Wednesday, August 23, 2006

"Cults" and "Churches".

I've recently found myself engaged with the world of cults. It started for me with a book called Communities of Dissent, by Stephen Stein, and continues with my current read- Mystics and Messiahs by Philip Jenkins. No folks... I'm not starting a sideline business. However I have always been attracted to those who live on the margins, and these groups have been alternatingly challenging and threatening the status quo for as long as white folks have been living on this continent.

The United States has had a complex relationship with new religious movements throughout its history. In a way, our society courts controversy by proclaiming itself to be free and open to any sort of religious practices or beliefs (revisit the 1st Amendment if you aren't sure about what I'm talking about). As a result, this country has been a hot-bed of alternative religions. One thing a cultural observer has to do right from the start is understand the perjorative sense of the word "cult". Once that term has been used to describe a group of worshippers, then the die has already been cast, and that group's persecution has begun.

One of the very first targets in eighteenth and nineteenth century-America was the Catholic church. Referred to by "orthodox Christians" of the time as "Papists", Catholics were viewed as "ignorant puppets, whose priests were sexually exploitative and conspiratorial" (Jenkins 28-29). There were political groups, like the "nativists" and the "know-nothing party", that made every effort to stamp out this "growing menace". All kinds of accusations were levied at its adherents. Of course the Catholics were replaced in turn by the Shakers, the Mormons, the spiritualists, Pentacostals, 7th Day adventists, Theosophists, the Watch Tower society, and the Christian Science of Mary Baker Eddy.

Each new religious movement was vulnerable to wild speculations by the mainstream. In fact the function of this great established middle is to define itself against new ideas. Not only did critics work to ostracize people who chose to belong to these marginal religious groups, but they served to quell dialogue between liberals and modernists within their own traditions.

But a transformation seems to work itself over time, in the growth and continued survival of these groups. "Cults" slowly become recognized as "churches", as through growing membership and institutionalization they get a foothold in our society. Thus the kingdom of the Church of Latter Day Saints becomes a state and its presence becomes more or less accepted, and sometimes even venerated by outsiders. The Watch Tower Society becomes the Jehovah's Witnesses, and the Christian Science Monitor garners respect as one of the most objective news sources in our nation. Along with their growth, the extreme beliefs of their founders become softened and made more palatable to the mainstream. But indeed they also leave a corresponding mark on religious thought in our society. Ideas that once seemed dangerous weather long-held resistances and enrich the ongoing spiritul dialogue.

As some groups get promoted to accepted "church" status, other groups are identified as the new "cult" menace. The age-old sensationalistic stories get trotted out once again to besmirch the reputation of members of the alternative group. No doubt there is a kernel of truth in the tales- Jim Jones was responsible for the deaths of hundreds in Guyana... Charlie Manson did indeed persuade his followers to murder Sharon Tate and several others... but these incidents are not normative in the history of alternative religion movements, and indeed long-established churches have skeletons in their closet as well.

I've learned to be skeptical about representations of "cults" in the mainstream media. One need not view these groups as an inevitable threat to one's personal faith or the evolution of one's society. At some level we owe a debt of gratitude to these non-conventional belief systems- they have tested and reinforced our commitment to our First Amendment rights throughout our nation's history.

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