What makes a religious group a cult?

Waco Tribune-Herald/May 6, 2007
By Cindy V. Culp

When it comes to cults, there’s an old joke among religious scholars: A cult is a cult is a cult — unless it’s my religious group.

That jest highlights the tendency many people have to treat the identification of cults almost like the pinpointing of pornography. They don’t have a good definition of what makes a cult, but they’re sure they’ll know one when they see it.

Experts’ approach to the subject is far more complex, whether discussing the Amish, the Branch Davidians, the Mormons or Homestead Heritage. Only a few scholars use the word “cult.” Most say it has become too loaded of a word and prefer terms such as “new religious group” or “alternative religious movement.”

Experts also have differing opinions about what puts a group into the question mark category. A few give the label to any religious group that doesn’t hold a specific set of doctrinal beliefs. Others say the only reliable dividing line is whether a group obeys the law. A lot linger somewhere in the middle.

Rick Ross, who heads up a religious research institute in New Jersey, is one expert who sees no problem in using the word cult. To him, there’s no reason not to use the term except for political correctness.

“Whether they call them cults, new religious movements or whatever, you see the same structure in behavior, the same structure in dynamics,” Ross said. “Groups that fit this pattern are very often unstable.”

Ross differs from some cult-watching organizations in that he doesn’t label a group a cult simply because of its theological beliefs. Rather, groups should be judged by their behavior, he said.

One classic sign of a cult is that it is personality-driven, Ross said. That means it has a charismatic leader or group of leaders who hold a tremendous amount of sway over members.

Another common characteristic is isolation, Ross said. Sometimes that isolation is physical, with members’ comings and goings being restricted.

But most often, isolation takes the form of members becoming completely absorbed in the group and its activities, Ross said. If members work, go to school and socialize only with each other, isolation is a real possibility. An especially troubling sign, he said, is when members are asked to cut off contact with family members.

“I call it discordant noise,” he said. “Anyone or anything that would raise troubling questions about the group is marginalized to the extreme, cut off.”

Also common is a persecution complex, he said. Members often have an “us- versus-them” attitude, perceiving simple disagreements as attacks.

“They say criticizing them is to go against God,” Ross said.

Another giveaway, he said, is when groups teach that anyone who leaves is flawed. Healthy groups generally believe people can have good reasons for leaving. Not so with cults, he said.

On the opposite side of the spectrum is Tim Miller, a professor of religious studies at the University of Kansas. Not only does he not use the word “cult,” but he takes issue with the characteristics that have been attached to the word.

The problem with them, Miller said, is that they don’t distinguish between good and bad expressions of those characteristics. For example, some of the most successful mainstream religious organizations have charismatic leaders.

The anti-cult movement often acts as if there are easy answers to the question of whether a group is dangerous, Miller said. But things are rarely black and white. Most involve judgment calls and points of view. What may seem sinister to one person may be perfectly normal to another, he said.

“I don’t know where you draw the line, frankly, except at the law,” Miller said.

William Dinges, a professor of religious studies at Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., said one question he asks when evaluating religious groups is what kind of fruit they produce. That’s helpful because while the customs of some groups could be called cultic under the criteria of anti-cult organizations, they don’t truly fit that mold. The Amish are one example, he said.

One term that can be used to describe such groups are “radicalized expressions of religious commitment,” Dinges said. Characteristics include having a distinct boundary between it and others; being demanding of members; being galvanized around a charismatic personality; and having an intensified sense of mission.

Like Miller, Dinges says determining whether such groups are dangerous is subjective. Among the factors to weigh is whether they make it emotionally impossible to leave, whether they maintain members’ dignity, the amount of freedom they give members and whether there is a structure for airing and addressing conflict.

People also must consider how accepted certain behaviors are within that particular religious tradition, Dinges said. For example, becoming a monk may seem strange to many people, but it’s a very accepted part of the Catholic tradition.

Such factors also must be weighed in evaluating the stories of people who have come out of a group, Dinges said. In some cases, people’s horror stories stem from truly bad things that happened to them, he said,

In other instances, though, stories are tainted by a change in ex-members’ viewpoints, Dinges said. People can have mistaken or highly romanticized notions about what life in a particular group will be like, then become bitter when reality doesn’t match expectations.

Sometimes that happens because a group engages in false recruitment activities, he said. Other times it’s because people jump into situations without thoroughly understanding them.

“You have to educate yourself and, in a sense, know yourself. Trust your intuition.”

Ron Enroth, a professor of sociology at Westmont College in California, says all the spiritually abusive groups he has studied share common characteristics. They’re so similar that when he talks to ex-members and starts hearing details of their stories, “I almost feel like saying, ‘Stop, let me tell you the rest of the story.’ ”

One feature of such groups, Enroth said, is control-oriented leadership. Communication with outsiders is limited and questioning isn’t allowed inside the group.

Sometimes the control extends into intimate areas of followers’ lives, he said. In such cases, members are expected to ask permission to take vacations or switch jobs. Lifestyle rigidity is also common, with some groups having an almost unfathomable list of rules. One he studied outlawed striped running shoes because they supposedly were connected to homosexuality, he said. Another forbid members to use the word “pregnant.” Instead they were commanded to say a woman was “with child.”

Such groups are also spiritual elitists, Enroth said. They use arrogant or high-minded terms to describe themselves and often have disparaging descriptions for other churches, he said.

“They present themselves as the model Christian church or the model Christian organization…and say they provide unparalleled fellowship and superior spirituality,” Enroth said.

In addition, such groups are usually paranoid and perceive any criticism as persecution, Enroth said. They paint people who leave as defectors and say attacks against them are ultimately the work of Satan.

“By describing criticism as slander, they can almost be shielded from criticism,” Enroth said.

Enroth believes the number of spiritually abusive groups is growing due to a spike in the number of independent churches in evangelical and fundamentalist circles. People like them because they are less formal and less hierarchical than traditional churches, he said.

But with that independence also comes the potential for trouble, he said.

“They are, in a sense, spiritual Lone Rangers,” Enroth said. “That’s where the potential for sliding off the cliff comes into play.”

Penn State & Teen Mania: The Good Ol’ Boys Coverup

The weeks are just flying by. One moment it was my birthday and now it’s nearly Thanksgiving! What happened to the past few weeks?

For starters, I started working in retail, which I have to say isn’t as terrible as I once thought it might be. The time goes by infinitely faster than I imagined it would. However, standing on your feet all day lends to exhaustion in the wrong shoes. Duly noted. Next apartment I live in WILL have a bathtub.

Then the US came unhinged over the Penn State/Joe Paterno scandal which is really a Sandusky scandal (abusing boys in the Penn State locker room). So many lessons learned.

  1. Penn State brought in $50 million dollars a year under Paterno on college ball.
  2. That’s why he wasn’t fired (10 years PRIOR to knowing about the child rape; 1 year PRIOR after the Grand Jury found Sandusky guilty).
  3. The good ol’ boys will cover things up when that much money and notoriety are involved. (Church members, take note)
  4. Report rape to the Administration AND CPS. Not just the Administration.

After all that drama, I got a second job. I’m an official staff member of my university. Which sounds amazing, and I’m happy to have the job, BUT it was supposed to be 20 hours a week and it looks like it’ll be closer to 15 hours a week for the next few weeks. Not great news.

My friends at Recovering Alumni got a documentary aired on MSNBC which has been causing quite a stir in the Teen Mania Ministries cult. Ron Luce has done interviews with people who care (not me) like Charisma News. Apparently only biased Christian media care to interview him because real journalism has exposed his ESOAL and Honor Academy as an abusive cult-like group. Ron cares about the MSNBC documentary mostly because it may cost him money if people believe that he’s abusing teens in his ministry.

However, the blogosphere is going crazy with weirdos supporting him, saying that people who are abused should “suck it up” and “stop whining.” Typical. Go Jesus followers. You guys are the BEST.

In some countries, like ours, abusers go to jail. Although, see Penn State (above) for an example of the multi-million dollar makers NOT going to jail or being fired UNTIL years and years later when they’re old enough to die and not produce any more money for the big bad ministry (er…university).

Apparently, Teen Mania owns Charisma News because “The Bible Answer Man” Hank Hanegraaff defends Teen Mania by saying, “In reality, the MSNBC piece is a case study in sophistry, sloppy journalism and sensationalism.” It should be noted that Teen Mania was offered a second interview to allow Ron Luce to answer the claims and they refused.  However, please note that Hank calls this “sloppy journalism” instead of fair.

Then Hank says “Doug and Wendy Duncan, billed as experts specializing in recovery from mind control.” Taken from their website:

Doug and Wendy Duncan are former members of a religious cult, the Trinity Foundation, in Dallas, Texas. After leaving the cult where he was a member for over twenty years, Doug earned his master’s degree in counseling and is now a licensed professional counselor in the state of Texas. Wendy is a licensed social worker and holds a master’s degree from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. She is also the author of I Can’t Hear God Anymore: Life in a Dallas Cult, the true story of the couple’s involvement in and eventual separation from a cult.

A note: I’ve read Wendy’s book I Can’t Hear God Anymore: Life in a Dallas Cult and I’ve never had anything resonate with me so much in regard to my own cult experience. It seems to me that cults and abusive religious groups have leaders who are more alike than they are different. Many of the same phrases and twists in scripture that Wendy talked about were the same thing I experienced. I’m not claiming to be unbiased here. I am biased. I like Doug and Wendy a lot. I’ve searched for years to find a counselor or therapist who understands cults and recovery from a cult with futility. Their experiences and the way they help people has been invaluable to me. They’re also affiliated with International Cultic Studies Association.

I Can’t Hear God Anymore, A Review

In Wendy J. Duncan’s book, I Can’t Hear God Anymore: Life in a Dallas Cult, she tells an eloquent and heartbreaking story of when she first joined Trinity Foundation, a cult in Dallas, Texas led by Ole Anthony.

She opens the book with a quote from Margaret Thayer Singer: “Remember that none of us is beyond being manipulated by an intense, dedicated and persistent persuader…”

I’m already won over. Not only is it true, but it’s asserting that we, those who’ve left cults and abusive churches, are as normal as anyone else and our story could have happened to anyone. I already feel at home with Wendy’s words.

Duncan acknowledges the hours she’s spent researching, interviewing, and reliving her past, which is something I immediately can relate to. The amount of behind the scene hours that go into a blog seem tremendous, but to tackle the subject in a book is more than double. Duncan has quoted some well-known experts in field in her writing, to her credit and our benefit. I was introduced to several new books and experts that I knew nothing of before reading I Can’t Hear God Anymore.

The Same Ol’ Jargon

Some of Ole’s lingo is immediately recognizable to me, and it creeps me out and comforts me. I’m creeped out because Duncan’s description of Ole is so similar to my former pastors, Daniel Jones and Nathan Davies. For example, Doug and Wendy wanted to marry after dating for seven years. Ole took the same position that Davies and Jones took with me and many others: it’s the pastor’s job to be a “spiritual covering” and counsel you on who you should date or marry. As with Doug and Wendy, my leaders convinced me over and over that it was my sinful nature that wanted to date a particular man or think about marrying another one. The Trinity Foundation even uses the term “rebellious spirit” which is something that many of of us female former Master’s Commission students identify with. We were all told we had one.

I’m comforted, though, upon realizing that what I went through really is what I’ve assessed it to be: a cult. Over the years, I’ve shared with Master’s Commission friends that my therapists have said Master’s Commission was a cult, and upon further research, I determined it to be a cult. They looked at me really funny and some of them even said, “I thought you were crazy.” Many friends have given me the impression that I was dumb, or over reacting. Yet, I persisted in my research, and found more and more evidence of it being a cult. What Duncan does in her book, I Can’t Hear God Anymore, is map out the characteristics of a cult based on Michael Langone’s book, Recovery from Cults:

A cult has some form of excessive authoritarianism, but they’re different from the military because the military explicitly states the authoritarian structure and there is an accountability to an authority outside of the group.

A cult also exhibits excessive devotion to some person, idea or thing.

Uses a thought reform program to persuade, control and socialize members (i.e., to integrate them into the group’s unique pattern of relationships, beliefs, values, and practices.)

Systematically induces states of psychological dependency in members.

Exploits members to advance the leadership’s goals.

What makes Duncan’s story even more reliable, is an article written about Ole Anthony, in The New Yorker by Burkhard Bilger in 2004. Televangelists were afraid of Anthony, because “over the past fifteen years, Anthony ha[d] waged a guerrilla war against televangelism—”a multibillion-dollar industry,” as he describes it, “untaxed and unregulated, that preys on the elderly and the desperate.'” (Bilger)

Already, I realize that Ole Anthony is a dichotomy. He’s got some common ground with some of us who believe that televangelists are a fraud who prey on people. He also later began ministry to the homeless, which he was praised for.

Anthony was described as an “evil child” by his Lutheran minister when he was six years old, and according to Burkhard Bilger, the writer for The New Yorker, the evil child continued into young adulthood where he stole cars, shot up heroin and lit a cross on fire.

After starting The Trinity Foundation, Anthony had been accused of leading a cult. “At one point, a man named Bob Jones (name changed at his request) brought in a list of pointed questions from the organization Cult Watch, and read them out loud at a meeting. “You know what a cult is?” Anthony told him. “It’s a place where someone tells you what to do in the name of God. If I ever tell anyone what to do around here, they should shoot me.'” (Bilger)

Anthony was confronted with his cult like characteristics and like the true charismatic leader he is, he denied it and put his life on the line to back up his claim.

Another interesting similarity to Daniel Jones and Ole Anthony is their recognition for community service. After Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, Jones joined the PRC (Pastor’s Resource Council, under the Louisiana Family Forum, a strongly Right-wing conservative group, who’s anti-gay, anti-feminist and pro-life) so his church could do some relief work. They received congressional recognition. Anthony began taking homeless people into his church community and his efforts reached the White House. President George H. Bush wrote to him, “Word has reached me of your outstanding record of community service. Barbara joins me in wishing you every success as you continue to set a fine example for your friends and neighbors.” (Bilger)

Duncan explains in her book why Anthony and leaders like him are so well-praised by prestigious groups such as Congress and the White House: “Cults depend on strong charismatic leaders. Without a charismatic type of leadership, cults cannot develop. Charismatic leaders have a strong need for power, enormous levels of self-confidence, and an unshakable conviction in the correctness of their beliefs. When a leader has the quality of charisma, he is able to arouse an extraordinary level of trust and devotion from his followers.

A Psychoeducational Approach to Recovery

To recover from the abusive environment of the cult, Duncan shares from Captive Hearts Captive Minds: Freedom and Recovery from Cults and Abusive Relationships by Madeleine Tobias and Janja Lalich. To promote healing and transitioning, Tobias and Lalich recommend a psychoeducational approach: ” a process of gathering knowledge and understanding of the cult experience and is a critical part of working through the shame and humiliation of finding yourself in a spiritually abusive group.”

Duncan also recommends professional help (as do most cult experts), and the support of former members. The group of former members she and Doug met with gathered to heal and provide support. They also identified words and phrases that were specific to The Trinity Foundation and “reclaimed” those words and “unload[ed] the language” of it’s cultic meaning so that the words and phrases that once triggered unpleasant memories would now hold new meaning.

I think what’s on most of our minds, and what was on Duncan’s was reestablishing her relationship with God. She examines how the groups such as The Trinity Foundation and other cults “uniformly distort God’s grace and character” and how it was most difficult to recover her relationship with God. Wendy and Doug decided to try a liturgical church such as Catholic or Episcopal, since Doug felt that evangelical churches were ruined for him by Ole.

I’ve often felt very similar, actually. On my departure from Master’s Commission and Our Savior’s Church, I attended a few different churches alone or with friends. I tried the Chi Alpha group at my university, the local Foursquare church, a few non-denominational churches, and some others. I felt most at home in a quiet Catholic mass my friends had invited me to.

I went with two friends, who “showed me the ropes.” They told me when to get on my knees, what page the song was on, and how to hold my hands to receive communion. The only thing I had trouble with, was that I was on the verge of a break down anytime I went. Anything church related made me want to sob in the middle of service, and this Catholic mass didn’t fail to make me cry. But, when I went, I cried in a different way. I cried because it was different than the evangelical experience I’d had. It was quiet, and reverent, instead of showy and loud. I could hear my own thoughts and prayers, rather than hear the person next to me praying out loud or yelling to God. When the priest gave his message, he read from the Bible and gave limited personal interpretation. It was thematic, but not contrived or full of personal opinion.

Wendy Duncan’s book is one I’ve enjoyed reading, and one that brought me to tears. More than that, though, it’s smart, genuine and encouraging. I’ll leave you with her discussion of Matthew 18 (a passage of the Bible which deals with a brother sinning against a person): “Much later, we were discussing this Matthew 18 issue with another former member, and he observed that if you do not feel safe to go to someone to discuss with them how they have offended you, then that person probably does not qualify as your brother. He has a point. I would not advise a friend of mine who was leaving an abusive husband that she was obligated to go meet with him to explain to him why she needs to leave. Once that sense of covering is broken it is broken, and the task for someone who has been abused is primarily to find a place to be safe and to heal.”

In Wendy’s words, let’s “go find a place to be safe and to heal.”

For more information about I Can’t Hear God Anymore visit: Dallas Cult or purchase on Amazon.

You can also read an article The Dallas Observer did on the book here.

If you live in or near the Dallas area, you can attend Individual Counseling Services with Doug Duncan, MS, LPC a professional counselor licensed in the state of Texas, or their FREE Support Group held on the fourth Saturday of the month.

Disclaimer: This book was sent to me for review.