians which actually predated Koresh – they weren't named after him.

      April 17, 2011 at 11:03 am |
  20. john

    When a group follows a person who rules them absolutely and makes them do things like Koresh did then it is a cult and brain washing is a reasonable thought. Koresh was just like Jim Jones. No real difference. And this bs about people turning against a way of life=they do not do things the Waco Wackos did. Look at the behavior and what they do. That is what makes a cult.

    April 17, 2011 at 10:54 am |
    • stevie weevie

      Agreed. See comment below.

      April 17, 2011 at 10:55 am |
    • Akhmed El-Salabin

      sharia law and muslinism will make all happy. prof. mohammed.

      April 17, 2011 at 10:58 am |
    • David

      When a religious group also stockpiles .50 cal machine guns, it is probably
      a cult. Or a mainstream party in the Middle East.

      April 17, 2011 at 11:03 am |
    • Rationalist

      Like Obama and his followers.... remember the video of the 2nd grade class in Cali, "Obama's gonna save us, Obama's gonna lead us"

      April 17, 2011 at 11:12 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.