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. Jim A.

    All so called religions are cults. none have any validity. the sooner the world wakes up and becomes secular the better off we will all be

    April 17, 2011 at 9:55 am |
  2. Bryant Lister

    They are all cults.
    Cult: a particular system of religious worship, especially with reference to its rites and ceremonies.
    There is no distinction between any of these mythology driven groups; no difference between a 'religion' and a religious cult. The christian religious cult, the jewish religious cult, the muslim religious cult are no different from the moonies, the hari krishnas, the davidians, etc. The problem isn't that the davidians are considered a psychologically challenged group. The problem is that these other religious cults are not.

    April 17, 2011 at 9:55 am |
    • Zamiel

      Well said!

      The only difference between a religion and a cult is the level of acceptance it has within our society.

      They all use the same methods to recruit and control members. They're all cults.

      April 17, 2011 at 9:59 am |
  3. Joey

    This is retarded, apparently the writer never bothered to check the definition of 'cult'.

    April 17, 2011 at 9:55 am |
    • hehe101

      use another word. A teacher would deduct points from you.

      April 28, 2011 at 9:29 pm |
  4. Stan DeWitt

    I consider myself liberal, but I have to say – articles like this one are why liberals and academia get a bad name. My first thought – the "popular" definition of "cult" says they are groups that are seen as authoritarian, exploitative and that are believed to use dangerous rituals or mind control. Now, I suppose you can argue in an abstract sense that "new religious groups" aren't cults, and that the Branch Davidians are an offshoot from an "accepted" religion, but Koresh certainly was off the rails a bit, wouldn't you say? He had his followers convinced that he was God. He convinced them to die for him. How is he different than Jim Jones? (Obvious differences with the Gov't nature of their deaths not withstanding.)

    My second thought is, why even bother with this line of reasoning? Who does it help? Other "new religions" who push their faith by convincing their followers that they are God? The next Jim Jones?

    Come on CNN – this Faith blog gets more laughable every time I look at it.

    April 17, 2011 at 9:54 am |
  5. LiberateUs

    To me, a cult is any small group of people who wish to do harm to others.

    April 17, 2011 at 9:53 am |
  6. Adam

    A cult is not an early religion? I agree with the above posters. The professor is just wrong, an apologist for cultists. Wonder what his personal background is? Belief is one thing. Forcing children to do things and make them marry at 12 is another,

    April 17, 2011 at 9:53 am |
  7. JohnCBarclow

    Lol, professor of sociology. I quit reading after that.

    April 17, 2011 at 9:51 am |
  8. Jason

    Cults are our way of referring to people that we want eliminated from society by the ATF for us. Burn, baby, burn.

    April 17, 2011 at 9:51 am |
  9. Fuyuko

    I don't see cult as being a bad word, although it can be used that way I guess. In general when a religion starts off it is a cult, until it gets a large enough following and becomes mainstream enough to be deemed a religion. In the historical sense, often the word cult is used to describe religions that are mysterious or for which not enough is known:for instance, 'this society seemed to have a bear cult.' There is no implication that the bear cult is evil or bad, simply that it is a mystery or small religion. In recent years, the term has been co-opted by the media to describe fringe groups but I don't see that as being the true meaning of the word.

    April 17, 2011 at 9:51 am |
  10. Darth Cheney

    If the Branch Davidians weren't a cult, then I guess the word is officially obsolete and should never be used to describe any group. Yes, cult is pejorative and implies many bad things – but those were applicable to Koresh's zombies. The fact that they were an offshoot of a legitimate Christian church is no defense, because that only created a quasi-legitimate entree into the cult.

    April 17, 2011 at 9:50 am |
    • hehe101

      I refer to cults as religion BASED groups. Not the actual church, but the group that supports it. I define the KKK, Al Quieda (spelling?), and others to be cults. Not these people. This is their religion. I do not approve of the storing of arms, though, or the s3x w/ people my age. Save that for intimate partnerships between 2 14 yr olds, not some 20 yr old man and a 14 year old.

      April 28, 2011 at 9:27 pm |
  11. twiddly

    Every organized religion is a cult, they just have more members and so their particular brand of inanity is accepted.

    virgin birth? rise from the dead? Christianity is one of the biggest (and silliest) cults.
    Not saying they're any better than ridiculous judaism and islam too.

    April 17, 2011 at 9:49 am |
    • Werd

      Best comment so far.

      April 17, 2011 at 10:00 am |
  12. Religious Sects

    Religion is a deeply personal thing..please keep it that way.

    April 17, 2011 at 9:47 am |
  13. Mike

    IMHO all religions are 'cults' it is only a matter of the degree of brainwashing and abuse that separates them.

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


      April 17, 2011 at 9:54 am |
  14. BlueNorange

    Be aware the political leaders are trying to cut the number of new Christain branches...Members of the Illuminati?

    April 17, 2011 at 9:47 am |
  15. Soulcatcher

    Dude, they shot officers of the law coming to arrest their leader. Some members tipped them off.

    Cult seems perfect term to me for a religious group operating outside of societies laws and customs.

    April 17, 2011 at 9:47 am |
  16. John John

    A cult is a cult. Behavior modification makes it a cult. JW's, Dividians, Moonies, some Christian Fundamentalists even belong to cults. They do not deserve to be called religions if they are so obsessed with control and mind altering that the term cult could be used to describe them. The fact is, if your religion involves guns, you are actually a militia disguised as a religion or an armed cult, which the Dividians were. The proper term is armed cult – just say it.

    April 17, 2011 at 9:46 am |
    • joshua dudley

      thanks john you have spared the need to write anything else

      April 17, 2011 at 9:54 am |
  17. Thomas

    We should change their names from "Cults" to "Republicans."

    April 17, 2011 at 9:46 am |
    • Mike

      It is puzzling why the far right does seem to be almost 'cult like' in the mentality of the members. Perhaps we need some expert psychiatrists to study them and tell us why this is.

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

      I used to think Republicans were cultlike in their behavior toward Bush. Then I saw Democrats' behavior toward Obama and realized that cultlike behavior doesn't depend on party, but on any blind obedience toward a demagogue.

      April 17, 2011 at 9:55 am |
    • hehe101

      I'll admit I'm no fan of GOP (why is it called that? It may be grand and a party, but John Doe Senator (D) IL, has existed longer), but don't insult them. They are powerful. The right controls most of the crazy theists.

      April 28, 2011 at 9:23 pm |
  18. Religious Sects

    We need to re-think tax exempt status for cults both big & small.

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

      I agree but I'd extend that to all religious activity. Heck the country needs more income anyway 😉

      April 17, 2011 at 9:50 am |
    • Jennifer

      Agreed. I'm tired of seeing megachurches with bookstores, bowling alleys, fitness centers, etc. Those aren't churches, they're businesses, tax them.

      April 17, 2011 at 9:52 am |
  19. tom

    That we even have people that would have remained as FBI, ATF or other federal police agents disturbs the hell out of me. These people took part in mass MURDER. Isn't that what the Nazis, the Communists, the leaders of N. Korea & N. Vietnam did? WHY do we allow our government to do the same? God help us, because we won't help ourselves.

    April 17, 2011 at 9:44 am |
    • John John

      You mean like the murder of the ATF agents the Dividians did when the raid started? You weren't there so don't make c##p up. Please don't read some morons website and think you know everything.

      April 17, 2011 at 9:50 am |
    • Jennifer

      That Janet Reno kept her job is a mystery of the ages.

      April 17, 2011 at 9:51 am |
    • Ricky L

      No, john john....like the murder of children (dare we call them collateral damage) that died as the result of a poorly planned final attack.

      That led directly to Oklahoma City and the murder of other children.

      April 17, 2011 at 10:03 am |
    • hehe101

      The communists in the USSR banned religon

      April 28, 2011 at 9:20 pm |
  20. Andrew

    I vote cult be changed to "pedophile death club".

    April 17, 2011 at 9:44 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.