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Information in the media about new
religious movements (NRM's; a.k.a."Cults")

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Background:

As described elsewhere in this section, there are two types of groups that attack cults:

  • The anti-cult movement (ACM): This movement promotes the concept that certain religious and secular groups use advanced mind-control techniques and unethical recruitment practices to trap unsuspecting persons and keep them under the group's control. The popularity of the ACM has been in steady decline since the mid- 1980s. Some ACM groups once kidnapped and deprogramming members of new religious movements. This has become extremely rare. Few mental health professionals now believe that brainwashing is possible. The public is becoming aware that members join high-demand religious movements because the groups offer something to them; they typically leave after a few years because they no longer find membership to be beneficial. 

  • The counter-cult movement (CCM): The groups in this movement remain active in the conservative wings of some religions -- primarily Protestant Christianity. However, acceptance of the CCM among the general public appears to be fading. With the rise in religious diversity in North America, the public seems to be more accepting of different religious beliefs. One indication of this was the attendance at a widely advertised counter-cult conference in the American North-east during mid-2006. It attracted only 30 persons, about half of whom were presenters.

We do not expect to record very many items in this list.

  • 2003-NOV-28: CA: Margaret Singer died: Margaret Thaler Singer, 82, died of pneumonia in Alta Bates Medical Center in Berkeley, CA after a long illness. She had been one of the main leaders in the anti-cult movement -- a decentralized group which believes that brainwashing and mind control techniques are in widespread use by religious and secular groups. During the 1950s, she started to study brainwashing at Walter Reed Institute of Research in Washington, DC, by interviewing American POWs from the Korean War. She is well known for her testimony in the 1976 trial of newspaper heiress Patricia  Hearst, who was kidnapped by the Symbionese Liberation Army and later took part in a bank robbery. Singer testified in over 200 court cases involving new religious groups, and was a leading authority on schizophrenia and family therapy. Her son, Sam Singer, said: "My mom spent her whole life assisting other people - victims, parents or lawyers - and often for free." She wrote a 1995 book on new religious movements titled: "Cults in Our Midst." She was the recipient of the Hofheimer Prize, the Dean Award from the American College of Psychiatrists, and other honors. Her family asked that memorial donations may be sent to the anti-cult group, the American Family Foundation in Naples, FL. 1

  • 2005-DEC: ON: Allegations of criminal acts involving deprogramming: A woman, whose name has not been released, was allegedly kidnapped by her father, brother, and other men just before Christmas. She was held for ten days until she was able to escape and contact police. Members of her family in Milton ON have been charged with kidnapping and/or forcible confinement. Their motivation appears to be the woman's membership in the Dominion Christian Centre (DCC) in Hamilton ON. They considered it to be a cult. The family allegedly arranged to have a well known American programmer come to Milton to try to talk the woman into leaving the group. The DCC was once affiliated with the Open Bible Faith Fellowship, a network of Evangelical Christian churches across North America. 2

  • 2007-NOV-18: TX: Lawsuit over the use of the term "cult:" Norman L. Geisler wrote:
    "The Local Church and its publishing service, Living Stream Ministries, sued John Ankerberg and Harvest House Publishers for listing them as a cult in their Encyclopedia of Cults and New Religions. Strangely, some noted counter-cult ministries like Hank Hannegraaff’s CRI, a paid free-lance editor of CRI, Gretchen Passintino-Coburn, and Fuller Seminary sided with The Local Church!  I wrote an Amicus brief in defense of John Ankerberg and Harvest House (which is available on www.normgeisler.com). Recently, the Texas Supreme Court ruled in favor of our contention that it would be a violation of our First Amendment rights to forbid calling a group a cult. The Local Church has appealed the decision." 3
  • 2011-JUL-19: USA: Criticism of journalists' "cult box": Michael Otterson, who heads the public affairs group of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is critical of the use by the media of the term "cult" when referring to his denomination. He writes:

    "Wikipedia correctly labels 'cult' as a pejorative term, and adds: 'The popular, derogatory sense of the word has no currency in academic studies of religions, where 'cults' are subsumed under the neutral label of the 'new religious movement'."

    "If the cult word has no currency in academia, why do some keep repeating it? Because it’s a neat, shorthand and rather lazy way of putting a whole group into a box. Once labeled as a cult, there is not much need to explain all of the baggage that comes with it - the implicit ideas of extremism, mind control, authoritarianism and secrecy that play perfectly into the kind of rigid stereotypes beloved of the ignorant and bigoted. Journalists could and should do better than perpetuate this kind of shallowness when referring to the fourth largest church in the United States. Rather than continuing to parrot it, it’s time they pushed back against those who choose to use it." 4

  • 2011-JUN-25: UT: Suggestion that journalists study the CCM: In the early months of the selection for the Republican candidate for president in the 2012 elections, a popular candidate is Mitt Romney -- a Mormon. Lane Williams of Deseret News suggested:

    "It's time for journalists to investigate the “countercult” movement within some branches of Christianity and bring to public scrutiny the connections that have likely led to some of the public hostility against Mormonism. ..."

    "A writer could choose to explain simply that 'Mormons and evangelicals have important doctrinal differences' instead and not raise the specter of a loaded word like 'cult' in explaining religious difference."

    As a student of what scholars call framing theory, it is obvious to me that words like 'cult' have great power to influence perception. Furthermore, out-of-context, simplistic explanations of our beliefs about the end of the world, about historic polygamy, about alleged secrecy or about alleged prejudice all can add to this impression that Mormons are cultish and possibly dangerous." 5

  • 2011-OCT-07: DC: Mormonism a cult? Robert Jeffress, pastor of the First Baptist Church in Dallas TX, referred to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints-- the Mormon church; aka the LDS Church -- as a "cult" at the annual Values Voters Summit in Washington DC. Unfortunately, he did not define which meaning of the term "cult" he was using. Thus, the group he was addressing and the media did not know whether he was referring to the Mormon Church:
    • Simply as one of thousands of diverse Christian faith groups who have different beliefs and practices, or
    • As a faith group that considers itself Christian but whose beliefs deviate greatly from historical Christianity, or
    • As a dangerous religious group that threatens the safety of its members.

The first two are factually true about the LDS. However, many commentators assumed that he was referring to Mormons as a dangerous group. Jeffress' statement was in the context of promoting Rick Perry as the Republican nominee for president in the 2012 elections. Jeffrees suggested that Republicans shouldn't support Mitt Romney's candidacy because Romney is a Mormon.

Two days later, Jeffress told Reuters: "Absolutely, Mormonism is a false religion. It was invented 1800 years after the establishment of Christianity." 6 This seems to imply that Jeffress was using the term "cult" as meaning the second definition above.

Truth in Action, a fundamentalist Christian group, formerlly called Coral Ridge Mnistries under the leadership of D. James Kennedy (1931-2007) weighed into the debate. They report that Jeffress "... has been accused of bigotry, called a “poster boy for hatred,” and a “moron.” Their assessment is that Jeffress used "cult" in the sense of a "theological cult." They support his statement with a quotation from the book These Also Believe by Dr. Charles Braden and John C. Schaffer:

"By the term cult, I mean nothing derogatory to any group so classified. A cult, as I define it, is any religious group which differs significantly in one or more respects as to belief or practice from those religious groups which are regarded as the normative expressions of religion in our total culture." 7

Still, "cult" still retains its status as a general purpose, hate-filled "snarl" word among the general public. We suggest that politicians, religious leaders, reporters, etc. should avoid the term because of its emotional baggage -- unless of course, their intent is to promote hatred.

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References:

  1. The Baltimore Sun, 2003-NOV-29, Page 6B.
  2. Paul Morse, "Woman disappeared for 10 days. Family members charged with kidnapping in alleged effort to deprogram 'cult' victim," The Hamilton Spectator, 2006-AUG-31 at: http://www.hamiltonspectator.com/
  3. Norman L. Geisler, "The Local Church Cult and the Supreme Court of Texas: A Big Victory for the Counter-Cult Movement," 2007-NOV-18, at: http://www.normangeisler.net/
  4. Michael Otterson, "The Mormon church and the media’s 'cult' box," The Washington Post, 2011-JUL-19, at: http://www.washingtonpost.com/
  5. Lane Williams, "Time for journalists to look more deeply at the 'countercult' movement," Deseret News, 2011-JUL-25, at: http://www.deseretnews.com/
  6. "Perry supporter Pastor Robert jeffress repeats claim Mormonism is 'cult'," Global Post, 2011-OCT-09, at: http://www.globalpost.com/Lane Williaaaa
  7. "Is Mormonism a Cult?," Truth in Action Ministries, 211-OCT-14, at: http://www.truthinaction.org/

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Copyright 2003 to 2011 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance.
Created: 2003-DEC-2
Latest update: 2011-OCT-16
Compiler: B.A. Robinson

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