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Evangelicals and Cults

This article is an electronic version of an article originally published in Cultic Studies Journal, 1985, Volume 2, Number 2, pages 353-357. 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.

Evangelicals and Cults

Marcia R. Rudin

It was 1945 or 1946. I was five or six years old, and I had just started going to religious school at the small reform temple in my midwestern hometown of Champaign, Illinois.

One day the young rabbi gathered us children together and told us about the Jews who suffered and were killed in Hitler’s concentration camps. I think the world was just finding out what had transpired in the camps, and we kids were probably hearing about it for the first time. I remember exactly where we were standing, and even though that building no longer exists today I can conjure up the entire scene in my memory, can still hear the shock in the rabbi’s voice.

Jews were disappearing, I was to hear then and many times later in my youth. We were dying out. So much intermarriage and so many conversions, my parents and their friends moaned! It was easy to believe because we were only a tiny number in that state, except for far-away Chicago. It did seem to me then that there just weren’t enough of us to withstand the onslaught of Hitlers and the seduction of the attractive, “normal” Christian culture (which I never identified as Christian, it was just the way things were in my peaceful little world).

Growing up in a predominantly Christian world never really bothered me. It was sort of a schizophrenic existence, as I look back on it. I had my Christian friends at school and my Jewish friends at religious school; I dated Christian boys at high school and Jewish boys during our youth group weekends twice a year. I sang in the Christmas pageants in elementary school, careful to never pronounce the actual words "Jesus Christ.” It never occurred to me to object or not participate, although it was in my town at about that time that a friend of my mother’s -- considered highly eccentric by everyone -- instigated the Supreme Court case protesting religion in the public schools. I cheerfully attended Christmas Eve services with my Methodist friends as a social event, went Christmas caroling through hospitals with my French class, and sang with my high school chorus every year at the graduation Baccalaureate ceremony a moving rendition of “Beautiful Savior."

To supplement my father’s meager college instructor’s income, when I was very young we rented space in our large backyard to people with trailers, until the neighbors objected and forced us to stop. We had room for two or three small mobile homes. The people who lived in them came into our house frequently to chat, and one of the couples was Baptist. I had never met Baptists before. There were probably many up in the "North End” of our town, where the blacks, called “Negroes" in those days, lived but I don’t remember any in our neighborhood or among our friends.

The woman’s name was Marjorie. She was very nice. Marjorie was frequently in tears out in her little trailer in our big backyard, sobbing because the "nice Jewish family” that she had come to know and love -- us -- was going to go straight to hell. She constantly tried to "save" us, pleaded with us to see the light.

Thirty-five or forty years have passed since Marjorie sat in her stuffy trailer agonizing over our lost souls. Since then, of course, I’ve known many Baptists and Evangelicals and other emotionally-committed Christians, even welcomed Jimmy Carter as our president. And in that time-span Judaism hasn’t disappeared as those midwestern Cassandras predicted.

But we’re still worried about it. We have even more cause to worry today because of the breakdown of family and traditional religious institutions, and because of the every-higher rate of intermarriage and a birthrate for Jews so low we aren’t replacing ourselves. And there is evidence that today some Christian groups are having substantial success in converting us.

Many Christians will always try to convert Jews. It is an important part of their theology, and we Jews have to respect that. We just ask that it be done ethically, openly, and aboveboard so that we know what is happening and have freedom of choice about it.

For example, Hebrew Christians, groups who claim you can believe in Jesus as the Messiah and still be Jewish, that in fact accepting Jesus completes and fulfills one’s Judaism, should not be either morally or financially supported by the rest of the Christian community. They are deceptive and duplistic in their conversionary tactics because while they claim Jews don’t have to give up their religion to become Hebrew Christians, in reality they are converting to Christianity. One cannot accept Jesus as the Messiah and still be Jewish. You cannot be Christian and Jewish at the same time. Hebrew Christianity is an affront to the integrity of both Christianity and JudaisnL

And we ask that conversion not be attempted in Israel, either openly or surreptitiously. Many groups -- regular Christians as well as the hybrid Hebrew Christians -- are stepping up proselytizing activity in Israel to coincide with the end of the Millennium, only fifteen years away. Israel should be off-limits for conversionary activity. I think those millions of Jews who suffered and died in the Holocaust that I found out about that day forty years ago in religious school deserve that.

Today ifs interesting to look back at my childhood Baptist trailer-tenant’s enthusiastic and hard-sell conversion attempts through the perspective of my work many years later in the counter-cult movement.

Was the approach Marjorie used to try to convert us “lost” and “doomed” Jews any different from those used by cults today? Are some Christian Fundamentalist groups similar to cults in the psychological -- and sometimes physical -- harm inflicted on their believers? If they are different, then why? What makes them different? Are cults really only extreme examples of the psychological coercion that is an inherent factor in ALL religions, as critics of the counter-cult movement maintain?

Last April representatives from a new self-help networking support group called Fundamentalists Anonymous appeared on “Donahue.” From this TV show and other media exposure they have been deluged with thousands of telephone calls and letters from people who believe they’ve been harmed by their Fundamentalist Christian religious experience and who had thought they were alone and isolated in their suffering. Possessing no other material, in its first newsletter the founders wrote about the negative cult experience as a model for the kind of psychological harm inflicted by some Fundamentalist groups, and they expected disabused Fundamentalists to object to this comparison. To date nobody has objected.

Does this mean that cults should be excused or ignored because some of the same abuses can apparently be found among “legitimate” Christian Fundamentalist groups? Abuses can be found in all religions. Disillusioned believers from all faiths complain they were manipulated by guilt. Some parents of new converts to Hassidism claim their children have been encouraged to cut off contact with them. Worried friends or relatives of Jews recruited in Israel by extremist Orthodox groups telephone counter-cult organizations to ask if their loved one is in a cult. Prospective nuns entering the cloistered convents of pre-Vatican Council H Catholicism -- and some still exist -- underwent a psychological withdrawal and intentional isolation from the world, from friends and families, past careers, and schooling that cult critics say the cults employ to ensure the child-like psychological dependence of their members. Christian Scientists as well as some cult members reject medical treatment, which results in many needless deaths. Child- and woman-abuse exist in many bible-based Christian groups as well as in cults. Sexual abuse is, sadly, to be found among religious leaders of all persuasions.

Does all this mean we should forget about the abuses of what we’ve been calling cults because similar things go on in other religions? Do two wrongs make a right? I don’t believe so. Furthermore, if long-established “mainline” religions are guilty of abuses then they should come under public scrutiny and criticism also.

Several years ago at a session on cults at a large interfaith conference several nuns burst into tears because they felt I was describing the Catholic Church. They voiced pain and bitterness that they had been manipulated. I tried to reassure them by pointing out the differences. First of all, they were not misled or deceived. A prospective nun or monk knows from the beginning what is expected of him and her. The applicant goes through several stages of commitment, so that it takes years to work up to the final vows. (It takes nine years for a woman to become a full member of Mother Teresa’s order.) And even after one has made the "final" commitment, one can get out of it, the difficult decision admittedly no doubt accompanied by a great deal of guilt and anguish.

And, finally, the Catholic Church, and other “mainstream” religions have built-in systems of “checks and balances” whereby they monitor themselves. Nuns themselves instigated and contributed heavily to changes in the old-time authoritarian structure ruling their lives. The Church itself convened the modernizing Vatican Council II and followed up on its radical changes. Judaism has a complex system of interpreting its strict laws to fit modern life so it can respond to its members’ needs.

Religious cults often do not have these self-monitoring devices, since they exist with little public scrutiny generally in non-democratic governing structures. The Rajneesh Foundation, for example, certainly did not “clean up its act” on its own. Rajneesh’s recent expulsion from the United States and the breakup of the authoritarian commune in Oregon and dispersal of its members came not from internal reform but because of outside criticism from outraged Oregon residents and the media, which finally resulted in legal prosecution of Rajneesh for immigration violations. I believe some changes made by the Unification Church -- allowing their members to see their outside families more often, for example -- have come about as a response to public criticism, about which they are highly sensitive.

Therefore, to cease or blunt public criticism as opponents of the counter-cult movement desire, is to remove one of the major forces that is bringing about positive change, such as it is, in these groups.

And, it simply is not accurate to place these destructive cults in the same category as other religions or other persuasive organizations such as the Marines or Madison Avenue advertising agencies. However much one tries to fit them into a large social and historical perspective, one must in the end see that cults are different, a unique phenomenon. If one examines the empirical evidence, one rationally has to conclude that there are some authoritarian religious groups -- no matter what we call them -- that deliberately employ sophisticated behavior control techniques, abuse their members physically, psychologically, and sometimes sexually, undermine the family, deceive both their members and the general public, often break civil and criminal laws, and operate in an atmosphere of actual or Potential violence, to a greater extent than other religions, groups, or social institutions.

In short even though there are similarities one must at some point draw a line and simply somewhere make a distinction between cults and other groups. Could one claim, for example, that because there are many of the same characteristics in victimless white collar crime as there are in the crime of murder, murder is therefore no worse than the other crimes? By widening one’s frame of reference and criteria endlessly one finally does away with all meaningful distinctions, and that can lead to a paralyzing moral relativism.

Such moral judgments about cults are not based on dislike of new movements. Just because a religion is new doesn’t make it a cult; if older religions act like cults, then they should be cited also. The counter-cult movement is not critical of cults because they am theologically heretical (except for a few overtly Christian-based counter-cult groups, and they are always clear about their perspective. And simply being against heresy doesn’t explain why Jews, for example, who have no stake in correctness of Christian theology, are against cults. Besides, some cults are flawlessly orthodox in their Christian beliefs. The Cult Awareness Network and American Family Foundation are concerned with human pain and psychological harm, not with religious matters. Most counter-cultists are unhappy with the cults’ actions, not their beliefs. It is a question of deed, not creed.

Critics of the counter-cult movement claim we have no right to make such moral judgments, and that in fact, in so doing, we are bigots. I believe we do have a right and in fact a moral duty to criticize others.

Did sweet Marjorie, living in a small trailer in our spacious midwestern backyard forty years ago belong to a cult? Is there a difference between Rajneesh’s control over his followers and her devotion and allegiance to her clergyman, whoever he was? We have no way of knowing. These are complex and important questions we should address. But in doing so we must not lose sight of the harm being done by some groups, and we must continue to educate the public about their dangers and to press for improvement in the lives of the victims.

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Marcia R. Rudin, co-author of Prison or Paradise? The New Religious Cults, is a free-lance writer and lecturer. She formerly taught philosophy and religion at William Paterson College.