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. tony

    Morality is a community survival pressure that is nothing to do with religion, and has no need of it. Evil is a non-existent construct thought up by religions everywhere to justify their own need to condemn outsiders and control their own membership.

    April 17, 2011 at 10:29 am |
  2. RonnieC

    Meh...religion, cult, same difference to me.

    April 17, 2011 at 10:29 am |
  3. Dan

    It's not entirely clear precisely what axe Richardson is grinding, but I'll point out that he never actually defines what he considers to be the definition of "cult". "Cult" is a perfectly good term which my ancient Webster's defines variously as "a system of religious beliefs and ritual", or " a religion regarded as unorthodox or spurious". (I suspect most people today would pick the latter.)

    What seems to be clear is that Richardson supports and defends the "Branch Davidians" (who were not - they were a splinter group that the real Branch Davidians disavowed), in spite of the dozen ways they seriously broke the law. Precisely why he does this is hard to fathom - likely as much out of hatred of Janet Reno and Bill Clinton as from any strong moral/religious convictions.

    April 17, 2011 at 10:28 am |
  4. JessSayin

    Cult, "a religion or sect considered to be false, unorthodox, or extremist, with members often living outside of conventional society under the direction of a charismatic leader. " -Webster
    If the shoe fits, wear it.
    But that's just "My Take" on James T. Richardson.

    April 17, 2011 at 10:27 am |
  5. I have a big Kok

    look up in the sky, it's the magical man sitting in the clouds. LOL

    April 17, 2011 at 10:27 am |
  6. Nancy

    Craziness. This guy doesn't like the use of the word "cult" to describe these breakaway sects which brainwash and enslave people and abuse children. Instead, they're just differently religioned, I guess.

    April 17, 2011 at 10:27 am |
  7. R. Schauer

    We have the sciences; biology, genetics, paleontology, geology, physics, astronomy, chemistry, etc..all in agreement on most things academic from the sub-atomic particle to the behaviors of whole organisms. Then we have the social sciences; sociology, economics, political science and anthropology who, for the most part, refuse as this author does, to get on board with the rest of science regarding all religions and cults. James T. Richardson, have you read Consiliance by E. O. Wilson? What didn't you understand? Around page 200, Wilson hands social scientists a big problem...you guys can't run in a disconnected vacuum any longer. Durkheim = wrong, Freud = wrong, Marx = wrong, etc. This article is way off, too, sir...omitting the exploration of cult behaviors from a biological and neurological or cellular level is not academically or scientifically accurate or ethical and I think you know that. Are you really that incredulous and unscrupulous to forward an invalid argument for religion and cults via some emotional definition or like there is a valid debate here on meanings? Wow, sir, IMHO you need a science and academic gps. Religions and cults evolve as do humans...now, Mr. Richardson, please tell us accurately how those factors have evolved and why neurological process in the hippocampus and hypothalimus are important to the process?

    April 17, 2011 at 10:27 am |
  8. Mark

    We should be watching the christian right as they are doing everything they can to rule this country and for 8 years they had their leader George W. Bush as their leader. Keep religion & god out of government. Government is a business and should be run as a business without religion interfering. If our government leaders want to pray go to church as your 1st amandant right.

    April 17, 2011 at 10:27 am |
  9. xlion

    The accusations of child molestation were unsubstantiated and eventually dismissed. The best way to strip someone of all their rights is an accusation of child molestation. Isn't this obvious to you people, seeing as it's the only aspect of this tragedy you can even recall. I hope none of you are ever wrongly accused of anything so heinous. You friends, neighbors and even your family would turn on you in an instant. Those that might defend you would risk the same fate. Your life destroyed, or possibly ended, as it was for these 79 people. This case is no longer about cults, religion or even the guilt or innocence of it's victims or perpetrators. It has become an example of how none of our rights or freedoms are guaranteed in the face of public opinion, which can be the most effective weapon a government uses against its own people. We are all subject to the wrath of the ignorant and misinformed despite any promises made by the bill of rights.

    April 17, 2011 at 10:26 am |
  10. Dave in Chicago

    As an AA "member" for nearly 27 years, I have had the label "cult" thrown at me a few times, to put it lightly. Over the years, I have had to really think this through (defense, I guess - ever see an alky when you threaten to stop his drinking?!?!). It boiled down to this, a list of items characteristic of a cult (for me):

    Intense effort to recruit new members
    Intense effort to keep existing members
    Material/money focus (usually for the benefit of someone besides you)
    Heavy push/pressure for acceptance of beliefs

    That was basically it. Like most coming into AA, the one thing I was moat concerned about was religion and/or a cult. Wasn't there. Money? Well, a buck would help, but helping with the coffee would be fine, too. Most importantly, every person there is there for themselves - no one gives a darn if you believe what they say, or if you ever come back. They wish you well, just the same.

    Now, as far as our Sunday M-16 target practice...

    April 17, 2011 at 10:25 am |
  11. Movitar

    @mike654, actually I got my iPad2 for $198.75 when they cost $829.99 at the apple store. Snagbids.com

    April 17, 2011 at 10:25 am |
  12. Coriolana

    Sure, let's rethink the word 'cult' and pay more attention to the PC semantics than the children these groups victimise, the families they destroy and the adults who get sucked into their vortex of lies and manipulation. Oh, let's not forget the myriad of laws they break. But we should 'embrace' them as religions? Whatever you are smoking isn't good for you. Stop it. They're cults and they're dangerous.

    April 17, 2011 at 10:25 am |
  13. Dredd

    Not one single automatic weapon was recovered from the compound, and that was the reason they supposedly had to take the compound by force. All the child molestation crap came up after the fact and was never substatiated by anyone. This garbage about him claiming to be the mesiah was more garbage the government propogandized us with. its all exactly the same as when they went into the fort davis mountains to get the president of the Republic of Texas movement, they made sure he was dead and his home burned to the ground so there could be no evidence they were wrong.

    April 17, 2011 at 10:24 am |
  14. James Swanson

    Let's see.....The most obvious rationale for this being a cult – David Koresh slept with pretty much every woman in that compound including those as young as 13-14 because they were of an age to menstruate. If this isn't sociopathic then I don't know what is.

    I do agree that they should be given the same rights as other religions as long as they aren't committing crimes in the name of religion.

    April 17, 2011 at 10:24 am |
  15. Accountability

    Loyd Benson and Janet Reno should be held accountable for the loss of so many lives from this tragedy. All they should have done is just let thing cool off, return to normal live, and then when the time is right when no danger to the children arrest them suddently.

    April 17, 2011 at 10:23 am |
  16. John Shull

    Branch Davidians are called a cult because they embrace the idea they are their only governance. Many were engaging in criminal activities but the group sanctioned it, protected it, and fought the government that sought to stop it. Anyone and everyone that decides they want to fall under the power of an isolated group has taken a wrong step. We all have say in making law, living together, working together, and thriving in pursuit of our happiness. Only people seeking power over those common given powers are cultists who seek to limit and impose themselves. Actively investigating and addressing the criminal activity of these cults is a important job as they can obviously spiral out of control.

    April 17, 2011 at 10:23 am |
  17. David

    Dumb article. Bunch of left wing sociology-psycho babble. There is an accepted definition of a cult, included in the definition is a leader who claims to be God or claims to be the only person able to commune or understand God. Also includes the isolation of its members from contacts outside the group. The Branch Davidians were a text book example of a cult. To claim anything else is sheer idiocy.

    April 17, 2011 at 10:22 am |
  18. JMD

    What is the difference between a cult and any other religion? Imagine the uproar if one of these "cults" segregated a group of women, had them wear near burka like outfits, and on occasion had some of them take a vow of silence. However, there have been Catholic nuns who have done exactly this. Maybe someone should kidnap these women and deprogram them. What about the eucharist? If it was a so called cult it would be called a simulated canabalism ritual. What about evangelicals and their talking in tongues and the like. Do they need to be deprogrammed?

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


      April 17, 2011 at 10:38 am |
  19. Fake god

    Christian and muslims are cults too. They are gullible and violent, and they bombed the Twin Towers. Those "peaceful" chriistians even protested at soldiers' funeral. I hope all these cults die.

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

      Religions (all are cults) will never die. They give small-minded people a reason to believe they are better than everyone else.

      April 17, 2011 at 10:28 am |
  20. Bryan

    I'm a liberal. Voted for Obama. I'm also a former cult member.

    Several of the posts have commented on Richardson being a liberal. Maybe he is. I do know that he has no idea what he is talking about. The cult I was is slowly being accepted as mainstream even though it's founder was a child molester and "married" the wives of other men. Today this cult is know for it's very CONSERVATIVE politics. I'm sure Richardson would go out of his way to defend it.

    I suggest Mr. Richardson do some research into groups that are called cults. Talk with former members. He might learn something.

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

      And because most of the former members of this "cult" are dead, you can assume you know what they would say?

      April 17, 2011 at 10:31 am |
    • john

      This sort of thinking (the author's) derives from a misunderstanding of the concept of "rights." The right to free speech does not mean all speech is equal. That's like saying maybe we should rethink the word "bigotry" because hey, the KKK has the same right to speak as you and I do. I'm not a big fan of any religion, but insinuating that people should be "open-minded" about The Family International and such is just plain absurd.

      April 17, 2011 at 10:32 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.