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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. Kevin

    Clearly, there are varying levels of how people view/define cults. Frankly, a cult can be any of the older established religions (or maybe pieces of them) – raising people to have belief in teachings that are sometimes thousands of years of olds and might fly in the face of established fact. i.e. – how long did it take the catholic church to officially recognize that the Earth wasn't the center of the universe and admit they were wrong in persecuting those who brought forth these "anti-religious" views? Disclaimer – I was raised catholic.

    To me, what makes a cult is the degree of control these leaders exercise over the people that join them. Branch Davidians, Moonies, Peoples Temple, Rajneeshes to me are clearly cults. Their so-called teachings all revolve(d) around their "charismatic" leaders. All about absolute control over members solely to serve the wants and needs of their individual, human leaders.

    In the case of groups like the Davidians and People's Temple – the fanaticism of these groups included the stockpiling of weapons and, frankly, a suicide mentality of their leaders that clearly was instilled in their followers. Jones and Karesh created the scenarios whereby the only outcome was going to be death.

    I

    April 17, 2011 at 8:25 am |
  2. JonSid

    As an atheist, I perceive all religions as a cult. When a headline writer sees members of his own religion behave in some undesirable or unpopular way, he calls it a cult. It must be difficult to define your own religion as a cult.

    April 17, 2011 at 8:22 am |
    • Rationalist

      Atheism is a religion. It takes just as much faith to believe that everything came from nothing, as it does to believe there is an alien ship behind Haleys Comet.

      April 17, 2011 at 10:59 am |
    • Ruby Lips

      Atheism is also a religion, that you preach about, imposing your atheist beliefs on others counts as cult. Atheism is cult.

      April 17, 2011 at 12:55 pm |
    • No One Is Safe

      yeah, you keep telling yourselves that, rationalist (HAH!) and ruby lips... just hold on tight to your man-on-a-stick teddy bear, and keep praying that the monsters don't bust down your door and getcha!

      friggin' morons. it's people like you that make us doomed as a species...

      April 24, 2011 at 12:15 am |
  3. Dave

    Richardson's primary assumption is that his own religion is the very definition of goodness, while the farther you stray from Richardson's own beliefs, the more you enter the doubtful world of cults.

    The truth comes down to this: There's a reality out there, a real world that exists without anybody's beliefs to support it. If all the humans died, and all their beliefs died with them, there would still be a reality. If you believe in that reality, you are sane and trustworthy. As soon as you start making up beliefs - gods and things - you are simply a nut. Who cares if you are a nut that's part of a cult, or just a nut? A nut is a nut.

    April 17, 2011 at 8:20 am |
  4. DMcK

    Wish they'd do as much to rout out Islamic extremism being imported into this country – taught in mosques & Islamic schools & training camps located right here in the USA. Stop the immigration of these so-called 'refugees!'

    April 17, 2011 at 8:14 am |
  5. Alex

    Cult=Religion. They are cult-ural groups. Now the fact that these people thought Koresh was god.....is all but stunning to me.

    April 17, 2011 at 8:14 am |
  6. Tom

    Cult and Religion is exactly the same thing: Groups of people hysterically in need to believe unverifiable BS stories, and making real life decisions based on believes.

    April 17, 2011 at 8:08 am |
  7. Robert

    First of all, let's clarify the meaning of "cult" that most Americans subscribe to. It is a (usually) religious group whose practice is very nearly or completely all-encompassing in prescribing daily life. Adherents often live in a compound, like the Davidians, and live according to the teachings of a single individual (or a small group of leaders) who enjoys enormous power and influence over the congregants.

    Such groups are usually fringe precisely because most "normal" people recognize the group as off-balance, self-serving, and as taking advantage of it's flock.

    While people who are "of-age" may have well have the right to join any religious group they want, let us recognize that many of these people are confused or disillusioned by our world and seek answers that simply aren't available anywhere. These small sects, run by charismatic individuals, promise those answers in exchange for a life of servitude. Leaving such a group is often very difficult both in terms of fear of retribution by the leadership and by the lack of ability to support oneself in the real world.

    But even if of-age people have that right, the real problem starts when those people give birth to children who then grow and learn to hear only one message and one "truth" - that according to the charismatic individual running the show. These children grow up learning a warped message without benefit of outside knowledge on which to perform a critical analysis of their situation.

    Just because the Branch Davidians existed for decades prior to Koresh's rise means nothing. It was carried forward by those same young children inculcated with the heavily warped message from their then-leaders.

    And THAT is what a cult is.

    April 17, 2011 at 8:05 am |
    • todd

      you nailed it ! thank you for cutting through all of this misinformation.

      April 17, 2011 at 8:36 am |
  8. helen

    The word "cult" is only used to refer to a religious group who doesn't believe in the Trinity of God

    April 17, 2011 at 8:03 am |
    • DFWBrysco

      Helen – your statement is so moronic as not to even deserve a reply.

      April 17, 2011 at 8:28 am |
    • Platypus

      The notion of a trio of gods weakens the belief in one.

      April 17, 2011 at 9:10 am |
    • No One Is Safe

      absolutely correct, helen!

      anyone who does not believe in the Triune Divinity of Larry, Curly, and Moe will burn for all eternity!

      April 23, 2011 at 11:48 pm |
  9. Elle

    I am heartened by the healthy skepticism I read in many of the messages here. Nevertheless, the Davidians did not deserve to be treated as they were. I know that in hostage situations, the greatest care is taken to try to save the lives of those being held, and where children are involved, even more so. No matter how provocative David Koresh was, law enforcement authorities should not have used battlefield tactics. This was not warfare. As Koresh and trhe authoities tried to get at each other, nobody protected the people caught in the middle, and catastrophe ensued.

    April 17, 2011 at 7:47 am |
    • Tohrm

      I agree. They acted like psychotic fascists as regards this cult. There were hundreds of different ways they could have rounded up everyone peacefully.

      April 17, 2011 at 7:55 am |
  10. Reality

    Obviously, the Three B Syndrome (Bred, Born and Brainwashed in some form of religion) is still at epidemic levels. Some fast cures:

    Saving 1.5 billion lost Muslims:
    There never was and never will be any angels i.e. no Gabriel, no Islam and therefore no more koranic-driven acts of horror and terror

    Saving 2 billion lost Christians:
    There was and never will be any bodily resurrections i.e. No Easter, no Christianity

    Saving 15.5 million Orthodox followers of Judaism:
    Abraham and Moses never existed.

    Added details upon request.

    April 17, 2011 at 7:43 am |
  11. J R Brown

    Some years ago, I had developed friendships with several Scientologists. While not intrusive, they would occasionally mention how certain "tech" might help me deal with some issue or another I was encountering. I'd jokingly tell them that I'd already done my time in a "cult"...that I'd been raised in a fundamentalist Southern Baptist church...and wasn't really interested in spending any more time in a cult.

    At least the scientologists don't believe that their god loved them so much that he created a lake of fire and brimstone into which to cast his loved ones who disobeyed him.

    April 17, 2011 at 7:41 am |
  12. Enoch

    This is just a poorly thought out rationalization of a guy who wants to make a name for himself by being controversial.

    April 17, 2011 at 7:35 am |
  13. Darin G

    Religious delusion deserves a bit of stigma. Delusion is not clear thinking and therefore should get less respect if any.

    April 17, 2011 at 7:34 am |
  14. Katie

    If you have ever had a loved one trapped in a cult, you will know what it is. No one such as the writer of this article will have to define or redefine it for you. You will see it in your loved one's eyes, that is if you are allowed to see them at all or if they are even willing to see their family. There is a haze or veil over their being, over their souls. They are almost unrecognizable. They do not think for themselves. Their every move is dictated by the cult and they become willing to die in a hellfire like the Branch Davidian cult. It was and is a cult. It does not have to be redefined by a writer who has never experienced the agony of watching a loved one become consumed and transformed by a cult.

    April 17, 2011 at 7:34 am |
    • Susie

      You are exactly right. A cult has had my daughter in its grips for 15 years, I know the agony that parents feel. Law enforcement and government cannot, will not, help us because of the group's rights of religious freedom and yes, she is of age.
      That doesn't help us when we are not allowed to see her. Haven't heard her voice since 97....Now I have four grandchildren being raised in the cult. Did I say that loud enough...CULT!!!!!!

      April 17, 2011 at 9:16 am |
  15. Grog

    Let's rethink Cult, and add Islam to the mix.

    April 17, 2011 at 7:29 am |
    • Mark

      Ok so we have Islam, christianity ... what else? Anyone want to add any other delusions to the definition of cult?

      April 17, 2011 at 7:31 am |
    • Platypus

      ...and all religions!

      April 17, 2011 at 8:39 am |
  16. Mark

    A cult is any group so mesmerized by religion and their own delusional doctrine that doing bizarre and sometimes stupid and deadly things seems normal to them. Obviously you can see that I think we should be using the term more widely, not narrowly.

    April 17, 2011 at 7:29 am |
  17. Real world

    It's ironic that CNN itself regularly uses sensational headlines to attract readers, that the article then contradicts.

    April 17, 2011 at 7:22 am |
  18. mike

    The author of the story is just trying to make the point that the word cult is prejudicial in most of it's uses. And he is correct. If you are on a jury, or even reading a paper, and see a group described as a cult, then you have certain pre-concieved notions about them. Yes, there are cults. And yes, a lot of them are shams and are destructive. But you can say the same for any idea or religion or group. Religions: How many preachers have been caught? Ideas: Look at the idiots who think global warming is not killing us or the planet; and on the flip-side, look at the tree-huggers who don't think we need paper or oil,etc. Groups: Politicians. Is there any doubt that many are shams and are destructive? This is the point of the article. I think his writing comes across as defense of the Waco group, which I do not know if he intended. But, while I do think the term is overly used and prejudicial, that does not mean that the real groups that we fear and call cults don't exist. It just means that like everything else, you must look at them individually and thoroughly....

    April 17, 2011 at 7:21 am |
    • Look it up

      Look up the definition of the word "cult" and then feel free to revise your remarks. According to the word, every religion qualifies as a cult.

      April 17, 2011 at 7:31 am |
    • gutz22

      I am one of the anti global warming proponents.FYI the new term is called "climate change" to suit the overwhelming evidence that this supposed man made effect is nothing more than cooked or should I say crooked science. Get with it ! & do your home work before you call anyone an idiot.

      April 17, 2011 at 7:40 am |
    • Joe

      More and more scientists are believing now that the global warming is not man made. As evident all throughout history there have been changes in climate through many points in recorded history. The global warming hype that has spread like wildfire is nothing more then a money making scam by people like Al Gore who are making billions off of it. Unfortunately there are many gullible non educated people that have bought in to this. Now I'm not saying we should be polluting the environment. On the contrary, I believe that some good has come out of this scam. But I think we need to realize how much money some people are making off of this, and are not using that money to truly help the environmental cause. If they are helping, it's in a very minimal way and not close to the amount of money they are bringing in to help the cause. I would not be surprised to find out if people like Al Gore and his cronies were only putting back 10% of what they make in to actually helping the environment. Lets face it, the bulk of many of these plans is just to plant trees. Now planting trees is a good thing, but hardly worth the amount of money they are charging for it. On a large scale, it should not cost more the a couple bucks a tree and I'm sure many of these companies are probably charging a lot more then that. The Global Warming scam is getting a lot of people rich. Very rich. And it's a shame the money is not going where it really needs to go. It's time to start auditing these groups so people can see what is actually happening here.

      April 17, 2011 at 7:45 am |
    • Spleenvent

      Joe: I read several news sources a day and have never heard of your vast conspiracy led by Al Gore to make billions by overcharging for tree planting services. What evidence can you point to to justify your belief, outside of your diseased imagination?

      April 17, 2011 at 8:19 am |
  19. Tohrm

    Religious freedom is not universal nor unlimited, otherwise we have anarchy.
    We need to limit religious expression and get it the hell out of our government once and for all.
    Keep it in your religious places and out of public offensiveness.
    Then peace would be more likely, rather than the other way around.
    I am so sick of cults and their crazy followers trying to take away more rights. Don't they have enough of them already?

    April 17, 2011 at 7:10 am |
    • J R Brown

      What part of "Congress shall make no law..." is confusing to you...?

      April 17, 2011 at 7:34 am |
    • Tohrm

      What part of "taking away my rights" don't you understand?
      Trying to de-fund Planned Parenthood simply because they do reproductive health services?
      This doesn't seem religiously motivated to you?

      April 17, 2011 at 7:43 am |
    • David

      No one is taking away your rights if someone else practices theirs.

      The logic is stunningly bad.

      April 17, 2011 at 8:00 am |
    • T Edward

      Blue laws and anti-abortion laws come to mind.

      April 17, 2011 at 8:32 am |
    • J R Brown

      What the hell does Planned Parenthood have to do with this article? And, since you brought it up...we absolutely should stop funding Planned Parenthood. Not because it provides "abortions" but because it's a private, non-profit charity that has amassed over a billion dollars in assets BECAUSE it gets hundreds of millions of dollars in tax money every year. The federal government should not be funding private charities...period. It has nothing to do with "religion" or the fact that Planned Parenthood was established to "cull" the ignorant and poor blacks from our society so that we reduce the welfare class....Planned Parenthood's founder Margaret Sanger's own words. Planned Parenthood has done little to nothing to establish that it does not represent the vision of it's eugenics touting founder....that we help the "undesirables" to not reproduce. Or should the fact that Planned Parenthood is hardly more than a massive shell game for political campaign funding, routing tax dollars back to the candidates who promise more funding through lobbyists and consultants...a massive "pay-to-play" enterprise. No, none of these reasons is probably a "good" reason to you because you obviously think that any attempt to bring objective, rationale discussion about an icon of liberal "civil rights" ideology is just not to be tolerated.

      April 17, 2011 at 10:17 am |
    • CB1111

      JR Brown you are the one voice of reason. I agree and if we unified care for the underserved under one health care reform , the all these private funded clinics would be cut as duplication.

      April 17, 2011 at 10:27 am |
  20. Flex

    The constant push and attempt to "sugar coat" every other possibly offensive word is what would get us in deep trouble on the long run in our today's culture. It will lead the populous to see "right as wrong" and "wrong as right"....which would lead to our society's crumble and demise. If you don't believe it, just wait and you shall witness more of it with your own eyes.

    April 17, 2011 at 7:03 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.