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. Religious Sects

    Put a frog into boiling water & it will jump out .. put a frog in cool water & gradually heat to boiling & the frog will stay & boil to death. Such is life in a cult.

    April 17, 2011 at 11:21 am |
  2. Terry

    Sorry, this article just seems like a worthless use of print. A cult is a cult. Every religion in the world could be viewed as a cult, by anyone deemed "Not into cults".

    April 17, 2011 at 11:21 am |
  3. Sally p

    Ha! Mr. Richardson.. Your idealist ignorance is showing. I suppose Jim Jones was just misunderstood. Regardless of the word we attach to this type of behavior, it is abusive and dangerous. ( I been down that road, sir.. you haven't).

    April 17, 2011 at 11:20 am |
  4. xflowers

    There are discernible differences between a cult and other forms of organized religion, which is why we have two different words. I grant that the words can be improperly applied, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't have them unless we want to blend all forms of belief activity together as being the same. But that's too relativistic, I think. It dulls our thinking. While they may share some characteristics, they don't share others. The most obvious is that organized religion rarely exerts the kind of control over the individual that we see with cult leaders and their following. And when some sect of organized religion does, it is viewed as aberrant. Maybe instead of not using the term "cult," we need to define it better.

    April 17, 2011 at 11:20 am |
  5. Bennie

    Actually, a cult of a group of people that come together to try to solve an unsolvable problem. The "unsolvable problem" doesn't necessarily have to be about finding a way to get to heaven, but it often is. Also with cults there is often a potential for violence (see Branch Davidians). In cults there is also a charismatic leader whom controls all his followers and does not tolerate free thinking.

    Christianity is NOT a cult. It is considered a religion by worldly standards but in fact is about a relationship with Jesus. But some of you are probably thinking, "well Jesus is the charismatic leader that your posted above" and you would be right. He is a charismatic leader but he did not hold people against their will and force them to worship him. In fact, he served others and was kind and loving. While Jesus would love to have a relationship with you, it is all a matter of YOU and accepting him as your Lord and savior.

    April 17, 2011 at 11:19 am |
    • All Religion Is Evil

      @Bennie: You need to read your "holy" book. Jesus (if he existed at all, which is highly questionable), is reported in it to have used plenty of threats and violent rhetorical tools to demand belief. The current watered-down, warm and fuzzy, mega-church pablum is just the latest version of what works to get the suckers in the door and take their money. You are wasting a lot of your time that could be spent on less silly things.

      April 17, 2011 at 11:24 am |
    • J-Roc

      AMEN to that!

      April 17, 2011 at 11:28 am |
    • Bennie

      @allreligionisevil Please tell me where in the Bible that Jesus makes threats of violence when he taught to turn the other cheek. He also chastised one of his disciples for cutting off the ear of the soldier and then put his ear back for him. Where is the violence in that?

      April 17, 2011 at 11:34 am |
  6. billp

    A cult is a religion with no political power.

    April 17, 2011 at 11:19 am |
  7. jesus

    I'm pretty sure a cult is a group that reveres someone or something. So by definition they are a cult. As is any other religion. It is a loaded term, yes, but does that mean we need to use euphemisms. I can see it now in 20 years another article will appear about the snarkiness in which the PC term "New Religious Movement" is being used. The struggle is part of creating a new religion. I mean, every cult needs an Egypt somewhere in their history to point to.

    They are all cults, some with more adherents.

    April 17, 2011 at 11:18 am |
  8. Tom

    How about we also rethink the word "compound". Some folks live on ranches or in gated communities, but when a "cult" is involved, somehow they always live in a "compound". The only time I've ever seen the word compound used with no cult involved is the "Kennedy compound" in Palm Beach (wait, maybe that is a cult :-).

    April 17, 2011 at 11:18 am |
  9. Howard

    Let's try to remember that the government launched an assault on the Branch Davidian compound, not because it was occupied by a "cult," but because there was considerable evidence of wholesale violations of weapons laws. The gun battle effectively proved the evidence was well founded.

    April 17, 2011 at 11:18 am |
  10. Rationalist

    If anyone wants to see a cult, all they have to do is search "Obama Kids Video" on youtube and watch.

    April 17, 2011 at 11:17 am |
  11. C.Cantu

    Islam is the most massive cult around the planet.

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

    Sorry, a cult is a cult. And I see little difference between Branch Davidians and so called accepted religions. They are all cults. They use their "religious" beliefs to justify horrible actions against other human beings.

    April 17, 2011 at 11:16 am |
  13. Southerner

    Sorry, but the branch davidians became a cult, when they bought into Vernon Howell's BS. Just like the Heaven's gate cult, and the People's Temple, etc...

    April 17, 2011 at 11:16 am |
  14. Matthew

    When one person believes something unusual, we call him insane.
    When a small group of people believe something unusual, we call them a cult.
    When a large group of people believe something unusual, we call it a religion.

    April 17, 2011 at 11:15 am |
  15. notanapologist

    Why would CNN post such a poorly written article – the arguments here are too easy to refute. Where did the author get his Phd? The part where he talks about the deprogramming especially...the reason why you need to DEPROGRAM Mr. Richardson is because these people have been programmed and are being abused....and fed nonsense.

    The real issue facing Mr. Richardson is not the cults....but the fact that if when looking at the new cults you take a closer look at the "Organized Religions" such as they are...Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, you find the same nonsense....and therefore could be open to the same criticism. Thats the real issue here. Have we forgotten Jim Jones and his Kool-Aid, Heaven'sGate.....

    Mr. Richardson and the things he supports are an embarrassment to reason and logic.

    April 17, 2011 at 11:14 am |
  16. Ronald Hussein Reagan

    I think Zambo Wambo would be a good word to use – it rhymes, is fun to say and might cheer up some of the people that have been hoodwinked into joining a Zambo Wambo.

    April 17, 2011 at 11:14 am |
  17. Darius

    Maybe we should rethink the word "scholar" that is used by CNN as a tease to read this drivel by James T. Richardson. His article is poorly written as it clumsily jumps around and fails miserably to make the point he was supposedly trying to make. Everything he discusses has little or nothing to do with the traditional definition of “cult”. The testimony of former Branch Davidians who had left the cult made it abundantly clear that the Davidians were nothing more than a cult.

    April 17, 2011 at 11:13 am |
    • Fenevad

      Darius, that you would post this also shows that you failed to grasp the point of the article. Your response just reaffirms the point he was trying to make.

      April 17, 2011 at 11:26 am |
    • Pete Beck

      Thank you for your clarity. If this author had done a little research into groups like Scientology, he would have concluded that the difference between religions and cults is free will. I can walk away from my church tomorrow without fear if I chose to. Scientologists who try to leave must pay dearly both financially and often emotionally by leaving behind family members.

      April 17, 2011 at 11:50 am |
  18. baudolino

    Opinion: Let's not.

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


      April 17, 2011 at 11:23 am |
  19. K Ulriksen

    In anthropological terms, a religion that focuses on individual and endows that person with supernatural powers is a cult. Certainly christianity and islam would have started that way, but they are not considered cults because they have been established through out there extended history as "state religions" and accepted mainstream religion. The Davidians obviously endowed Koresh with supernatural powers and it was not an accepted mainstream religion, so calling it a cult would be the right term if you were discussing it in any anthropology classroom. We tend to demonize anything outside of the mainstream, so calling it by some other term will lead to the demonization of that as well.

    April 17, 2011 at 11:12 am |
  20. Wootie

    The only difference between "religions" and "cults" is the number of members – they all share the same amount of legitimacy...which is none.

    Today's major religions exist not because of any special virtue, but on the strength of swords – they proliferated not by the "truth" of their "faith" but because they won the wars and expanded their empires. Dead religions, like those of the Greeks, Romans, and Mayans, are dead only because they ultimately could not muster the military strength to preserve themselves.

    Religion is the greatest shame humanity carries – and there is no chance, ever, that this world will know peace so long as religion is allowed to fester and infect our societies.

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

      well said, sir.

      April 17, 2011 at 11:18 am |
    • BRod

      You are absolutely right. I came here to post that very same comparison of "cult" and "religion". They are EXACTLY the same, except for the number of members – and people are equally brainwashed in both groups. Being brainwashed into Christianity from childhood ruined most of my life. It took me a long time to "de-brainwash" and finally de-convert. The truth really will set you free!

      April 17, 2011 at 11:20 am |
    • a4mrtheist

      Just drop the name church and us cult in it place for all religions.

      April 17, 2011 at 11:24 am |
    • Fenevad

      I'm so glad you have all managed to reach true enlightenment and free yourselves of all dogmas and false conceptions.

      April 17, 2011 at 11:25 am |
    • Dreamer

      And there is no chance, as long as human beings exist, that religion will not play a part of their lives. So, you're in for a disappointing time if you're holding out for that.

      April 17, 2011 at 11:26 am |
    • deadbeat

      The author spends only one sentence on the issue that set the Davidians apart: "The Branch Davidians lost their criminal case and the civil cases they brought." .

      April 17, 2011 at 11:26 am |
    • Rationalist

      Wrong. If all religions were gone, the wars would be fought between the United Atheist Alliance and the World Atheist Organization, ect.. If you think religion is the driver you are incorrect. It is called human nature.

      April 17, 2011 at 11:41 am |
    • Joseph Di Marius

      actually capitalism is the worst scar on the history of humanity. the pursuit of wealth has far outweighed genuine religious conviction in the oppression and exploitation of other people. take this country for example. a whole bunch of clowns who claim to be "christians" but in reality, they are not christians, they simply use their religion as a means of appearing "nice" so that they can further carve out more wealth for themselves while stomping on working and poor people.

      April 17, 2011 at 2:46 pm |
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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.