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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. Dean

    It is all about using words to influence thinking. If you can label someone or something, you gain control over them/it. Various groups, nationalities, races, etc. have been labeled for this reason. For example, if you call someone a 'terrorist' you shape public opinion about that person and can shape how they are treated. There is a reason there are labels that we attempt to strike from our public discussion (the 'N' word, and various words for racial/national/religious groups). There has recently been a new label created for a similar purpose: "Liberal". Of course, 'banning' a word does not correct the underlying problem – various leaders (political/religious/business/whatever) that want to gain power/control by catering to the worst of human emotions via the use of propaganda – of which the use of labels is the primary tool.

    April 17, 2011 at 11:37 am |
  2. Steve

    Must be a really slow news day for this to make the top headline on CNN.com.

    April 17, 2011 at 11:34 am |
  3. Tom

    Of course they were a cult. I can't believe what this author is saying here.. What a waste of my time today.

    April 17, 2011 at 11:33 am |
    • anntique

      Amen! er...on second thought, "thumbs up"

      April 17, 2011 at 11:59 am |
  4. Atom Spectre

    Religion and cults are like coke and pepsi, choose your flavor get brainwashed and become delusional.

    April 17, 2011 at 11:30 am |
  5. Caleb

    Too often the word cult is used to mean "a group whose beliefs or practices I find strange or weird." It describes less about the group it is attributed to than it does about the person who is using the term.

    A far better definition of cult is a group or belief system which requires its members to put some part of it above their individual humanity. That shifts much of the debate more towards what is one's "humanity" or what is "humane" which is a far better discussion to have than capriciously throwing around the term "cult".

    April 17, 2011 at 11:28 am |
  6. Mike

    The only difference between a cult and a religion is popularity.

    April 17, 2011 at 11:28 am |
  7. Chris82179

    Lets have tolerance for Hitler too ok? Perhaps evil shouldn't be used anymore to describe evil people.

    April 17, 2011 at 11:28 am |
  8. Mike

    Alright, alright, so it's not a cult. Let's see.... "cult" ... 4 letters. Ok, so how about "scam."

    April 17, 2011 at 11:28 am |
  9. Julia

    Once again proof that it's humanly impossible to discuss either politics or religion (and I tend to agree they are virtually the same in practice and the hold they have over people). Why even try? To most people a cult is any religion outside of their own, in the same way that any political stance other than their own is wrong if not criminal. We have NO ability to see the other person's side. All we can possibly hope for as a species is that we may learn someday (obviously not any time soon) to leave others and their beliefs alone. Without the pathetic dictionary attempts at Italian insults.

    April 17, 2011 at 11:26 am |
  10. John

    I don't see a problem with any of these places, until children become involved and our not given a choice. I remember Jim Jones and as far as I am concerned that was a cult. Churches in general do not hurt their followers and they are free to live in their own homes and make their own lifestyle choices. Many of these like the ones in Waco did not allow freedom and I think the FBI believed many of those belief were a threat to others around them. They acquired vast amounts of guns and weapons. So one wonders if they were peaceful why they needed them?

    April 17, 2011 at 11:26 am |
  11. Glenn

    It's hard to draw a line but I'd say a 'bad' religion is one that encourages law breaking. For example, raping 12 year old girls and burning people to death. So it depends on how exploitative they are. Though mainstream pastors in mega churches make a lot of money. Hmm.

    April 17, 2011 at 11:26 am |
  12. Claire

    Since Christianity is also a cult, I see no reason not to refer to the Davidians as a cult. Unless you want to just call them wackos.

    April 17, 2011 at 11:26 am |
  13. Bannister

    There is another form of mass brainwashing today. It's called multiCULTuralism.

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

      The opposite of which is called "racism".

      April 17, 2011 at 11:32 am |
  14. Blanchjoe

    I admire your bravery for stepping and definning a very mis-used term in our culture. It must be remembered that ALL modern and established religious methodologies began within a larger Socio-religious culture as 'cults". Indeed the folowers of the Jesus the Nazerene were for all intents and purposes seen by the larger, recognized and established Jewish leaders of that time as a "cult", albeit a Judiac cult, but they were looked upon in that time as we would now define a cult. However the process where a religous methodology develops from a early gathering or "cult" and either dissolves in time or becomes an established religious system, is one thing, "cult-ism" however is another. Cultism is a process that exists in all of us, from the clutic attachment to a dead move star, to the cutlism that is protrayed for Manchester United, to the cultism of a specific political dogam, we as individuals tend by nature to allow our beliefs to rule real and truthful consideration.

    April 17, 2011 at 11:25 am |
  15. The_Mick

    To me, the word "cult" seems to be used for religious sects with extremist views like: their leader is God, the world is going to end, the members must endure extreme physical or mental deprivation that physiologists and psychologists would deem damaging, etc. The Branch Davidians meet enough of those extremisms to be called a "cult." They even issued their own money and intimidated local merchants to accept it on the spot. Cult!

    April 17, 2011 at 11:24 am |
  16. Nina

    Dear Professor Richardson,

    Thank you for this interesting blog posting. I think this is a fascinating and interesting topic. I am currently studying Religious Studies at a public university, and as an adult I have chosen to join a church that has also been called a "cult".

    April 17, 2011 at 11:24 am |
  17. josh

    and what about the cult surrounding Obama?

    April 17, 2011 at 11:23 am |
    • dzerres

      More like the cult surrounding the tea baggers and it's hangers-on.

      April 17, 2011 at 11:30 am |
    • Indie

      not much different than the cult surrounding bush/cheney... perspective and point of view dictate what each of us accepts as 'reality' or 'propaganda'...

      April 17, 2011 at 11:33 am |
    • ModerateTodd

      Seriously??? Obama is not elitist, socialist, secret Muslim, African or the worst President ever any longer. He now is a cult leader? I think you came up with that one without it being on Fox news, so it is a little weak. There has to be a psychological study on the real reason that people hate Obama. It has to be racism because he has not done anything to deserve this strong of a reaction. I am a lifetime Republican that these extreme right racist, unintelligent talking heads like Palin, Bachmann and now Trump have driven out of the party. If you say the worst things possible about Obama, you go to the top of the class! I hate to break it to you but if you could look at it without this clouded vision, you would see that the most moderate Republican in the Presidential field is a guy named Barack Hussein Obama. Did your had explode because Obama is the most like Reagan, because Hussein is his middle name or because he is black. Maybe I hit a trifecta?

      April 17, 2011 at 12:03 pm |
  18. Stephanie

    This is an editorial and as someone's opinion is not based on any fact. Mr. Richardson fails to address the serious issues surrounding cults and one of the key factors that make them "cults" rather than religions. I walked away from a church I belonged to. Nothing to it, no calls, no letters, no consequence. A cult has several key indicators including a charismatic leader who people view as a least a "God-like" being, and control including isolation from loved ones or those who would contradict cult beliefs and the inability to leave without serious consequence to the person. This is NOT a religion. While I am not a religious person anymore, people have a right to be religious. Once a person has been sucked into a cult, they no longer have rights because they have been mind-f#@%&&. Then they need help. There are some persons with traits that make them more susceptible to being recruited-lack of assertiveness, naivete, "seeking" a spiritual home or disillusionment with current religion, and black and white thinking. By saying that people are exercising their "rights" when they are in cults, you are doing a huge disservice to people who are trapped in these organizations and their loved ones who are left behind helpless to combat the pull of the group.

    April 17, 2011 at 11:23 am |
    • Caral From SoCal

      Thank you – you are correct Stephanie. My sister joined a group with exactly the factors you discuss. A powerful central leader, no ability to leave, the group was given total control over her earnings, her actions, her living conditions. She seemed to lose all control to make any decisions herself at all. Because she was college-aged when she joined (legally an adult), it was very difficult indeed to make any inroads at all towards getting her out. It has been four years since she was basically pulled out of that group, and a more grateful human being you will never meet. She talks about purposeful sleep deprivation, food deprivation, various control mechanisms being used. We are the lucky ones.

      April 17, 2011 at 11:35 am |
    • shawn

      you guys make the def to complicated...a cult is an group outside the mainstream acceptance. This would include any fundamental christian group as they all differ dramatically to the next one.

      April 17, 2011 at 11:39 am |
    • God is Crap

      Pope = powerful central figure. The ability to excommunicate and threats of hell = brainwashing. The only difference between religion and a cult is its size and income. It's ALL POISON.

      April 17, 2011 at 11:41 am |
    • lt

      I'm an atheist but your description is right on and it is completely missed by the opinion author.
      that said, many of the Mega churches and smaller religious groups should be designated cults as well.

      April 17, 2011 at 11:42 am |
  19. Chozo

    I don't care if you call them a cult or a religion, belief in something that isn't real is simply self-delusional.
    If Koresh was 'god', he was definitely a 'lesser god' – he was powerless except for the sway he held over his 'followers'.
    No matter what name you give it, delusion is still delusion.

    April 17, 2011 at 11:22 am |
    • Phage0070

      Right, but I think the point is that you are not going to get the established religions to be called cults so the only way to show the similarity in their dangerous qualities is to call the "cults" religions.

      April 17, 2011 at 11:32 am |
    • Chris

      But you point applies equally to these small groups and to (say) Catholics. So if you call one a cult you must call them all that.

      April 17, 2011 at 11:35 am |
    • God is Crap

      Indeed. I think it's important to stop allowing the freedom of distinction. Religion is poison. It needs to stop being allowed to commit atrocity and then hiding behind, "that's not us, that's them... they, uh, just have our beliefs and holy books".

      April 17, 2011 at 11:39 am |
  20. Mr. Cargo

    A Rose by any other name still smells like a Rose...same can be said for Garlic

    April 17, 2011 at 11:21 am |
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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.