Still, Jonestownism Runs On

New York Times/ November 15, 1979

We have had a year now to digest the horror of the people's Temple massacre in Guyana: the battered washtub of lethal fruit punch, the 900 colorfully clad bodies. The images remain indelible, but apparently the national concern they produced was short-lived.

Overnight, Jonestown turned the emergence of America's strange new religious cults into the news story of the decade. Popular awareness of cult groups and their potential dangers soared to new heights. But, a year later, what has happened to the public outcry? What inquiries have been made into the activities of those cults now operating in the United States that have displayed similar tendencies towards criminal, violent or self-destructive behavior? What official action has been taken?

The attempt to understand what happened in Jonestown was limited to two Government inquiries, one by Congress, the other by the State Department. Released last May, both reprimanded a number of Federal agencies for having ignored reports of highly irregular and illegal activities in Jonestown, and the State Department's specifically criticized itself for "errors," "lapses" and "extremely inefficient handling of information" regarding the threat facing Congressman Leo Ryan and his entourage, who were slain at Jonestown's airstrip. Although both inquiries uncovered evidence of bribes, collusion and other improprieties involving United States and Guyanese officials, no one was held accountable. Much was made of the claim that concern over violating the First Amendment rights of People's Temple members and laws governing church-state separation was a major cause of inaction on the part of our officials and agencies.

The closed the book on Jonestown, disregarding its implications for America's other cults, many of which are larger, richer and have demonstrated a violent response to critics, investigators and former members. Yet the Guyana events instantly affected groups such as the Rev. Sun Myung Moon's Unification Church, the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, the Church of Scientology and a multitude of smaller religious and therapeutic cults.

Even before Jonestown, many of these groups had become the subjects of heated public debate over questionable fund-raising and business practices and intensive recruiting methods. Last February, spurred by a new sense of urgency and thousands of anxious inquiries, Senator Robert Dole called a one-day "information hearing" on the cult phenomenon in this country. His hearings became a news media fiasco and, for Senators and Congressmen involved, a political disaster. Obedient cult members by the hundreds, including busloads of Unification Church members, descended on Washington. Members of Congress were visited in their offices and urged not to attend. Ad hoc committees of religious leaders and civil libertarians issued statements condemning the hearings. A coordinated cult propaganda campaign decried Mr. Dole's "illegal witch-hunt." The combined effort was overwhelmingly effective. Soon after, all public inquiry ceased as officials, fearing political repercussions, dropped the cult issue.

Cults in America are now doing better than ever. Some, partly exposed, have altered tactics or changed cover stories. Others have merely stepped up public-relations efforts. A number of cults, looking more like multinationals then religious, seem to be hastily diversifying into international business and political arenas, distributing millions of dollars and thousands of followers over every continent.

Effective governmental scrutiny seems unlikely and undesired. One glaring example: The last year has seen no action on a Congressional sub-committee's request that the Justice Department establish an interagency task force to investigate the Unification Church for alleged violations of currency, immigration, banking, tax, foreign-agent registration and arms export-control laws.

With Congress and the Administration in retreat, th/e task of clarifying the issues has fallen on the courts. Some progress had been made: A few cult criminals and "hit men" have been brought to trial, cult attempts at legal harassment of critics have begun to backfire, and in one landmark verdict an Oregon court awarded $2 million to a former Scientologist who suffered "anguish and emotional distress" in that group. But no case has had lasting effects on any major cult.

Unlimited cult defense funds virtually insure eventual victory by attrition or escape on some loophole. However, the courts have made on point irrefutably clear: The cult issue has nothing to do with any question of religious freedom. Without exception, cult cases heard involved violations of criminal laws or the growing mental health problem of the impact of cult techniques on members' freedom of choice and action.

Since Jonestown, this question of cult techniques and their effects on the mind has become the stickiest one of all. This is in part because cults have attempted to stifle the debate on First Amendment grounds and because their efforts have tapped a deep fear in the public.

In our travels around the country in the last year, we have found that many Americans are desperately unwilling to question their own religious beliefs and practices. It is as if those beliefs or spiritual feelings were so precarious that the slightest nudge might topple them. Never before have Americans enjoyed greater religious freedom or diversity, yet never before has the religious freedom enshrined in the Constitution been so exploited and the spirit of that freedom been so unsure of itself. Unless this dilemma is confronted soon and realistically, not just by the Government but also by individuals, families and America's traditional organized religious, the cult phenomenon that exploded in Jonestown may ignite more and larger disasters.

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