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. Jack

    It's not "brain-washing," it's Stockholm Syndrome. It's not "propaganda," it's a well researched psychological phenomena. It's not a method "unknown to the rest of us," we know exactly what causes it and how to reproduce it. And yes, cults are known to employ these techniques to acquire and retain members. Other than that, this the author knows exactly what he's talking about. Oh, and yes, I lived in Waco during the late eighties and early nineties, and yes Koresh's Davidians pretty much defined "cult."

    April 17, 2011 at 12:12 pm |
  2. Why the fuss?

    I've always considered Waco a classic example of government ineptness. You could also say the same about the Elian Gonzalez clusterf*&k, and a whole slew of other government over-reaches (Ruby Ridge, anyone?). The point is not whether is was a cult or not. The point is that the adults were there of their own free will. The child abuse allegations have never been proven (after all, it's hard to to interrogate dead witnesses). As far as the guns, even if they had them, were they hurting anyone with them?

    No, it all comes down to the government going against what are peoples basic rights without judicial interference. Those ATF agents became the jury and executioner to those people.

    April 17, 2011 at 12:12 pm |
  3. Lee

    All religions are cults. Blind belief is a disease of the mind and should be cured.

    April 17, 2011 at 12:12 pm |
    • Al Gore

      Sure...let's cure them by persecuting them and killing them. But don't forget the whole Mother Earth/Global Warming cult. We need to exterminate them also.

      April 17, 2011 at 12:21 pm |
  4. JD

    Per Webster's Dictionary, Definition of CULT 1: formal religious veneration : worship, 2 : a system of religious beliefs and ritual
    According to this ALL religions are classified as a cult including Catholics, Lutherans, Baptist, Methodists, Pentecostal, etc.

    April 17, 2011 at 12:10 pm |
  5. WhatisthisIdonteven

    Sure I'll rethink cult, just take Islam and add that to the list of dangerous cults with Christianity in the deep south coming in at a close 2nd

    April 17, 2011 at 12:10 pm |
  6. Cherie

    You're absolutely right James. Everyone has the wrong name. They should be called fanatics because, after all, cult's first definition is a formal religious veneration and veneration's definition is respect or awe inspired by the dignity, wisdom, dedication, or talent of a person. Words I have rarely see exercised in most cults or religions. It seems as though many of our religious leaders (John Robinson (1575-1625); James "I was wrong" Baker; Oral Roberts (member of the 900 foot club); etc.) are of the do as I say, not as I do affiliation. And, let's not forget the every other religion until mine was incorrect association. Too many religions, old or new, have the kill them or act superior if they don't believe as we believe theme. I also find it interesting that many of the people leaving comments understand that most religions are cults. Thinking for oneself and taking responsibility for those thoughts and actions seems to be an unknown concept to many of the, so called, religious. If you use your position as a professor to drill your students into belief, you may be just a step away from forming your own cult. Let me end this with the non-responsibility phase for not taking ownership of your own words "just saying."

    April 17, 2011 at 12:10 pm |
  7. Atheists unite!

    What a wild eyed bunch of tools. You're worse than the idiots you attack for their beliefs. Thank Allah that I married a passive agnostic, I'd have hung myself or divorced years ago.

    April 17, 2011 at 12:09 pm |
  8. jim

    Ya know that Planet X will do its magic within the next 20 months

    April 17, 2011 at 12:09 pm |
  9. Tim

    I also consider the republican tea terrorist a cult.

    April 17, 2011 at 12:08 pm |
  10. Rhea

    Religions are just cults with more members. They don't make any more sense.

    April 17, 2011 at 12:08 pm |
    • John


      It warms my heart to see this simple truth included here.

      April 17, 2011 at 12:22 pm |
  11. cinrev

    Another profesor living outside of the real world. The name of a religion or church doesn't make you one.

    April 17, 2011 at 12:07 pm |
  12. Qularkono

    cult be definition is a "christian" religion that is heretical ... especially in their teachings about Christ. The author is just simply going to change the definition so that he can blur the distinctions between religions ... in an effort to be able to make the false conclusion that all religions are the same .... but in the end not based in reality and only a crutch to help individuals through life.

    April 17, 2011 at 12:03 pm |
  13. Phil Newton

    Time to re-think the term, "Brains."

    Was this guy actually paid to write this cult apologist garbage?

    Shame on yuo.

    April 17, 2011 at 12:03 pm |
  14. Chris

    James T. Richardson: Simply read the dictionary's definition on what a cult is. It does not differentiate between wether a group is new and unpopular or spinoff's from more traditional religions. What it says is "a religion or sect considered to be false, unorthodox, or extremist, with members often living outside of conventional society under the direction of a charismatic leader." http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/cult

    Was David Koresh not considered to be charismatic? The Branch Davidian's actions defined themselves as extreme. What group, considered to be normal, has ever barricaded themselves in a compound, held people against there will, and willingly commited murder to keep those same people from being rescued. I remember this being reported as well, that not everyone on the inside agreed with what was going on and I'm sure that they did not want to be burned alive. No matter what your opinion is, they started the fire, not the fed's.

    You're nit picking over words, they were a cult. You are the one trying to redefine history!

    April 17, 2011 at 12:03 pm |
  15. Tim

    BS ! I live in Texas and this was a cult.They were selling illegal guns and brainwashing children.It was proven that their leader started the fire that killed all of those people.I do not feel sorry one bit for them.

    April 17, 2011 at 12:02 pm |
    • jim

      2nd amendment says no such thing as illegal guns.

      April 17, 2011 at 12:05 pm |
  16. Lex

    Freedom of religion is the issue. Groups that use coercive techniques to restrict the freedom of choice of their victims can't use the First Amendment to protect themselves from claims.

    April 17, 2011 at 12:02 pm |
  17. Lewis Reno

    I BEGAN TO RETHINK THE FBI after the Ruby Ridge murders and obscene cover-up by the entire DOJ – Waco just confirmed the need to do that.

    April 17, 2011 at 12:00 pm |
  18. keepitsimple

    Sin is the problem. Christ is the answer

    April 17, 2011 at 12:00 pm |
    • jim

      what is the question

      April 17, 2011 at 12:05 pm |
    • UncelM

      Religion is the problem. Rational thought is the answer.

      April 17, 2011 at 12:13 pm |
  19. Phil Newton

    More drech from the halls of academia. What would it take to make cult in your book, professor? Actually eating the bodies of the children one has molested and killed? Loathsome, mealy-mouthed apologist rot, guaranteeing a further descent into equivalence hell.

    April 17, 2011 at 12:00 pm |
    • jim

      Sounds like how the world treats animals. http://www.tryveg.com options

      April 17, 2011 at 12:04 pm |
    • theghostofgeorgewashington

      What is it about shallow angry people, Phil, that makes you think that only you and those who think like you should have rights and freedoms? Now don't get me wrong, I think the davidians were a bunch of low self esteem, gullible fools. Also the fact that they were stockpiling illegal assault weapons is pretty much a dead giveaway that they were up to no good. Much less the rapist that they called "Messiah". But honestly, what in the world does "equivalency hell" mean? Calm down and think man.

      April 17, 2011 at 12:35 pm |
  20. Carlo

    David Koresh was an unstable beam in a flawed foundation.. he got exactly what was coming to him. Quite frankly, most of the other people in that home didn't deserve to perish in an inferno, but they should have been charged with stupidity for joining such a ridiculous excuse for a Christian Organization. The weak minded shall fall victim to the lunacy of the wicked!

    April 17, 2011 at 11:59 am |
    • jim

      You mean the lunacy of the US govt? These people meant no harm.

      April 17, 2011 at 12:03 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.