The Effect of Religious Cults on Westrn Mainstrm Relgn

Cultic Studies Journal, Volume 8, Number 1, 1991, pages 7-36

The Effect of Religious Cults on Western Mainstream Religion

Marcia R. Rudin

International Cult Education Program

Rabbi A. James Rudin

American Jewish Committee


Cults have engendered much bitter controversy among mainstream religious leaders, especially because it is not easy to agree on what characterizes "cults" and what distinguishes them from mainstream religions. Cults affect mainstream religions in practical ways, e.g., they take members away from mainstream religions and they actively cultivate the support of religious leaders. Cults have also induced mainstream religious leaders to raise moral objections concerning cult abuses, to examine their own groups more carefully, and to initiate educational programs to combat cults. Cults will undoubtedly continue to stimulate debate and affect mainstream religions in complex ways.

Since the late 1960s and early 1970s new religious movements, or what some call religious cults [1], have exploded onto the world scene. Experts estimate there are thousands of religious cults with perhaps millions of present and former members. [2] The numbers of cults and the numbers of members are growing rapidly, and they are now an established fact of religious life.

How have religious cults affected mainstream religious groups? How have leaders of the mainstream religions responded to the challenge of these new religious groups? Before these questions can be answered, it is important to differentiate between cults and mainstream religions.

Definitional Issues

Sociologists define cults as deviant groups which exist in a state of tension with society, offering something new and radically different to their followers. [3] The authors believe the best way to define cults is according to behavior, not theology or outward appearance, although Evangelical Christian cult critics may disagree because they also object to cults' belief systems. [4] According to this operational definition, cults are groups which manipulate, mistreat, and exploit their followers and misrepresent themselves both to their followers and to the outside society. This functional definition enables one to avoid the difficult question of whether or not cults are "real" or "genuine" religions -- "deed," not "creed," is the criterion.

Obviously, the conceptualization of cult advanced here is a dimensional concept. Groups vary in the degree of their manipulativeness, exploitativeness, and level of harm, and they change over time. Consequently, not all groups that arouse concern are necessarily cults according to our definition. The term is useful nevertheless, because it draws attention to abuses and dubious practices, whereas the term "new religious movement," though having some utility, tends to draw attention away from the serious concerns cults generate and widens the concept so much that discerning discussions become nearly impossible to have.

Major groups that are often deemed cultic include the Unification Church, The International Society for Krishna Consciousness (Hare Krishna), The Way International, The Children of God, The Church of Scientology, The Divine Light Mission (Elan Vital), The Rajneesh Foundation, Tony and Susan Alamo Christian Foundation, Church Universal and Triumphant, some Eastern meditation groups, and some loosely connected Christian bodies known as the Shepherding/Discipleship Movement. Scholars now classify some "New Age" groups, satanic and witchcraft groups, some therapy and psychological self-help groups, and some political organizations as cults. Thousands of former Christian Fundamentalists claim their groups were cult-like. [5]

Although the groups vary, they tend to share several major characteristics: Members follow an authoritarian leader(s) whose word(s) cannot be questioned. Recruitment techniques are deceptive. Leaders weaken the followers psychologically and make nearly every career or life-decision for them. Cultists work long hours either recruiting new members or obtaining money for the group. Cults break up families. Cults often physically, psychologically, and sexually abuse members -- particularly women -- and sometimes operate in an atmosphere of violence, which may include weapons. Cult members generally disdain outside society because they feel their special mission places them above laws and accepted social mores. They therefore believe they are justified in lying and deceiving others. (The Unification Church speaks of "Heavenly Deception," Hare Krishna members speak of "Transcendental Trickery.") Believing they possess The Truth, cultists are often intolerant of other religions and ideas, and see the world in black-white, us-them terms, perhaps speaking of outsiders as satanic.

The cult phenomenon has engendered much bitter controversy. Some deny that these new religious movements are dangerous. They claim they are simply typical of harmless religious fringe groups that have always existed throughout history, and that they offer interesting alternatives to mainstream religions and promote theological dialogue and religious and cultural pluralism. Cult critics, while agreeing that there have always been such groups, assert that modern organizations differ in that some possess great wealth and power and use highly sophisticated psychological techniques of persuasion and control to recruit and retain members. Some mainstream religious leaders adhere to the first view, some to the second, and their opinions as to how unique and dangerous these groups are determine their responses to them.

It has always been difficult to distinguish cults from mainstream religious groups, and it is even more difficult now because of several recent developments in the religious scene. Since April 1985, when Fundamentalists Anonymous was formed, thousands of former Christian Fundamentalists have proclaimed that their experiences were similar to those reported by cult members. [6] In the last few years Christian Shepherding/Discipleship movements, in which every aspect of members' lives is tightly controlled by a pyramidal structure of authoritarian leadership, have proliferated, and the abuses reported in these groups further blur the distinction between cults and mainstream religions. [7] Some cults such as The Way International and Shepherding/Discipleship groups appear on the surface to be mainstream churches. As time has passed, older organizations such as The Unification Church and Hare Krishna have worked hard to gain public acceptance as mainstream religious groups. [8] They claim they are maligned because they're new and unfamiliar just as was, for example, the Mormon Church in the past. And they say they have transformed themselves into mainstream religions, as did the Mormon Church. Adding further to the confusion, some questionable groups attempt to be classified as religions, possibly to avoid taxation and to shield themselves from legal prosecution. [9]

Moral Objections to Abuses by Cultic Groups

Many mainstream religious leaders object morally to the abuses of some of the cult groups and the pain inflicted on their members and their families. They cite the separation of cult members from their outside families and the breakup of families within the group. They say cults pose a threat to religious freedom and cultural pluralism because of their intolerance of outside ideas and other religions. Many criticize the anti-Catholic and anti-Semitic teachings of some groups such as The Tony and Susan Alamo Foundation, The Church Universal and Triumphant, The Unification Church, the Children of God, The Way International, and the Rajneesh Foundation. [10] Some adherents of mainstream religious beliefs and secular critics suggest that cults may even undermine the Judaeo-Christian moral foundations of Western society. [11] A former nun told one of the authors, "The `New Age' movements believe there's no right or wrong, that you are God, and whatever you do is good and right, so you shouldn't feel guilty. This goes against the Ten Commandments. And I'm afraid the upsurge of Satanic and Witchcraft groups means we're going back to the `Dark Ages.'" [12]

What are the more practical effects of cults on mainstream religions?

Mainstream religious leaders fear that the abuses perpetrated by cults may give all religion a bad name and may subject their own organizations to criticism and outside regulation. Law enforcement officials are now investigating some religious cults' neglect of children's health, violations of solicitation and charity regulations, income tax laws, immigration laws, health and sanitary codes, child labor laws, and education requirements. Some mainstream religious groups fear that this will lead to closer examination of ÿ…theirÿ• behavior, especially in the areas of tax exemptions, other financial practices, and neglect of children's health care. [13]

In the last few years disenchanted former cult members have sued their groups for such things as fraud, slavery, alienation from families, psychological harm, and physical and sexual abuse. Some have recovered substantial financial compensatory damages. Many mainstream religious leaders decry the growing trend of "secular litigation of religious disputes" [14], fearing that the results of such legal precedents, especially in the areas of fraud or false promises, malpractice, invasion of privacy, emotional distress, and wrongful death, will mean that they could be successfully sued also. [15] In September, 1985, USA Today reported, "Growing numbers of clergy are reluctant to counsel people for fear of malpractice suits." [16] More than 40,000 clergy have purchased malpractice insurance since insurance companies began offering it to them in 1979. [17] Churches are hiring lawyers and streamlining their procedures. According to the Wall Street Journal, "The Catholic Church has established arbitration services in some of its dioceses, and the Christian Legal Society has started an interdenominational conciliation service to handle disputes between churches and their members." [18]

Some mainstream religious leaders fear that legal scrutiny of religious cults will lead to tighter governmental regulations of all religious practices. They maintain this will weaken the delicate boundaries between church and state, which can lead to violations of the United States Constitution's First Amendment guarantees of freedom of religion. [19]

There are other practical effects of cults on mainstream religions. Controversial groups trying to join umbrella religious organizations have caused dissension within them. For example, when the Unification Church applied for membership in the Cape Ann (Massachusetts) Interfaith Council in 1981 the Sacred Heart (Catholic) Church withdrew its membership from the Council. [20] When the Unification Church applied for membership in the National Council of Churches in 1977, it was denied by the NCC's Faith and Order Commission on the basis that the Unification Church is not a Christian body. [21] Mainstream religious leaders fear that the Equal Access Act, passed in August, 1984, which allows religious meetings to take place on secondary school premises, could be legally challenged because cults may abuse it by using this opportunity to recruit high school students. [22] Religious organizations fear legal actions such as the suit against the New York City Jewish Community Relations Council brought by the Jews for Jesus missionary organization and the American Board of Missions to the Jews [ABMJ]. [23] Rabbis, ministers and priests complain that the cult phenomenon has caused them difficult pastoral problems when families of cult members and former cult members come to them for help and counseling.

Impact on Mainstream Membership

The most concrete, practical effect of cults on mainstream religions is the fact that these new groups are taking members away. This is especially worrisome to the Jewish community, where intermarriage and a declining birth rate already threaten the physical existence of the Jewish people. Cults attract many Jews. The percentage of cult members who are Jewish is far higher than the percentage of Jews in the general population of the United States [now under three percent]. Estimates of the Jewish percentage of cult members vary from 20-50%. [24] Cults recruit orthodox and conservative Jews as well as reform Jews and those unaffiliated with the Jewish community, and they attract Jewish elderly as well as young people. Many Jews in cults hold high leadership positions, such as the former president of the American Branch of the Unification Church, Mose Durst. Jews express alarm at the growing numbers of religious cults successfully recruiting in Israel. [25]

Catholics are also concerned about losing high numbers to cults at a time when the Church is beset with many other internal problems contributing to a decline in membership. [26] The Baltimore, Maryland Archdiocese asked the Cult Awareness Network office there to survey the percentage of Roman Catholic membership in cults. [27]

Many Catholic leaders believe an even more serious threat to their Church's membership rolls is the Protestant Fundamentalist movement, to which they estimate millions of Catholics have been converted. [28] These groups convert many young and very poor people [29] and actively seek out Catholics in Latin America [30] and in areas such as Queens, New York, where many poor Latin American refugees settle. [31] Since, according to the testimony of former members, some of these Fundamentalist groups are cult-like, Catholics link the "Fundamentalist problem" and the "cult problem" together. [32]

The liberal Protestant community does not appear to perceive cults as affecting their membership. Peggy Shriver, the former Assistant General Secretary for Research and Evaluation of the National Council of Churches, says that although once or twice a month she gets phone calls from distressed parents of cult members seeking information, these requests "have not filtered upwards through the grassroots congregational network." [33] None of the NCC's thirty-two various denominations (major Protestant groups and black and Eastern Orthodox churches) or their educational arms such as Sunday School boards and seminaries has ever asked for information about cults from her office. [34]

The Reverend Dean Kelley, former Director of Religious and Civil Liberties for the NCC, agreed that, when he was with the NCC, most pastors were not asking for help on this issue, and there was a general apathy or lack of awareness of the cult problem. Kelley received only about one letter a month about cults, and these were usually from overseas. While new religious movements are seen as rivals by some mainstream Protestants, Kelley said cults are perceived as a "localized" or "isolated" problem, and "in most Protestant denominations they are just not a front burner issue." [35] Kelley said that one reason cults' taking members from their churches is not upsetting to mainstream Protestants is that "cult membership is not seen as a defection from an ethnic group as it is for Jews, Catholics and Evangelicals. We don't see it as catastrophic because religious identity is more peripheral to us than it is for Catholics, Jews, and Evangelicals." [36]

However, many Protestant parents of present and former cult members claim they have voiced their concern about cults to their pastors and to the National Council of Churches, but have received no response. "I resent Dean Kelley speaking for all Protestants on this issue," complains one such parent. "He doesn't represent us. Our outrage and cries for help are not being heard." [37] These parents and other cult critics claim that Kelley, who appears on many panel discussions and radio and TV shows discussing religious cults, does not officially represent the NCC on this issue and that he sweeps criticisms of cults under the rug of First Amendment freedom of religion issues, thereby often aligning the NCC with these questionable groups. [38]

Some cults have specifically targeted the black Protestant community for membership. The Church Universal and Triumphant once had special recruitment programs directed at blacks (and women). [39] The Rajneesh Foundation, in an apparent attempt to swell the voting rolls in its town of Rajneeshpuram (formerly Antelope), Oregon bused hundreds of homeless men, many of them black, to its commune. [40] In 1983 The Church of Bible Understanding raided Covenant House, a shelter for homeless and runaways in New York City, promising the predominantly black teenagers jobs. [41] The Unification Church, pointing to its few black members, has attempted to recruit others. [42] However, with the exception of Jim Jones's People's Temple, which had many black members among the 911 who perished in the Guyana jungle, [43] and such all-black cults as The House of Judah and the Black Hebrew groups in the United States and in Israel, experts agree that most cult members are white. [44]

Dr. James Polk, a prominent black churchman who was Executive Director of the Council of Churches of the City of New York, explains that cults are just not a high priority issue for the black community. "We have too much else to worry about, like employment and education. The numbers of blacks in cults are not sizable enough to worry about, or else we've just ignored them. And because the black community is so pluralistic it is more tolerant of religious diversity than the white community. We have Haitians and Jamaicans, for example, that belong to unusual religious groups, some of them meeting in storefronts. So cults are just not seen as a threat." [45]

If there is any strong impact of cults on membership from the Protestant community it is on the Evangelical segment. Although Sociology Professor Ronald Enroth of Westmont College in California, himself an Evangelical Protestant, claims cults are not drawing many Evangelicals [46], most cult observers believe many more Evangelicals are joining cults than are liberal Protestants.

Some groups, particularly cult-like Covenant Community Shepherding/Discipleship organizations, drain away membership from mainstream religions not only by direct recruiting of individuals and families, but through infiltration of existing church structures, thus threatening the very identities of the churches themselves. [47] The Bread of Life infiltrated a Catholic church in Akron, Ohio [48]; the People of Hope -- allied to the larger charismatic body, "Sword of the Spirit" -- troubled the Little Flower Church in Berkeley Heights, New Jersey [49] and the Lamb of God Catholic Church in Baltimore, Maryland. [50] While some of these Covenant Community groups are officially sanctioned by the Catholic Church, others such as the People of Hope are challenging established Catholic hierarchical leadership. So, the presence within Catholic congregations is troublesome not only because they are cult-like, but because their attempts to operate either independently or under the aegis of a parent covenant group, such as the Sword of the Spirit, cause jurisdictional disputes and threaten the official structure of the Catholic Church upon which its authority is based.

Mainstream Self-Scrutiny

Because religious cults are so successful in attracting members from other religions, one major effect of cults on the mainstream Western religious community is the intense self-scrutiny religious leaders have been forced to undertake. They are asking, "Why are people turning to cults instead of to their own religions? Are our religions failing to provide spiritual sustenance and emotional vitality? Are we driving lonely seekers into the arms of the cults?"

The Jewish community especially blames its own shortcomings. Jewish experts cite breakdown in the traditional Jewish family structure, discomfort with minority status, weak Jewish education, a large, impersonal synagogue structure that is often unresponsive to the individual needs of singles, single parents, and elderly, lack of counseling services, and a focus on the intellectual aspects of Judaism instead of its emotionally satisfying spiritual teachings as reasons why Jews are so vulnerable to cult recruiters. [51]

Partly as a result of the cult phenomenon and the intense self-scrutiny it has engendered, the Jewish community has in the last fourteen years geared up to become more responsive to individual needs. There are now worship options to the often impersonal large synagogue structure such as small, informal "Chavurah" worship groups. More attention is being paid to the needs of Jewish students on college campuses and to the needs of singles, single parents, elderly, physically and mentally handicapped, and Jews in nursing homes (targeted by cults and Christian missionary groups). But Dr. Philip Abramowitz, Director of the New York City Jewish Community Relations Task Force on Missionaries and Cults, warns that the Jewish community must do far more educational work to counter the appeal of cult groups to Jewish youth, adults, and elderly. "We must strengthen the Jewish family, present Judaism as a vital, emotionally and spiritually satisfying religion, make Jews feel part of a close and caring community, provide essential services to all Jews, and reach out more to Jews who don't identify or are not affiliated with the structured Jewish community so that they don't have to turn to cults." [52]

The Catholic Church is also carefully examining how its own failures contribute to cults' success in attracting so many Catholics. The official result of this inquiry is the May 1986 Vatican report entitled, "Sects or New Religious Movements: A Pastoral Challenge." Growing out of a two-year study of information supplied by Church leaders from around the world, the authors of the document conclude, "The challenge of the new religious movement is to stimulate our own renewal for a greater pastoral efficacy." [53] Specifically, they call for "evangelization, catechism, education, and ongoing education in the faith -- biblical, theological, ecumenical. This ongoing process should be both ÿ…informativeÿ•, with information about our own Catholic tradition [beliefs, practices, spirituality, meditation, contemplation], about other traditions and about the new religious groups, and formative, with guidance in personal and communal faith, a deeper sense of the transcendent, of the eschatological, of religious commitment, of community spirit, etc. The Church should not only be a sign of hope for people, but should also give them the reasons for that hope; it should help to ask questions, as well as to answer them." [54] There should be "an overall emphasis on the centrality of Holy Scripture" and a more personal and holistic approach, assistance in helping followers find their own cultural identity, and more emphasis on prayer and worship and participation and leadership. [55]

One Catholic cult expert believes Catholics are vulnerable to cults because many "no longer have a firm faith." [56] Others say there's no feeling of close community in the Church and maintain some Catholics searching for the more secure Church of the Pre-Vatican Council II era find comfort in the authoritarianism of cults. [57] One lay Catholic believes, "It's easier for cult leaders to get Catholics [than others] to be `surrendered' because they've been raised with the idea of submitting to authority." [58] They also agree with the Vatican report that Catholics are more vulnerable to the cults' techniques of proselytizing through Biblical witnessing because until recently they were not exposed to first-hand Biblical study and therefore are unable to effectively answer the recruiters [59].

Evangelical Protestant leaders also examine their own failures in order to understand the appeal of cults. Explains Dr. J. Gordon Melton, Director of the Institute for the Study of American Religion, "They [alternative groups] do best with people moving from adolescence to adulthood. That's what the mainline churches do worst -- that and providing a sense of community." [60] Professor Ronald Enroth agrees: "These groups appear where people are hurting -- on the campus, in the community, on the streets. That can be a lesson to the church. We need to strengthen our campus ministry and penetrate the hurting society, not expect people to come to us." [61]

One of the major differences between mainstream religions and cults is that the mainstream religions have "self-policing" or "self-regulating" mechanisms whereas cults -- authoritarian self-contained units generally operating out of the public's eyes -- do not. [62] So, mainstream religious leaders are fine-tuning their own "self-policing" procedures and scrutinizing their own behavior and practices in order to more clearly distinguish themselves from cults and to assure themselves and others that they are not guilty of the same manipulation, exploitation, and abuse of which they accuse cults.

Believing it is the most likely mainstream religious group to be confused with cults because of its emotional fervor and theologically based zeal for conversion, [63] the Evangelical Protestant community is working hard to distinguish itself from cults and to distinguish its own proselytizing techniques from those used by cults.

One of the organizations straddling the line between cults and mainstream Evangelical groups is the Maranatha Campus Ministries, also known as Maranatha Christian Ministries and Maranatha Christian Church. In November, 1982 an "ad hoc" committee of distinguished Christian Evangelical theologians met to examine critical enquiries received about the group and to gather information about it. [64] After a two-year study, which included meetings with the Maranatha leaders, the committee denounced Maranatha's "cultish practices and theology," [65], expressed concerns about its doctrines and "questionable" practices [66], and concluded it "would not recommend this organization (Maranatha) to anyone." The concerns of these and other Evangelicals have apparently had an impact. Leaders of the discipleship movement have in various ways apologized publicly for the excesses and harms of that movement. [67]

In response to the cult phenomenon Dr. Gordon Lewis, Professor of Theology and Philosophy at Denver Seminary, has organized Evangelical Ministries to New Religions in order to "help people distinguish authentic from unauthentic Christianity and strengthen Evangelical Christian ministries to new religions and cultists." [68]

In 1985 the American Family Foundation, an organization that researches cults and psychological manipulation, asked the Reverend Dietrich Gruen, then Evangelism Specialist and Research Assistant for the Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship, to gather a committee of leading Evangelicals to formulate an ethical code on proselytizing. Gruen's committee of twelve Evangelical leaders prepared a draft ethical code. Based on the premise of Article Thirteen in the 1948 United Nations Declaration of Human Rights that "Everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion" and the Catholic Church's Second Vatican Council's Declaration on Religious Liberty [69], the tentative code seeks to present ethical witnessing guidelines to new Evangelical ministers, help them focus on problematic areas, "stimulate professional and public debate of the major ethical quandaries...and minimize the need for cumbersome and costly intervention and regulations by various governmental agencies." [70]

The authors of the tentative code "disavow any efforts to influence people which depersonalize or deprive them of their inherent value as persons," affirm "the inalienable right of every person to retain his own belief system, and the freedom of every person to survey other valuable options. . ."disavow "any coercive techniques or manipulative appeals which bypass a person's critical faculties, play on his psychological weaknesses, or undermine his relationship with family or religious institutions. . .and seek to "proclaim Christ openly. . .with no hidden agendas..."[71] "As Christian evangelists," they continue, "we accept the obligation to correct one who represents the Christian faith in any manner incompatible with these ethical guidelines or who violates the legal statutes set forth by our federal and state authorities." [72] A revised version of that code was discussed at Boston University, under the leadership of the Reverend Robert Thornburg, Dean of Marsh Chapel, and approved as an official statement by the Boston University Christian Chaplains on June 21, 1988. [73]

The Catholic Church has also been forced to differentiate its legitimate splinter groups from destructive religious cults in order to insure that its own behavior does not become cult-like. Pointing out the Vatican Council II Declaration on Religious Liberty and its Decree on Missionary Activity, Father James LeBar asserts that while "groups have a right to seek new members. . .they have no right to use deception, high pressure, and guilt to force the decision of an individual." [74]

In the nineteenth century the Church stepped in to correct the results of "excessive proselytizing" by Theodore Ratisbonne, a Jewish convert to Catholicism [75] when he used deceptive means to baptize Jewish children without their parents' knowledge or consent. [76] Today the Church has to grapple with accusations that the fervently religious Catholic organization, Opus Dei, is a cult. [77] In December, 1981 Basil Cardinal Hume issued guidelines for that group in his Archdiocese in Great Britain, stating that no one under eighteen years of age should be allowed to make a long-term commitment to Opus Dei, the commitment should be first discussed with parent or guardians, the individual must be free to leave the organization and to choose his or her own spiritual director, and the group's sponsorship and management should be made clear. [78] And on November 4, 1986, the late Bishop of Brooklyn, Francis John Mugavero, released a "Declaration Concerning the Bayside Movement," which discusses the claims that a Queens, New York woman, Veronica Leuken, has been witnessing apparitions of the Virgin Mary during "vigils" in Flushing Meadow Park. Bishop Mugavero instructs that the visions are not authentic and legitimate Church authority does not condone participation in these "vigils" or disseminating or reading literature about them. [79]

Mainstream Study and Action

The cult phenomenon has stirred many religious leaders to carefully study the new religious movements. In 1983 an International Conference on Destructive Cults in Linz, Austria sponsored by the Lutheran Church of Austria drew prominent Church leader-participants from Western Europe. [80] The Church of England instituted an investigation of the London-based cult-like School of Economic Science in 1983 after complaints were aired at the Church's General Synod [81] and received from clergy in several other countries. [82] Prominent clergy and religious studies academicians have participated in sociological conferences on cults such as that held at the Continuing Education Center at the University of Nebraska in March of 1984. [83] Many attended the conference entitled, "Cultism: A Conference for Scholars and Policy Makers" sponsored by the American Family Foundation, the Neuropsychiatric Institute of the University of California at Los Angeles, and The Johnson Foundation, which was held at the Johnson Foundation's Wingspread Conference Center in Racine, Wisconsin in September, 1985. [84]

Concern about the dangers of cults to their members and to a democratic society has prompted some religious leaders to embark on aggressive programs to counter them. In December of 1976, officials of the American Jewish Committee, The National Council of Churches, and the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York held a joint press conference declaring the Unification Church and Sun Myung Moon's writings to be "anti-democratic, anti-Jewish, and in direct conflict with basic Christian teaching." [85] In July, 1982, the Interfaith Coalition of Concern about Cults, which sponsors seminars and conferences for clergy and lay people and for the media, was organized. Members include the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of North America and South America, the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York City (an umbrella group of Jewish organizations including the New York Board of Rabbis), the Queens Federation of Churches, the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn, and the Council of Churches of the City of New York. [86] In 1986 religious leaders in Miami, Florida established an interfaith council there. [87]

Although most Jewish leaders feel more must be done, the Jewish community has been actively trying to meet the challenge of cults through educational and counseling efforts. The Jewish Community Relations Council of New York City sponsors a Task Force on Missionaries and Cults. It is a major resource center, convenes conferences on cults for the Jewish community at large, rabbis, college administrators, guidance counselors, parents of cult members, mental health professionals, and Hillel workers, and helps educate the Israeli public, government, and press about the cult problem there. The Jewish Board of Family and Children's Services in New York City and the JCRC Task Force co-sponsor a twenty-four hour Cult Hotline and Crisis Clinic offering counseling by trained mental health professionals to both Jewish and non-Jewish past and present cult members and their families. [88] The Union of American Hebrew Congregations established a National Committee on Cults and Missionaries [89], and the Central Conference of American Rabbis prepared a study kit for rabbis. [90]

In Philadelphia the JCRC sponsors a cult task force, and the Federation of Jewish Philanthropies funds a Jewish Campus Activities Board. The Commission on Cults and Missionary Efforts of the Jewish Federation Council of Greater Los Angeles has presented a series of national seminars to discuss cults and the legal system. The Greater Miami Jewish Federation's Committee on Cults and Missionaries has developed a widely-used high school cult curriculum. The Columbus, Ohio Federation funds The Leo Yaffenoff Jewish Center, and the JCRC there sponsors a Task Force and Missionary Committee. In Baltimore, the Jewish Federation and the Jewish Community Center sponsored Project Yedid. Jews for Judaism is located in Baltimore, Los Angeles, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and Israel. There is a Jews for Judaism in Miami (separate from the above-mentioned group of the same name), the Jewish Family Institute in Brooklyn, the B'nai B'rith-sponsored Cult project in Montreal, Canada, The Jewish Center in Balaclava, Victoria, Australia, Concerned Parents Against Cults in Haifa, and Yad L'Achim in Jerusalem. [91] The Israeli Minister of Education appointed an Intergovernmental Committee on Cult Activities, the summary report of which has been published in Vol. 6, No. 1 (1989) of this journal.

In 1985 a conference of Catholic Bishops in Japan issued a statement that the Unification Church is not a Christian organization and warned Catholics there not to participate in its activities. [92] In the United States for many years only a handful of priests and Catholic lay people expressed concern about cults, and just a few cult-education curricula were produced by individual priests. [93] Although the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York and the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn did join the Interfaith Coalition of Concern about Cults, official Vatican sanction for these counter-cult activities came only with the release of the May, 1986 Vatican Report on Cults. While Catholic counter-cultists strongly welcome the Vatican report, they maintain that since many Vatican statements go unread and since today so many Catholics question the authority of the Pope on every issue, the report has not yet awakened many Catholics to the cult problem. [94]

To date the liberal Protestant community has done little officially to respond to cults. Dean Kelley says that when he tried to organize a project about six years ago to develop dialogue between cult members and their families, it "never got off the ground because of opposition from some National Council of Churches members who felt such a program would dignify cults. And they felt these issues could best be handled by the various denominations." [95] Kelley also points out that since the NCC has a strong civil libertarian stance, it opposes the adjudication of cult-related cases in law courts. [96]

However, in August, 1982 the Society of Friends in Canada approved a statement upholding freedom of thought, conscience, and religion, and committed itself to cult-education programs, support groups, and aid for cult-affected families and further investigation of human rights violations. [97] The Connecticut Conference of the United Church of Christ in October, 1982, condemned authoritarian cults and resolved to adopt a cult-education program. [98] The American Lutheran Church prepared a resource paper for its clergy and youth [99], and the Lutheran Church of Austria sponsored a cult conference. [100] The Council of Churches of the City of New York did join the Interfaith Coalition of Concern about Cults, and the NCC denied the Unification Church membership in its organization in 1977 [101] and publicly declared it a non-Christian body. Many NCC leaders have refused to attend Unification Church-sponsored conferences. [102] And some Protestants worry that the Unification Church's Unification Theological Seminary, which received New York State academic accreditation in November of 1986 [103], could easily be confused with the prestigious mainstream Protestant Union Theological Seminary. [104]

The Evangelical Protestant community was the first religious group in the early 1970s to publicize religious cults. According to J. Gordon Melton, the first counter-cult groups grew out of the Plymouth Brethren, Reformed and Baptist traditions. [105] Spiritual Counterfeits Project in Berkeley, California is an Evangelical counter-cult group, and The Dialog Center International in Aarhus, Denmark, is an academic research center.

Cult Attempts to Gain Support of Religious Leaders

Aware of the negative publicity such active counter-cult efforts generate, some cults have attempted to woo mainstream religious leaders in order to at least neutralize them and to gain legitimacy through their acceptance and public endorsement.

The Unification Church has been particularly active in attempting to gain legitimacy through the positive recognition of prominent mainstream religious leaders. In 1985, while its leader Sun Myung Moon was serving an eighteen-month prison sentence for tax fraud, the Unification Church sent packets of books, brochures, and videotaped lectures about its theology costing an estimated six million dollars to 300,000 mainstream denominational clergy and rabbis throughout the United States. [106] The Unification Church's political anti-communist organization, CAUSA (Confederation of Associations for the Unification of the Societies of the Americas, and the Spanish word for "cause") USA, sponsors the CAUSA Ministerial Alliance. The Ministerial Alliance holds conferences and lectures for clergy, which Christianity and Crisis estimates 10,000 pastors have attended. [107] The Unification Church has enlisted the support of Mormon church leader and political conservative W. Cleon Skousen, [108] and The Mormon Church-led National Center for Constitutional Studies has co-sponsored conferences with CAUSA for state legislators on the United States constitution. [109] A Christian minister in Vermont reported in 1984 that a Unification Church member posed as a reporter exploring clergy's involvement in the nuclear disarmament issue, and another reports he was asked by a Unification Church member to start a food distribution center. [110]

The Unification Church has made special efforts to win over black Church leaders, and, some say, infiltrate black churches through its CAUSA Ministerial Alliance [111]. According to Christianity and Crisis, the CAUSA Ministerial Alliance has had a higher percentage of positive response from black clergy than from white [112], especially from black ministers in Chicago, Detroit, and the New York City area. [113]

The Unification Church has also appealed to the black churches by claiming that Sun Myung Moon has been persecuted by the media and in the law courts because he is an Asian, and it invites blacks to ally themselves with him to combat racism. Among Moon's black clergy supporters are prominent civil rights leaders such as Wyatt Walker, Ralph Abernathy, Joseph Lowery, and former Black Panthers Eldridge Cleaver and Anthony Bryant. [114] Ironically, observers point out, Moon has been accused of making racist statements in his "Master Speaks" speeches, [115] and former black Unification Church members say they were denied leadership positions and were always the first to be suspected when money was missing from the church. [116]

The Unification Church has given money to some black churches and clergy. [117] Often using different organizational names and not identifying themselves as Unification Church representatives unless pressed, [118] the workers have provided black churches with free food and other needed social services such as housing programs in Harlem, transportation for the elderly, and setting up a free camp in upstate New York for ghetto children. [119] While most black clergy stopped accepting these favors when they found out the Unification Church was their source, others have continued to accept them, and Dr. Polk maintains the Unification Church has made definite inroads into black churches. [120] This issue has caused heated controversy in the black community. [121]

Some cults have also sought support of religious-studies academicians and institutions. The Unification Church invites many prominent scholars to conferences sponsored by its organization, ICUS (International Conference for the Unity of Sciences), offering generous honoraria in addition to expenses. [122] In 1985 the Church of Scientology presented its Religious Freedom Award to Dr. Franklin Littell, a Methodist minister and a distinguished professor of religion at Temple University. The award included a $25,000 donation to a religious liberty organization headed by Dr. Littell. [123] The Unification Church donated $60,000 to the Shaw Divinity School, a black seminary in Raleigh, North Carolina, which a few weeks later presented an honorary doctorate to Sun Myung Moon. [124] The Unification Theological Seminary hires many prominent clergy and religious-studies academicians, including Catholic sociologist Father Joseph Fichter of Loyola University, who was a visiting scholar there in the fall of 1986 and who wrote a book highly supportive of the Unification Church. [125] Many present and former priests and nuns study at the Unification Church's seminary. [126] One hundred and eighty-two faculty members of colleges and universities throughout the world signed a full-page advertisement in The New York Times of August 14, 1985, voicing support for Sun Myung Moon during his imprisonment [127].

Perhaps the most successful strategy cults have used to gain public support from mainstream religious leaders is their argument that investigation and prosecution of cults could negatively affect their mainstream religious organizations. Playing on this fear that "Today the government is coming after us, but tomorrow it might be your church," the Unification Church successfully enlisted the National Council of Churches of Christ in the U.S.A., the American Baptist Churches in the U.S.A., the Presbyterian Church U.S.A., the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the Christian Legal Society Center for Law and Religious Freedom, the National Association of Evangelicals, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Mormon Church), the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, the American Association of Christian Schools, the Christian Voice, the Unitarian Universalist Association, the National Black Clergy Caucus, and The American Coalition of Unregistered Churches to submit Amici Curiae briefs in The Case of United States v. Sun Myung Moon, Moon's income tax fraud case. [128] In 1980 the National Council of Churches and the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs submitted Amici Curiae briefs to support the Church of Scientology's tax-exempt status in its controversy with the Internal Revenue Service. They maintained that no church should be deprived of its tax-exempt status because it violates public policy or because individual church members break the law. [129]

Religious cults also capitalize on the fear that closer governmental regulation of them can blur boundaries between church and state and that attacks on cults damage healthy religious pluralism. Calling those critical of religious cults intolerant and bigoted "anti-religionists" who seek to destroy freedom of religion [130], groups such as the Unification Church have been able to mobilize mainstream religious leaders' support and to mask and hence to some extent defuse criticism of their behavior and impede prosecution of their law-breaking. [131]

In May 1984, the Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Freedom, which includes prominent religious leaders such as Harvard University Professor of Divinity Harvey Cox, sponsored a rally in Washington, D.C. to protest the U.S. Supreme Court's refusal to review Moon's appeal for his conviction on tax fraud. [132] In June it sponsored a rally in Boston to protest governmental intrusion into religion at which former Senator and Presidential candidate Eugene McCarthy was the keynote speaker. [133] Just hours after Moon's release from his eighteen-month prison term served for tax fraud in August of 1985, several groups, including some connected to the Unification Church, sponsored a banquet in Washington with approximately 1,700 religious leaders in attendance -- nearly half of whom, it was estimated, were black -- at which Moon was "hailed as a hero and a martyr." [134] Moral Majority's Jerry Falwell and Joseph Lowery, President of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, expressed alarm at the rate of growth of church-state legal cases and predicted a "devastating" impact should Moon's tax conviction set a precedent "which allows the government to intrude into internal religious affairs so deeply that the First Amendment rights of churches everywhere have been severely damaged." [135] While claiming to disagree with the Unification Church theology, Lowery maintained, "If you are for religious freedom for anybody, you have to be for religious freedom for everybody…I do uphold his right to worship and fund the affairs of the church without interference from the government." [136]

Hence, out of a desire to protect their own groups and out of legitimate concerns for First Amendment issues, some religious leaders have bolstered cults' attempts to improve their public self-images. While fully sensitive to the freedom of religion issues, cult critics see this support by mainstream religious leaders as being "pro-cult." They assert that these leaders have inadvertently helped cults attain their goals of greater acceptance as mainstream religious groups and have helped blur the already often-thin line between cults and mainstream religions.

Disagreements About Cults Will Continue

This dispute is just one example of the lively discussion the cult phenomenon has engendered among religious leaders as well as in the general public. It is also an example of the complex nature of the interrelationships between cults and mainstream religions and of the diverse effects cults have had on Western mainstream religions and religious leaders.

These interrelationships and effects have been both practical and ideological, both positive and negative. Mainstream religious leaders, fearing the alleged abuses and excesses of cults can negatively affect them and can disrupt the precious balance of church and state, have scrutinized their own behavior and attempted to correct it where necessary to avoid both moral and legal consequences. The loss of membership to cultic groups has caused mainstream religious leaders to question themselves, to reassess their educational programs, and to try to offer their members more emotional satisfaction, needed services, and a sense of loving community.

While some religious leaders may disagree about how dangerous cults really are and what their responses to them -- if any -- should be, all agree these groups are here to stay, that they are a permanent factor on the world religious scene. As cults continue to grow and change, so too will the complex interaction between cults and mainstream religious groups continue to grow and


Marcia R. Rudin, M.A. is Director of the International Cult Education Program and co-author of Prison or Paradise: The New Religious Cults.

Rabbi A. James Rudin is National Interreligious Affairs Director of the American Jewish Committee and co-author of Prison or Paradise? The New Religious Cults

Cultic Studies Journal, Vol. 8, No. 1, 1991