The only difference between a cult and a religion is a hundred years,” said the editor of a prominent Washington weekly in turning down a proposal for an article on the Church of Scientology. The particular editor in question is devoutly secular, so it’s not too surprising that he would paint the issue with such a broad brush. What’s far more surprising is the number of religious individuals and organizations who are on record as agreeing with him, either equating religions and cults or insisting on the blurriness of any line that might separate them.
It might seem perverse for honestly religious people to group their faiths with those of the sadists and megalomaniacs who run most cults, but a growing number are doing just that. A substantial sector of religious America, for example, sees the firefight in Waco as an attack on radical religion and places the cutting edge of religious freedom in the defense of cults’ free exercise rights.
According to the commonly accepted criteria for defining cults, the line between cults and religions is fuzzy indeed. The Cult Awareness Network (CAN), a Chicago-based clearinghouse of information on cults, identifies the following seven characteristics of “destructive cults”: mind control, charismatic leadership, deception, exclusivity, alienation, exploitation, and totalitarian worldview. But as Thomas Taylor writes in Christianity Today , “Almost all Christian denominations have some aspects that would fit into the many vague definitions of cults.” In fact, not only Christian denominations but all religions exhibit aspects that at least superficially resemble the defining features of cults. Do cults use controlled hunger to break down the resistance of members? So do Jews on Yom Kippur. Do cults isolate members for indoctrination sessions? Many religions sponsor retreats. Do cult members live together and eschew the outside world? So do monks. Do cults tap their adherents for money? So do televangelists and virtually all congregations. Do cults use mind control? Ah, but isn’t it precisely the purpose of all religions to alter the way their adherents perceive the world? Brainwashing would be a more useful description of cults if someone could identify exactly what the word means.
The difference between a cult and a religion, of course, lies in extremity. Cults generally exhibit all seven of the CAN’s criteria, while religions generally don’t, and cults exhibit them with far greater vigor than religions do. Judaism, for example, demands of its practitioners an occasional day without food; most cults systematically malnourish their members. Still, without identifying an aspect of cults that is not also an aspect of established religious movements, these two classes of organization appear more similar than they really are. The confusion I have described induces a natural concern among religious organizations that a crackdown on cults could presage a crackdown on mainstream religions. As Taylor warns, “’We,’ who sometimes wish that the government would restrict the behavior of [cults], may someday become ‘them,’ the prospective subjects of scrutiny and regulation.”
CAN’s definition of cults, then, lacks what we might call a red flag-one additional, readily visible criterion that stands beyond such argumentation. I shall propose one-though not, be it understood, in order to define cults as beyond First Amendment protection. The slippery slope that Taylor fears is very real; and the interests of a free society generally-and religious people specifically-are probably best served by toleration of the broadest range of religious beliefs, no matter how vulgar. I offer this refinement, rather, in the interests of intellectual clarity and so that religious organizations don’t confuse their constitutional defense of cults with some broader sense of commonality with them. Where this issue concerns the Supreme Court, in other words, it may be useful that a cult should be deemed a religion; nevertheless, it is necessary for us to understand why most Americans, properly, intuit a difference between the Scientologists and the Moonies on the one hand and the Lubavichers on the other.
The quickest way to detect a cult is to sniff for doublethink. The cult seeks control over its membership not by providing a coherent theological system but by providing the opposite: an unstable theology infinitely malleable to the needs of the cult’s top echelon and uninterpretable at all times to anyone below that level. Specifically, the cult destabilizes its theology by controlling its religious language-through ambiguity, definitional reversals, and deliberate imprecision. What ultimately separates religions from cults is not that cults seek to control the minds of adherents but that they employ Orwellian doublethink to do so and use the cover of language to effect the far more outrageous means of control set forth by CAN.
The Unification Church’s use of the word “Messiah” provides a case in point. Reverend Moon on several occasions has called himself the Messiah, and the Moonie sacred text, Divine Principle , declares flatly that the Messiah was born in Korea between the two world wars (Moon was born in 1920). At other times, however, the church hierarchy demurs on the question of Moon’s divinity. More important, it’s not entirely clear what the word Messiah means in the church’s vocabulary- the word means different things at different times. Jesus was the Messiah, according to the Moonies, but he failed in his mission to unite the world under a single theocracy, because he didn’t marry and have children. Moon, then, represents the Second Coming, though not the Second Coming as described in Revelation. The National Council of Churches (NCC), in a critique of Unification theology, questioned the “meaning and intelligibility” of the Moonie view of the Messiah. While the NCC’s first concern was that the teachings were un-Christian, for our purposes the more important critique is their incoherence.
The comparison with Lubavich Hasidism is instructive. Many (though by no means all) Lubavicher Hasidim believed that Menachem Mendel Schneerson was the Messiah. In sharp contrast with the Moonies, however, “Messiah” has the same specific meaning to Lubavichers as it does to all religious Jews. Two thousand years of post-Second Temple Judaism has provided a framework of Jewish messianism, and Lubavichers could define precisely and briefly what they meant when they called Schneerson “King Moshiach.” By contrast, when reporter Colin McEnroe last year asked Unification Church spokesman Peter Ross whether Rev. Moon was the Messiah, Ross suggested in effect that the question was unanswerable. “Do you have two days?” he said to McEnroe. When the reporter asked whether Ross could give a summary explanation, Ross told him, “That is the short version.”
The Moonies have likewise rendered meaningless a series of words connected to family. The church refers to itself as “the family,” and members call each other “brother” and “sister.” Moon calls himself and his wife the “true parents.” At the same time, the church urges new recruits to cut off contact with their biological families (parents in particular). The purpose, of course, is to appropriate to the church those words people intuitively associate with loyalty, love, and obedience, and to disconnect those words from biological relationships. Yet even as Moon interrupts normal family relations and appropriates the authority of parents, church literature refers to family values, clearly referring not to the church family but to the traditional nuclear family.
The principle vehicle for imposing doublethink is control over language, a dramatic example here being the Church of Scientology, a pseudo- religious cult oriented around the writings of L. Ron Hubbard. Hubbard created a dialect that rivals Orwell’s Newspeak in its complexity and capacity for indoctrination. As journalist Stewart Lamont writes in Religion Inc: The Church of Scientology , “This org-speak is a feature of Scientology in which all terms are defined strictly and processes given technical names by Ron. Like the Red Queen, a word means what Ron says it means.” Lamont further explains that this “org-speak is an alphabet soup of initials, jargon, and pseudo-technical expressions. This heightens the impression that a science is being taught and that it is esoteric and unavailable to the bungling ignoramuses in the outside world.”
In Scientology courses, students are made to use a Hubbard-written dictionary to look up every unknown word in their texts. The dictionaries, according to Lamont, “define words the Hubbard way.” In addition to the technical words, they include English words Hubbard wishes to redefine; he defines “having,” for example, as “to be able to touch or permeate or to direct the disposition of.” No other reference material is permitted to be used in reading Hubbard’s texts. In other words, not only does the church control its source texts, it controls the tools with which the members process them. By its own definition, the Church has (directs the disposition of) the English language and thereby has its adherents’ thoughts.
Political as well as religious cults can be distinguished from legitimate organizations by their use of doublethink. Though political cults espouse extremist ideologies, not extremist theologies, operationally they are virtually identical to religious cults, and they also go to great lengths to control the vocabularies of their members. Dennis King, in his book Lyndon LaRouche and the New American Fascism , describes how LaRouche turned his National Caucus of Labor Committees (NCLC) from a Trotskyite organization into an anti-Semitic neo-fascist group:
LaRouche helped his followers overcome their moral qualms by reframing reality for them through semantic tricks and false syllogisms. The resulting belief system involved four layers: a redefinition of “Jew,” a redefinition of “Nazi,” a denial of the concept of “left” and “right” in politics (to totally disorient the believer); and, for Jewish LaRouchians, a guilt trip and special fears.
According to King, LaRouche distinguished between real and fake Jews, defining the latter as Zionists and practitioners of religious Judaism and calling them “Jews who are not Jews.” Real Jews, according to LaRouche, are followers of Philo of Alexandria, a first-century Jewish thinker with no modern following other than the Jews of the LaRouche movement.
LaRouche’s redefinition of “Nazi” is even more sinister. Writes King,
He argued that Hitler was put into power by the Rothschilds and other wealthy Jews-who-are-not-really-Jews. These evil oligarchs invented Nazi racialism and brainwashed the Nazis to accept it. They then urged Hitler and his cronies to persecute the German Jews so the latter would flee to Palestine, where the Rothschilds had decided to set up a zombie state as a tool of their world domination . . . . Thus did LaRouche place the ultimate blame for Hitler’s crimes on the Jews-who-are-not-Jews-but-really-are-the-Jews- anyway.
In LaRouche literature, the words “Nazi” and “Jew” are both used sometimes pejoratively and sometimes in praise. Moreover, Nazi beliefs and practices are pejoratively called Jewish, and Jewish political practices, both in the U.S. and in Israel, are pejoratively called Nazi.
On the other end of the political spectrum, the New Alliance Party (NAP) plays similar games. The left-wing cult is led by former LaRouche associate Dr. Fred Newman (although the titular leader is Dr. Lenora Fulani, who fronts for the party as its presidential candidate), who considers himself a modern Lenin and writes hardline Marxist political tracts. At the same time, the NAP is not above McCarthyite red-baiting towards its rivals on the left. The party’s paper, the National Alliance , attacked former NAP member William Pleasant with the banner headline: “William Pleasant’s Latest Writings: Communism’s Stinking Corpse.” In NAP language, the words “left,” “communist,” and “Marxist-Leninist” are all positive when applied to the NAP itself, but they are also signals for a priori condemnation when referring to anyone else.
These semantic tricks are not simply oddities of a few isolated cults, but the very source of the cognitive power of cults, the means by which cults concentrate power at the top of the pyramid. Since mainstream religions don’t control language, their religious authorities simply can’t exercise the degree of power over membership that cult leaders can when they make an active effort to reduce the critical capacities of their adherents. Even religions that have historically concentrated extreme power in the hands of their leadership, the Mormons and the Lubavichers, for example, face a great deal more dissent within their ranks than the mildest of true cults. Without tampering with the definition of “Messiah,” those Lubavich leaders who believe that Schneerson was the Messiah have not been able to make their view universally accepted within the movement. Now that the Rebbe is dead, it is an open question whether or not Schneerson’s successors (whoever they turn out to be) will bring about such a redefinition. If they do-and the talk within the movement of Schneerson’s imminent return might be the stirrings of that redefinition-Lubavich may yet evolve into a cult. In its current form, however, it has a long way to go.
The cult is no more a subset of religion than it is a subset of political party. While some cults orient themselves around ideology and some around theology (and some around self-discovery, and some around psychoanalysis), and they can thus appear to resemble religious or political organizations, cults actually constitute a phenomenon of their own. The free exercise clause protects any organization oriented around a theological worldview. It would be a grave error, however, to conclude that all who come under that protection have anything more in common than the protection itself.
Benjamin Wittes is a reporter for Legal Times in Washington, D.C.
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