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Book Review - Spiritual Warfare The History of Conversion and Contemporary Cults

This article is an electronic version of an article originally published in Cultic Studies Journal, 1990, Volume 7, Number 1, pages 92-95. Please keep in mind that the pagination of this electronic reprint differs from that of the bound volume. This fact could affect how you enter bibliographic information in papers that you may write.

Book Reviews - Spiritual Warfare: The Politics of the Christian Right. 

By Sara Diamond. South End Press, Boston, MA, 1989, 292 pages.

The History of Conversion and Contemporary Cults. By Natalie Isser & Lita Linzer Schwartz. Peter Lang Publishing, New York, 1988, 230 pages.

Scholars have often debated whether there can be a truly “value-free” behavioral science. These two books -- written by a sociologist, a psychologist, and a historian -- demonstrate the difficulty of maintaining objectivity and neutrality when writing about politics and religion. The authors' biases are evident from the start. Nevertheless, both books deserve our attention not only because of the perspectives they represent, but because they contain historical and current information of particular value to the student of cults and now religions.

In Spiritual Warfare sociologist Sara Diamond presents an enormous amount of detail on the contours of the Christian Right. The first chapter contains a wealth of information concerning religious broadcasting, which she identifies as the single most important element in the rise of the Christian Right. Succeeding chapters deal with the “pro-family” movement, ultra-conservative women activists, and the sociopolitical activities of fundamentalists in Central America. Of special interest to cult watchers is Diamond's discussion of the Unification Church's linkage to right-wing causes and their public relations efforts in the name of freedom of religion.

Perhaps the most useful information for the student of new religious movements is the insightful sections on the shepherding phenomenon, including groups like Maranatha, Gospel Outreach, and the Reconstructionists.

The segment of the book which I found least convincing was the discussion of U.S. aid programs to repressive regimes and the alleged theopolitical involvement of the Christian Right in such projects. The author clearly favors the liberation theology approach to the complex problems of Latin America and denigrates virtually all Protestant evangelical missionary, relief, and development efforts. While some right-wing religionists have no doubt been involved in counter insurgency activity, it is unfair to target such respected organizations as World Vision and Wycliffe Bible Translators with broad compliance in U.S. militaristic and intelligence operations simply because of those organizations' “decidedly conservative and pro-capitalist” orientation. And I take issue with the authors' contention that since the time of the early Christian church “missionary work has always been a political project.”

The book, despite its inclusion of endless names and details, is written in the very readable style of an investigative journalist. There are laspes, however, into unnecessary linguistic excess such as the description of an evangelist, who,”...whipped into a froth ... flings his corpulent form across the stage...”

The title of the book by Isser and Schwartz is somewhat misleading since it is not a comprehensive history of conversion, nor is it an exhaustive study of contemporary cults. Rather, its primary focus is the religious proselytization of Jews in nineteenth century France and in Europe following the second World War. Case histories from these periods are presented along with the authors' observations of what they see as analogous conversion behavior in contemporary cults and Messianic missionary groups.

The case studies under discussion are very few (a methodological flaw) and involve, primarily, childhood and adolescent conversions. Most are accounts of the forced conversion of Jewish children following abduction by Roman Catholics. A major weakness of the book (alluded to by the authors on page 180) is the age difference between the Jewish victims of past involuntary conversion and the larger population of recruits to contemporary cults. The linkages between the two groupings are not as convincing to the reader as they obviously are to the authors.

Prior to the introduction of the case histories, the authors review the familiar themes of vulnerability to cults, the appeal of cultic groups, the psychological effects of conversion and the key issue of informed choice. The thrust of the books seems to be a critique of the overzealous, insensitive and dishonest approaches to proselytization, both past and present. However, this reader got the message that all religious conversion experiences are suspect and that all forms of proselytizing behaviors are destructive, whatever the religion. The Epilogue (which this reviewer found the most revealing chapter in the book) makes very clear that the authors conclude that active proselytization is “morally wrong,” especially if exercised by members of one faith in an attempt to gain new converts from another faith. This, they feel, is the case “no matter how the message is delivered, with or without tact...”

This kind of extreme statement will displease many Christians. However, the value of the book is its clear presentation of the Jewish perspective on conversion, a position that is passionately articulated in the context of Jewish values of family and community. As the authors conclude, “proselytization is a threat to the survival of a people, and conversion is correctly perceived as an anathema.”

Finally, lsser and Schwartz identify “the prevailing secularism” as an insidious enemy of not only the Jewish community, but of all other faiths as well. When young adults are adrift without a foundation of values and beliefs, they are more likely to consider the alternative altars so prevalent in society today. The cults represent a challenge to churches and synagogues to do a better job of teaching young people (and adults) how to be more discerning.

Ronald Enroth, Ph.D.

Professor of Sociology

Westmont College

Cultic Studies Journal, Vol. 7, No. 1, 1990