Cults are in style again. Or at least it’s trendy to call things cults—everything from QAnon to SoulCycle has gotten the tag. It’s pretty easy to throw the word around loosely, since we’ve never come to a consensus about what exactly a cult is.
The line between “cult” and “religion” is famously hazy, and the biggest practical distinction between the two is whether a faith has been here long enough that you feel comfortable having it around. If you’re especially apprehensive about rival sects, even longevity might not be enough to get a group off the hook. “The difference between a religion and a cult,” The Globe and Mail cracked in 1979, “is that you belong to a religion and everyone else belongs to a cult.”
Some scholars dismiss the c-word as a slur, preferring the less pejorative term “new religious movement.” Others say a cult is distinguished not by whether a group is new but by whether it has a particular sort of authoritarian internal culture, a scope that excludes many of those new religious movements but includes several organizations that aren’t ordinarily thought of as religious at all: pyramid schemes, psychotherapy groups, would-be vanguard parties. Some sociologists have tried to advance a more neutral approach, suggesting that cults are held together by a living charismatic leader while other religions rely on an established set of rituals and doctrines. (Under that definition, you might note, a circle of harmless high school occultists might qualify as a cult but Scientology arguably ceased to be one years ago.)
And in ordinary conversations, those all get mixed together. At some moments, the word cult can encompass any exotic way of looking at the world; at others, it’s a set of social dynamics involving unhealthy hierarchies and rigid attachments to a party line. Often it entails looking at the former and imagining that you’re seeing the latter. At its most feverish moments, it involves seeing the alleged cultists not merely as people who happen to have a different view of the world, nor even merely as the victims of an abusive leader, but as zombies who have lost the capacity to think or act for themselves.
Fortunately, we don’t need to settle on a definition here. Our subject isn’t cults themselves so much as the monsters people imagine when they hear the word.
America has always been haunted by cults, but the hauntings are more acute at some times than others. “From the 1970s through the 1990s, from Jonestown to Heaven’s Gate, frightening fringe groups and their charismatic leaders seemed like an essential element of the American religious landscape,” Ross Douthat wrote in The New York Times in 2014. “Yet we don’t hear nearly as much about them anymore, and it isn’t just that the media have moved on. Some strange experiments have aged into respectability, some sinister ones still flourish, but over all the cult phenomenon feels increasingly antique, like lava lamps and bell bottoms.”
Seven years later, it is Douthat’s diagnosis that feels antique. Cults themselves may or may not be more common now than in 2014, but we’re awash in a flood of cult stories, cult rumors, and cult rhetoric. It’s still “nothing like where things were in the early ’90s,” says J. Gordon Melton, a professor of American religious history at Baylor. But “dislike of cults has never really gone away...and we’ve seen a heightening of that over the last couple of years.”
Let’s start with the small screen, which has offered plenty of cult-themed materials for binge-watchers in lockdown—and not just in purely fictional tales like Riverdale or The Empty Man. Last year Starz and HBO each ran their own documentaries about NXIVM, a purported self-help group charged with being a front for a secret society devoted to sex slavery. Curious viewers could turn from there to Netflix’s Wild Wild Country, a six-part 2018 docuseries about Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh’s ashram in Antelope, Oregon, and the conflict that erupted in the ’80s between his followers and the townsfolk nearby. If you developed a taste for the subject, you had several other documentaries from the last few years to choose from, covering vintage cult stories ranging from the Peoples Temple massacre of 1978 to the Heaven’s Gate suicides of 1997. A&E ran three seasons of a series about Scientology.
The subject keeps cropping up in the news too, with alleged cult crimes committed everywhere from Idaho to Siberia. (One of the first COVID-19 superspreader events in Korea took place at the Shincheonji Church of Jesus, an apocalyptic sect that is often accused of being a cult. That sparked conspiracy theories in which the church was supposedly spreading the virus to deliberately bring on doomsday.) Using the GDELT Project’s Television Explorer tool to search the Internet Archive’s TV News Archive, one can detect a systematic increase in the use of the word cult since November 2019. Sometimes that’s because of those local stories, but the term turns up in broader contexts too.
Take QAnon, a sprawling subculture devoted to a strange, elaborate, and ever-evolving collection of conspiracy theories. Conspiracism in general has attracted a lot of anti-cult rhetoric lately—when one poet was disturbed by her elderly mother’s interest in conspiracies, she wrote in The New York Times last year that it was “as if” her mom was “under the spell of a cult”— and QAnon has gotten the brunt of this. Many of its critics call it a cult, sometimes even a “terrorist cult.” In March, NPR ran a story suggesting that QAnon and similar beliefs are “cultic ideologies” whose followers could use the help of “deprogrammers” to “reconnect with reality.” The Q believers, for their part, are convinced that a cult of cannibal pedophiles controls most of Washington and Hollywood.
The fringy Q crowd weren’t the only ones who suspected a cult had taken over the country. As Donald Trump’s presidency progressed, it became increasingly common to hear his following described as a cult. (During the pandemic, this sometimes progressed to “death cult.”) This wasn’t always meant as mere metaphor: In late 2019, a major American publishing house— Simon & Schuster—put out a book called The Cult of Trump: A Leading Cult Expert Explains How the President Uses Mind Control, written by the anti-cult activist Steven Hassan.
When some of those Trump fans rioted at the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021, it wasn’t just the outgoing president’s opponents who embraced that rhetoric. One defense attorney—Clint Broden, retained by the accused rioter Garret Miller—went on TV to announce that he’s working to “deprogram” his client. “Donald Trump was a cult leader,” Broden told CNN’s Chris Cuomo. “You have somebody like Garrett Miller, who is not very politically involved, hadn’t even voted much earlier in life, loses his job, and gets focused on the internet. And you have, as I said, a cult leader telling him to do X, Y, and Z to protect the country.” Ordinarily, people think it an affront to their dignity to be depicted as a mindless sheep. But under certain circumstances, it can be a useful way to deflect responsibility.
Inevitably, the specter of the cult entered other fronts of the culture war. “Wokeness,” Fox News, both major political parties: They’ve all been called cults in the last few years. And then there’s the battle over trans rights, where the rhetoric has been getting especially ugly.
Parents have long been prone to moral panic when adolescents embrace ideas or subcultures that seem alien. One perennial way to express those anxieties is to say their children have “joined a cult,” even when no actual organization is in sight. This reached a new height of hysteria when certain conservatives and feminists started describing transgender teens in terms that evoke Jonestown. Google the phrase trans cult and you’ll find countless complaints that a complex social world with no leader, no clerical hierarchy, and no shortage of substantial internal disagreements is in fact a cult bent on “stealing our children.” Mutual support is seen as “love bombing,” interest in new ideas as “brainwashing.” The same anti-cult writer who produced The Cult of Trump tweeted last year that trans advocates are using “weaponized mind control” to recruit young people.
One anti-trans group, the Kelsey Coalition, chose these words to represent a parent’s experience: “Your beloved child has been kidnapped by a sadistic cult. The cult brainwashes her to believe you are the enemy. The brainwashing erases her entire childhood. Every good memory is replaced with memories of abuse that never happened. The cult convinces her to inject poison in her body and to get her healthy body parts amputated. You panic. You scream. You sob. You beg. You are reduced to nothing. You search for help everywhere. Nobody will help. Nobody will stop the cult.”
It’s an extreme example, but it isn’t an especially unusual one. Here’s an assortment of phrases from Abigail Shrier’s book Irreversible Damage: The Transgender Craze Seducing Our Daughters (Regnery): “Her mother said it seemed as though Lucy had joined a cult.” “What she escaped—she insists—was a cult.” “When you have a daughter that’s really indoctrinated— and it’s almost like a cult really...” “I was so brainwashed.”
‘THE MIND...CAN NEVER AFTERWARD BE FREE’
AMERICA HAS ALWAYS been haunted by cults because America has always been a land of cults. If you wanted to find a home for a new religious movement, this spacious continent was a pretty good place to do it. Some of the first European colonists to put down roots here were spiritual dissidents looking for a place to build an ideal community, and that process of exit and renewal didn’t stop once the first colonies were settled. A Pietist village in rural Pennsylvania, a spiritualist enclave in upstate New York, a Mormon territory out west, an Iowa town devoted to transcendental meditation: Lots of flocks have found spots to settle.
If you weren’t a part of the flock, the flock might scare you. The Jacksonian era, a period that stretched from the 1820s to the years before the Civil War, saw both a wave of immigrants from Catholic Ireland and a religious revival at home. The latter was marked by frenzied camp meetings and by a wave of new sects; while nativists were imagining the Irish as puppets manipulated by the Vatican, many Americans adapted those myths to make sense of young faiths and new worship styles.
One 1836 tract by a Presbyterian minister presented the revival preachers of the Second Great Awakening as hypnotists brainwashing Americans en masse, declaring that worshippers’ minds were “compelled, in a moment of the greatest possible excitement, to yield themselves entirely—their intellect, their reason, their imagination, their belief, their feelings, their passions, their whole souls—to a single and new position, that is prescribed to them....The mind, reduced to such a bondage, can never afterward be free.” Over the course of the century, the Mormons were accused of an assortment of cult crimes, including hypnotizing women into joining Mormon harems. And then there were the Shakers.
The United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing, as the Shakers are formally known, first came to America not long after their faith was founded in 18th century England. Here they lived in communes, refused to fight in wars, refused to have sex, and built rituals around ecstatic trance dancing. Sometimes, rumor had it, they did that dancing in the nude. All this alarmed some of their neighbors, as did broadsides accusing the group of recruiting new members with mesmerism and then enforcing their control with physical violence. Outsiders sometimes mounted “rescue” missions, seizing children who were supposedly being held against their will. (Some of those kids went home as soon as they got a chance.)
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