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Introduction to Cults, Evangelicals, and the Ethics of Social Influence

Cultic Studies Journal, 1985, Volume 2, Number 2, pages 231-234


Michael D. Langone, Ph. D.

During recent years, observers of cults have noted a decline in the number of people seeking help because of their or a family member’s involvement in eastern or other exotic cults. Membership in groups such as Hare Krishna, Divine Light Mission, and the Unification church appears to be on the decline or leveling off.

Groups that seem closer to home, on the other hand, now generate increased helpseeking on the part of parents and ex-members. In fact, many professionals in this area find that the majority of their cult-related cases are persons affected by groups that, at first glance anyway, seem to be charismatic, fundamentalist evangelical, or tied to the human potential tradition. The concerns expressed by individuals and families adversely affected by these latter types of groups are similar to and sometimes indistinguishable from the concerns of parents and cultists adversely affected by “classical” cults such as the Unification Church and Hare Krishna. Affected persons have accused both types of groups of interfering with family relationships, disrupting members” life pursuits, and using deception, group pressure, and other manipulative techniques of persuasion and control.

These developments are significant, for they show that the concerns aroused by cultic groups are not merely, as some suggest, an expression of a prejudicial dislike for the exotic and culturally alien. The groups that have recently come under scrutiny are not criticized because they are “different” Some, in fact, belong to mainline denominations, e.g., Opus Dei in the Catholic Church. Indeed, much of the criticism of such groups comes from within their own denominations or other church-related organizations.

It seems, then, that the “ideologues of the underdog” are wrong in this case. The root source of the concern generated by such groups is not their minority status per se; they are not attacked merely because they are deviant Rather, there is a commonly held perception that the manipulativeness of these groups is a violation of our culture’s rules of interpersonal fair play, the unwritten ethical codes governing how we influence each other. Defining these unwritten rules is perhaps the most important conceptual task facing those who find fault with cultic groups.

This task is important for the following reasons:

1. It will help cult critics home in on what is fundamentally disturbing about cultic groups.

2. It will help educators define what kinds of knowledge and skills will help young people resist cultic groups.

3. It will increase understanding of the sometimes mushy and permeable boundary separating mainline and cultic groups (whether in religion, psychotherapy, education, business, or politics), thereby helping mainline groups (and cultic groups willing to change) remain within the ethical boundaries that our culture implicitly applies to social influence processes.

During recent years, observers of cults have noted a decline in the number of people needing help because of their or a family member’s involvement in eastern or other exotic cults. Membership in groups such as Hare Krishna, Divine Light Mission, and the Unification Church appears to be on the decline or leveling off.

Achieving point three is especially important to mainline evangelical groups. Because they evangelize, and because their members (fallible human beings without exception) may lose their ethical bearings, evangelicals will often be looked at suspiciously, if not lumped together with cults. Confusing evangelicals and cults is likely to become increasingly common as both take advantage of the Equal Access Bill (passed in 1984), which allows student religious groups to meet in public schools during nonschool hours.

This special issue of the Cultic Studies Journal examines the relationship of cults, evangelicals, and the ethics of social influence. The issue consists of reprints and invited commentaries, the authors of which examined the reprint articles and a draft of this introduction prior to writing their own papers. The authors were asked to consider the following questions in preparing their articles:

1. What is the proper place of proselytizing (nonpejorative connotation) in an open, pluralistic society?

2. What are or should be the ethical boundaries of proselytizing?

3. What accountability mechanisms do or should exist in order to help proselytizing groups ensure ethical behavior among their members and the members of other groups participating in our pluralistic society (e.g., stated codes of ethics, monitoring and training systems, collective procedures)?

The goal of this special issue is to distinguish between cults and ethical evangelical groups, while also pointing out how misguided enthusiasm can lead some evangelists into the cultic realm. The impetus of the issue conies from the editor’s clinical and educational experiences (and dozens of exasperating questions taking the form “Is such and such a cult?”), as well as correspondence and meetings with evangelists whose integrity is unquestionable.

The articles in this special issue are divided into four categories. First we present three articles which illustrate the types of concern elicited by certain evangelical and cultic groups. Linda Blood’s article on shepherding/discipleship and Hope Aldrich’s report on Campus Crusade describe in some detail the concerns elicited by certain evangelical or fundamentalist groups. Gary Scharffs “Autobiography of a Former Moonie” relates the experiences of a former member of one of the “classical” cults.

Next, four selections address some of the ethical issues pertaining to religious behavior. Harold Bissell’s “Why Evangelicals are Vulnerable to Cults” presents numerous caveats that are useful and illuminating to evangelicals and nonevangelicals alike. Rev. A. Duane Litfin”s “The Perils of Persuasive Preaching” is a well-reasoned, scholarly call for a nonpersuasive approach to preaching and, by implication, evangelization. Selections from the Second Vatican Council’s “Declaration on Religious Freedom” briefly presents the Roman Catholic Church’s position on the issue. And lastly, the European Parliament Resolution culminates in the elucidation of a voluntary code of conduct aimed at cultic groups.

In the third section, five reports demonstrate various accountability mechanisms observed in mainline religions. “Me first is an evaluation of Maranatha, a controversial evangelical group, by six evangelicals not connected with the group. The second article relates a Roman Catholic attempt to rein in a controversial group within the Catholic Church. “The third report reflects Jewish concerns about proselytization. “Disciple Abuse,” by Inter-Varsity President Gordon MacDonald, is an attempt to help evangelicals who believe in discipline maintain their ethical moorings. The last item in this section is a reprint of a leaflet distributed at Southern Methodist University. This leaflet seeks to counter unethical proselytizers by providing guidelines for the proselytizers” targets.

The fourth section consists of articles prepared by invited contributors. The first group of articles in “ section were written by a team of evangelicals cooperating with Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship. Their goal was to come up with a draft code of ethics for Christian evangelists, which is included in this issue, and to continent on various aspects of the ethics of evangelization.

The other invited contributions in the fourth section address a variety of concerns pertinent to this special issue. Dr. Ronald Enroth stresses the importance of recognizing the enormous variety among evangelical groups and the dangers of lumping them together with cults, which also vary greatly. Rev. Joseph Hopkins presents a rationale for the necessity of Christian evangelization and comments briefly on deprogramming. Dr. Eugene Kreider”s “Religious Pluralism, Dialogue, and the Ethics of Social Influence” is a thoughtful call for mutual respect among members of diverse groups and for balance among the beliefs, rituals, and lifestyles of the many religious groups making up our pluralistic society. Rev. James J. LeBar offers a Roman Catholic perspective on evangelization and freedom in which he elucidates criteria for evaluating groups and discusses instances of ethical accountability at work in the Roman Catholic Church. Rev. Dr. James McGuire comments on Christian evangelizers and the sanctity of each individual’s “religious anthropology.” Rabbi Ralph D. Mecklenburger gives a Jewish perspective on the issue and argues that the litmus test for ethical proselytizing is honesty and respect for free will. Marcia Rudin, a writer and well-known cult critic, briefly describes a personal experience as the target of a proselytizer and argues that public criticism is an essential ethical accountability mechanism for both cults and mainline religions. Dr. Thomas Robbins, one of the most prolific scholars in this field, criticizes various arguments and positions of cult critics and contends that intolerance toward cults poses a greater danger than do the cults themselves. Lastly, I present my views on the subject.

By shedding light on the ethics of social influence in religious contexts, this issue and comments and articles in future issues will, it is hoped, help mainline religions better understand the similarities and differences between themselves and cults. The dialogue begun here may also, perhaps, light a road to the ethical mainstream for groups that are cultic through misguided zeal.

In closing, a note of appreciation is owed Linda Blood, who typed and helped edit this volume, and Dr. Robert Schecter, who gave much needed technical assistance. And, of course, I want to thank the authors whose articles have been included in this collection. Their response has been heartening, as well as stimulating. I also want to thank the seventy-odd evangelicals who answered Inter-Varsity’s inquiries about drafting an ethical code. Their eagerness to contribute to the project says something about its value. But I especially want to thank Dietrich Gruen. Without his integrity and hard work, this issue would never have come to pass.