JOINING A "CULT":
RELIGIOUS CHOICE OR PSYCHOLOGICAL ABERRATION?
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.
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
||all were relatively "high demand" religions, requiring
much more of their followers than weekly church attendance and a
||all had a charismatic leader; most involved communal living as at
least an option and very often a requirement.
||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
Two 1980s cases highlight the importance of the "brainwashing"
||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.
||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."
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.
||In section II, I attempt (unsuccessfully) to
define a "cult."
||In section III, I discuss the civil liberties
issues surrounding "cults" and the public furor they have
||Section IV deals with medicalizing of a
||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.
||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
II. WHAT IS A "CULT"?
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
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:
- communal and totalistic;
- aggressive in their proselytizing;
- systematic in their programs of indoctrination;
- relatively new in the United States;
- 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."
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.
III. THE CIVIL LIBERTIES ISSUES
The danger to civil liberties, especially to the religion clauses of the
First Amendment, can be summed up briefly under five headings. (15)
||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."
||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.
||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)
||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
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
people in the Episcopal and Catholic churches, depending on the preferences of those who
wanted them deprogrammed." (24)
||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
excessive government entanglement." (26)
IV. MEDICALIZING A POLITICAL ISSUE
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
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
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.
Continue with the second part of
1 Associate Professor of Law, Cleveland-Marshall College of
Law, Cleveland State University. J.D., University of Virginia; Ph.D., University
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.
8 J. GORDON MELTON & ROBERT L. MOORE, THE CULT
EXPERIENCE: RESPONDING TO THE NEW RELIGIOUS PLURALISM 15 (1982).
9 DAVID G. BROMLEY & ANSON D. SHUPE, JR., STRANGE GODS:
THE GREAT AMERICAN CULT SCARE 23-24 (1981).
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].
14 THOMAS MERTON, THE SEVEN STOREY MOUNTAIN (1948).
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).
19 TED PATRICK & TOM DULACK, LET OUR CHILDREN GO!
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
25 DOROTHY NELKIN, THE CREATION CONTROVERSY: SCIENCE OR
SCRIPTURE IN THE SCHOOLS 204 (1982).
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).
27 THOMAS S. SZASZ, IDEOLOGY AND INSANITY: ESSAYS ON THE
PSYCHIATRIC DEHUMANIZATION OF MAN (1970); THOMAS S. SZASZ, LAW, LIBERTY, AND
PSYCHIATRY: AN INQUIRY INTO THE SOCIAL USES OF MENTAL HEALTH PRACTICES (1963).
28 NICHOLAS N. KITTRIE, THE RIGHT TO BE DIFFERENT: DEVIANCE
AND ENFORCED THERAPY: DEVIANCE AND ENFORCED THERAPY (1971).
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.