By Seana Sperling
More and more we are seeing an emphasis on conservative Christianity appearing in the media. In 2010 I heard a News Anchor say, “Scammers have preyed on the faithful.” Then they showed footage of an austere little church and went on with the report. Why not say Christians or the name of the particular church? Are Christians the only “faithful?” Flipping through local channels I have seen eight or more conservative Christian stations with lone speakers loudly proselytizing one ideology in assorted languages. Where is the Buddhist channel or the Hindu channel or even a Progressive Christian channel? Are they only available on cable? This culture of same-ness is very disturbing. This rise of conservative Christianity is beginning to dominate society and creating a cult culture.
There also seems to be an increasing divide between Progressive Christians that live in the tradition of Christ, and the Neo-conservative Christians whose rigid, cult-like fundamentalism drives them to judge and even punish others that don’t share their ideology.
How do you recognize a cult? According to Michael Shermer’s article on Christian Scientists, Is Scientology a Cult? Skeptic, May 2011, Cults may have the following characteristics:
“The leader claims to have extraordinary powers.
Members are isolated from friends and family.
In Group vs. Out Group/Us vs. Them.
Practices are highly controlled, and at advanced levels, secretive.
Group and leader are not accountable to any outside authority.
Denunciation sessions, debilitating work routines to reinforce Group-Think.
Meditation, chanting, speaking in tongues.”
Most cults are an authoritarian environment where questioning and dissent is not only discouraged, but also punished according to Shermer.
In 2000 I was telling a friend about some horrible experiences I’d had in a Seventh Day Adventist Church School I attended as a child. My friend claimed that the Adventists were a cult. This he based on a class he’d taken on cults. Even though I knew about David Koresh and the Branch Davidians, this idea had never occurred to me. When I was a part of that church no one was speaking in tongues or chanting, nor did we live in a compound.
In retrospect, some of the indicators were present. The spiritual leader of the Adventists was a Psychic named Ellen G. White, who claimed to have communed with God. It was also a very top down, authoritarian environment at home and school where I received beatings, ridicule and other psychological forms of punishment from parents and Teachers for minor things. There was an emphasis on control. (There were some nice people there too, but more often than not, the people in authority positions were bullies.)
When I reached seventh grade, I insisted on going to public school. There was no seventh grade or even other eligible students, but the Teacher and my mother spoke of planning a grade just for me. At this school multiple grades were stuffed into one room with one teacher as a monitor and we did our studies alone with our workbooks. The Teacher would grade the work and we could go to her desk with questions, but there was little in the way of actual teaching. Fortunately I loved reading and my mother took my older stepbrothers and me to the library on a regular basis. If I’d not had this resource, I would have been very behind in public school.
My first morning at the entrance to the public school a bully pushed me. It was as if she was trying to keep me from entering. I pushed her back and went inside. This could have been a set-up by the church or my mother to make me fear going to public school. Some cults seek to control every facet of their member’s lives according to Margaret T. Singer’s 1996 book, Cults in our Midst and my mother was very controlling. Even after I became an adult and had not been to church for over 12 years, Adventists would stop by my apartment uninvited, claiming that my mother had asked them to visit me. Later, even after moving to Seattle, a few took jobs at schools where I was working. They always seemed friendly, but disturbingly ubiquitous.
In the new millennium, I have seen more and more conservative Christians entering into key positions in higher education where I am still working. Some have even become Shop Stewards in my union. Chris Hedge’s book, American Fascism: The Rise of the Religious Right illustrates how The Dominionists, which are conservative Christians, seek to dominate key areas of society. According to Hedges, the Dominionists seek control of politics, education, the economy, etc. Although he does not call the Dominionists a cult, their ideology seems to be very authoritarian and controlling. (This paired with the conservative’s attack on women’s rights is very reminiscent of Margaret Atwood’s book The Handmaid’s Tale, in which, a totalitarian religious regime takes power in the U.S., the media turns into a propaganda machine for the regime and most women are enslaved.)
There seems to be a growing trend by the conservatives in shaming and destroying public services as well. According to national news reports in 2010, some neo-conservative Christians set-up/entrapped some community support organizations. According to the footage, two conservative Christians, a white woman who posed as a prostitute and a white man who posed as a pimp, secretly filmed an African-American ACORN worker who thought she was helping poor people with housing. There was also a secretly filmed set-up of Planned Parenthood by conservative Christians according to national news. What these neo-conservative Christians did was far removed from the teachings of Christ and against the law yet, there was no report of them ever being penalized.
More and more the media is reporting on bullying coming from conservative Christian church members. An article from Truthout, Persecution is Not a Right, by Vincent Warren speaks of some conservatives making absurd claims that they are being persecuted because they are not allowed to bully people. “The insistence by some U.S. Christians that they are being oppressed, when others try to keep them from bullying, discriminating against and sometimes hounding LGBT people to death.” What does bullying have to do with Christianity? I am tolerant of all types of religion, however, I am not tolerant of bullies of any ilk.
Some Christian conservatives will even bully as a group. Extremist groups like the Westboro Baptist Church disrupt funerals with their vitriol against LGBT. This group’s hate campaigns are about as far from the teachings of Christ as you can get. It seems that this group baits grieving people into fighting with them for publicity and monetary gain. According to local news reports, if the injured party reacts against the hatred and disruption, the Pastor who is also a lawyer sues on 1st Amendment Rights. KIRO 7 2011. It seems like this is either a scam or the actions of a very negative cult.
Part Two–Veiled Religious Cults
Harmful cults are not easy to detect if you are unfamiliar with their ideology. In the early 1970s when I was 11 we were living in Pocatello, Idaho for a few years. A white neighbor girl who I did not know well asked me if I wanted to go to a John Birch Society meeting with her. I had no idea what the Birchers were and asked my mother. My mother told me they were racists. Of course I had no desire to go after she told me that.
It was ironic that the girl had asked me since I’m very ethnically and even racially mixed and my best friend at the time was African-American. I suppose the Bircher thought she was recruiting another white girl since I had blonde hair. I don’t remember if I gave the Bircher a lecture on racism or not, but it was something I was doing a lot of at the time, which angered a lot of white racists in Pocatello. (Many years later, in 2002 I was in Boise for a few months and joined a Peace group. Shortly after I joined, Birchers tried to infiltrate the group. One male Bircher grinned hideously at me when he arrived. I spoke against them to the organizers, who told me we should be inclusive of all who were anti-war. I pulled away from the group at that point. Later one of the organizers confessed that they had been wrong to include the Birchers, but had not understood how wrong until a Bircher Preacher was a guest speaker at one of their meetings. In retrospect, I think the Birchers just wanted to disrupt a Peace organization.)
Recognizing a cult is also difficult when it doesn’t have the typical appearance of a cult. In the late 1970s when I was an adult I was in Boise, Idaho for a couple of years and joined a Karate class at a Community Center. At first, it seemed like a normal class where we learned various techniques and Kata (forms). There was an emphasis on meditation, which I was no good at, so I merely shut my eyes, periodically peeping out to see if meditation time was finally over. Out of the corner of my eye I would see the other students seemingly asleep or in trances and wonder why I was merely ruminating about my day.
I didn’t know many people in Boise in the 1970s so I began making friends within the class. After a month, my classmates invited me to a picnic. All were into healthy activities like gardening and tennis, none of them drank or smoked and some were even vegetarian. They were a tight-knit group and had known each other from the class for over a year. They spoke fondly and often of our Karate teacher Mr. (name withheld).
Later, Mr. (name withheld) encouraged us to read parts of the Bible in our spare time. Having been stuck in that Fundamentalist school as a child I was quite familiar with the Bible, but did some review. Mr. (name withheld) also told the class that we had negative entities and to learn to control them with meditation. At this point I was wary, but I liked my new friends.
In July Mr. (name withheld) invited the class (approximately six people) to his house one night for a potluck. He made Pineapple Upside Down Cake and the students seemed so excited about it. They went on and on about how wonderful it was. Then there was some Bible reading and someone started passing around a plate for donations. I thought, “Oh God. I’m in church.” I really wanted to leave. It was at this point that Mr. (name withheld) encouraged us to meditate more on our own and to beware of our Negative Entities.
That weekend I went tubing down the river with my aunt, cousin and one of her friends. We joked around, drank beer and I got a sunburn.
I didn’t go back to the Karate class for well over a week and when I did return Mr. (name withheld) berated me for letting my Negative Entity control me. That was it for me. I never returned. Later, I left Boise and when I did return in the late 1980’s, out of curiosity, I called about the Karate class. The guy at the Community Center Desk said, “That was a cult!” which confirmed my earlier fears. I never thought that I could possibly be wooed by a cult. I still don’t know what type it was, but it wasn’t one of the White Supremacist cults, because there was a mixture of races in that one.
Boise seemed to have a lot of cults. Some of them were well-established churches and even with their incredibly odd ideas they still had thousands of followers. There was also the rise of New Age and Paganism in Boise in the late 1980s. There was a store named The Blue Unicorn that sold crystals, books and cassettes about New Age topics, which had quite a following. Some of my friends would joke around about past lives and channeling as New Age ushered in a host of trendy topics. My Mormon Sociology teacher even offered a class that explored New Age ideas, such as Numerology, Personality Tests and Guided Imagery, which a few of my friends and I took. It was called Personal and Planetary Transformation.
I was surprised that a Mormon Teacher would offer such a class, but I knew there were unusual things about their ideology. Joseph Smith, the spiritual leader of the Latter Day Saints/The Mormons claimed to have spoken with God and most people know he and Brigham Young’s views on marriage and procreation. Also, there is a lot of secrecy around their temple marriage rituals. Are these well-established religious organizations on a parallel with The Moonies and Rajneeshies? It seems it is simpler to accuse an organization of being a cult when their origin is from another country.
The Psychologist Margaret T. Singer co-wrote Cults in Our Midst, with former cult member Janja Lalich, which provides an insiders view on the life of a cult member and the psychological aspects of a cult. The authors explore the control the cult has over its’ members, the allure of belonging to a cult, and how even quite normal people can be attracted to cults. There are also detailed cases of Singer’s patients that were exiting cults of different types and the cult’s attempts to reclaim and/or punish them.
In the final chapter, Singer writes about how she was systematically harassed and defamed by some cults because of her counseling the victims and her expert witness testimony against the cults. According to the book, on one occasion they sent in a cult member posing as a student volunteer that gathered information on Singer and all her student’s contact information. The cult impersonated Singer through letters to her students to defame her. (This seems no different than the conservative Christians that posed as pimp and prostitute to set up ACORN in 2010.) Another time the cult stalking Singer showed up dressed as Nazis claiming that Singer was a Nazi Scientist outside a lecture she was giving according to the book. PP. 341-345
How can the cults justify that kind of behavior and why would an entire group feel compelled to engage in an illegal act? This goes back to Shermer’s “Group and leader are not accountable to any outside authority,” and the idea of “Us vs. Them.” The Group-Think of the self-righteous maintains that the end justifies whatever means and that they answer to a higher power than the law of the land.
Not the Only Cults in Town
There is a vast array of cults beyond the Fundamentalist Bible types according to Margaret T. Singer’s book Cults in Our Midst. There are New Age cults, UFO cults, Political cults, Satanic cults, Psychic Phenomena cults, Karate cults, etc. Singer makes the distinction between negative and benign cults, since the group may hold some of the same traits of a cult, yet not harm anyone. Although she does not mention these, I have always thought of Sororities and Fraternities as cults of the privileged because of their elitism, competitive nature and their predilection for secrecy and odd rituals. If they are a cult, are they negative or benign?
Apart from the traditional cults, there are online bullying groups that organize only for the purpose of harassing others. Some organize through social networks to harass their enemies or someone else’s enemy or someone they have targeted because of envy. If you search Facebook for the word “Annoy,” several pages will come up in which the page owners brag about how they like to annoy others. Some students were suspended for organizing a day to harass one of their classmates, www.wbi.com Students Organize Day of Bullying. More and more stories of people of all ages killing themselves over bullying are appearing in the media.
Some people will even go after complete strangers who are perceived to be an enemy of one of their online friends. The story from: The International Herald Times, In South Korea, Online Rumors Hit Hard, By Sang-Hun Choe, illustrates how mobs of people can be recruited to go after an innocent person they have never met. Mobbing is a universal term for this group bullying phenomena we are seeing in this millennium. Are they cults? They do meet some of the requirements: Group-Think, Secrecy, Punishing the victim with harassment, Defamation of Character and Social Isolation for the imagined wrong. This group-vigilante behavior echoes the K.K.K.’s brutality against African-American Leaders in the 1960s, Nazi practices prior to WWII, Stasi practices post war and Cointelpro tactics that have been used against Peace activists since the 1960’s. The bully’s main tool is rumor and the whisper campaign.
Bullying is an extreme and destructive action, bad for the bullied and bad for the bully. The bully will never realize their full potential in life, if the only way they can maintain their high self esteem is through persecution of others. They will never truly lead or create anything of lasting value. They can only destroy and be unhappy with occasional small emotional triumphs.