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. humanbean

    Alright, I've really had enough of this PC BS! Let's call a spade a spade. They were a cult, plain and simple, right down to the root of the meaning. When it comes down to it they're all cults. What's next? We call $ex offenders admiring strangers?

    April 17, 2011 at 10:21 am |
  2. Rama

    Religion is BAD, a spiritual connection with GOD helps heals lots of physical and mental problems. No need of religion but just the connection with super power above all that created all......No name... just omnipresent....

    April 17, 2011 at 10:20 am |
  3. Chris

    I'm reposting an earlier like from John, to bump it. http://www.csj.org/infoserv_cult101/checklis.htm

    To me, the primary thing on this list is socialization. "Members are encouraged or required to live and/or socialize only with other group members." If you are comfortable functioning in normal society, and can comfortably talk to people with different views, you are a religious movement. For example, Hare Krishnas. If you can not talk to other people in a respectful manner OR if you refuse to talk to other people about your religion, you are a cult. For example, Waco-complex-living Davidians and all Scientologists. Training members to depend solely on your group is not religion. Religion is a conscious choice.

    April 17, 2011 at 10:20 am |
  4. Rich

    The author's thesis is:

    Cult + Time = Religion.

    Sorry, but aging dogship does not turn it into wine.

    April 17, 2011 at 10:19 am |
  5. brian

    sorry, we cant consider the davidians a religious group, because the list of psychopathic maniacs willing to kill and be killed in the name of an imaginary diety is currently at max capacity on this planet. please try again later, perhaps after the muslims wipe out the jews, or the christians wipe out the muslims

    April 17, 2011 at 10:18 am |
    • collins61

      Nobody was killed until the ATF attacked. So what were they before the assault? Wackos, kooks, religious nit wits??? Help me out here, just when did the "willingness to kill or be killed" truly begin?

      April 17, 2011 at 10:41 am |
  6. tel

    Anyone who was willing to kill its own members to satisfy a person who believed he was god -is a cult lead by false prophets. If he was a good person he never would have destroyed his own people. The US gov't did the right action– the crazed Koresch killed his own people with gasoline. Sooner or later he would self destruct and take his people with him–like Jim Jones did.

    April 17, 2011 at 10:15 am |
  7. Chaos

    The Tea Psrty = A cult of gullible talk show host followers

    April 17, 2011 at 10:15 am |
  8. Jonescincy

    This guy sounds like he is trying to justify his brainwashing by one of the religious groups. Religion in all forms is a type of brainwashing. There is no debate about that. Politics is the same thing. You are told to believe something and told it is your duty to defend that belief. A cult can be defined many ways but the most obvious is the praying upon of simpletons and getting them to believe something that sounds completely ridiculous to your typical rational thinking person. Christianity probably sounded an awful lot like a cult when it first started, but I digress. A religious group that believes their leader is Christ and is willing to kill their own children because he tells them to is a cult by ANY definition. Anyone want to argue that? You could also say that any religion who believes in arming themselves to the hilt and killing others in Gods name is also a cult. But if you get nit picky like that you are defining most religions as a cult at some point during their existence. So I guess I agree with the doc here, as long as he is saying EVERY religion is a cult. His article didn't read that way though so I'm thinking he either doesn't have the stones to say that or, more likely, is a member of a some form of cult.

    April 17, 2011 at 10:15 am |
  9. Observer

    A cult is any religion other than yours.

    April 17, 2011 at 10:14 am |
  10. tel

    Anyone who was willing to kill its own members to satisfy a person who believed he was god -is a cult lead by false prophets. Ifhe was a good person he never would have destroyed his own people. The US gov't did the right action– the crazed Koresch killed his own people with gasoline. Sooner or later he would self destruct and take his people with him–like Jim Jones did.

    April 17, 2011 at 10:14 am |
  11. Eric

    There were 'mistakes' made in the assult on the Branch Davidians, but none greater than the continued human shield provided by his supporters and their apparent willingness to go down in flames. The tragic lesson learned was never to trap a 'messiah' with his supporters, as the government could have easily caught him off compound. A lesson for those who would retreat to such a compound is not to make it flamable (unless cooking is your 'end-game' as it might have been for the Branch Davidians).

    April 17, 2011 at 10:13 am |
  12. Bob

    The real "cult" is law enforcement. They blindly follow orders and "swear" to uphold unjust laws. If it's "the law", then it's sacred to them, but not to me. Not all laws are just, so blindly abiding by them or enforcing them reduce you to being a slave (with or without the badge).

    April 17, 2011 at 10:13 am |
    • collins61

      Good point Bob. The Nazi's received no mercy for following the unjust orders they received. Here we are now with our own police doing this to the people who put them there to protect in the first place... American Citizens. The difference being no cattle cars. Yet.

      April 17, 2011 at 10:38 am |
  13. Henry Plantagenet

    The Catholics and Baptists are just cults with bigger parking lots. All religions are based on fraud and brainwashing. That's why they all focus on targeting young, impressionable minds.

    April 17, 2011 at 10:13 am |
  14. pwnm

    I remember when this happened, there were many things we were told and probably many more we were not. It was a trajic event that was not handeled well by anyone. The facility was a tinder box and waiting to go up in flames. I don't understand why the feds had to go in and surround the compound and put everyone inside into defense mode. Koresh would leave every now and again, why did they not wait until then to take him into custody to figure out what he was doing inside? This whole thing could have occured under the radar if they had just used a little common sense. I believe the Feds used the word "cult" to try to get the general public to side with them rather than the Davidions to help cover their major screwup.

    April 17, 2011 at 10:13 am |
  15. texas2e

    This article is thought provoking and promted me to spend the better part of an hour looking a few things up on modern equivalent of the Library of Alexandria- the internet, where there is of course a wealth of good information. I would recommend interested readers do the same. The author is coming from a legal and academic perspective. If we are to think clearly we must remember and constantly re-evaluate the meaning of the words we use and their origin. Yes, Christianity was once a cult- and it still is- no pejorative intended. Merely a statement of linguistic and scientific fact. This is where we derive much of our CULTure. However, I could not help but be impressed that the author was defending New Religious Movements from descrimination simply because they are new. I agree with that. However, I do reserve my freedom to be critical of extremists who unlawfully arm themselves with heavy weapons and explosives, practice pedophilia and control others through indoctrination and fear. Indoctination with a world view and life view that has no basis in reality. No. wait. That is mainstream religion.

    April 17, 2011 at 10:12 am |
    • Wzrd1

      Have a care, the very term indoctrination has been hijacked to accompany the contemporary use of the term cult. It accompanied the term programming, which replaced the disproved brainwashing nonsense.
      What was called brainwashing was derived from crude North Korean experiments in conditioned response, something a Russian scientist named Pavlov discovered by accident after a flood isolated his test animals that were part of his behavioral research program (Pavlov's dogs).
      Brainwashing of a sort IS currently in use and has been for generations, it is known as basic training in the military. One places the trainee in a hostile environment for one explicit goal, the breaking of old behavioral patterns and instilling of new patterns of behavior. This is not an evil thing, but the converse is true. Such training causes an instant response to the warning GAS. Rather than wonder if the speaker is asking for gasoline, nitrogen, oxygen, carbon dioxide, the trainee instantly dons and clears a protective mask.
      When the warning INCOMING is heard, rather than wonder if mail is incoming, lunch is incoming, the trainee rapidly seeks a lower elevation, as the warning is that artillery is coming in and anyone standing will be shredded.
      In short, it is in the interest of expeditious action that would save lives that such things are done.
      And one thing that was also proven by every researcher in such conditioned response, without constant reinforcement training, the conditioned response (brainwashing) fades quickly, as in within 90 days.
      In short, the entire indoctrination, brainwashing or programming nonsense was totally disproved LONG, LONG ago.

      April 17, 2011 at 10:36 am |
  16. Jeremy Jones

    This is a great article, very interesting read. Thanks for this.

    April 17, 2011 at 10:11 am |
  17. butlerbulldawg74

    all religions should be classified as cults.

    April 17, 2011 at 10:09 am |
    • Wzrd1

      Would you like martial law to go along with your repeal of our first amendment?

      April 17, 2011 at 10:27 am |
    • collins61

      Nice one wzrd1.

      April 17, 2011 at 10:34 am |
    • Mike V

      @Wzrd1: Would you like some other fallacies to go along with your slippery slope?

      Understanding them all to be "cults" wouldn't deny people their right to believe in such nonsense.

      April 17, 2011 at 10:39 am |
  18. kro

    Headline news on CNN: Semantics!

    Slow news day huh?

    April 17, 2011 at 10:09 am |
  19. dave in allen

    what happened was unfortunate.
    The fact is though, you don't fire at law enforcement and they knew they were firing at Law Enforcement.
    They were also graciously given over a MONTH to surrender. Women and children as well, at a cost of half a million a day what would you suggest ATF do? They waited it out.. and they weren't getting anywhere. Its very unfortunate how things ended. but it was the Davidians choice to end it like that.

    April 17, 2011 at 10:09 am |
    • collins61

      Heres a fact you conveniently left out. David Koresh dined at a particular diner, at a particular time, on a particular weekday each and every week. He dined alone. The ATF were keenly aware of this as Koresh was under surveillance for quite some time. The question nobody has asked the ATF is "Why didn't you just pick him up at this diner"? Could have saved lives on both sides. Why the assault with armored vehicles? Why that choice?
      Is your church ATF approved? You better hope so.

      April 17, 2011 at 10:33 am |
  20. zewt

    I also am in the boat with "All Religions are Cults". Period. Get religion out of our lives and remove a large amount of hate, bigotry, victimization, manipulation and corruption. I'm tired of having aspects of my life and government being dictated by people that believe in imaginary super beings, with supernatural powers.

    April 17, 2011 at 10:08 am |
    • Wzrd1

      I DO agree that religion has absolutely NO place in our government. At all.
      But there we part ways.
      I suggest you review the amendment that gives you the right to speak freely. For it also gives the right to follow the religion of one's choice, whether you disagree with it or not.
      For, it has been said many, many times in the past, the first amendment is protected by the second amendment. The second being protected by the first.
      They are only the very bulwark of our society and the values that are must treasured by society.

      April 17, 2011 at 10:14 am |
    • Enoch100

      You don't know how bad it is until religion is removed. There will be no morality and no basis for it. You don't know what you are talking about and like to show it.

      April 17, 2011 at 10:14 am |
    • SurRy

      Amen! Oops, I mean Right On!

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

      All Religions are Cults

      April 17, 2011 at 10:19 am |
    • secondhalf

      hmmm....how do you square the fact that so many great things happen due to organized religion....take World Vision or Salvation Army for just two out of thousands of examples, and religion was absent with Stalin, Pol Pot, Hitler. Religion is sometimes abused, but to suggest that secularism is the answer is simply unrealistic.

      April 17, 2011 at 10:20 am |
    • Jon King

      They became a true cult when the looked the other way while Koresh molested their kids.

      April 17, 2011 at 10:22 am |
    • SurRy

      @Enoch100 – Get a grip. Our prisons are full of believers in made up stories and dieties. Doesn't seem to have stopped them, huh? Me? I'm an atheist who repulsed by the "morals" of many self-professed religious folks.

      April 17, 2011 at 10:23 am |
    • Janet Kline

      secondhalf, mob bosses throw money at the locals. Over time organized religion has done way more damage than good. Secularism is not satin or anything evil. Its loving nature and our own ability to face truths.

      April 17, 2011 at 10:24 am |
    • tony

      100% support

      April 17, 2011 at 10:25 am |
    • Jonescincy

      I thought this way once but realized the same thing that another responder said. Religion is needed to control the masses because without it morality would likely not be taught as a mainstream part of society. A person can be both religious and a lawyer and without the fear of a god would likely have no morals or ethics at all. What you would like is not the abolishment of all religion but the acceptance of all religions by all religions. I find it ironic when a catholic starts spouting off about radical Islam. If not for killing people in gods name that person would likely not be catholic.

      April 17, 2011 at 10:26 am |
    • Mike V

      The claim that religion is the basis of morality is one of the oldest lies perpetuated by these myths. Even philosophers from a couple hundred years ago (even the ones I largely disagree with) had much more rational systems of morality than those of our ancient religions. Please stop rehearsing your prejudices and do some research.

      And to the original commenter, yes, I agree that the problem is religion, whether it be a cult or a group that has grown to a socially acceptable size such that it's no longer referred to as one.

      April 17, 2011 at 10:27 am |
    • joeye

      Back to cults/religion. More damage has been done in the name of God on this planet than any thing else. What I don't understand about the 'best educated and most affluent' youngsters is why they think they need a religion at all? What is missing from their life training that they don't trust themselves? Just remember that the early Christians were considered a cult. I see Christians push their religious views on others. Arrogant much? Time to dump religion altogether. Read your holy books follow the instructions. Stay away from folks who think you're not smart enough to understand what you're reading.

      April 17, 2011 at 10:32 am |
    • Mike V

      @secondhalf: Your comment reminds me of a mock review posted about Richard Dawkins' "The God Delusion", which replaced "God" with "Facism". A lot of "good" comes from fascism as well (shocking, I know) but it doesn't mean fascism is a necessary condition for these things. If you need extra evidence, consider that the most charitable donor in human history is an atheist, and many giant secular charitable organizations exist.

      April 17, 2011 at 10:35 am |
    • Joe in Colorado

      I'm kinda split on what should be done.

      On the one hand, religion is utterly ridiculous and part of me wishes it were abolished completely. People grasping at straws for some explanation, some belonging– and not wanting to accept the fact that when their lives end, it is truly "over". It seems to me that counseling is what's needed for these folks, not religion. In my experience, religious people are the most judgmental, most vindictive, most controlling folk I have ever met. They are usually all for the death penalty in criminal cases, which is odd. They vote political leaders based on their stance on some very narrow issues such as abortion or belief in a God, which is irresponsible. Their lives are a cycle of guilt and shame. It's truly a sickness.

      On the other hand, I do believe government needs to stay out of our lives completely. As long as you're not hurting anyone, you should be able to do and say as you please without anyone's permission or oversight. In that sense, people should be able to believe and practice as they wish.

      I guess it would just be nice if my fellow human beings would evolve and quit believing in fairy tales, that we could all work together toward a common goal to advance our species and protect our Earth.

      April 17, 2011 at 10:37 am |
    • Mo

      Don't sarcastically say " that imaginary superbeing", be respctful to the Almighty God.

      April 17, 2011 at 10:40 am |
    • secondhalf

      @janet kline

      You can have your opinion, but not your own facts. While bad things have happened in the name of religion, there is simply no comparison with the REALLY bad things that have happened when spirituality/relationship with God is missing..I pointed to Stalin and Hitler and Pol Pot and you did not address those in your response defending secular world. Today in my own community thousands of people are being helped because of people's relationship with God. And there are thousands of organizations helping millions around the world. I simply ask that you consider the facts.

      April 17, 2011 at 10:54 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.