Cultic Studies Journal, 1985, Volume 2, Number 2, pages 321-325
Of Cults and Evangelicals: Labeling and Lumping
It has been said that one person’s cult is another person’s religion. In other words, there is little consensus as to what constitutes and defines a “cult?” The lack of conceptual agreement about the term extends to the academic and professional communities as much as it does to journalists and the public at large.
Members of controversial new religious movements decry what they view as the pejorative use of the word “cult.” For example, in a letter to the editor of a northern California newspaper, an adherent of an unconventional religious group complained about the bad press his organization had been receiving. “It is a pity journalists … hold so biased a stance toward spiritual heroes and religious cults. A cult is simply a group sharing a set of beliefs or values.”
Clearly, such a view illustrates the often observed fact that whether one perceives a religious figure to be a “spiritual hero” or an “authoritarian cult leader” depends upon one’s frame of reference or, some might say, frame of mind. To identify a cult as “simply a group sharing a set of beliefs or values” is to cast the definitional net so wide as to preclude the exclusion of any religious group. When a member of a disparaged group adopts such a broad definition, he/she is engaging in what sociologists call the process of deviance neutralization a softening of terminology in order to appear more conventional.
A well-known attorney for the Unification Church has offered the opinion that cult is a convenient word for those who do not think carefully.” Examples of heightened emotion evoked by the use of the word “cult” are numerous. The June 2, 1982 edition of The Chronicle of Higher Education contained an article by two student development professionals who concluded that “destructive cults” on university campuses “appear to present serious threats to personal freedom and to student development” In a subsequent edition of The Chronicle (July 14, 1982) sociologist of religion Jeffrey Hadden expressed dismay that the word “cult” was used eleven times in the aforementioned article. He objected to the fact that “seven times it is preceded by the adjective “destructive;” on two other occasions it is used in a pejorative context.”
As the semantic debate continues, critics claim that indiscriminate labeling leads to a “lumping” process whereby all little-known controversial religious groups are automatically suspect and are placed into residual categories. Such uncritical and simplistic analysis, it is argued, should be avoided. At the least, descriptive labels and categories should be carefully defined.
Problems of perception, definition, and labeling are not confined to the study of so-called “new” religious movements, however. Much misinformation and uninformed writing also surrounds that large segment of American Protestantism known as evangelicalism. Stereotypes and distorted images abound both in the popular media and in scholarly writing. As James D. Hunter points out, “Evangelicalism has for too long failed to receive open-minded treatment” (1983).
An example of a prejudiced, if not hostile, attitude toward conservative evangelicals can be seen in this passage from the book, Religion May Be Hazardous to Your Health, by E.S. Chesen (1972):
From my experience, I tend to look with a jaundiced eye at the more fundamental and/or evangelical Protestant faiths, and I directly question the conscious motives of many of their clergymen. They seem to preach the most hazardous brand of religion, and for this reason I would start any checklist by rating these religious movements at the bottom. (pp. 125-126)
Secular observers, while usually not given to such extreme value judgments, are nevertheless frequently guilty of not distinguishing the evangelical mainstream from the fundan3entatist fringe. Even writers and researchers who have impressive academic credentials sometimes fail to discern the incredible diversity that characterizes conservative Protestantism today. Billy Graham Jerry Falwell, Oral Roberts, and Jimmy Swaggart are all jumped together as “TV evangelists” and no attempt is made to go beyond that surface label to discover the profound differences that separate these men. Fundamentalist and evangelical educational institutions are treated in monolithic, blanket fashion, overlooking the rich diversity that Christian higher education represents.
All of this has implications for the cult-watching enterprise. One result of the sometimes sloppy and uninformed writing about cults is the tendency to make unjustified parallels between cultists and evangelicals because of certain surface similarities that seem to characterize the two camps. Cult conversion and Christian conversion are sometimes confused. Unwarranted generalizations about the conversion process are made by theologically naive social and behavioral scientists. Journalists and other secular observers seem unable (or unwilling) to distinguish between the proselytizing activities of evangelicals and the cults. The fact that Billy Graham regularly encourages those who make “decisions for Christ” at his crusade to attend the “church of your choice” is overlooked or obscured in a discussion of the alleged “emotional coercion” and “manipulation” of the crowd. All fundamentalists/evangelicals are said to engage in a form of spiritual brainwashing akin to that used by extremist cults. Chuck Colson’s “born again” experience is seen as no different from the dramatic personality change attributed to the cult convert.
Evangelical Christians acknowledge that converts to cults often do experience lifestyle and character changes. It may, therefore, be possible for some observers to confuse ideological and psychological conversion experiences with an authentic “born again” experience. Harold Bussell in his book, Unholy Devotion, (1983) addresses this question from a mainstream evangelical perspective:
Many people undergo dramatic experiences as they are converted to est, an encounter group, a meditation group, Marxism, or a cultic religious community. All conversion experiences offer common psychological results. The discovery of a “new life” or a new system for belief gives a fresh reason for living and an exciting focus for life …
But the new birth that is believed and known in the historic church is a result of the work of the Spirit of God who enables us to acknowledge our sins and confess Jesus Christ as Lord. The new birth is not based on feelings, but on our coming into union with the resurrected Christ not just any Christ, but He who is God and man at once (p.21).
In addition to differentiating and explaining the authentic “new birth” experiences on the primal spiritual/theological level, the evangelical is also concerned about differences identifiable at ethical and behavioral levels. Is the cult or Christian conversion the result of manipulative techniques or of taking advantage of human weaknesses? Does the cult or the Christian church encourage relationships and linkages with the larger society that are more than self-serving?
LaVonne Neff (1983) suggests that when evaluating any religious group old or new it is important to consider the effects such groups have on individual members. “What happens to members” personalities, relationships, job commitments, community involvement? Is the group’s overall effect on those who come in contact with it members and nonmembers positive or negative? Is it an agency of healing, restoration and reconciliation?” (p. 196)
From the perspective of the evangelical Christian cult watcher, a primary example of insensitive and ill-informed writing about cults and their supposed similarity to evangelicalism can be seen in Conway and Siegelman’s book, Snapping (1978). Card carrying evangelicals shudder at some of the contents of that book, not because of a sense of threat or a feeling of being exposed, but because of the authors” inaccurate, if not sometimes ludicrous, portrayal of evangelical faith and behavior.
As a result of reading Conway and Siegelman, many non-evangelicals receive a distorted image of what evangelicalism is all about and are led to make unwarranted linkages between cults and Christians. The book, perhaps more so than any other work dealing with new religious movements, exemplifies the danger of restricting analysis to superficial surface similarities and neglecting to fully research and understand the complex world of the evangelicals. It emphatically concludes that, “unlike America’s other religious traditions, the Evangelical movement shares many characteristics with religious cults and mass therapies” (p. 44).
Consider a few examples of how Conway and Siegelman’s lack of knowledge of evangelicalism leads to gross errors of fact and interpretation in their widely-read book. First, and perhaps most disturbing, is the reliance on Marjoe Gortner for information about “Born Again Christians.” The authors identify Gortner as “America’s foremost Charismatic leader, Holy Roller, and faith healer retired,” a designation with which few, if any, evangelicals would agree. Most “born again” evangelicals have never heard of Marjoe Gortner. Yet Conway and Siegelman place him at “the end of a long line of Evangelical ministers” (p. 46).
Conway and Siegelman are not only inaccurate, but insulting to evangelicals and evangelical ministers when they state: “Unlike many evangelical leaders, Marjoe has always held his congregations in high regard (p. 49).” In short, the authors convey an Elmer Gantry image of evangelicalism and give little evidence of infinite knowledge of the evangelical mainstream.
The authors demonstrate their ignorance of American religious history by stating that “it was not until this century, with the emergence of American Evangelicalism and its extravagant Holy Rollers, that the experience of divine enlightenment reached out to touch great masses of people in the United States (p. 41).” Evangelical Protestantism was the dominant religious force in the United States during most of the 19th Century.
Likewise, Conway and Siegelman conjure up an almost convincing cultic imagery by their reference to the “surrender of the will” of the Christian convert who becomes a “new creature” in Christ and thereby abandons his family, his past and “society as a whole (p. 46).” “These zealous “born again” Christians are depicted as spending most of their time soliciting donations and recruiting new members, not unlike their cultic counterparts.
All this is to say that significant differences between evangelical Christians and the religious “cults” do exist There is a need for careful discrimination on the part of both secular and religious observers when making comparisons based on surface similarities. Recognition must be made of the wide diversity of emphases and practices within the boundaries of contemporary evangelicals, just as there must be recognition of the diversity which is manifested in the world of cults and new religious movements.
Some evangelicals are committed to visible, aggressive street evangelicalism (e.g., Jews for Jesus). Some live communally and stress a simple lifestyle (e.g. Jesus People, U.S.A.). Some require graduate theological study as preparation for the ministry, others do not. Some practice speaking in tongues and/or faith healing, others do neither. Some evangelicals worship in conventional church buildings, others meet in more informal settings. Some evangelical ministries conduct emotional “altar calls” for would-be converts as part of Sunday services, others do not. Some churches are supportive of Billy Graham revival crusades, others disdain that kind of ecumenism.
In short, much of the existing popular and professional literature on religion reveals a superficial or limited understanding of contemporary evangelicalism and often fails to take into account the significance of the aforementioned diversity.
This cognitive gap must be addressed if meaningful dialogue between evangelicals and non-evangelicals is to be significantly advanced.
Bussell, H. (1983). Unholy Devotion. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House.
Chesen, E. (1972). Religion May be Hazardous to Your Health. New York: Peter Wyden.
Conway, F., & Siegelman, J. (1978). Snapping: America’s Epidemic of Sudden Personality Change. Philadelphia: Lippencott.
Hunter, J. (1983). American Evangelicalism. New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press.
Neff, L., “Evaluating Cults and New Religions,” in Enroth, R., et al. (1983), A Guide to Cults and New Religions. Downers Grove, Minois: InterVarsity Press.
The Chronicle of Higher Education. June 2, 1982,
The Chronicle of Higher Education. July 14, 1982.
onald Enroth, Ph.D., member of the Cultic Studies Journal Editorial Board, is Professor and Chair of the Sociology Department of Westmont College in Santa Barbara, California. He is also author (with G. Gordon Melton) of Why the Cults Succeed When the Church Fails.