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. William

    Eighteen years ago you say? By golly time certainly disappears quickly. It seems like the 17th anniversary was just a year ago!

    April 17, 2011 at 9:20 am |
    • Pearl

      that was a stupid comment

      April 17, 2011 at 9:36 am |
  2. free2do

    I think cults like to exercise complete control of peoples lives. I also think they are associated with crime and violence.

    April 17, 2011 at 9:19 am |
    • Religious Sects

      You've just described the vast majority of religions today & throughout history...at least the big & powerful ones (which is how they got that way).

      April 17, 2011 at 9:24 am |
  3. Bhushta

    When Jesus Christ was teaching 2000 years ago, he and his followers would certainly have been labeled a cult.

    April 17, 2011 at 9:18 am |
    • what the

      And their followers of today are a very large cult

      April 17, 2011 at 9:19 am |
    • hehe101

      they were. Anyone who had different views that appeared "radical" was a cult and was terminated. Can make a clear point. If the Jews had anything to do with Jesus's death, (which they DIDN'T fyi) they did what was asked of them by the ruthless Romans, who would have probably staged a muy bloody holocaust if they didn't. At least these ancestors to the Italians let Jews keep Judaism! The Greeks made them worship Greek gods!

      April 28, 2011 at 8:56 pm |
  4. Religious Sects

    What we need to rethink is why people need to follow religious cults .. of all sizes.

    April 17, 2011 at 9:16 am |
    • Gary

      Including the Atheist Ideology.

      April 17, 2011 at 10:18 am |
    • Platypus

      The ideology of many atheists is HUMANISM. Humanism transcends any religion. Wake up people, we live on earth!

      April 17, 2011 at 2:03 pm |
  5. Sutton

    Cult or no.... there were CHILDREN in that Waco compound! Children without a voice or decision making powers! The "stand-off" should have lasted until every child was safe!
    I will never believe otherwise.
    The fact that children were inside the compound when the fire was started is a terrible scar on the history of the USA!

    April 17, 2011 at 9:12 am |
    • You're So FullOfIt

      You realize of course that Koresh ordered the fires set; a pre-planned tactic.

      April 17, 2011 at 10:12 am |
  6. Banderman

    A certain political party that shall remain nameless could probably be considered a modern day 'cult'. It ain't the GOP, take another guess.

    April 17, 2011 at 9:11 am |
    • hehe101

      Tea Party! This is what I think about it:

      Would you want the mad hatter to be President (kay, it would probably be kinda cool, but I'm talking real life for the full 4 years thing)? Now would you want Sarah Palin to have the same job?

      April 28, 2011 at 8:51 pm |
  7. Karl

    This is a very well thought out piece and does make me re-evaluate the use of the word cult in terms of reported news. I think it's a brave stance to take. I do want to take issue with one thing that you said though. You talked about the reasons people joined non-western religions and made it sound as if those of us who did (I did for a time in the 90s) were anti-establishment and anti-american. I joined two things in 1990, the ranks of bhuddism and I joined the US Army to participate in Desert Shield/Storm. Neither anti-establishment nor anti-American and there were a lot of us at the time. I was not rejecting American values, I just (at the time) didn't feel I was getting what I needed from mainstream churches.
    Other than that one complaint, I feel this is one of the best articles I've read in some time. Great work!

    April 17, 2011 at 9:09 am |
  8. Let's look at the definition

    1: formal religious veneration : worship
    2: a system of religious beliefs and ritual; also : its body of adherents
    3: a religion regarded as unorthodox or spurious; also : its body of adherents
    4: a system for the cure of disease based on dogma set forth by its promulgator
    5 a : great devotion to a person, idea, object, movement, or work (as a film or book); especially : such devotion regarded as a literary or intellectual fad
    b : the object of such devotion
    c : a usually small group of people characterized by such devotion

    The first few definitions paint the word with a broad brush that could basically encompass ANY religion 'one' would choose to define as a cult. The last definition defines a cult as consisting of 'devotion to a person' and 'usually small', which based on how the world chooses to use the word should actually put #5 at #1.

    Not defending Koresh or any of the kooks that we know of as 'cults' but here's a question:

    Take away the 'usually small' characterization and consider this – why doesn't anyone call Roman Catholicism a cult?
    Why isn't Mormonism a cult, Jehovah's Witnesses (rather large but considered a cult by many), Scientology? Muslim? Followers of the Dali Lama?

    They are cults – but the world will define anyone they so choose as a cult and the ones 'they' choose not (listed above) will not be cults.

    It's time for Truth to reign!

    April 17, 2011 at 9:07 am |
    • Religious Sects

      Even if we keep the "small" label, ALL religions/churches were small cults during their early stages. The large cults know this & use the small CULT label to keep rivals down.

      April 17, 2011 at 9:40 am |
    • Eric

      And one day when you realize that some explosion in the sky didn't magically create life and the complex nature of even one living thing you will eat your words. You will cry and weep for your life, but it will be too late. Seek truth while it may still be found you meek ones. Don't lean upon your own understanding, God's ways are much higher than mans. Go ahead and make some smart remark, but just because you say there is no creator doesn't make it so, nothing we have EVER experienced makes itself....NOTHING. Ponder on that Einstein.

      April 17, 2011 at 10:42 am |
    • Religious Sects

      Eric... "No explosion in the sky magically started everything", yea just an all knowing all seeing ever present eternal omnipotent being that needs constant worship & praise magically started everything... thanks for clarifying the obvious LOL. BTW, who told you that was true, a man i bet.

      April 17, 2011 at 11:08 am |
  9. Paul NYC

    Cults and religions are not the same thing. A cult is a way for a con man to make a lot of money and surround himself with women. A religion is a way for the elite to keep the masses happily in their place.

    April 17, 2011 at 9:04 am |
    • Pinga

      why would you live in a cesspool like NYC?

      April 17, 2011 at 10:33 am |
  10. Zac

    dear cnn moderator, love you comments section. hate the fact that you let hateful off topic posts stay up like this one:Yeah, Let's Rethink The Word Cult

    Because we don't want to hurt anyone's feelings in this age of political correctness. So let's dumb down the word, so that we can all feel better about radical Muslims. Only a d-bag Liberal moron would think this way. I also love how NOW Barry Hussein Obama has the bright idea that "we're" spending too much. Someone needs to tell that arrogant SOB that HE is the one that is spending too much. WORST President in history, but then what does one expect when one axes someone to run the country with ZERO experience. Shameful Dumbocrats. Losers – all of you!

    can't you just let the intelligent people comment and converse and leave the ridiculous peoples posts off the board

    April 17, 2011 at 9:03 am |
    • Sigh

      Ridiculous? That poster was spot on. You must be one of those liberals.

      April 17, 2011 at 9:11 am |
    • what the

      I'd bet money there's an unfinished GED out there with your name on it

      April 17, 2011 at 9:17 am |
    • Jersey?

      I vote this the funniest post on the board.

      April 17, 2011 at 9:46 am |
  11. East Coast

    I do not need to "rethink" anything when it comes to a CULT like the Branch Dividians who believed their "leader" was God and therefore allowed him to fornicate with little girls. You argument is invalid and sick. They are a cult of child abusers, hiding under the guise of being a religion.

    April 17, 2011 at 8:57 am |
    • Skeptuckian

      I do not need to "rethink" anything when it comes to a CULT like the Catholicswho believed their "leaders" speak with God and therefore allowed them to fornicate with little boys. You argument is invalid and sick. They are a cult of child abusers, hiding under the guise of being a religion.

      April 17, 2011 at 9:10 am |
    • tom

      So it was required to kill the kids to save them. When government decides who will live & who will die, based on IT'S (governments) beliefs, we are no longer America. The Clinton administration is guilty of the same things which we decry in others. Did the kids need saving? Without a doubt. Could the sheriff of that Texas county have arrested Koresh & brought him to Waco FOR the feds? UNDOUBTEDLY. Did the feds MURDER those people, including kids? YES. They have done it repeatedly & will continue as long as WE continue to be sheep, & ignore OUR responsibility to reign in terrorists in our own government. That witch that ordered the attack should have been tried & convicted of mass murder. She remains unscathed.

      April 17, 2011 at 9:36 am |
  12. jimtanker

    Definition of CULT
    1: formal religious veneration : worship
    2: a system of religious beliefs and ritual; also : its body of adherents
    3: a religion regarded as unorthodox or spurious; also : its body of adherents
    4: a system for the cure of disease based on dogma set forth by its promulgator
    5a : great devotion to a person, idea, object, movement, or work (as a film or book); especially : such devotion regarded as a literary or intellectual fad

    The Dividians are no different than any other group out there. The WBC, that whaco from Florida that likes to burn book, or you in your church right down the block. You all think that you have the answer. Too bad that youre all just delutional. Wake up and think for yourselves for once in your life. There is no god.

    April 17, 2011 at 8:53 am |
  13. Brian

    When the "minister" is f–king any woman (or man) he wants in the "congregation" any time he wants to, then it's a cult.

    April 17, 2011 at 8:53 am |
    • what the

      I think whenever the priests of a religion want to f some little boys and the leading body of their religion actively covers it up, it's a cult

      ::cough catholic church::

      April 17, 2011 at 9:16 am |
  14. pete


    April 17, 2011 at 8:47 am |
  15. Mike C

    Someone should ask Congressman Leo Ryan what he thinks about this article.... Oh wait, he was murdered by the Peoples Temple. Why isn't Jonestown or Jim Jones spoken about in this article?

    Congressman Ryan spoke out against destructive cults like the Unification Church, Peoples Temple, and Scientology. Maybe if he hadn't been murdered by one, there wouldn't have been a Waco, Texas Massacre.

    April 17, 2011 at 8:46 am |
  16. This has been a recording, shlt-for-brains...

    You don't get to "rethink" a word like "cult", you dimwitted excuse for a horse's ass! It has a real definition that can be found in a dictionary, not some religious smear of the word according to a cheap hack looking to make a buck and get some publicity.
    Go shove your head in the nearest toilet. That is where it belongs.

    April 17, 2011 at 8:44 am |
    • Yeah, Let's Rethink The Word Cult

      EXACTLY RIGHT. Only a Left-wing Liberal would even write such a pitiful article. Which is exactly why CNN wrote the article. This Board is FULL of shills who march goose-step to the CNN drum beat. Lemmings all of them. NONE of them actually take the time to THINK about their position. Followers.

      April 17, 2011 at 8:53 am |
    • Gumbercules

      cult /kəlt/ Noun – a British rock band that was formed in 1983. They gained a dedicated following in Britain in the mid 1980s as a post-punk band with singles such as "She Sells Sanctuary", before breaking mainstream in the United States in the late 1980s as a hard rock band with singles such as "Love Removal Machine". The band fuses a "heavy metal revivalist" sound with the "pseudo-mysticism ... of The Doors [and] the guitar-orchestrations of Led Zeppelin ... while adding touches of post-punk goth rock". Since their earliest form in Bradford during 1981, the band has had various line-ups, and the longest serving members are vocalist Ian Astbury and guitarist Billy Duffy, the band's two songwriters.

      April 17, 2011 at 9:18 am |
    • free2do

      lemmings and shills, lemmings and shills, I'll keep on swallowing those faux news pills.

      April 17, 2011 at 9:23 am |
  17. King

    Like all things, "cult" is a term that belongs on a continuum. There is no magic line where a "cult" becomes a faith or a religion... Therefore, all "sects," be they alleged "cults" or honest-to-goodness government sanctioned, tax-exempt mainstream "faiths" are one and the same. Let's not forget, Christianity was once just a fringe cult itself, a radical messianic sect of Judaism that most people thought was nuts, but was just popular enough to attract the attention of enough powerful people to take root. Mormonism has more or less the same developmental curve, just 18 or so centuries later. Where will Scientology be 500 years hence? Boggles the mind, doesn't it? Plus ca change, plus ce la meme chose.

    April 17, 2011 at 8:41 am |
    • Mott the Hoople

      That's true! ALL so-called mainstream religions started as cult. Jesus and his handful of followers. Muhammed and his handful of followers. The Buddha and his handful of followers.

      April 17, 2011 at 9:24 am |
  18. mike_21954

    Oh, sorry. I thought they were talking about Amway salesmen.

    April 17, 2011 at 8:37 am |
  19. Alain

    All religions are cults. Even political parties are cults.
    Too bad they tend to act like headless chickens.

    April 17, 2011 at 8:33 am |
    • LinDuh

      All religions, organized or not, are cults. What occured that day was a tragedy. I remember exactly where I was, when I heard the breaking news on the radio.

      April 17, 2011 at 9:16 am |
    • adam

      People who think all religions and all political parties are cults are in a cult. What makes you any different in other words?

      April 17, 2011 at 9:20 am |
  20. William Hopper

    When I was in university studying World Religions, on of my pros explained the difference between a religion and a cult: Gross annual income. http://www.heathensguide.com

    April 17, 2011 at 8:28 am |
    • Let's rethink CNN is a legitimate news source

      This new source is a joke. Only non-thinking Liberal shills live here.

      April 17, 2011 at 9:09 am |
    • Sara

      Actually, President Obama does have experience–and typical experience for a President. He was a US Senator and served three terms in the Illinois State Senate. Not zero. Quite respectable, actually. He's also a Harvard-educated lawyer–what are your qualifications? Furthermore, he was elected by a majority of the US population, which can't be said for his predecessor, GWB, who stole the election from Gore and did not have a majority of the US population vote for him.

      April 17, 2011 at 9:11 am |
    • Let's rethink CNN is a legitimate news source

      Right–standard Liberal response. And tell me....what government has he run? What business has he run? Has he run anything? What bills did he introduce in his 142 days (yes, 142 days!) in the Senate. Answer to all my questions....NONE. He was an adjunct professor. His grades in college were average to below average. How do I know this? BECAUSE HE WON'T RELEASE THEM! LOL! If one has good grades, then one shows his grades. Can you even imagine how bad things would have been with GORE in office!!?? LMAO! I thought Bush was a moron, but the Community Organizer we have is the worst! Wait, did he say he would post all new laws for 5 days so that everyone could view the new law before Congress voted on it? LOL! Yeah, that's exactly what he did with that bloated, bankrupt Obamacare law. "We have to pass the bill so that you can find out what's in it". Classic stuff. Try thinking for once in your life and move out of your parent's basement.

      April 17, 2011 at 9:28 am |
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