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Ten Years After Jonestown, the Battle Intensifies Over the Influence of 'Alternative' Religions

November 17, 1988|BOB SIPCHEN | Times Staff Writer

Eldridge Broussard Jr.'s face screwed into a grimace of such anger and pain that the unflappable Oprah Winfrey seemed unnerved. It hurts to be branded "the new Jimmy Jones" by a society eager to condemn what it doesn't understand, the founder of the Ecclesia Athletic Assn. lamented on TV just a few days after his 8-year-old daughter had been beaten to death, apparently by Ecclesia members.

At issue were complex questions of whether the group he had formed to instill discipline in ghetto youth, and led from Watts to Oregon, had evolved into a dangerous cult. But Broussard couldn't have found a less sympathetic audience than the group gathered around the TV in the bar of the Portland Holiday Inn.

There last month for the annual conference of the Chicago-based Cult Awareness Network were people whose kin had crumpled onto the body heaps at Jonestown, Guyana, 10 years ago, and people who believed they or family members had lost not their lives, but good chunks of them, to gurus and avatars less infamous but no less evil than Jim Jones.

One group's cult is another's "new religious movement," though, and in the 10 years since Jonestown, a heated holy war of sorts has been mounting over the issues of how to define and contend with so-called cults.

The battle lines aren't always well defined. Ongoing guerrilla actions between those who see themselves as crusaders against potential Jonestowns and those who see themselves as the persecuted members of outcast religious groups comprise the shifting legal and political fronts. On the outskirts of the ideological battleground is another loosely knit force that sees itself as the defender of a First Amendment besieged by vigilantes all too eager to kiss off the Constitution as they quash beliefs that don't fit their narrow-minded criteria of what's good and real. As one often-quoted definition has it: "A cult is a religion someone I don't like belongs to."

"It's spiritual McCarthyism," Lowell D. Streiker, a Northern California counselor, said of the cult awareness cause. To him, "the anti-cult network" is itself as a "cult of persecution," cut from the same cloth as Colonial witch hunters and the Ku Klux Klan.

The key anti-cult groups, by most accounts, are CAN, a secular nondenominational group of 30 local affiliates; the Massachusetts-based American Family Foundation; the Interfaith Coalition of Concern About Cults and the Jewish Federation Council's Commission on Cults and Missionaries.

Although they contend that their ranks continue to fill with the victims of cults or angry family members, they concede that the most significant rallying point came in the fall of 1978 when the leader of one alleged cult put a rattlesnake in an enemy's mailbox and another led 912 people to their deaths.

Even though nothing so dramatic has happened since, cults have quietly been making inroads into the fabric of mainstream American life, and the effects are potentially as serious as the deaths at Jonestown, cult critics say.

With increased wealth and public relations acumen--with members clothed by Brooks Brothers rather than in saffron sheets--the 1,000 or more new cults that some estimate have sprung up in America since the '60s have become "a growth industry which is diversifying," said Dr. Louis Jolyon West, director of UCLA's Neuropsychiatric Institute. "They have made steady progress on all fronts."

Uglier Connotations

In the broadest sense, Webster defines a cult as simply "a system of religious worship or ritual." Even before Jonestown, though, the word had taken on broader and uglier connotations.

To make a distinction, critics use the term destructive cult, or totalist cult. The issue, they say, pivots on the methods groups use to recruit and hold together followers.

CAN describes a destructive cult as one that "uses systematic, manipulative techniques of thought reform or mind control to obtain followers and constrict their thoughts and actions. These techniques are imposed without the person's knowledge and produce observable changes in the individual's autonomy, thoughts and actions. . . ."

A 1985 conference on cults co-sponsored by the UCLA Neuropsychiatric Institute and the American Family Federation came up with this definition:

"A group or movement exhibiting a great or excessive devotion or dedication to some person, idea, or thing and employing unethically manipulative techniques of persuasion and control . . . designed to advance the goals of the group's leaders, to the actual or possible detriment of members, their families, or the community."

The "manipulative techniques" in question are what cult critics call mind control or brainwashing.

To critics of the critics, on the other hand, brainwashing amounts to hooey.

And both sides say the weight of evidence is on their side.

New Beliefs, Personalities

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