Anti-Cult Frenzy Is Fed by a Society that Dismisses Religious Commitment

April 25, 1993|By TIMOTHY MILLER

What does the fiery death of David Koresh and his band of believers tell us about "cults" and religious belief?

Already so-called experts on cults are having a field day in the wake of the Waco debacle, trying to convince Americans that the destruction of lives is the inevitable end to which every cult leads.

Cults, after all, are led by power-mad egoists who turn their followers into robots. And although David Koresh may be reduced to ashes, there are other cult leaders ready to rise up, Hydra-like, and lure still more lambs to the slaughter.

This explanation is as seductive as it is simplistic. Unfortunately, it dismisses as fraudulent, or at least obsolete, the possible power of religious commitment and moral dedication. Carried to its logical conclusion, the brainwashing, mind-control thesis leads to the assumption that there is no such thing as true religious conversion and commitment at all.

The anti-cult frenzy is appropriate to our times. Our secularized society tends to regard religious commitment as fanaticism and to dismiss it as a manifestation of ignorance or superstition. Even many members of mainstream religion are inclined to see profound religious commitment as pathological, if not sinister.

What we forget, of course, is that thousands of early Christians died for their faith, refusing to recant their belief even as hungry lions advanced toward them. Anabaptist martyrs of the sixteenth century were burned at the stake while singing hymns of praise. Weren't the Jews of Masada who chose death over surrender models of religious devotion?

This very Sunday, thousands of sermons will exhort believers to lead committed lives, and in response those in the pews will vigorously sing, "To the death I'll follow thee." But woe to the person who takes that exhortation literally!

A further irony lies in the fact that some of those who denounce religious commitment are themselves fiercely committed to their own moral causes and principles. The anti-war movement of the 1960s and early 1970s, for example, was filled with many Americans of extreme dedication who endured billy clubs and tear gas not because they had been duped into political action but because their consciences demanded it.

A decade earlier, the Freedom Riders and the other civil rights activists who endured physical brutality and, in several cases, death were not zombies. They were passionate seekers of justice, persons just naive enough, it would seem, to believe the American promise of equality and justice for all.

A comparable dedication to cause characterizes today's anti-abortion activists, who in many cases have abandoned comfortable lives for picket lines and have often ended up in jail, and sometimes destitute. Whatever one may think of Randall Terry and his cause, it is simplistic to argue that he is a commandant who leads by manipulation.

Perhaps the saddest fallout of Waco is that thousands of religiously committed Americans will suffer unjustly, just as many had when an anti-cult frenzy swept the country in the wake of the Jonestown massacre.

Anti-cult activists have already identified a wide range of groups as dangerous and have taken justice into their own hands by engaging in what they call "deprogramming." Actually, deprogramming is vigilantism, consisting of kidnapping followed by the application of sophisticated psychological pressure which wrenches the individual from the group with which he or she has chosen to affiliate.

What secular Americans or, for that matter, those in mainline churches fail to see is that the individual's allegiance is not that different from that of a person who joins a Catholic religious community, where membership requires a vow of total obedience.

Another target of many anti-cultists, despite its obvious benign character, is Mormonism. After all, its leader claims to receive message directly from God. For over half a century many of the top male leaders of the Mormon Church practiced polygamy. And the Mormon Church regularly engages in secret rituals from which non-members are barred. The Mormon Church also exercises very considerable psychological control over its members.

So are Mormons members of cults? The fact is that Mormons, by virtue of numbers and financial clout, discourage deprogrammers. Which is to say: individuals committed to causes with large and influential congregations have little to fear. Their members will never be accused of belonging to cults. But the legions of Americans committed to harmless but small and socially marginal groups are almost certainly to be in for some very hard times.

Timothy Miller teaches religious studies at the University of Kansas and is past chair of the new Religious Movements Group of the American Aacademy of Religion. Among his books is the edited volume, "When Prophets Die: The Postcharismatic Fate of New Religious Movements." He wrote this commentary for Pacific News Service.

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