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Religious Freedom and the Anti-Cult Movement PDF Print E-mail


Religious Freedom and the Anti-Cult Movement

By Dan Fefferman

Recently I have been making it a point to attend not only conferences on religious freedom but also meetings of the anti-cult movement (ACM). Here are some of the trends I see emerging:

First, anti-cult groups seem to be cooperating more beyond international boundaries. At the Leo J. Ryan Institute conference earlier this year, keynote speaker Prof. Stephen Kent of the University of Calgary called on Americans to learn from the European model of "Human Rights vs. Religious Freedom" as opposed to the American idea of religious freedom as a cornerstone of human rights. At the American Family Foundation in Seattle last April, substantial delegations attended from both France and Japan. The Chinese government also sent an official representative. Speakers referred to the need for international cooperation and applauded each other’s efforts to combat the "threat of destructive cults."

The audience heartily applauded a representative of the Chinese consulate who boasted that his government’s hard line policy had succeeded in reducing active participation in the Falun Gong movement from over 2 million to under 80,000. French representatives of the anti-cult group ADFI spoke of plans to expand recent legislative successes [see article page 1] to the whole of Europe. US anti-cultists called for more give and take and mutual understanding between Americans and Europeans to influence the US to give up its "obsession" with religious freedom in favor of a policy to "protect the rights of cult victims." Japanese attorneys expressed shock at US criticism of their government for failing to protect the religious freedom of "deprogramming" (religious kidnapping) victims, whom the anticultists claim are being "rescued from cults."

Second, anti-cultists are seeking to have greater influence among scholars. This was particularly evident at Seattle’s American Family Foundation meeting, to which several internationally noted sociologists of religion such as Eileen Barker and J. Gordon Melton—formerly referred to by the anti-cult movement as "cult apologists"—were invited as presenters. The San Francisco Chronicle went so far as to characterize this development as a "love feast" between former enemies. In reality it is probably an effort to develop lines of communication with scholars on the one hand, while also keeping up the pressure on them to be "neutral" rather than to speak out for the rights of those they study, as some of them have done in the past.

Third, the anti-cult movement has shifted its focus from direct attacks on NRM’s to tying them up with administrative and legal red tape. In the 1970s and 80s, much of the ACM’s energy was devoted to "educating" the public and thereby recruiting families to "rescue" (abduct) members who had joined new religions. While this still goes on, it is no longer as central a focus as previously. Many of those who were successfully "deprogrammed" in the past have engaged in lawsuits against their former religions or have influenced others to do so. At the advice of their "cult expert" handlers, these former members have also gone to state authorities with complaints regarding immigration issues, child abuse, unfair labor practices, ecology regulations, health and zoning violations, etc. Here they sometimes have a point. Religious freedom advocates have long admitted that existing laws are usually adequate to deal with actual abuses by religious groups and their leaders. The question then becomes one of whether these groups are being unfairly targeted.

Finally the ACM is working to get governments to do what it cannot. In most countries (Japan being an apparent exception for the moment) the ACM has learned that it cannot take the law into its own hands. Instead it is working to change existing laws or create new ones to suppress movements it considers dangerous and even to make membership illegal in some cases. The current legislative initiative in France and China’s treatment of Falun Gong are prime examples, but other efforts from Russia’s and Austria’s tiered system of state approval for religious groups to the US state of Maryland’s Task Force on Cult Activities can also be cited. Snapping authors Flo Conway and Jim Seigleman, speaking at the the Leo J. Ryan Foundation meeting in Stamford, Connecticut this year, opined that religion is "the Achilles heel of American democracy." Arguing that members of "cults" have been robbed of their free will through "mind control," they declared that "freedom of  thought must be added to the First Amendment." Seigleman explained that rather than an actual constitutional amendment he favors a "judicial initiative" that would do for "freedom of thought" what Roe v. Wade did for the right to an abortion.

Unpacking this type of Orwellian newspeak, one cannot help but be a little disturbed by a prospect of the state intervening to provide members of new religions the right to "freedom of thought" as defined by the anti-cult movement. Since according to the anti-cult movement, members of "cults" by definition have no freedom of thought, the way for the state to restore this freedom would be to remove the person from the offending group or else disband the group itself.

In sum, while the anti-cult movement has developed a greater degree of sophistication, international communication, and willingness to dialog with its adversaries, it is still at its core a movement against religious freedom. As the ACM has moved recently into the academic, legislative and administrative arenas in its battle against "cults" so the movement for religious freedom will need to respond with effective efforts in these areas as well.