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. Jerseyknight

    All religions are cults.

    That's the way we need to redefine the word.

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

    The terms "cult", "propaganda", "myth", etc. have been so misused, and that misuse so popularized, that they have become useless terms to really apply to anything properly. They have become derogatory terms, losing their original meaning and power.

    April 17, 2011 at 9:35 am |
  3. fuzznozzle

    The only true cult is made up of federal employees ... blind brainwashed sheep.

    April 17, 2011 at 9:34 am |
  4. Sparky

    The article shows that cults are on equal footing with mainstream religions in that they all come from questionable origins and rely on their followers' self-delusion. The difference between a cult and religion is that your cult is not my religion, and your cult doesn't have political representation - yet.

    There are only so many Congressman to be bought, and not everyone can have tax free status. That's for the suckers. So get your cult off my turf!

    April 17, 2011 at 9:34 am |
  5. James

    A rose by any other name.........

    April 17, 2011 at 9:30 am |
  6. Dave from GA

    Yes, it was obviously a cult group led by the crazy man named David Koresh.

    April 17, 2011 at 9:30 am |
  7. fred

    I think David Koresh sincerely believed he was a sort of Prophet and he was mistaken. He was nowhere close to being a shadow of one. I have no doubt his followers were sincere, but they were mistaken also. I think the label of "cult" is appropriate. It is sad when deluded people lead others astray, but it seems to be the case in the past and present.

    April 17, 2011 at 9:29 am |
  8. ron

    I'm glad this is in the "Opinion" section.

    April 17, 2011 at 9:28 am |
  9. Rob Dinsmore

    Why not just define all religious groups as cults? There isn't one religion out there that earned it's believers' following on merit alone. It's all brainwashing plain and simple. Religion is a dangerous and socially handicapping phenomenon and the fact that these tiny "cults" show this more than the larger ones, in no way justifies the existence of the older religions. Religion is crazy and it is always going to breed more and more crazy.

    April 17, 2011 at 9:28 am |
    • Joeymom

      Technically, all religious sects are "cults". The term originally referred generally to the rites and ceremonies of religious worship, so that every religion had its "cultic practices." This started to shift in the 1930s in reference to religious sects that focused on a single charismatic leader within their community, and now is a derogatory term for unorthodox splinter-group sects.

      April 17, 2011 at 9:43 am |
  10. Lee P

    It doesnt take a PHD to understand how religion or an ideology can be used to control other people's actions. Call it whatever you want. The Waco incident happened as an adult used relgious beliefs to control others. Thats called a CULT in my book...

    April 17, 2011 at 9:27 am |
  11. blake

    PC non-sense. The Branch Davidians and others like them are cults. They need the label to help naive young people see the dangers of getting involved with them.

    April 17, 2011 at 9:27 am |
    • Amp

      We should use the label on Catholics too...to keep young children safe from the "clergy".

      April 17, 2011 at 9:31 am |
  12. Manchu

    Sara, you're an idiot..

    Actually, President Obama does have experience–and typical experience for a President.

    April 17, 2011 at 9:27 am |
  13. Doug NoVA

    This story peaked my interest, but at no time did he talk about why the Branch Davidians were not a cult. Obviously cults exist. You can't look at Jonestown and say that unquestioningly ending one's life because a guy with a microphone said so was the result of rational thought. I was looking for something a little more granular.

    I propose this definition: "A cult is a system of thought that uses behavioral conditioning techniques to imbue a belief system that is harmful or potentially harmful to others or ones' self." I think stockpiling armaments and then killing ones's selves when confronted would be considered harmful.

    April 17, 2011 at 9:26 am |
    • Pearl

      Sounds like the military to me. With respect to the people who serve. BUT that is exactly what the government does to our young men and woman....then dumps them back into society with out the proper medical help for PTSD. The suicide is up on these men and woman.....gee what could make you so upset that you would want to take your young life.possibly brainwashing against your core beliefs???..something ain't right
      I agree with Jerseyknight.....they take your money and tell you if you DON"T believe the way they do you will burn in hell...FOLKS there is NO hell in the beyond now this planet sure has plenty of hell to go around

      April 17, 2011 at 9:51 am |
  14. Don

    Let's see.....This "non-cult" had charges of child abuse and endangerment, had warrants issued against them, and then shot and killed 4 Federal Marshall serving those warrant.

    Sound exactly like a cult to me. Any group that uses religion to justify illegal behavior and stock piles weapons to scare off detractors is a cult. The author of this article left out many facts that disproves his argument.

    April 17, 2011 at 9:24 am |
    • ventguy67

      They did not have warrants against them....the ATF was trying to issue a search warrant. The Branch Davidians obviously shouldn't have shot at the ATF but the ATF totally went in as an assault team which was inappropriate. Clinton screwed this whole thing up and has innocent blood on his hands. Just like he scrwed up the handling of that Elian Gonzalez case

      April 17, 2011 at 9:30 am |
    • Joe

      No basis It's a cult. Made up, nOt based on bible, new or old, not based on thousands of years of theology. Based on something someone made up. For bad or good it a cult or a new made up religion. Ok, made up means not based on ancients docs society believes are basis for religion. Hey god spoke it me last night I am compiling my rules now, no worries I am attracted to prepubescent girls. I will insist they all get educate and make their own choices. Any one with me. Send money to ...

      April 17, 2011 at 9:47 am |
    • hehe101

      Oh, so what do you say about the groups that ***illeagly*** smuggled Jews into Israel before, during, and after the holocaust? Clearly there was a religious point behind it, but would you call THAT bad?

      April 28, 2011 at 9:05 pm |
  15. Joseph Smith similar to David Koresh

    I grew up Mormon, thinking it was the "Only" God sanctioned religion in the entire world. I was taught this from birth. I believed it because I was taught a very whitewashed version of who Joseph Smith was. Joseph Smith also slept with 14 year old girls, married other mans wives, lied to his people and his first wife about it. Look at what Mormonism has evolved into! 95% of Mormons do not even know about the real history of mormonism and think that someone is crazy who believes these type of "lies"...because that is what they have been taught for 150 years. Some mormons who do know about Joseph Smiths behavior still call him a prophet and chosen of God and will defend him until death....WHAT? Notice any similarities?

    April 17, 2011 at 9:23 am |
    • Joe

      Unfortunately mormons don't read their own book, it says no multiple marriages! Also the bobble makes I clear, god is nit secret he will come with a bang. Christ did real miracles and thousand saw. People believe in smith who with no basis but his own account of meeting god, remember moun sinai, manna, palgues, etc. People saw them. The fish remember, not a tale but seen,

      This gu made up a religion and people follow cause America has become to shallow. And americans only like reigion, being told what os good, and American idol. No brain, easy sheep.

      April 17, 2011 at 9:29 am |
    • Shannon

      Ex-Mormon here, too. Joseph Smith read part of the Book of Mormon out of a white hat! It's never taught. It's also never taught that the women he married were already married either. Mormonism is a cult. My family won't even talk to me since I left. 🙁

      April 17, 2011 at 9:34 am |
  16. Tom

    This is all nonsense.

    "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."

    This is the problem with this article. Any belief system can be a religion, the term "real" is the writer's way of discounting that fact and trying to invent an argument for the sake of publishing. No religion is any more real that any other – all are based on faith, something that can never be proved or disproved, which is what makes them fertile ground for con artists. He goes on to redefine "cult" to his liking (for the sake of publishing), when it actually means "a particular system of religious worship, especially with reference to its rites and ceremonies.."

    April 17, 2011 at 9:21 am |
    • Gary

      I would like to remind you that even stock brokers and investment firms you "Faith" to some degree as they certianly cannot guaruntee to their investors what they would make. Does this make them "con artist too?" Atheist can be "con" artist as they can "con" a person to think that it is "fact" that there is "NO GOD" when in fact the atheist has NO proof either but will speak on terms as though they are fact.

      April 17, 2011 at 9:45 am |
    • Joe

      Look I hatE to tell people that we live in a society. We do not just stop progressing and make up anything as acceptable behAvior.

      Look, read your own books, I have yet to find a mormon who reads the book. You must study the bible old and new. Of you don't you have no right.

      At the end of the day leave the CHILDREN out of it. Just do that will you. If you believe leave out easy influenced children
      And do whatever you want. Or is it less fun without abusing children.

      Sorry time for Mormons to be enlightened as it is time for all. LEAVE THE KID ALONE and the US govt will leave you alone. You disgust me!

      April 17, 2011 at 10:04 am |
    • Tom

      Gary, of course your point is poorly taken. Stock brokers gamble that the information they have will lead to profit. This is very different from faith. Atheism, on the other hand, is the opposite of a cult. They simply choose to deal with that which is provable. You obviously prefer emotion to logic. I accept that some things are not provable, but for sure will not give time and money to a flim-flam man trying to make a buck out of it.

      April 17, 2011 at 2:33 pm |
    • Gary

      Tom, of course your rebuttal is poorly taken. The definition of gamble is : To bet on an uncertian outcome. The word faith is defined as : firm belief in something for which there is no firm proof. People of whatever faith or religion bet their lives and souls on the outcome of their religion will lead them to some certian goal. But faith is not just knowing it is acting. Atheism is a person who bets that there is no God using what they determine mainly based on their own bias. Atheism is NOT the opposite of a cult as this word was used by psycologist Howard P. Becker to determine if a perticular religion was a churchy, sect, cult, or denomination. It is usually used to determine unorthodox religions.

      April 17, 2011 at 5:10 pm |
  17. Jennifer

    The Branch Davidians, like the followers of Warren Jeffs, were guilty of letting their beliefs infringe on the rights of their young girls and women, no one is arguing any differently. What the author of this article is putting forth is a semantics debate. If the Branch Davidians are a cult, so are all sects of Protestantism. If the ATF can barge into Waco and basically murder men, women and children in the name of justice, then they can barge into your church and do the same thing. The reason the public blindly accepted the deaths in Waco is because of the spin the media put on it. It wasn't a matter of the ATF barging into a private residence, laying siege and blatantly ignoring the fact that this was a dangerously unstable situation that was going to put innocent lives at risk. No, they were breaking up a dangerous and radical CULT, which made the entire thing okay in the eyes of the public.

    April 17, 2011 at 9:21 am |
    • Steve

      "If the ATF can barge into Waco and basically murder men, women and children in the name of justice, then they can barge into your church and do the same thing. "

      Right. If you belong to a church that stockpiles weapons, and greets the ATF with gunfire, don't expect freedom of religion to apply. Maybe the ATF botched their response, but when dealing with lunatics the results can be unpredictable.

      April 17, 2011 at 9:47 am |
  18. Josh

    In sociology, a "cult" is typically defined as a religious group centered around a charismatic leader. As it grows it graduates to sect and so on. Christianity would have been classified as a "cult" under the sociological definition during Jesus's time, before taking roots in the late 1st and 2nd century.

    In that context, it is quite fair to call the Davidians a cult. The problem is that the term has taken on such a negative connotation that we associate it with something sinister or evil. In reality, a cult (sociologically speaking) might be sinister but it's really about its size and heirarchy.

    April 17, 2011 at 9:21 am |
    • J.P.

      Agreed. You'd think the writer of the column, being a professor of Sociology AND Judaic Studies would get that!!

      April 17, 2011 at 9:29 am |
    • Shannon

      My thoughts exactly.

      April 17, 2011 at 9:32 am |
    • Azuma

      Religions and cults are not interchangeable. I would love to know what sociology course you took that made such an abominable reference.

      The only thing that separates a cult from ANY organized group is the tendency to take things to the EXTREME. If you defined a cult as a group of people with a charismatic leader, who would do anything he said to please him, well then the NFL is one big cult.

      No. Cults take things to the extreme, and that is one of the defining differences.

      April 17, 2011 at 9:34 am |
    • Alan

      Cult, sect, religion, doesn't matter. All are a crazy attempt to defeat mortality.

      April 17, 2011 at 9:36 am |
    • M.Delroba

      Interesting. I agree, however you can not compare Christianity w Davidians or other extreme groups that abuse and subordinate members of their own church,

      April 17, 2011 at 9:42 am |
    • Joeymom

      Azuma, I would like to know what sociology course YOU took. In academia, the term "cult" refers to ritual action and practice of any religious sect, and since the 1930s, has indeed referred to the "hierarchy" Josh notes. The more mass-popularized derogatory use of the term is not the original intent.

      April 17, 2011 at 9:51 am |
    • Azuma


      Sure, a lot of cults (a great majority) in fact, are religious in nature. But they don't HAVE to be. If you actually studied the main tenants of cult behavior, the prerequisite for religion is not one of them.

      The group is elitist, claiming a special, exalted status for itself, its leader(s) and members. The easiest way to do this is to say you are god, or the son of god. Which people fall for all the time, and is why people use it.

      Religion is the easiest way to make people believe in ANYTHING. Google the characteristics of cults...

      April 17, 2011 at 10:36 am |
  19. ventguy67

    Nice that they want to remember this occasion by trying to get rid of the word cult. They should be questioning the Government that killed all of these people needlesly, including almost two dozen children. If W had been in office rather then Clinton at the time of this disaster I'm sure CNN would be looking at this story differently.

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

      Let's lay the blame squarely where it belongs, on Janet Reno. She dropped the ball when she authorized an armed assault on civilians with women and children in the line of fire. Clinton's mistake was giving her the job in the first place, but I seriously doubt anyone could have foreseen the number of times she would epically screw up.

      April 17, 2011 at 9:26 am |
    • SteveCanada

      So.....you were there and saw who started the fire, right?

      April 17, 2011 at 9:31 am |
    • ventguy67

      Jennifer. Janet Reno is equally to blame however Clinton did give the O.K. to storm the compound. This was reported by several of his own "loyal" staff.

      April 17, 2011 at 9:31 am |
    • ventguy67

      Stick to what you Canadians know best...hockey. Video has proven it was the ATF. And why did they charge a compound with tanks in the end anyway? Talk about overkill. They knew there were many innocent children there. That administration has blood on it's hands no two ways about it. Lefties are quicker to judge W on innocent lives lost in Iraq then they are Clinton on this open and shut case.

      April 17, 2011 at 9:34 am |
    • Jennifer

      Ventguy, I absolutely hold him responsible for not getting rid of her after that. It was just a cascade of bad decisions from there on out.

      April 17, 2011 at 10:07 am |
  20. LaughingHimself-Silly

    What a whimpy idiotic confused 'opionion'. Muddle brain, why would you put communism in the same basket with small leader oriented religious cults?

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

      read it again

      April 17, 2011 at 9:47 am |
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