* In "A Nation of Cults: The Great American Tradition" (Opinion, April 6) Sean Wilentz confuses the formation of religious sects, such as Shakers, Mormons and Seventh-day Adventists, with cults. The use of the pejorative word "cult" may be inevitable, but its use implies a judgment on the group's religious beliefs. If used at all, the term cult ought to be reserved for those religious groups that require members to surrender their independent judgment and autonomy to the group, or to a charismatic leader, or to groups employing mind-control techniques. The existence of a charismatic leader, by itself, means nothing. Many major denominations grew out of the leadership of a charismatic founder, including the Lutheran and Methodist churches (Martin Luther and John Wesley respectively.)
Frankly, I doubt Wilentz will convince many that cults are a great American tradition to be proud of. If anything, the tendency of media to hype the bizarre in religion increases our susceptibility to do something to prevent such cult catastrophes in the future, even if it means violating fundamental principles of religious freedom and individual conscience. Such a danger becomes acute at the passing of a millennium, when the religious enthusiasm known as millennial fever rises to epidemic proportions.