Is Texas group a religious sect or
News, April 9, 2008
By Jeanna Bryner
Opinions differ on how to
characterize alleged polygamists
The allegedly polygamous group whose compound was
raided this week in Texas is either a religious sect or a full-blown cult,
depending on whom you ask.
The raided compound was founded by jailed
polygamist leader Warren Jeffs, who took over in 2002 as prophet of the Fundamentalist
Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, which broke off from the Mormon
church in the 1930s over the issue of polygamy.
Authorities have reportedly taken into legal
custody more than 400 children and 133 women deemed to have been harmed or in
imminent danger of harm.
While the media and some sociologists call the
group a religious sect, other experts see it as a clear-cut cult, defined by
charismatic leadership and abuse. According to news accounts of the FLDS,
pubescent girls were forced into "spiritual marriages" to older men.
Inside the compound's walls, researchers say, a new reality was born, with
members indoctrinated so fully they had no concept of reality outside the
"In the case of the FLDS, we're talking about
basically believing that women are there to be baby factories, and you have
extreme patriarchal control of that group," said Janja Lalich, a
sociologist at California State University, Chico.
Lalich told LiveScience
she definitely thinks the Texas compound should be called a cult. "If
you've got a group that's abusing hundreds and hundreds of women and children,
let's call it what it is," she said.
Another scientist weighed in on the cult-or-not question. "From what I can understand of this
movement in Texas and other places, is that it would probably fall under new
religious movement or cult movement," said John Barnshaw
of the University of Delaware, who studies collective behaviors such as social
movements and cultish behaviors.
Why people join
Some people have no choice about whether to join a religious group or other
ideological group. Many FLDS members were apparently born into the society and
have no concept of mainstream beliefs.
"These people grew up in this world. They
don't have a clue what regular society is about," said Lalich, who has
written several books on cults. "They come to believe this kind of
behavior is normal even though clearly people leave because they realize this
isn't healthy. You donít give up girls at age 14 to marry some
50-year-old relative in many cases. The women have absolutely no choice. They
have absolutely no power in that group."
Some adults do sign up with cults voluntarily, but
those with stronger social ties to mainstream society are less likely to do so,
explained Boston University sociologist Nancy Ammerman.
"What we do know is that the more radical
kinds of groups are unlikely to attract people who are well-positioned and
well-integrated into the larger society," Ammerman
said. "People who are middle-aged business owners living in suburbia with
a mortgage are less likely to be attracted to joining such a group than for
instance a 22-year-old fresh out of college, without a job, perhaps estranged
from their family."
Cults vs. sects
The term "cult," is derived from the word culture and has not always
carried today's negative connotation, said Phillips Stevens, Jr., an
anthropologist who studies religions and cults at the State University of New
York at Buffalo.
"The word cult, up until the 1970s, was a
respectable term referring to the central focus of a religious faith,"
Stevens said. "You could speak of the Catholic cult, and in fact, people
Beginning in the 1970s, around the time of the
UFO-spawned Reälians and Charles Manson's
"Family," cults were associated with "a repressive, exclusive
group of people whose members are held emotionally, if not physically, against
their wills, led by usually a megalomaniacal leader," Stevens said.
The media, scientists and outsiders following the
recent news from Eldorado, Texas, spout various labels to describe Warren
"Most social scientists would probably
describe (FLDS) as a fundamentalist religious movement or a new religious
movement because of the degree of difference between it and any previous
existing religious tradition," Ammerman said in
a telephone interview.
"Social scientists have increasingly not used
the term (cult) at all, because it does carry that pejorative value with
it," Ammerman said. Instead, the emergence of
"new religious movements" serves as an umbrella term for cult-like
groups. That way, Ammerman and other sociologists can
focus more on the dynamics in a group and beyond, such as the demands placed on
members and how the rest of society responds to the group.