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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. xlion

    Is the word "cult" derogatory? Yes, it is. Do people get offended if you refer to their religion as a cult? Yes they do. Does the word imply negative connotations? Absolutely. Is it ever used to describe any modern religion in a positive light? No, it is not. Lets put this one to rest and move on to the N word. Anyone wish to defend that one?

    April 17, 2011 at 11:58 am |
  2. HorseMan

    The Branch Davidians were a bunch of wackos following a pedophile cult leader, David Koresh. The People's Temple was another doomsday cult that followed another drug addled pedophile names Jim Jones. Both their followers and their cults ended up in the ash bin of history. I couldn't disagree more with the qriter of this op-ed piece. Yes, this was a cult, a dangerous cult and it was eradicated.

    April 17, 2011 at 11:57 am |
    • Clair Luz

      What's the name of that cult of pedophiles run by the old Nazi dressed in drag with the pointy gold hat? Those folks are seriously deluded!

      April 17, 2011 at 12:37 pm |
  3. fools

    don't allow them to rearrange your thoughts on what a real cult is.. the DAMN FREEMASONS THAT RUN THIS COUNTRY.... obama trump bush clinton ... all of them freemasons.. goo figure

    April 17, 2011 at 11:57 am |
  4. Peter

    this is pure crap. all religions are cults, even the ones with a billion members. eat my flesh, drink my blood, etc. stupid.

    April 17, 2011 at 11:56 am |
  5. reason

    All religions are cults. And you know it.

    April 17, 2011 at 11:55 am |
  6. norcalmojo

    cult, religion.

    protest, mob

    patriot, nationalist

    It's just rhetoric. People who are fooled by it are fools by definition. The real problem is a lack of critical thinking.

    April 17, 2011 at 11:55 am |
  7. dc

    Merriam-Webster defines cult as
    1 formal religious veneration : worship
    2 a system of religious beliefs and ritual; also : its body of adherents
    therefore, all religions would be by definition, a cult

    April 17, 2011 at 11:54 am |
  8. reader

    Why do most self-proclaimed men of god, across all religions, insist so much on sleeping with multiple underaged boys and girls? Catholic priests and David Kouresh are just a couple of examples but the practice is widespread across all religions. Do you think perhaps it is the men's own perversions and evil souls that drove them towards extreme religion in the first place?

    April 17, 2011 at 11:51 am |
    • Clair Luz

      I sure do!

      April 17, 2011 at 12:33 pm |
  9. sauce

    They were not Christians!

    April 17, 2011 at 11:51 am |
  10. thatoneguys

    And so continues the long running academic trend of bantering words, and ignoring the world. Cult is a word, and as such it has a meaning, and that meaning is defined by its usage in the community. Leave it at that. If tomorrow 95 percent of the people in the world wake up believing that cult means rabbit, that so it will be so. Cult will become rabbit, and most children would then love pet cults.

    Academia has become frozen it is own inward twisting, myopic, dribble. Lets worry less about the use of the term "cult" and more about the existence of various small, radicalized groups of people, across the globe, who due to their extremism pose a threat to the general well-being of the general population. This includes muslim terrorists, christian terrorists, and neo-liberal bankers.

    April 17, 2011 at 11:51 am |
  11. John

    All Religion's are a cult. A mass of delusinal people that worship a God that doesn't exist.

    April 17, 2011 at 11:50 am |
  12. Avsec Bostjan

    WHAT DO EUROPE, USA, CANADA, AUSTRALIA ETC. HAVE COMMON WITH LIBYA !!? DICTATORS vs DIC TRAITORS !!! What is worse !!!? LEARN TRUTH ABOUT LIBYA AND ARAB WORLD CIVIL RIOTS WHICH NEWS/MEDIA DOESN'T WANT YOU KNOW ABOUT OR SEE AND THEREFORE LIE JUST AS ORDERED BY USA FOREIGN DPT. OF AFFAIRS http://dictatorsvsdictraitors.wordpress.com/ – http://dictraitorsvsdictators.blogspot.com/ OR CONTINUE FOR FULL VERSION OF "DICTATOR OBAMA = STALIN = BUSH – USA = SOVIET UNION" –> http://avsecbostjan.wordpress.com/ or http://avsecbostjan.blogspot.com TO LEARN WHO, HOW, AND WHY RUINED YOU…FROM 911 TO WHITE AMERICAN REFUGEES IN EXILE SEEKING ASYLUM RIGHT NOW – WHO/WHY//HOW CREATED SCHOOL SHOOTINGS(Arizona incl.) – AUSTRALIAN FLOODS – BREAST FEEDING INSANITY PROTESTS – WIKILEAKS is CIA – HUMAN FLASH EATING MACHINE – TRUTH BEHIND COLD WAR CURTAIN – MULTICULTURALISM AND SWINE/PIG FLUE SYNDROME BROTHERHOOD – TRUTH ABOUT FACEBOOK(Facebooth) – EUROPEAN NATIONALIST PARTIES OR HEAVILY LOADED WITH LIES SINKING WRECKS – ESKIMO SARAH PALIN'S "BRIDGE TO NOWHERE" – NEWS/MEDIA OR SIMPLY BIG FAT VACUUM WORLD OF LIES/DEMENTIA !!? – THE REAL DON'T ASK DON'T TELL, BUT DIE !!! NWO POLITICAL PARTIES <- not there for you, but to seal your faith for their parliament pay$$ scale !!!

    April 17, 2011 at 11:50 am |
  13. Donovan

    ALL religions are cults. Sorry. Christianity? A cult. Scientology? A cult.

    They're all leeches on society who brainwash their members and teach them to go out into the world to brainwash MORE. They're all a plague on the world.

    Be spiritual, but NEVER be religious.

    April 17, 2011 at 11:49 am |
    • sauce

      U absolutely are ignorant

      April 17, 2011 at 11:53 am |
    • Mike

      No he is correct. All religions are cults. Their existence is to empower those in charge (The Pope et al) and make them rich. The herd are simply dumb sheep. Being spiritual and deep thinking does't require brainwashing it requires an open mind that's all.

      April 17, 2011 at 11:59 am |
    • Clair Luz

      Amen!

      April 17, 2011 at 12:28 pm |
  14. Bobby

    The Blue Oyster Cult

    April 17, 2011 at 11:45 am |
    • Mike

      I guess you just gave credence to the concept that all religions are cults but not all cults are religions LOL.

      April 17, 2011 at 11:56 am |
  15. Holly S.

    Just a correction: it was 21 American POWs who remained in CHINA, not Korea, after the war. Most of them did eventually rebuke Communism and returned home to the States.

    April 17, 2011 at 11:45 am |
  16. Dale

    We should stop calling groups like the Branch Davidians cults. WHY THAY ARE CULTS !

    April 17, 2011 at 11:44 am |
  17. Steve

    Yes the word cult should be rethought, I think all religions should be classified as cults.

    April 17, 2011 at 11:43 am |
    • Tim

      Technically, they start as cults. Once any religion reaches a certain population threshold – I don't know how many people that would be – they move from cult status to religious status. It's simply a sociological description for the evolution of a particular social group. Any additional meanings we want to ascribe to the term "cult" are due to other factors.

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

    All religions are cults; some are just bigger than others. Those of us who have not been drinking the kool-aid don't see a difference.

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

      I agree. That is really the logical conclusion. I once heard standard practice put this way: relgion = what I believe. cult = someone else's relgion. We need to realize that they are all the same, and the distinction between religions and cults is arbitrary and indefensible.

      April 17, 2011 at 11:51 am |
    • Mike

      Jake – agreed. You have to laugh though at how 'their cult' is the 'one true cult' who ever 'they' are. Yet what makes me laugh even harder is when they accuse those that don't buy in as being terrible people 'unable to tell right from wrong' since they are not guided by a god. The generic term they use to group all those with a brain is 'atheist'. Although obviously a collective noun applied to a disparate group whose only commonality is not buying their crap is a mental leap to be sure.

      April 17, 2011 at 12:08 pm |
  19. Chris

    No wonder the Romans persecuted the early Christians. They perfectly fit your definition of "cult".

    April 17, 2011 at 11:38 am |
    • Big~Smelly~Tuna

      Christians still are a cult ~ steps all the way to brainwash ~ 1st communion ect. They just don't burn other religions much now unless they are 100% sure they can get away with it.
      They do pray that non-catholics die.

      April 17, 2011 at 12:01 pm |
    • Mike

      The Romans later realized the power of the cult and took over Christianity, hence the Church of Rome. Constantine was a clever guy. The 'Roman Catholic Church' is the most powerful cult going, certainly the wealthiest. They massacred every other cult they could in the name of Christ over 2,000 years. Hardly the intent of poor Jesus who wanted people to think for them selves and be open minded. Be he an ordinary man or something else is irrelevant, the concept he began was twisted into a cult.

      April 17, 2011 at 12:03 pm |
  20. mejazzbo

    This event sadly demonstrated how inept federal law enforcement was at that time. We can only hope there is a marked improvement today. The Waco incident didn't need to happen at all.

    April 17, 2011 at 11:37 am |
    • Big~Smelly~Tuna

      No it did not need to happen at all. If "Koresh" had taken his meds, left the little girls alone and turned in all his illegal weapons none of it would have happened.
      And as he predicted ~ the world did not end with his death.

      April 17, 2011 at 11:46 am |
    • Tom

      This is what cults do. Go after cults and stop them from harming more people.

      April 17, 2011 at 11:53 am |
    • Mike

      Big~Smelly~Tuna – Well said. To infer Federal Authorities should ignore these groups is ludicrous. I guess the Tea Party folks favor these groups because they seem to love guns and treating women like cattle while quoting what ever old testament section suits their needs.

      April 17, 2011 at 11:54 am |
    • Mike

      When will the concept that all religions are 'cults' sink in?

      April 17, 2011 at 11:55 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.