The Personalist Project

Devra recently linked at facebook an interesting and helpful Patheos article by Fr. Dwight Longenecker on the problem of cults and cultlike behavior among the religious. I was glad to see it: for one, because the difference between healthy relations and dysfunctional ones is a key interest of mine personally (I've addressed it before, including here), and for two, because I think we have an epidemic on our hands, and too few of us are adequately aware of it. There's a reason for our unawareness.

...cult like behavior is often very similar to authentic and Spirit filled Christian communities. A cult will often look like a good, authentic and dynamic Christian community. In fact, the cult will often out do the authentic Christian community in certain respects. Sometimes the cult will feel more authentic, more dynamic, more spiritual and more “filled with the Spirit.”

Even more, the experience of the covenant communities of the 80s and 90s and of Maciel's Legion (for instance) shows that the spiritual dynamism of these groups can been combined with sound Catholic doctrine and theology, making the dysfunction even harder to detect. We see spiritual dynamism and doctrinal orthodoxy, and we think we're safe.

But the essence of the problem of cultism lies less in false doctrine, than in skewed interpersonal relations—relations where selfhood and individuality are violated and/or illegitimately subordinated to group dynamics.

So, how do we detect what I'll call cultism (since not all afflicted groups are rightly considered full-blown cults)? Fr. Longenecker offers four "leading indicators."

First of all, if a religious community or a religious leader seem too good to be true–guess what? They’re usually too good to be true. That’s because group cult behavior conspires to cover up and hide away anything that tarnishes the glossy image of that “wonderful community” that all the members want so much to believe in. This is the first sign of a cult: everything is too wonderful and everyone is ready to tell you how wonderful it all is.

I agree. If the members have only "positive" things to say about their group and its leaders—if they're constantly proselytizing—up go the red flags. There's a happy flip side of this phenomenon, though. All that frustration you experience over the shortcomings of your parish or your pastor? Be grateful. It means the group is human and real. You're not in a cult.

A second criterion Fr. Longenecker mentions is a lack of transparency and accountability in the leadership and governance of the group.

The leaders are typically self-appointed. The decisions are all taken in private. The leadership will be tightly controlled and it will be by invitation only.

Members are expected to trust in their leaders' wisdom, good faith, and prayerfulness in leading the group. To challenge or question them is to be deemed "ungrateful" or "rebellious," which (you may be reminded) was Satan's original offense.  Raise a doubt, and you are taken to task (maybe "more in sorrow than in anger") for calling the leadership's good faith and integrity into question.  

This brings us to a third indicator mentioned by Fr. Longenecker—a particularly important one, in my experience.

A third trait of a cult is that complete loyalty is demanded of the followers. Dissent and criticism is not permitted. Those who dissent will be marginalized, excluded from decision making and demonized.

It's true. But this way of expressing it maybe puts it too strongly. Typically—at least in Christian groups—the "demonizing" is very subtle—so subtle that those engaging in it may sincerely imagine themselves to be exercising charity. They will typically talk about the critic, or "rebel", like this: "He's in a bad place. Let's pray for him." Or, "He clearly has 'issues'." Or, "He's unfortunately bitter from bad personal experiences." Not listening to this person and his charges is taken to be virtuous. The idea that he is being "demonized" would be rejected as offensively unjust.  No one is demonizing him! Nor is he being marginalized or shunned.  It's just that we are "refusing to participate in his negativity."

What we're really doing, though, is engaging in cult-ike behavior. 

The thing to be on the lookout for, in my opinion, isn't so much "demonizing", but rather the habit of deflecting all criticism back onto the moral character of the person raising it.  (And here, alert readers might notice, we have a point in common with the problem of "unprincipled forgiveness.")  No attention is given to his objective concerns or criticisms.  Those are simply assumed to be invalid, or unimportant.  Instead, all practical attention directed to the "problem" of the critic's subjectivity. "Why are you doing this?" "I'm trying to understand what's wrong with you that you would attack this work of God. Or this good man?" Or, they may deflect criticism by simply saying, "No group is perfect," and insist on "moving on"—as if the critic is unreasonably demanding perfection, rather than raising a concrete issue that needs addressing.  

Needless to say, the more urgently the critic tries to focus attention on the objective issue at hand, the more "unfortunate" he appears to be in the eyes of the group, its members and leaders.  Word goes out that he's "unbalanced," or pitiable, or in need of prayers.

Another important point to keep in mind: We need not be talking about formal groups with a clear structure, defined membership, and set of rules governing it. The same basic, cult-like dynamic is to be found in families, institutions, political groups, and more informal associations too.

I recently came across a description of the phenomenon in the book Radical Son, by David Horowitz, which chronicles his journey from "red daiper baby" and 60's "new left radicalism" to conservatism. He noticed the dynamic in the left's treatment of the Black Panthers. Liberals didn't want to hear anything about their crimes and misdeeds. To say anything against them was to become persona non grata. Only sympathy and support and praise and "positivity" toward the Black Panthers was allowed. He noticed it again while researching for a book on the Rockefeller family.  One of its scions explained to Horowitz:

The family is something you dare not violate. It incarnates itself in certain figures toward whom you must act in a reverent, respectful fashion, the way people act when they go to church.… Worshipping God, well, it’s worshipping the family. It’s the same. The family is a holy thing: you dare not transgress against its principles, standards, ideals, and so on. The result of all this is that a lot goes unsaid.

This is cultism.

Conformity, loyalty, obedience, submission and reverence toward the leaders are demanded either explicitly or implicitly.  Resistance or "negativity" of any kind is frowned upon and punished, either overtly or discretely, as "divisive" and destructive.  

I like Fr. Longenecker's fourth item too:

A fourth characteristic of a group that has become a cult or is behaving in a cult like manner is that there will be a persecution complex.

Criticism is identified almost automatically as "persecution," which, of course, increases the members' sense of loyalty, and their sense of belonging to an elite group of people who see the truth and suffer for it.  "Jesus said His disciples would be persecuted for their beliefs."

What gets lost, neglected, or stifled in all cults and cult-like groups is 1) personal selfhood, 2) objectivity, 3) critical thinking, 4) authentic feelings and responses, 5) genuine community.

Fr. Longenecker's article doesn't address the "why" of the cultism epidemic, which should maybe be taken up in a separate post. I'm convinced that has everything to do with the "rootlessness and alienation" that the then-Cardinal Wojtyla noticed with sorrow and alarm when he visited the United States in the 1970s.

Persons are made for communion.  We can only flourish as selves when we live in a genuine communion of love with and for others. So, when we're deprived of the natural community life normal in pre-modern human history, we suffer, and we search, and we substitute.  And we find it difficult to recognize the difference between the real thing and its counterfeits.

But, since all of us need real community, we'd better learn.

Comments (5)

Kate Whittaker Cousino

#1, Apr 27, 2013 3:08pm


It's tricky to talk about these things, considering that secularists see little to no difference between any religious organization and a cult. 

I do appreciate your observation that any group, right down to the level of the family, can have these dynamics. It's  easy enough to list off dysfunctional behaviours we've seen - and of course every group and family will have some tendencies towards some dysfunction (if we think otherwise, we're really in trouble, because it's those who can't recognize their vulnerability who are most vulnerable!) 

So for those of us who are aware of these dangers, can we try to draw a picture of what genuine community might look like, what we can strive for? 

Katie van Schaijik

#2, Apr 27, 2013 3:37pm

Kate Whittaker Cousino

It's tricky to talk about these things, considering that secularists see little to no difference between any religious organization and a cult. 

But we're not among secularists here.  Everyone here grants that there is a difference between true and false religion, between healthy and dysfunctional religious communities.  (Healthy, of course, doesn't mean perfect. No human group is perfect, just as no human person is perfect.)

So for those of us who are aware of these dangers, can we try to draw a picture of what genuine community might look like, what we can strive for? 

Don't you think it comes through?  I mean, if, say, the habit of deflecting all criticism back onto the moral character of the critic is characteristic of cults, then we can see, too, that a healthy group welcomes, even invites criticism.  The leadership of the group practices transparency.  It institutes "checks and balance," and policies for investigating and adjudicating wrongs.  It safeguards the individuality of its members.  The members feel free to express their feelings and concerns, and to raise objections to things they think are wrong.  They feel respected and listened to.  They are valued for who they are in themselves...

Katie van Schaijik

#3, Apr 28, 2013 4:58pm

A friend directed me to the site of Steven Hassan, an expert on "undue influence."  I've only just begun looking it over, but I'm really liking his approach so far.  For instance, I appreciate that he stresses that cults and cult-like groups aren't through and through bad.  I'm sure lots of ex-members of covenant communities and/or the Legion would agree that the good aspects played a valuable role in their maturing as persons.

Due to my own cult experience, I have had to do some very intense personal reflection. I have had to sort out the good experiences from the bad while a member of the Moon cult. In retrospect, I can say without a doubt that a good deal of my personal spiritual experience was valid and had a beneficial impact on my development. As a result, I have had to really examine myself thoroughly and consciously evaluate my beliefs and actions. Fortunately, my core spirituality preceded my Moonie indoctrination, and so when I left that group, I had some basic beliefs to return to as a kind of stable base. For example, I believe that love is stronger than fear and that truth is stronger than lies.

Marie Meaney

#4, Apr 29, 2013 9:55am

Excellent analysis! On an experiential level (which captures the idea that one is not allowed to criticize the leaders or the core-beliefs) it feels like one has to hold one's breath while being around cult-members; one has to fit the bill of the cult-ideology, and if one doesn't, well - the problem lies with oneself rather than with its ideology. One of the convincing features of Christianity is the acceptance of man's brokenness in all possible variations and aspects. The new creation doesn't come into existence by denying the reality of the "old man" or by pure will-power, but by allowing for grace to do its work. The strain in a cult is that one already has to be "there" - conform to the new idea of man its imagined. There's something totalitarian about cults, and likewise it is no wonder that totalitarian regimes have something cultic.


#5, May 8, 2013 10:16pm

this is excellent.  Thank you, this really clarifies a lot for me.

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