Ed Bennett says that he began to doubt when he was 14. Doubts, he had been taught, were the devil’s work. He would say to himself, “If you could just pray a little more, if you could be just a little bit purer as a Christian, if you just dedicate your life a little bit more, maybe you’d get rid of those doubts and become the perfect Christian.” The result was that he nearly shut down emotionally.
Bennett “hid out” inside his mind, concealing his doubts by pretending to be the perfect Jehovah’s Witness. He studied Witness literature, he participated in Bible-study discussions, but mostly he made a point of saying nothing of significance. By responding exactly as he had been programmed, he avoided the risks of confrontation and exposure.
Bennett had not chosen to be a Jehovah’s Witness, he was born one. The cultlike nature of the Witnesses’ teachings and disciplinary tactics made doubting difficult. It also made it almost impossible to leave when he finally decided to four years later.
“The majority of Witnesses who have left,” said Bennett, who is now 30, “just keep coming back and leaving because they have been set up so that they cannot function in the world. The only sense of community they’ve had is with the Witnesses. And, if you toe the line, it’s a very tight community. You will never, ever have that same sense of belonging once you’ve left it. . . . You can’t know what that sense of belonging is until you’ve experienced it. Until you’ve had that feeling that God has picked you–the rest of the world he’s going to kill, but he’s saved you because he loves you. There is no substitute for that out in the real world.”
Witnesses believe in the imminent destruction of all non-Witnesses in a bloody inferno that will mark the return of Jesus Christ to earth. They are taught that the U.S. Army is going to enslave the world and that the United Nations is the devil’s government on earth. They are discouraged from studying the Bible without sanctioned interpretive aids. They may not salute the flag or celebrate holidays, which is particularly hard on children in public schools. Witnesses are continually instructed to hold themselves apart from the rest of the world, which, Bennett pointed out, leaves them nowhere to go if they consider leaving.
As a child, Ed Bennett found these teachings confusing. On the one hand, he felt special, that he was God’s favorite. He enjoyed the intellectual discipline of studying the Bible and of mastering the all-important art of debating about scripture. Witnesses never lose debates with outsiders, at least in their own minds, Bennett said. “They have an incredible series of rationalizations. They can fight any point.” Smiling, he savored the recollection of his own youthful forensic prowess. “I had all the rationales and facts and arguments to argue my point, and I’d usually win.” He enjoyed swapping canvassing stories. “It’s fun,” he said, “to go back to a group of people who say, ‘Yeah, you really showed them.’ You don’t have anyone coming up saying, ‘That argument is completely without logic or base.’ The only person who is saying that is your enemy, and he’s speaking for Satan. So, you’ve won that.”
On the other hand, Bennett came to feel estranged from his classmates, his country, the entire physical world. His God said do not be deceived by earthly pleasures, so he learned to take no joy in life. Praying and proselytizing are the only good things in the Witnesses’ narrowly circumscribed world. Even helping others is of dubious merit; the only kind of charity worth giving, Witnesses believe, is an introduction to their teachings. These teachings, said Bennett, only made him feel worthless. “I remember when I was a teenager,” he said, “thinking, ‘Maybe I can just run away from here and meet a woman and pretend that I’m someone else and she won’t know how horrible I am.’ And, to me, that was the best I could hope for. That maybe I could find someone and trick them into loving me. Because deep down inside, I’m a bad person.”
The rise of the religious right in politics, the PTL and Jimmy Swaggart scandals, Oral Roberts’s bizarre fund-raising appeals, and Pat Robertson’s divinely inspired presidential bid have all highlighted fundamentalism’s sway over the hearts and minds of millions of Americans. Yet many dissatisfied ex-fundamentalists are starting to speak up about the recruiting and controlling tactics of these churches–practices they see as abusive and dangerous. Many of these people have joined Fundamentalists Anonymous (FA), a nationwide organization that helps them leave their abused past behind. The stories of FA members like Ed Bennett reveal the coercion that lies behind the control that extremist religions and religion-based cults have over their members.
There is no set of established criteria that defines fundamentalism or its many subsets. Fundamentalist faiths tend to share some beliefs and disagree about others. But all are nontraditional Christian sects; most fundamentalist religions active in the United States today were invented during this century. Although avowedly “old-fashioned” in outlook, they are a neotraditionalist modern phenomenon, a reaction to modern times.
Fundamentalists are heirs to the turn-of-the-century belief of some dissident Christian leaders that Catholicism and progressive Protestantism had veered from the path of God’s intent. These leaders sought to return to the “fundamentals,” which generally meant a literal interpretation of the Bible as the word of God. A “day” spent to create the earth meant a 24-hour day, period.
Some fundamentalists prefer to be called conservatives. There is a spectrum of beliefs that may be called conservative, but generally conservatives believe the Bible to be inspired by God, though not created by him directly. Thus it is open to interpretation and to the possibility that the authors misunderstood what God intended or were less than perfectly clear and cogent in their presentation of his message. Mainstream Christian theologians also believe the Bible to be inspired by God but tend to regard it more as a collection of different types of literature–history, allegory, prophecy–each of which is assessed according to its type.
The distinctions among the sects most often associated with fundamentalism have to do with the emphasis each places on particular scriptures. Evangelicals focus on the Gospels, especially those that instruct Christians to actively convert others. Charismatics and Pentecostals founded their beliefs on Bible passages that describe manifest visitations of the Holy Spirit: speaking in tongues, revelatory dreams, visions, and faith healing. Born-agains believe it is not enough to be baptized as a child, but that to come fully into Christ one must have an experience of conscious, adult acceptance of God entering the spirit. Apocalyptics, such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses, base their doomsday beliefs on specific scriptures as well.
The denominations out of which fundamentalists rise create other distinctions. For instance, there are Catholic charismatics and evangelical charismatics, and mainstream and born-again Baptists.
On the extreme end of the spectrum beyond the fundamentalists are the religion-based cults. Flo Conway and Jim Siegelman–authors of two excellent books, Snapping and Holy Terror, on the social and mind-control techniques used by religions and pseudoreligions–found that more than 30 of 48 cults described to them by survey respondents “had emerged out of fundamentalist or other branches of conservative Christianity.” Most of the groups widely considered to be cults apply for and receive tax-exempt status as religious organizations.
The similarities between Christian-based cults and the new wave of extremist Christian religions make the followers of the Swaggarts, Falwells, and Robertsons particularly susceptible to cult involvement. Most vulnerable are young people between the ages of 15 and 35 who have suffered a setback in their family, school, work, or marriage and who find that the religion that promised them everything isn’t delivering. The answer, it may appear to these idealistic young people, is a stronger, more committed religious belief.
Few, if any, fundamentalists would call their religion a cult. Yet the techniques employed by cults to lure new members and keep the initiated in line are used in varying degrees by some organizations generally thought to be religious.
The apocalyptic theology of the Jehovah’s Witnesses is not as popular today as other fundamentalist beliefs, but their founding and history are typical of other neotraditionalist sects. Considered by some a religion and by others a cult–it has been called a “gentle cult”–Jehovah’s Witnesses is an older and more established sect than many others.
The Witnesses were founded at the end of the 19th century by Charles Taze Russell. Russell, born a Presbyterian, was a contemporary of Freud and was part of the generation that grew up in the wake of Darwin’s theory of evolution and Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. As former Witness Barbara Grizzuti Harrison chronicles in Visions of Glory: A History and Memory of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Industrial Revolution, the Civil War, and the advent of unionism, the suffragette movement, the Ku Klux Klan, and other ground-breaking, often conflicting, societal forces signaled that great changes were taking place in the world. To Russell, these changes could end only in a bloodbath.
Russell had the aggressive spirit of the late-19th-century capitalists. At 11, he founded a business with his father, drawing up the contract himself. Only four years later, the business had grown into a chain of clothing stores. In his spare time, Russell studied the Bible, became obsessed with the torments of hell, and wrote scriptures in chalk on sidewalks to warn the sinners who walked there. At 18, he attended a sermon given by a newly founded Christian group called the Second Adventists that convinced him that the Bible was the literal word of God, or Jehovah.
Russell soured on the Second Adventists and set up his own group of Bible students. At 21, he wrote and published at his own expense 50,000 copies of a booklet called The Object and Manner of the Lord’s Return. A few years later, he joined his Bible class to another, similar Christian group. He used some of his wealth to support the group’s newspaper and became the paper’s coeditor. Eventually, he sold the clothing business and became a full-time “pastor,” traveling around the country to preach and proselytize.
To this day, the Jehovah’s Witnesses rely heavily on their publications, the Watchtower newspaper and Awake magazine, to solicit new members and hold current members in line. The Watchtower Bible and Tract Society now publishes 8,700,000 copies of the Watchtower in 79 languages every other week and 7,500,000 copies of Awake semimonthly. The Watchtower, they claim, is the only official and infallible word of God on earth.
Technologically, the Witnesses may have fallen behind television’s Swaggarts, Falwells, and Bakkers, but they claim the best-selling book of the 20th century: a 25-cent, 190-page hardbound volume titled The Truth That Leads to Everlasting Life, which they say has sold 74,000,000 copies.
Most of the people whose stories follow are members of Fundamentalists Anonymous. FA, as members call it, is a three-year-old national organization that already has 46 local chapters, including one in Chicago and another, headed by Ed Bennett, in Chicago’s far western suburbs.
FA has a three-pronged service program. Local FA chapters sponsor support group meetings where members help each other free themselves from the debilitating effects of their religious experiences. FA’s educational efforts are geared to making the general public aware of the pitfalls of extremist religions. Its Legal Task Force counsels victims, including more than 300 contributors to the PTL Club Ministry who are suing to recover their money. These Task Force cases often involve more than money. There is, for example, the case of the suicidally depressed young man whose minister advised him that suicide might be God’s way of calling him home, so he went home and killed himself. That case and several others in which the plaintiffs seek redress for “religious malpractice” are now in state courts.
FA was started in 1985 by Richard Yao, a 31-year-old Wall Street lawyer and graduate of the Yale Divinity School, and James Luce, a 26-year-old Wall Street banker, who is now working full-time for the group. Yao was raised in an independent fundamentalist Baptist church in Manila, the Philippines. In a presentation to the American Psychological Association in New York City last August, he described his journey from fundamentalism to Fundamentalists Anonymous.
“As soon as I was old enough, I was sent to a ‘Christian’ school run by the church. It was extremely authoritarian, rigid, and regimented. It was total immersion. I spent most of my waking hours either in the school or in the church. I was guilty, fearful, and anxious. I was very unhappy. They promised the ‘abundant life’ but all I had was an endless nightmare. Gradually, I decided I had to leave. But all my friends and most of my family were in the church. Covertly, I began to make friends outside the church. And when I left the fold, these friends became my informal support group. Years later, when I wondered why I made it and many of my friends didn’t, I realized that this informal support system made all the difference for me. It gave me the courage to break out. And it sustained and helped me on the journey. Thus the idea for FA.”
James Luce became interested in the effects of fundamentalism after his four-year-old nephew had a nervous breakdown. For two years, eight hours a day, the boy had been in the care of a baby-sitter who had been telling him that since he was an Episcopalian, God would strike him down with lightning and he would burn in hell.
After trading stories of fundamentalist-inspired abuse, Luce and Yao placed a two-line ad in the Village Voice offering to help others with similar experiences. Five hundred people responded. After the New York Daily News wrote an article about them, Phil Donahue’s staff invited Yao and Luce to be on Donahue. As a result of their appearance, FA received 5,000 letters and telephone calls. The show had such an outstanding response that it ran again two months later. This time there were 6,000 responses. Luce figures a total of 50,000 people have contacted FA since it began three years ago. Interest in the group is so strong that Yao and Luce give only the organization’s post office box number (PO Box 20324, Greeley Square Station, New York, NY, 10001, telephone 212-696-0420) when they go on talk shows because their small staff cannot handle the volume of calls.
Chicago’s FA chapter is currently at loose ends, not having met for several months because the group leader is looking for a more suitable location for meetings than his living room. The chapter is a victim, Luce says, of rapid growth and untrained local leadership. A $500,000 foundation grant to overhaul FA’s service delivery to the local level is on its way. The grant, which is by far the largest infusion of cash FA has ever received, will be used to hire psychologists, psychiatrists, and attorneys for local chapters.
Yao, who now belongs to what he calls a mainline Baptist church, stresses that FA is not anti-Christian. Nor is it against all fundamentalists or fundamentalist churches. It is, however, opposed to what Yao calls the “fundamentalist mind-set–a mind-set that tends to be authoritarian, intolerant, and compulsive about control; an absolutist all-or-nothing, either-or, us-against-them, I’ve-got-the-truth-and-you-don’t mind-set. One which does not see the grays in life. One that does not know the meaning of compromise. One that seeks to impose itself upon others.”
Ed Bennett played the game for years. While some of his older friends were being publicly reproached for rebelling against the Witnesses’ strict code of discipline–no music, no dancing, no movies, no dating–Bennett asked to be baptized. His buddies called him “the professor.” He never cracked a smile.
“It’s a very focused moment-to-moment existence,” he said. “You try to keep very busy, keep doing things. That’s one of the reasons the Witnesses are really driven to be out there knocking on doors all the time. That’s why they have six meetings a week. So they’re constantly busy with stuff. They don’t have time to think. It’s kind of a hopelessness because there was a period of time there where I felt like, I don’t believe. In my heart of hearts, I don’t believe. But I did believe that the world was going to be destroyed and that there was a Jehovah, but I just didn’t believe in him. So I was really hopeless. I really felt like, well, I’m just going to die when Armageddon comes. God is going to see into my heart and see I don’t believe. And then I felt like a real hypocrite because I was a perfect Witness and I was fooling everybody by doing all the activities a good Witness should, and by not rebelling and being a good person. And part of the emotional shutdown was in playing that game. In seeing how deeply I could be a good Witness with nobody catching me out. Part of the consequence of that is that you feel like everything that you accomplish is a fraud.”
Bennett connects his rejection of fundamentalism with rebellion against his father, whom he describes as a quiet, unassuming man, an elder of the church who seemed genuinely devout at Kingdom Hall but who never held a job for very long and was a passive and pitiable figure at home. The critical moment came when Bennett was 18, he says: his father got involved in a situation that Bennett found acutely embarrassing and repulsive, and Bennett was suddenly overcome with fear that he would turn out like him. He told his mother he was quitting.
For a year, Bennett lived at home, dissociated from everyone in his family, cut off from all his former friends, feeling he was headed for destruction. Having convinced their members that life outside the faith will lead to sin, ignominy, and violent death at the hands of Jehovah himself, Jehovah’s Witnesses threaten constantly to kick out, or disfellowship, members who do not toe the line. Once a member has been disfellowshiped, as Bennett was, other Witnesses, including family, are required to shun him. Disfellowshiping, Bennett said, is the Witnesses’ “big hammer.”
That year was difficult for Bennett. He tried to make friends where he worked, but “the guys there were coming from completely different worlds.” Then he met an older woman, a “former flower child,” who steered him in the direction of psychiatric help and gave him his first exhilarating taste of unqualified love. “Every time I did something wrong I expected her to disfellowship me,” he said, “but she never did.”
Years of therapy, finding a group of people he clicked with, “building a personality from a blank slate,” and meeting his wife have all helped Bennett on his 12-year journey away from the mental and emotional tyranny of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. He has now worked successfully for the same company for eight years and his wife recently gave birth to their first child (whom they named after the former flower child). But it was getting in touch with FA, he said, that really “blew my whole world open.”
One of the Chicago FA members I spoke with is a professional woman in her mid-thirties whom I will call Lisa; she insisted I obscure her identity because she fears her father might harm or even kill her if he saw her comments. Lisa’s parents are both strong believers, but, she said, “he has the more crazy behavior.” She called her parents “extremely antisocial.” When they moved from the town in which they had lived all their lives, they had no one to say good-bye to, not even a relative who was a pastor in their church, because her father had decided he was “of the devil.”
Lisa said she had been her father’s favorite, a “wife substitute” who kept him company when her mother was busy. After he fondled her breasts, Lisa kept her distance. He was resentful; her mother was jealous. And Lisa came to be known as the family rebel.
Lisa still protests that she was not doing or thinking anything that was against her parents’ values at the time. “The church preached that young people should not dance or drink and I didn’t.” She described herself as withdrawn, isolated, and anorexic, weighing only 70 pounds at one point. Yet she said that faced with her father’s frequent and fierce verbal tirades, she could “totally stare him down–not laugh, not cry.”
Lisa put more distance between herself and her parents when she went away to a fundamentalist Christian college. Finally on her own, she tried attending different churches, but when she did, she said, “it felt like somebody had their hands on my neck. I just couldn’t breathe.” Once when she was home for a holiday, she failed to wake up for church on time and her father screamed hysterically at her, saying that she was going to go to hell and he was going to stand there and laugh when she did.
Her father sends her “hate mail.” He has driven a wedge between her and her siblings, telling them she is “of the devil” and engaged in “a diabolical plot” to destroy him. God will destroy her, he claims. “I wouldn’t put it past him to act on God’s wish and kill me and the devil in me for God’s sake,” she said.
Lisa has been battling the effects of her upbringing for more than a decade. “But it’s still not over,” she sighed. Chiefly, she said, she still feels lonely, even though she has worked hard to put friends into her life. She couldn’t, for example, tell her new friends that she had no one to spend Christmas with. “If [my parents] were alcoholic or divorced it would be easier to tell people. But if you say my parents are Christian, people do not understand because it’s supposed to be a good thing.” Lisa found a mainstream church to join–not, she said, for the doctrine, but because it was a nice community and they had good social programs.
Of herself she said gently but firmly, “Scapegoats have the best rate of recovery because they never had the luxury of pretending that everything was OK.”
Ruth Schilling is a Chicago actress who has also struggled with a fundamentalist background and a dysfunctional family. She said her story isn’t brutal and that she’d heard worse.
The pivotal religious figure in Schilling’s family was her grandmother. Her father died when Ruth was small, and Ruth’s mother moved the family in with her mother. Schilling’s grandmother prayed to be taken from “this wicked world” and often wished aloud that her grandchildren had not been born because they were a burden to her daughter. She frequently told Ruth she was “of the devil.” When Ruth misbehaved, her grandmother would feign a heart attack. “This was serious,” said Schilling. “She hyperventilated. One time we called an ambulance and they took her away. I always thought she was going to die because I’d done something wrong and I’d go up to her room afterwards and apologize.” Her grandmother never had the heart attack; in fact, she lived in remarkable good health to the age of 100.
Though she was the unquestioned religious and moral authority in the family, Schilling’s grandmother rarely attended her Lutheran church, preferring that the ministers give her communion at home. Schilling, her mother, brother, and sister belonged to a born-again Bible church that, like many born-again churches, was nondenominational and therefore not overseen by a central governing body. More than the other children in her family, Ruth Schilling took her religious training to heart. She turned to the church for the security she didn’t have at home.
“When I was in high school was the worst time, because I was in agony,” Schilling said. “I was agonizing over the fact that I couldn’t really believe this stuff that I was supposed to believe. Like, I never believed that God accepted me. You know, the whole thing is that Christ is supposed to be your savior and you accept him into your heart and he accepts you and everything is supposed to be wonderful. That’s how it’s presented. You become born again and ta-daa! And I never felt that. I always felt rotten.”
There were times, she said, when she really did believe, but, like Ed Bennett, she could not sustain that belief or the emotional high that went along with it. She recalled the spiritual highs she experienced as a member of the Wheaton-based Voice of Christian Youth organization: “At the end of meetings, they would have this call for people to come forward to accept Christ as their savior. . . . And I think that, if I could’ve, I would’ve done it every time. Although,” she added, laughing, “you’re supposed to only do it once and it’s supposed to work.”
Schilling left her fundamentalist church when she was 20. At first, she tried other churches, though she still played piano and prepared the Sunday bulletin for her regular church. When she told her minister that he would have to find someone else to perform those duties because she needed some time away from the church, he told members of the congregation that she was pregnant.
Away from the church, Schilling felt she had “nothing to go on.” Dropping her religious training altogether, she told herself, “Now I have to be a really awful person, a criminal, or a prostitute.” She didn’t go that far, but she did get involved in theater, frequented skid-row bars, and eventually gravitated to the easy sex and drugs scene of late 60s San Francisco.
“I really had this black-and-white view of the world,” she said. “So, in a sense, I was still reacting to [my religious training]. . . . I looked for someone else to save me, outside of religion. Theater became a wonderful substitute.” She looked for somebody to look up to, to worship. Once a man she was involved with told her straight out, “Don’t worship me.” She followed the dictates of group leaders absolutely blindly. “It was like, ‘What are we boycotting today? Oh, that’s right,'” she said. “No question. Totally mindless. Just like, ‘That’s what everybody’s boycotting? OK.’ And that is the same kind of mentality as Ruth back in the church, going, ‘Yes, Jesus died for me and that’s all there is to it and anybody who didn’t believe this stuff is wrong, and they’re bad.’
“San Francisco was a religion,” she said, and much of her life since was spent chasing one pseudoreligion after another. Although she works against it, she said she is often afraid to make up her own rules for living. Even little things like brushing her teeth before bed become a question. Is she going to do it because she was once told to? Or not do it because she was told to? Or do it because she wants to? Or should she not do it because she doesn’t want to? What is right and who says so have nagged Schilling into her 40th year. Perhaps because she has largely got past that kind of constant self-examination, she now knows how to identify it as exactly as petty and dogmatic as her childhood religious training.
Mary Lou Weinzetl came to FA because she lost her two children, aged two months and four years, to the Tony and Susan Alamo Christian Foundation. The Alamo Foundation, which started in Hollywood and many of whose members now live in Alma, Arkansas, runs a number of retail and service operations worth millions of dollars. According to the Cult Awareness Network, a Chicago organization that is a national clearinghouse for information on cults, the foundation exploits some of its followers by employing them full-time for as little as five dollars a week.
I could not reach Weinzetl, who has moved around in recent months, both in and out of Illinois, but I was able to track her story through press reports and the Cult Awareness Network. In a Sun-Times story printed last October, Weinzetl said that she moved into Alamo’s compound, looking for help, after her first marriage failed. She’d come to the wrong place. According to the Sun-Times, Tony Alamo and his followers tried to raise Alamo’s wife Susan from the dead by praying before her embalmed and entombed body 24 hours a day; distributed posters in several states, including Illinois, offering to take care of unwed pregnant women in exchange for their unwanted babies; and occasionally blanket Chicago and other major cities with virulent anti-Catholic propaganda.
Weinzetl said that before she left the Arkansas compound last August, Alamo told her she had to sign a paper turning her son and daughter over to Brian Broderick, the father of the two-month-old son, whom she had met at the compound and had supposedly married, although Arkansas authorities have no record of the marriage. “I knew [the agreement signing away my children] wasn’t legal,” she is quoted as saying, “but I signed it anyway because I had to get out and then I could get help getting my children.” When she returned five weeks later, accompanied by local police and armed with a court order authorizing a search for her children, she was told Broderick had taken the children and left the compound without indicating his destination. Three Alamo followers were arrested for interfering with the police as they entered and left the compound. A few days later Weinzetl was given legal custody of her children–but she still had to find them.
In January, Weinzetl was contacted by Broderick’s mother, who said Broderick had left Weinzetl’s four-year-old daughter with her and had instructed her to turn the girl over to Weinzetl. According to the Cult Awareness Network, when Weinzetl picked her daughter up, she found bruises on her. The search for her son goes on. Broderick’s mother did not provide any information on her son’s whereabouts.
Perhaps more than anyone else whose story is described here, Weinzetl got caught in the cultic fringes of fundamentalism. Her case makes clear how susceptible fundamentalists can be to more extreme messages.
Dr. Harold Bussell, an evangelical himself, and the author of Unholy Devotion: Why Cults Lure Christians, describes a number of common attributes that make evangelical Christians targets for cult recruitment. “We evangelicals place a high emphasis on our experience of Christ. So do cults,” he writes in an article in Christianity Today. “Evangelicals are easily manipulated by anything that hints of spirituality. . . . Like evangelical groups, cults place a high emphasis on devotions, evangelism, self-denial, and prayer as outward signs of spirituality.” He goes on, “Many of our churches also emphasize one aspect of scriptural teaching and ignore the rest. . . . Almost every cult began with focus on one aspect of Scripture to the exclusion of the rest.” And, he writes, “We evangelicals have a tendency to justify our behavior, spiritualize it, or to blame the church structure for our shortcomings. Our inability to deal with our own sins and weaknesses, coupled with our ideal models, makes us very vulnerable to cultic-type leaders who present an image of successful and sinless leadership.”
Drawing the line between a religious organization that uses aggressive means to get and keep practicing members and a religion-based cult is difficult, maybe impossible. But Lutheran pastor John Charles Cooper has made a reasonable attempt at it. According to an article by Richard Donhower in LCA Partners, a Lutheran church periodical, Cooper divided the characteristics of cults into two categories: “those that they share with certain extreme fundamentalist groups and those which are unique to the cults. In the first set are (1) apocalypticism (the world is going to end very soon), (2) polemic against mainline religious organizations and their teachings (they are corrupt and leading people to destruction), (3) proselytization (outsiders must be won through hard-sell drives for conversion), and (4) total commitment (including one’s mind and savings account).” The article goes on, “It must be emphasized that as unpleasant as some of these characteristics may be, a group displaying them is not necessarily a cult. Unique to cults are (1) obedience to a single leader, (2) economic and personal exploitation of the members, (3) an ethic which countenances the use of ‘heavenly deception’ in the pursuit of the cult’s objectives, and (4) brainwashing as the technique for indoctrination.”
Weinzetl’s case also makes clear how vulnerable children are when their parents are drawn into extremist ideology. After all, nearly 300 of the 912 people who drank poisoned Flavour-aide at the Reverend Jim Jones’s bidding were children. Many more children suffer mental, physical, even sexual abuse in the homes of religious extremists.
This raises the question of where society draws the line between its right to protect children from abuse and parents’ rights. Alan Dershowitz, a Harvard law professor and syndicated columnist who writes on legal issues, has written extensively about the growing conflicts surrounding religious freedom. “If ever a constitutional right seemed absolute, it would be parents’ right to raise their minor children according to the family’s religious beliefs,” he writes. “But if ever another right seemed absolute, it would be young children’s right to be free from physical, indeed, life-threatening abuse.”
Emotional abuse, such as that suffered by some FA members, is a more subtle issue. Dershowitz worries about what would happen if the state became involved in regulating the religious practices of families. “The church doesn’t have a constitutional right to be mean and nasty,” he said, “but you’ve got to be able to draw a line. And I worry a lot about the state drawing a line when it comes to emotional abuse.”
Yet Dershowitz recognizes that many children are in physical danger from religiously motivated parents, while the parents are protected under the First Amendment. “The courts have often put a heavy thumb on the side of the scale that favors parents’ rights” when they come into conflict with children’s rights, he said. “The irony is that the more these people attempt to escape into literalist and fundamentalist religious enclaves, the more the state will have to intrude to protect children who are endangered by church practices.”
Barb Dyche is a fundamentalist Christian who until recently was active in her church. A 44-year-old schoolteacher, she last fall took a month’s medical leave for stress and burnout–related mostly to her problems with her church. Her problems started when she sought her pastor’s counsel about divorcing her husband, whom she met in the church and married last year. It was her second marriage. After they married, he wanted her to sell her house and move in with him, but she was not to bring along her two children, aged 20 and 22. Her pastor told her that, as his wife, she should submit to his demands. She refused, and eventually her husband divorced her. But her problems with the church have not ended.
Dyche had been going to Christ Community Church in Saint Charles for a number of years but after her divorce, the attitude of church members toward her changed. She was forbidden to play her violin in church or to sing in the choir because, she said, “they don’t want me, as a sinner, standing up there doing anything in front of other people.”
She also said, “They’ve been disciplining me, so to speak, trying to have an awful lot to say about what’s going on in my life. They have come over even to my home to chide me and threaten me by saying that if I didn’t more or less do what they were asking me to do they were going to ask me to leave this fellowship.”
When asked how she felt about her church pastor and fellow members coming to her home to chide her, she said, “What they were doing was part of, perhaps–I don’t know if I would call it their job, [but] it was understandable to me.” However, she didn’t like it when they called a counselor she’d been seeing and tried to make an appointment to talk about her. The counselor refused to see them unless she requested him to, but Dyche chose not to confront her church colleagues about this breach of privacy.
“I do not want to turn around and do to them the things that they are doing to me and that I complain about,” she said. “I don’t like it that they are being rude and judgmental and I don’t want to turn around and do it to them. I haven’t made up my mind for sure that I really know exactly what is appropriate to do. Do I stay in the church and love those people anyway and perhaps begin to wane spiritually? I care to know God personally, intimately, but is this church the place to go to have fellowship and a way to help me grow?
“In the past I have been a people pleaser and the church has pretty well run my life,” Dyche suddenly said, a trace of bitterness showing through. “I was raised almost to just be horrified if I was not perfectly moral, honest, open, the whole thing. I had to be perfect or else I felt like I was the trash of the earth.” Her childhood was filled with the usual fundamentalist prohibitions: don’t drink, don’t dance, don’t go to movies, don’t wear makeup, don’t listen to popular music. She was a talented and capable person, she said, but “I always got the feeling that I was not good enough. You do something well but they always find fault with one little thing.”
Dyche has been reevaluating some of the fundamentalist messages and tactics. Especially after a friend in FA gave her Salvation for Sale, an insider’s account of presidential candidate Pat Robertson’s ministry. “I will have to say that reading that book has affected my thinking,” she said. “I used to listen to WMBI [the Moody Bible Institute’s radio station] all the time. It was on almost 24 hours a day. But now I’m having a little bit of a problem with the style of delivery of some of the sermons. I heard one the other day where the broadcaster was actually chiding people for . . . something to the effect that these things are going on in other countries and we’re allowing them to happen and so therefore we are guilty of sins that are going on, almost like murder. Like we are allowing murders to happen. He was trying to activate people to take a stand and do something about all these terrible things. Well, you know, great, but to dump guilt like that–it was totally unnecessary.
“So, anyway,” she concluded, “I love God and I want to know him and grow in him but I’m not so sure that what’s happening in the church right now is going to help me.”
She didn’t seem at all angry at the people in her church, I pointed out.
“No. Oh, I get frustrated and irritated,” she said with a cheerful mock irritation in her voice. “The pastor, when I was over there talking with them one time, gave me some Bible verses. Again, these were supposed to be a surprise to me, I guess. Supposedly, after sitting in church for 40-some years–morning services, and Sunday school, and evening service, and Wednesday services, Bible studies, etc, etc, etc, I guess they didn’t think I knew divorce was a sin. So they wrote down these Bible verses for me to look up about divorce being wrong. But then they gave me another verse that said something to the effect that I was to obey those in authority over me. The pastors. That I really didn’t like either. What was this they were saying to me? They were the church’s leaders, but what authority does that give them over me?”
I asked whether she had questioned why she had been given the verse on following authority.
“No,” she sighed, “I don’t want to come back and be defensive with them. I accepted it and perhaps I’m interpreting it wrong, but they gave me those three verses and told me to read them and they said nothing more.”
Despite her reluctance to challenge religious authority, Dyche not long ago played the game of scriptural debate and won a round. When her pastor likened her to a character in the Bible–a “weak-willed woman” who falls prey to whoever comes along and does his bidding–she responded, “You’re absolutely right. I’m a weak-willed woman. But you right now are acting as one of those people who are coming along expecting me to do what you want me to do.”
“They weren’t too happy that I would say that to them,” she said, sounding pleased.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Lewis Toby.