The End To Innocent Acceptance Of Sects

San Francisco Chronicle/November 13, 1998
By Don Lattin

When 50 members of a doomsday cult vanished last month in Colorado, Hal Mansfield knew exactly how to get the world's attention. "This is Jonestown waiting to happen,'' said Mansfield, director of the Religious Movement Resource Center in Fort Collins, Colo.

Twenty years after the murder- suicide in Jonestown, Guyana, of 914 members of the Peoples Temple, the Rev. Jim Jones remains the personification of cultic evil.

Two words are all it takes to demonize a new religious movement -- whether it deserves the label or not:

"Another Jonestown.''

Those who study cults, sects and new religious movements are bitterly divided into two camps -- factions of experts branding their adversaries as "apologists'' or "alarmists.''

J. Gordon Melton, founder of the Institute for the Study of American Religion in Santa Barbara, said "professional cult hunters'' like Mansfield are too quick to see the potential for mass suicide in the latest Christian sect or new religious movement.

"They believe that all these groups are bad and brainwash their members,'' he said.

In Melton's view, "brainwashing doesn't exist.''

"Jonestown became the stereotype of a cult,'' Melton said. "But Jones was actually a member of a mainline Protestant denomination, the Disciples of Christ, and was very involved in the ecumenical movement in California. It's the story of a mainline church gone bad, not a new religion.

"Around 2,500 people kill themselves every year in California,'' Melton added. "It's not beyond reason to see that people in religion can find something to die for. You don't need a brainwashing model to explain that.

"Jim Jones and the members of Peoples Temple performed an act of revolutionary suicide.''

Those in the Melton camp point out that most religions start off in an intense "cultic'' manner, clashing with the values of mainstream culture.

Attacking 'Cult Apolotists'

Anti-cult leaders such as Margaret Singer, adjunct professor emerita of psychology at the University of California at Berkeley, said "cult apologists'' like Melton "blindly defend'' dangerous sect leaders like Jones.

"Anything that calls itself a religion is, by definition, good,'' she said. "People like Melton are not really scholars of group pressure or group process. We really study these groups and analyze how influence is put upon people by clever and conniving people who want power.''

According to Singer and others on her side of the cult wars, a destructive sect is easily distinguished from a legitimate religion.

They say cults are marked by charismatic leaders who claim special powers, promote an "us vs. them'' philosophy, practice brainwashing and use deceptive recruitment and fund-raising techniques. Followers undergo dramatic changes in diet, sleep patterns and privacy; become alienated from friends and family; and are exploited financially, physically and sexually.

"Venal people see how easy it is to pick up the lonely and the depressed and sell them a bill of goods,'' Singer said. "There are so many people out there looking for easy answers to life's complicated problems.''

Those who know Monte Kim Miller, the Colorado doomsday prophet, say the Jonestown comparisons are no exaggeration.

Colorado Group on the Run

Last month, Miller and about 50 members of his Concerned Christians sect disappeared from their homes in the Denver area, leaving behind hundreds of worried relatives.

They vanished in the days leading up to October 10, when Miller prophesied that an apocalyptic disaster would wipe Denver off the map.

Those who have watched the group think it may eventually resurface in Israel. Miller, the self- proclaimed last prophet on earth, predicts he will die in the streets of Jerusalem in December 1999 and reappear three days later.

Bill Honsberger, a Colorado evangelical missionary who has monitored the group, notes that both Miller and Jones began their ministries as respected religious leaders.

Miller even began as a speaker on the anti-cult circuit. "Twelve or 13 years ago, he was appearing in some of the biggest churches in Denver, speaking out against the New Age movement,'' Honsberger said.

In recent years, however, Miller said he could channel the voice of God and began comparing himself to the two witnesses in the apocalyptic pages of the Book of Revelation, the last chapter of the Bible.

"We sat at his house with him for two hours,'' Honsberger recalled. "We started out talking about how he became a Christian, and pretty soon he showed how he could speak for God. He'd shift his position, contort his face, and say things like, `God will kill you for opposing his true prophet.' ''

According to Honsberger, Miller preaches that his followers "must take up the cross and be willing to die for God. But you stand up for God by being loyal to him. It's the same mentality as Jones, but the manipulation is even more glaring. He has incredible control.''

Mansfield said some of Miller's followers have called their families since they disappeared last month to say they are all right. But they would not reveal their location.

Mansfield also concurs with Honsberger about the Jim Jones similarities.

"What's going on inside this guy's head now is anybody's guess,'' he said, "but I think some sort of suicide is possible.''

Rash of Apocalyptic Sects

Singer noted that there has been no shortage of violent religious sects in the 1990s, many of them with apocalyptic overtones.

Seventy-two members of the Branch Davidian Christian sect died when a hellish inferno engulfed their compound in Waco, Texas. In Japan, the Aum Shrini Kyo cult unleashed a nerve-gas attack on subway riders. In Canada and Europe, 75 members of the Order of the Solar Temple killed themselves in search of new life in a place called Sirius.

And in the spring of 1997, 39 members of Heaven's Gate, a Southern California cult blending Bible prophesy, spiritualism and UFO lore, killed themselves in the belief that they would rendezvous with a spaceship trailing the Hale-Bopp comet.

Janja Lolich, who runs the Cult Recovery and Information Center in Alameda, said Jonestown remains the landmark event of the anti-cult movement.

Lolich said he hoped the 20th anniversary of Jonestown will serve as a warning for "young people who don't have Jonestown in their memory bank.''

"Often the public comes away with the idea that only wacky people get involved in these groups,'' she said. "But they are often wonderful people with a real sense of idealism.''


Focusing on the members of Peoples Temple -- and not just on Jim Jones -- is the central concern of Mary McCormick Maaga in her new book, "Hearing the Voices of Jonestown.''

"Passion for social justice blinded them to their own cause,'' Maaga said. "They increasingly focused on their detractors and defectors and concerned relatives. They were importing food and losing the battle against jungle diseases. Jones was addicted to drugs.

"Their Christian communal socialist experiment wasn't working, and they were very concerned about proving their enemies wrong.''

Reducing the complexity of Jonestown to a madman brainwashing his vulnerable flock, Maaga said, is too simple an explanation.

"There were other people in leadership, and if they hadn't agreed to the suicide, it couldn't have gone off,'' she said. "But we like to just focus on Jim Jones because it's easier to pinpoint evil in a single human being.''

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