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The following paper was written by Dr. Coloquially Davis 1 and published by Cleveland State University's Journal of Law and Health (1996 / 1997  11 J.L. & Health 145). 1996 by Cleveland State University. Used by permission.

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America has always been fertile ground for a multiplicity of religious groups, whether homegrown sects like Mormons, Shakers, and Jehovah's Witnesses, or immigrants from abroad like Mennonites, Quakers, and Jews. In the 1970s and 1980s we saw an explosion of new religious groups in America, many of which came to be labeled by their detractors as "cults." The groups were based on a variety of ideologies drawn from Eastern and Western religious traditions and were organized in different ways, but they shared some basic characteristics:

bullet all were relatively "high demand" religions, requiring much more of their followers than weekly church attendance and a nominal tithe;
bullet all had a charismatic leader; most involved communal living as at least an option and very often a requirement.
bullet Further, since these were truly new religious movements, they all needed to grow and therefore to make converts, and they concentrated their conversion attempts upon young, idealistic, mostly white, and middle-class Americans. That, of course, brought them into conflict with the young people's parents, who tried to bring legal pressures to bear against the new religions.

The parents of these converts, as well as the defenders of mainstream religions from whom the young people were defecting, had some hurdles to overcome in their fight against the "cults." The young converts were almost always legal adults, and the parents -- much less the mainstream religious leaders -- could hardly claim to be against religious commitment per se, so on what grounds could they forcefully object to their children's new allegiance? The answer they found was to claim that these were not "genuine" religious movements -- i.e., not worthy of tolerance and respect -- and the converts' choices were not actually free choices at all, but the result of "brainwashing," sometimes called "coercive persuasion," "thought reform," or "mind control." (2) Thus, the parents were not interfering in the converts' right to choose their religion, but rescuing their adult children from the clutches of evil people who had rendered them powerless.

The "brainwashing" theory has important legal implications. After all, the religion clauses of the First Amendment forbid government from preferring some religions over others, and from interfering in a person's religious practice without a compelling reason. (3) Thus, if parents are to have the law on their side while engaging in activities that are normally illegal -- e.g., kidnapping and imprisoning an adult in order to "deprogram" her -- they have to find a way to describe these "cults," and the conversion experience, as completely divorced from our usual understanding of religion.

Two 1980s cases highlight the importance of the "brainwashing" theory.

bullet In 1989, Robin George and her mother brought suit against various groups and individuals associated with the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), claiming, among other things, that they had falsely imprisoned Robin. (4) Since Robin appeared to have had run away from her parents' home of her own free will and was never physically restrained during the nearly two years she spent in the movement, it would have been impossible to sustain the false imprisonment claim (for which a jury initially awarded Robin five million dollars) without the argument that Robin had been "brainwashed" and her "will . . . overborne" by the defendants. (5)
bullet Similarly, in 1986 David Molko and Tracy Leal, former members of the Unification Church, claimed that they were falsely imprisoned, despite their ostensible freedom to leave at any time, because "agents of the Church had gained control of their minds," "stripped them of independent judgment," and thus rendered them "incapable of resisting the inducement to join the Church and work diligently to further its purposes." (6)

In this article, I will analyze the different theories about "cult" membership and conversion, specifically focusing upon whether or not conversions to cults ought to be respected by the law in the same way that the law respects conversion to and membership in, mainstream religions.

bullet In section II, I attempt (unsuccessfully) to define a "cult."
bullet In section III, I discuss the civil liberties issues surrounding "cults" and the public furor they have engendered.
bullet Section IV deals with medicalizing of a political issue.
bullet In section V, I discuss the different and competing theories about why young people join "cults," and the implication of those theories for public policy responses.
bullet Finally, in section VI, I conclude that none of the arguments which attempt to draw distinctions between "cults" and mainstream religions are solid enough to ground legal interventions against those who choose to join new religious movements.

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According to the anti-cult Cult Awareness Network, a cult is "a closed system whose followers have been unethically and deceptively recruited through the use of manipulative techniques of thought reform or mind control." (7) Probably the best definition comes from sociologists Melton and Moore, who explain, only somewhat tongue-in-cheek, that "cults are religions that espouse an alien belief system that deviates strongly from the traditional faiths with which most people have grown up." (8) For sociologists, a cult is the starting point of every religion, at the stage where there is simply a charismatic leader and an enthusiastic band of followers, who have not yet developed anything more than the simplest organizational structure. Most cults die before they get beyond this stage; others become more bureaucratized, as happened to Christianity. (9) However, when the term cult is used today, we know that the subject is a controversial "high demand" religion, or some other group which has come to be associated with the term in the minds of the media. As we shall soon see, there is much disagreement even among the most strident anti-cultists as to which groups fit the category. Leo Pfeffer suggests: "if you believe in it, it is a religion or perhaps the religion; and if you do not care one way or another about it, it is a sect; but if you fear and hate it, it is a cult." (10) Meanwhile, social scientists proffer phrases such as "alternative religions," "marginal churches," "new religious movements," and so on.

Groups that have commonly been identified as cults include those with non-Western flavors such as the ISKCON, the Divine Light Movement (DLM), and the Unification Church ("Moonies"); Christian groups such as the Way International and the Children of God; self-help movements such as Synanon and the Church of Scientology. Robbins and Anthony list six attributes shared by almost all groups which are labeled as cults. These groups are:

  1. authoritarian;
  2. communal and totalistic;
  3. aggressive in their proselytizing;
  4. systematic in their programs of indoctrination;
  5. relatively new in the United States;
  6. middle-class in their clientele. (11)

Interestingly, the three recent religious groups whose stories have ended in tragedy -- the People's Temple, the Branch Davidians, and Heaven's Gate -- do not fit the usual profile of a "cult" which attracts primarily young and single adherents. The Heaven's Gate group, thirty-nine of whom committed suicide in March of 1997, included someone who had joined the group when he was nineteen and remained for twenty-two years, but also a seventy-two-year-old grandmother. Particularly striking were the converts who had left spouses and young children behind. (12 )

Cult membership raises important ethical, medical, and civil liberties questions. Courts must decide whether or not parents will be granted "conservatorship" over their adult children who have joined new religions, and whether to convict parents whose adult children charge them with kidnapping and false imprisonment. On the public policy level, the issue seems to have been decided by default, as legislators have failed to design laws that would attack cult membership and still be Constitutional. For example, the law passed twice in New York State but vetoed by the Governor (who went on record as being sympathetic to the bill's goals, but convinced that this particular bill would not stand up in court), reads in part:

"The supreme court and the county courts outside the city of New York, shall have the power to appoint one or more temporary conservators of the person and the property of any person over fifteen years of age, upon showing that such person for whom the temporary conservator is to be appointed has become closely and regularly associated with a group which practices the use of deception in the recruitment of members and which engages in systematic food or sleep deprivation or isolation from family or unusually long work schedules and that such person for whom the temporary conservator is to be appointed has undergone a sudden and radical change in behavior, lifestyle, habits and attitudes, and has become unable to care for his welfare and that his judgment has become impaired to the extent that he is unable to understand the need for such care." (13 )

After reading The Seven Storey Mountain it is hard to see why, using these guidelines, writer and philosopher Thomas Merton should not have been put under conservatorship when he first joined the Trappist monks in his mid-twenties. (14) The odd hours at which he was awakened to chant on a nightly basis, the sparse diet and uniform clothing, the restrictions on reading matter and visitors, and, most of all, the "no talking" rule, are certainly open to the interpretation of mind control. As far as "deception" is concerned, that is very much in the eye of the beholder; certainly the claims of any church to sacerdotal efficacy, the importance of prayer and meditation, etc., have no provable connection to the palpable world.

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The danger to civil liberties, especially to the religion clauses of the First Amendment, can be summed up briefly under five headings. (15)

bullet First, there is the straightforward claim that every adult has the right to join any religion he wishes, no matter how obnoxious it may appear to others, and that those religions which are currently under pressure are no different with respect to the First Amendment than any other. To quote Leo Pfeffer:

"The purpose of the first amendment's guarantee of freedom of religion was and is the protection of unpopular creeds and faiths. It needs no constitution to assure security for the Episcopalians, Methodists, Presbyterians, or other well-established and long-accepted religions. The heart of the first amendment would be mortally wounded if the religions we now call cults were excluded from the zone of its protection because of their disfavor in the eyes of government officials or of the majority of Americans." (16)

bullet Second, even if one posited that there could be a demonstrable theoretical difference between exercising one's "religion" and joining a "cult," in practice it turns out that one person's cult is another's valid religion. Therefore, anti-cult legislation, even if it could be valid in and of itself, inevitably encroaches on "legitimate" denominations as well. For example, according to the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, Jews for Jesus and Hebrew Christians constitute two of the most dangerous cults, and its members are appropriate candidates for deprogramming. Anti-cult evangelicals, not surprisingly, while vociferous against groups such as the DLM and the "Moonies," protest that "aggressiveness and proselytizing . . . are basic to authentic Christianity," and that Jews for Jesus and Campus Crusade for Christ are not to be labeled as cults. Furthermore, certain Hassidic groups who physically attacked a meeting of the Hebrew Christian "cult" have themselves been labeled a "cult" and equated with the followers of Reverend Moon, by none other than the President of the Central Conference of American Rabbis. (17) Also, as we shall discuss later, family dynamics are so crucial to who is identified as a "cult victim," that what may prove more important than the objective criteria for a cult is the extent to which the convert violates family values.
bullet Third, we see in the history of anti-cult activism a disturbing erosion of due process and of the role of police as protectors of citizens. Conservatorships are frequently granted in hearings in the judge's chambers from which the potential conservative and his legal representative are excluded; the Vermont senate passed a bill empowering judges to issue conservatorships without adversary hearings. (18) Deprogrammer Ted Patrick gleefully recounts many instances in which police, after being appealed to by adult victims of kidnapping and enforced detention, not only turned a blind eye, but actually helped the deprogrammers. (19)
bullet Fourth, and as a consequence of all of the above, we see a slippage from abduction and deprogramming of members of groups which do function as total institutions, to using these same techniques on those who are merely different. Given the passionate belief in "mind control" which is so crucial to the anti-cult movement, this slippage seems inevitable -- a Svengali does not need to have his victim literally under his eye twenty-four hours a day. Ted Patrick claims to see "not a brown penny's worth of difference[s]" between such a diverse list as Hare Krishna, The Divine Light Mission, the New Testament Missionary Fellowship, Brother Julius, Love Israel, and the Children of God, for example. (20) Although some accounts of deprogrammings speak of "rescue" from cults which exist in total isolation behind barbed wire encampments, other situations are more ambiguous.

In January of 1973, for example, Ted Patrick abducted and deprogrammed a young man named Wes Lockwood, member of a group called The New Testament Missionary fellowship, led by Hannah Lowe. Patrick told Lockwood's father, "you have to understand, . . . you're not dealing with your son anymore. You're dealing with a robot. A zombie. You can't reason with him. He's beyond reasoning. The only way you can get him is to take him out bodily." But even using Patrick's account of the case, we see that Lockwood had been a member of the group for two-and-a-half years, and that during that time he had continued to live in the Yale dormitory, to hold down a part-time job (the proceeds of which went primarily to the group), and to attend and pass his classes. (21)   (When Patrick later made an unsuccessful attempt to snatch another member, Dan Voll, and he and Voll's parents were tried on charges of "unlawful restraint and imprisonment;" they were acquitted on the grounds that the parents' concern and actions were "justified." As Patrick said, "it was the cult that was on trial, not me." (22)

In February 1982, The Washington Post ran a three-day description and analysis of the case of a Silver Spring couple who had tried and failed three times to "successfully deprogram" their daughter, and who finally pleaded guilty in court to charges of unlawful imprisonment. The subject was Emily Dietz, an intelligent girl from a moneyed and sophisticated background, who became interested in the DLM at age fifteen. Again we see that, despite her increasing involvement with the group, she graduated from high school in the top three percent of her class, went on to Hampshire College, and remained there for three years before leaving to become a full-time member of the DLM. Until the first abduction attempt, she occasionally returned home for visits.

To quote the Post, "in an unregulated practice that often involves kidnapping and imprisonment, even defenders of deprogramming deplore its abuses. A Roman Catholic, a lesbian, even a thirty-one-year-old woman whose mother did not care for her fiancee have been targets of deprogramming." (23) Theologian Harvey Cox calls deprogrammers "hired guns," and charges that some have "gladly deprogrammed people in the Episcopal and Catholic churches, depending on the preferences of those who wanted them deprogrammed." (24)

bullet Fifth, the current situation threatens the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. The current understanding of this clause is that any statute related to religion, if it is to be constitutional, "must have a secular legislative purpose; . . . its principal or primary effect must be one that neither advances nor inhibits religion . . . [and it] must not foster an excessive government entanglement with religion." (25) Courts and legislatures, if they attempt to make distinctions between "destructive cults" and "genuine religions," must necessarily monitor their activities to the extent of fostering "an excessive government entanglement." (26)

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So strong is the tradition of freedom of religion in this country that few suggest that adults can be removed from religious groups simply because the latter are destructive to the members' physical health, offensive to the majority, and so on. Although there are other reasons for the wholesale adoption of the "brainwashing" theory, certainly the strongest is that it justifies a hair-raising variety of coercive interventions by claiming that the subject is so non-autonomous as to be almost literally "not there." This maneuver has a number of results, not all of them consciously intended. First, it takes activities, such as forcible restraint of adults, that would normally be classified, ethically and legally, as harms and injuries, and reclassifies them as helpful and benign, even necessary, if done as part of a "deprogramming" attempt.

Second, by medicalizing a political issue, it attempts to move the locus of debate from freedom of religion and association, subjects which invite the active involvement of all citizens, to definitions and diagnosis of mental illness, a topic on which a tiny percentage of the population can claim an intimidating amount of mysterious expertise.

Third, by changing the definition of the arena from political/legal to medical, anti-cult activists take advantage of a tendency already present in our society to strip people of their legal protections by claiming to be acting in their best interests. (27) Our democracy, and the many fences erected by our legal structure to guard our individual freedoms, has been traditionally understood as a defense primarily against a government wishing to do us harm by safeguarding or enriching itself at our expense; that was the background of the American Revolution and of the philosophical thinking which grounded the Constitution. We are much more poorly defended against those who would do us good. (28)

But is such a shift of ground appropriate? Are members of cults indeed brainwashed victims of sophisticated mind control? In the next pages we will look at six different (though not mutually exclusive) ways of understanding the phenomenon of conversion to cults.

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Continue with the second part of this essay

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1 Associate Professor of Law, Cleveland-Marshall College of Law, Cleveland State University. J.D., University of Virginia; Ph.D., University of Iowa.

2 Peggy Fletcher Stack, Cults or Just New Beliefs? Experts Aim at Newest of Religions, SALT LAKE TRIB., June 10, 1995, at D1.

3  Everson v. Board of Educ. of Ewing Township, 330 U.S. 1 (1947).

4  George v. International Soc'y for Krishna Consciousness of Cal., 262 Cal. Rptr. 217 (Cal Ct. App. 4th Dist. 1989).

5  Id. at 231.

6  Molko v. Holy Spirit Assoc. for the Unification of World Christianity, 224 Cal. Rptr. 817, 825 (Cal. Ct. App. 1st Dist., rev'd in part,  46 Cal. 3d 1092 (1988), cert. denied,  490 U.S. 1084 (1989)).

7 Stack, supra note 2.



10 Leo Pfeffer, Equal Protection for Unpopular Sects, 9(1) N.Y.U. REV. L. & SOC. CHANGE 9-10 (1979-80).

11 Thomas Robbins & Dick Anthony, Deprogramming, Brainwashing, and the Medicalization of Deviant Religious Groups, 29 SOC. PROBS. 284 (Feb. 1982). For a more lengthy and also more negative list of attributes, see Marcia Rudin, The Cult Phenomenon: Fad or Fact?, 9(1) N.Y.U. REV. L. & SOC. CHANGE 24-29 (1979-80).

12 Pam Belluck, Death in a Cult: The Dead, N.Y. TIMES, Mar. 30, 1997, at A16. Presumably, this is the reason why members of these groups were not the objects of attempts at deprogramming and conservatorship. This article focuses on groups that recruit primarily young adults.

13 NEW RELIGIONS & MENTAL HEALTH: UNDERSTANDING THE ISSUES 20 (Herbert Richardson ed., 1980) [hereinafter RICHARDSON].


15 For a thorough overview of the legal situation with regard to cults, see WILLIAM C. SHEPHERD, TO SECURE THE BLESSINGS OF LIBERTY: AMERICAN CONSTITUTIONAL LAW AND THE NEW RELIGIOUS MOVEMENTS (1985).

16 Pfeffer, supra note 10, at 11.

17 RICHARDSON, supra note 13, at xi-xii.

18 Dick Anthony & Thomas Robbins, New Religions, Families, and 'Brainwashing,' in IN GODS WE TRUST: NEW PATTERNS OF RELIGIOUS PLURALISM IN AMERICA 263-64 (Thomas Robbins & Dick Anthony eds., 1981).


20 Id. at 40.

21 Id. at 80.

22 Id. at 173.

23 A Question of Will, WASH. POST, Feb. 15, 1982, at A11.

24 Interview with Harvey Cox, in HARE KRISHNA, HARE KRISHNA, 56-57 (Steven J. Gelberg ed., 1983) [hereinafter Interview with Harvey Cox].


26 Richard Delgado argues that it is possible to regulate cults without contravening the Establishment Clause in "When Religious Exercise Is Not Free: Deprogramming and the Constitutional Status of Coercively Induced Belief," 37 VAND. L. REV. 1071 (1984). Jeremiah Gutman disputes Delgado's argument in Extemporaneous Remarks, 9(1) N.Y. U. REV. L. & SOC. CHANGE 69 (1979-80).



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Note from the OCRT:

The Cult Awareness Network referred to in Section II was originally an counter-cult group. Since this paper was written, CAN ceased operations. Its assets were purchased by the New Cult Awareness Network, which is now operating under a multi-faith board.

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