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. Nina

    Dear Professor Richardson,

    I found this blog posting and your analysis of the media reaction towards the Davidian Branch very interesting.
    I am currently studying Religious Studies at a University and as an adult I chose to become a member of a religion that has also been referred to as a cult.
    The topics you discussed are certainly worth further exploration and is something that requires patience and open dialogue from all those involved.

    April 17, 2011 at 11:12 am |
    • .

      Stick it!

      April 17, 2011 at 11:14 am |
  2. Religioso

    To me a cult is defined by worship of a living human being, rituals, propaganda, idolatry, indoctrination from birth, exclusion more than inclusion. No greater cult than catholicism.

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

    I can't believe 70% are americans and politicians are gullible christians.

    April 17, 2011 at 11:11 am |
    • Joseph Di Marius

      as opposed to gullible atheists? by belittling people for believing in God, you're simply being an evangelical atheist. leave people to belive what they want to believe, and they will leave you to NOT believe. being preachy sucks regardless of what you're preaching.

      April 17, 2011 at 2:43 pm |
  4. stephen

    religion is a word used to confuse or bring attention away from the real facts.......forget about religion for a second...76 people lost there lives...why did the atf use such force...the davidians wernt going anywhere...wernt going to hurt anyone...this is a disgusting abuse of power..wake up america..how long will the governemnt get away with such acts...my heart goes out to all victims that day..on both sides.....dont forget about ruby ridge a mother feeding her child sniped by an atf agent.....peace

    April 17, 2011 at 11:11 am |
  5. M.F. Stout

    It was a cult. It is a cult. Of course, much of organized religion is also a cult.

    April 17, 2011 at 11:11 am |
  6. Tom

    Um... who cares what they're called?

    April 17, 2011 at 11:09 am |
  7. Realist

    Probably "Child Rapists" would be a more accurate..

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

    The Federal Government! Now there's a cult!

    April 17, 2011 at 11:08 am |
    • .

      ok conspiracy theorist. now go away

      April 17, 2011 at 11:09 am |
  9. Dan

    At one point, Christianity was a cult...
    Islam had a cult...

    my take is if we can stop these wierdoes before they grow into full blown religions, the world will be much better off!

    April 17, 2011 at 11:07 am |
  10. Fake god

    Religion is a bunch of stupid and gullible people who would believe anything, and their sham leaders always take advantages from these crap. Plain and simple!

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

    Religion is a cult in itself. Thats my opinion. Feel free to reject it and all the others you see in the comments.

    April 17, 2011 at 11:06 am |
  12. maxhedroom

    Sure. Let's just call them a bunch of emotionally unstable individuals whose personality type allows them to be easily manipulated by an even more unstable histrionic type person. David Koresh is god and he is coming back to save his followers! Wait.....what?!?

    April 17, 2011 at 11:06 am |
  13. syd barrett

    It's pretty simple. When you're a high school dropout who's been a total loser your whole life, and you convince a small group of morons that you're the Messiah, and you load up on automatic weapons and start preparing for your doomsday martyrdom, and you start banging underage girls because, you know, God told you to....

    Well, that's a cult.

    April 17, 2011 at 11:05 am |
  14. bob

    The only thing that really matters is the rule of law. Call it what you want, do as you wish, the Government should enforce the laws, for the rich and the poor. Here lies the problem, IMHO.

    April 17, 2011 at 11:05 am |
    • .

      is that your name or what you do best with your boyfriend

      April 17, 2011 at 11:07 am |
  15. Rasta Pasta

    losers, the only real cult is here
    The Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster


    April 17, 2011 at 11:05 am |
    • .

      yo mama is a loser

      April 17, 2011 at 11:06 am |
  16. Pappa Smurf - Smurf Of Thunder

    I am writting the Smurfy bible right now,
    soon all of you will bow to my holy blue butt
    and spend all day picking smurfberries for me

    On your knees smurfette !!!

    April 17, 2011 at 11:04 am |
    • .

      are you going to pull the banana out of your a$$ or will your mama do that for you?

      April 17, 2011 at 11:08 am |
  17. john

    James T. Richardson, you will not convince me that a child molester is a good person.... you sir are a moron!

    April 17, 2011 at 11:03 am |
  18. mac

    So, at what point did anyone in the cult think their actions were bizarre? Assuming this religion had obscure beliefs or practices.

    Oh it must have been the point where they listened to a mad man, and had a standoff killing 10 people. That must be obscure to people is it not? Is it not bizarre to look up to your spiritual leader, and hear them preach about defending your religion and killing government officials?

    The author of this article, is a complete retard, and wholeheartedly I know he woulda drank that purple juice too.

    April 17, 2011 at 11:03 am |
  19. Matt

    NO difference between a religion and a cult. The only difference is the amount of people in the religion/cult. They both have silly rituals, ostracize anyone who departs the faith, and believe they are right.

    April 17, 2011 at 11:02 am |
    • appalled

      Matt, you are so right. They have been cults since the beginning. People were afraid of their shadow, the weather, anything in the sky so "it must be god."

      April 17, 2011 at 11:10 am |
    • Matt 2.0

      I completely agree with my fellow Matt. I've said this all along. Christianity and any other major "religion" is as much a cult as anyone else's belief structure. Apparently money/power/# of followers makes people think higher of certain structures.

      April 17, 2011 at 11:14 am |
  20. deep hole


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

      All religions are " cults"...every single one of them. No exception.

      April 17, 2011 at 11:08 am |
    • .

      how deep is it?

      April 17, 2011 at 11:11 am |
    • Get Real

      You're right, lets not call the Branch Dividians a cult. Lets call them an armed militia led by a religious zealot who publicly said he was Jesus returned. David Koresh (real name Vernon Howell) and his goon squad took control of the Mt. Carmel compound armed to the teeth with assault weapons under the guise of looking for dead bodies that had been unearthed by actual members of the church. They attempted to shoot and kill the rightful owners/church members and essentially steal the compound. Following that he gained a flock if weak minded teens and adults and convinced him he was the final prophet.; having his way with the women as young as 10 and punishing those who would follow his will. Stock piling illegal weapons...being a false prophet...convincing your followers they must follow you into death.....nothing 'cultish' about that.

      April 17, 2011 at 11:32 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.