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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. Matt

    All religions are cults

    April 17, 2011 at 12:29 pm |
  2. older guy

    So when the religious nuts are nice white people... it's no longer a cult? What BS!

    April 17, 2011 at 12:29 pm |
  3. Jim Terrell*

    This story is very interesting but extremely outdated and not very relevant. If published thirty years ago it would have been cutting edge and very brave for a professor to write and take a stand.
    Today, I must wonder if you granted tenure an blew dust off your old notes.

    April 17, 2011 at 12:27 pm |
  4. deter

    Atheism is a cult...

    Stop being extremist to religions that actually do good things. Its called freedom of speech.

    April 17, 2011 at 12:25 pm |
  5. Steve

    Let's see what the media is attempting to force feed us today... Apparently if we strike the word "Cult" from the dictionary, then we can all get a warm fuzzy when those wonderfull 911 terrorist (..I mean pinacles of uprightness) begin to put up Mosques and practice thir "religion" (aka bomb building). America, ..are you stupid enough to drink CNNs Kool Aid? They sure hope so!!

    April 17, 2011 at 12:22 pm |
  6. Dan

    ALL religions are cults, all equally delusional, some more accepted than others.

    April 17, 2011 at 12:22 pm |
  7. time2wakeup

    All organized belief systems go through a three stage life cycle. Cult, Religion, then Mythology. All three are part of the same social construct. The line gets blurry as a movement passes from the late cult stage into the early religion stage, but it's all the same. All religions were "cults", or offshoots of other religions, at some point. Childhood, Adulthood, Old Age. I think we really need to stop taking this stuff seriously, it's getting silly. I understand the importance religion used to play in society, and the importance it still plays for some, but at this point in history- we should at least open up discourse that isn't afraid to point out the ridiculous nature of ANY unjustified belief. It really shouldn't be taboo to say that, at this point in our history.

    peace and love

    April 17, 2011 at 12:21 pm |
  8. steven

    The teabaggers are a cult lets see how many ignorant people reply to this ha ha I sort of feel bad for them when they go bankrupt and the corporations lay them off the government programs that were there to help them will be gone because of them.

    April 17, 2011 at 12:20 pm |
  9. wjs

    This is a well-thought piece. The author actually asks us to rethink how we use a particular word rather than use it in a knee-jerk fashion that, apparently, is so comfortable for many of the posters on here.

    April 17, 2011 at 12:19 pm |
  10. BigMike

    David was a narcissistic fool, and his followers were even bigger fools. The only exceptions were the children that died because they had fools for parents.. I don't understand how you could refer to these people as anything but a cult as we konw the meaning of the word. How many people will have to die in the name of religion before the world finally rails against it. The more educated the world becomes, the less fighting over religion we will see. Whether you believe or not believe in a god is not the problem, and it never was. It's the words written by man, claimed to be by god or profits, that get twisted and spinned by each religion to fit their own ends. Maybe someday, man will accept mortality, and help each live better lives now.

    April 17, 2011 at 12:18 pm |
  11. Aboutjab

    Yesterday's cult is today's religion.

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

    You're absolutely correct Professor Richardson. 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 12:17 pm |
  13. steven

    The teabaggers are a cult lets see how many ignorant people reply to this ha ha

    April 17, 2011 at 12:17 pm |
  14. Bensky

    You're absolutely right. Let's call them what they are: Freak Shows.

    April 17, 2011 at 12:16 pm |
  15. Craig B

    If you believe in an invisible force in the sky that dictates every aspect of your life to you, you are absolutely in a cult.

    April 17, 2011 at 12:15 pm |
  16. Daniel

    This is why the bible needs to be outlawed . Christianity itslf is a cult . But when someone like coresh uses the bible for their own power control . Too many people fall for these bible prophets . The bible should of been banned hundreds of years ago . I'm surprised it survived the middle ages .

    April 17, 2011 at 12:15 pm |
    • The Dude

      Amen Brother!

      April 17, 2011 at 12:16 pm |
    • David

      Who made you Hitler? So you are going to defeat narrow-mindedness by becoming narrow minded? Defeat the extremists by shutting them up so your approved comments can be the only ones heard?

      The best solution for extremism is education and debate. If you want to ban books then you are just as bad as the extremists.

      April 17, 2011 at 12:29 pm |
    • Steve

      The problem is not the Bible. The problem is false prophets (those who CLAIM to go by the Bible but DO NOT). Could you imagine Jesus amassing weapons and shooting at people? Christ warned of a great apostacy that would creep in after his death.

      April 17, 2011 at 12:32 pm |
    • HotAirAce

      I'm a committed atheist but would never argue that the bible or any other book of stupidity should be outlawed or banned – freedom of speech is too precious. And such a tactic would only be treating the symptom. Much better to stop giving religions a "free pass" and subject them to intense scrutiny, attacking the basis of these silly childish beliefs. Belief in imaginary sky daddies should be considered a mental illness and treated as such. Arguing from a basis of "my book of trbal mysticism says..." should be treated exactly the same as if someone said "I've consulted the stars and fellow astrologists and we think..." Most intelligent people (well with perhaps the notable exception Nancy Reagan) don't put any stock in astrologyand treat it as humouress entertainment without any actual value – why should we give more credence to its more highly evolved and elaborate, but no more true, version called religion? Eventually, it should be as embarassing to say publicly "I believe in god(s)!" as it is to say "I believe in astrology!" Of course, what people do in private is their own business.

      April 17, 2011 at 12:44 pm |
  17. sally

    Cults are cults! The Branch Davidians were amassing guns and that is when they came under federal scrutiny. Religious freedom hardly involves collecting weaponry for whatever purpose. Too many of these groups are dangerous to their followers and others who don't think like them. Jonestown is a prime example. The protesters at veteran's funerals are a sickening and infuriating reminder of just how far these so-called religious groups will go. Of course, there is a fine line between a religion and a cult and until they reach popular status which means huge numbers in their membership, the term cult sounds like a pretty good description, particularly when they break the law, like the Branch Davidians did. A pejorative term is appropriate.

    April 17, 2011 at 12:14 pm |
  18. Shane

    What a devastatingly asinine topic for a blog in the second headline on CNN. When Koresh started dabbling in the systematic abuse of his "flock" including children, while assuming a messianic posture I think most people became comfortable with "prejoratives" much stronger than "cult". I guess we should look at how hard we were on our collected condemnation of poor Jimmy Jones as well. The real topic of this headline should be ask the question "what is difference between a cult and a more socially approved religion and when can we grow out of both forms of madness?"

    April 17, 2011 at 12:14 pm |
  19. sergio

    Sounds like Mitt Rommney campaign has started, and they are trying to shove this cults into peoples lives, also those sister wives polygamy show,mmhhh I dont know, it is all very fishy...

    April 17, 2011 at 12:13 pm |
  20. The Dude

    The Invisible Sky Jew Cult (Christianity) feeds all the lesser cults in our culture.

    Lets cut the head off the snake.

    If the Muslims did the same we could end the war on Terror.

    April 17, 2011 at 12:13 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.