. . . and for the influence of cults in U.S. history

March 12, 2000|By Gary Dorsey | By Gary Dorsey,Sun Staff

"Mystics and Messiahs: Cults and New Religions in American History," by Philip Jenkins. Oxford University Press. 281 pages. $27.50.

Relying on the regurgitated religio-spiritual nonsense of false prophets and the panicky overreaction of mainstream critics, cults have successfully helped shape the American religious landscape. As a wellspring of energy and creative ideas, cults have been a nourishing and stable resource for religions since the nation's earliest days.


Nourishing and stable?

Philip Jenkins, a professor of religious studies at Penn State University, posits this preposterous thesis with confidence, marshals clouds of evidence with enthusiasm and foists it into print with a surprisingly casual disregard for analytical rigor.

However, what he concocts does make a bracing tonic to quell patterns of hysteria, bombast and errant speculation from media and anticultists that threaten to spin out of control whenever fringe religious groups or their ideas come exploding (as they so often do) into the news.

From the excitement of Pentacostal fervor to the many forms of transcendental Near Eastern New Age mystical flakiness, America's cults have enriched the country's religious life with a vibrant spirit, Jenkins argues. Despite the occasional lapses of fruitcake believers like Marshall Applewhite's Heaven's Gate followers and David Koresh's Branch Davidians, cults have forced open constitutional boundaries on religious freedom and spawned new ideas that sometimes embolden traditional sects and evolve into accepted spiritual practices.

Without the horrifying debacle of Waco still fresh in mind, the author might not have risked the great leaps of interpretation that make this scholarly treatment so intriguing. But as analysts raise significant questions about wrongful deaths in the Davidian tragedy -- how federal agents and so-called anticult experts apparently could so misjudge Koresh's community -- Jenkins offers a plausible response. Looking through the lens of American history, the Waco morass happened because authorities were blinded by the same flat stereotyping of cults that they have relied on for decades.

The author reveals historical patterns of cult emergence and irrational anticult hysteria that have occurred twice, in 30-year cycles, during the 20th century. His study details the making of a stereotype that brands cults with often unfounded accusations of sexual abuse, brain-washing, animal and human sacrifices and psychopathology.

Unleashing a flood of historical evidence, Jenkins links today's New Age to New Age cults of the 19th and early 20th centuries. He shows how black Muslims who entered mainstream Islam during the 1990s descended from the mysterious Wallace Fard, self-proclaimed "Supreme Ruler of the Universe," who gave hope to many African- Americans with his ideas of a black consciousness in the 1930s.

At times, his rapid recounting of cult activities, historical anecdotes and their links to present day make too rich a stew, while his analysis of cultic origins and their influence remains a thin gruel.

Why, one wonders, would anyone believe a spaceship is coming to fly them off to another level of consciousness? How could anyone believe in the hocus-pocus of channeling or angelic companions or gold tablets of messianic wisdom?

American religion is a wild scene, Jenkins acknowledges, and yet strangely predictable. Thanks to this pioneering work, that weird dichotomy looks comically familiar, comfortingly traditional.

Gary Dorsey, a staff writer for The Sun, wrote "Congregations" (Viking, 1995), a sociological study of an American Protestant church. He has been a reporter for 20 years, for papers in Detroit, Hartford and elsewhere.

Pub Date: 03/12/00

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