Some Colleges warn Students that Cult-like Methods are Being Used by Christian Fundamentalist Groups

Chronicle of Higher Education/November 15, 1989
By Tanya Gazdik

Joyce Cole first heard of the fundamentalist Maranatha Christian Fellowship at a weekend conference during her junior year at Western Michigan University. She was so inspired by Maranatha's leader, Robert Weiner that she decided to find out more about the group.

As Ms. Cole became involved in the fellowship, she drove 80 miles to Michigan State University as many as three times a week to attend service, since Western Michigan did not have a Maranatha chapter of its own. She says now that her grades dropped, she lost touch with her friends, and her relations with her family deteriorated.

When she graduated, in 1983, Ms. Cole postponed her career plans and spent five more years at Western Michigan living in a house with three other Maranatha members, trying to attract students to the group.

Experiences like Ms. Cole's are increasingly common, according to many student-affairs administrators. Students who in earlier years might have joined such groups as the Hare Krishna's or the Unification Church are now joining fundamentalist Christian groups that use what many campus officials call cult-like techniques to attract and retain members.

Elizabeth M. Nuss, executive director of the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators, says more religious organizations-especially evangelical groups-are seeking recognition on campuses. Institutions in the Southwest and on the West Coast, in particular, have reported more activity than usual from such organizations, she says.

Representatives of Maranatha and other evangelical groups maintain that they are religious organizations, not cults. But some colleges and universities have started educational programs to warn students of what they perceive as the dangers of becoming involved in the groups.

Maranatha officials tell their members that to enter heaven when they die, they must believe the Bible is the word of God and they must confess their sins to Jesus Christ and dedicate their lives to Him.

People who study such religious organizations say cults deceive people when they try to recruit them and then trap them psychologically, making it extremely difficult for someone to leave. The experts maintain that any group that relies on such practices should be classified as a cult-regardless of its ideology or religious beliefs.

A common misconception, says Michael D. Langone, is that cults are "weird," when in truth they try to appear as normal as possible on the surface. Mr. Langone is the director of research and education for the American Family Foundation, an organization that collects and analyzes information on cults.

The Cult Awareness Network, which says it educates the public about groups it considers cults, gets many complaints from families and friends of some members of Maranatha and of two other evangelical groups, the Boston Church of Christ and the Crossroads Church of Christ, both off-shoots of the Church of Christ.

Cynthia S. Kisser, executive director of the Cult Awareness Network, says parents complain that a son's personality has changed, that a daughter's grades are falling, or that she is denouncing her family for not being Christian enough.

Bible-based groups-many of which use techniques that Ms. Kisser labels cult-like-are popping up across the nation and appealing to the more conservative students of today. "College campuses have continued to be a good environment for cults to tap into," Ms. Kisser says. Newly graduated students also are prime targets for cults, she adds, because they are in a transitional period and are often unsure of themselves or lonely.

More than 2500 cults have attracted three to five million members, a large proportion of whom are college students, Ms. Kisser says. The Cult Awareness Network has 50 branches that offer support and information to families and to former cult members. At the urging of her parents-and with the help of counselors who have studied the tactics used by groups they call cults-Western Michigan's Ms. Cole left Maranatha last summer. She says many idealistic, high-achieving students who find themselves looking for life's answers become involved in the organization. Ms. Cole says that, although she believes the Maranatha ministry has a mostly Christian doctrine, its leaders often do cult-like things that contradict their stated beliefs. She describes Maranatha as an authoritarian thing from which magazines members may read to whom they may marry.

The group does not allow members to date and expects them to spend much of their time recruiting or fund raising, she says. Members are expected to give more than 10 percent of their income to Maranatha, and the ministry is supposed to take priority over everything else in their lives. Maranatha has attracted thousands to its worldwide ministries and gained the support of several public figures.

Robert W. Nolte, director of communications for Maranatha Campus Ministries International says about 15,000 students are involved with organization which has about 40 chapters in the United States and many more than that in 25 foreign nations.

Founded by Mr. Weiner in 1972, Maranatha's name is Aramaic and means, "the Lord is coming." Mr. Nolte says the group's goal is to "lead people to a spiritual knowledge of Jesus Christ as their Lord and savior." Maranatha has been endorsed by such people as Ronald and Nancy Reagan, Pat Boone, and Rosey Grier, a former star in the National Football League.

Mr. Nolte says he is aware that the group is controversial and that it has been accused of being a cult and of breaking university rules.

"It's hard to keep your nose clean on the campus, sometimes because there's a lot of people who don't want Christian groups on campus," he says. "They don't have any problems with the gays or the lesbians or the Socialist Worker Party or the Communist Party, but, boy, they don't want Christians."

Mr. Nolte adds that the group is more interested in helping students than in increasing its membership.

While some college and university administrators have been active in preventing cult-like groups from operating on their campuses, others feel it isn't their responsibility and say they are worried that the organizations will carry out threats to sue. Some have let campus chaplains handle the situation.

Ms. Kisser of the Cult Awareness Network says colleges can educate students about cults in general without risking litigation. How to look for unethical recruiting techniques and where to draw the line between excessive pressure and legitimate demands on time are topics students should be educated about, she says.

"I think that colleges do have some responsibility," Ms. Kisser says, "Just as they would have some responsibility to protect their female students from rapists on campus, I think they also have the same responsibility to protect minds from being raped by groups that are unethical and using college campuses for recruiting."

Some groups have encountered roadblocks when trying to spread their word on campuses. At the University of South Florida, Maranatha was not allowed to use campus facilities for one semester in 1987 and was fined $50 for violating university policies that prohibit solicitation of funds at meetings.

At Kansas State University, Maranatha lost the right to use campus facilities because members were found to have violated the university's policy on door-to-door solicitation and its honesty in publicity rules. Boston University has ordered non-student members of the Boston Church of Christ to stay out of residence halls.

The Rev. Robert Watts Thornburg, dean of the Marsh Chapel at Boston University, says the Boston Church of Christ continues to be a major problem.

Mr. Thornburg says he gets about eight complaints from parents each week about the group, and more than a dozen students drop out of the university each semester to work for it.

Educational programs in the residence halls, Mr. Thornburg says, have had some effect in alerting students to what he says are the possible dangers of joining the group.

Ronald N. Loomis, director of unions and activities at Cornell University and until last month the national president of the Cult Awareness Network, was one of the first administrators in the country to initiate a cult-education program.

About 11 years ago Mr. Loomis began coordinating cult-awareness programs, including filmstrips and testimonials by ex-cult members, for residence-hall assistants and other students. In a typical academic year, he says, several thousand students attend the programs.

Cult-like evangelical groups concern Mr. Loomis because they appear traditional. "It's very difficult for students or campus ministers to tell the difference," he says. "You really have to probe beneath the surface to see the difference."

The University of California at Berkeley last spring appointed a committee to investigate cult activities on its campus. The committee includes faculty and staff members, counselors, academic advisers, and a lawyer.

Hal Reynolds, a Berkeley student-affairs administrator, says many more complaints about cults had been received in academic 1988-89 than in previous years. The committee decided to make up fliers to tell staff members and new students about cults and to train about 200 student-life staff members to educate other students about potential dangers.

At Western Michigan University, campus ministers have been informing counseling-center employees, student staff members, residence-hall directors, and students living in the dormitories about the potential dangers of cults. Ronald B. Grant, a United Methodist campus minister, says several cult-like groups exist at Western Michigan and adds that the education program has been somewhat successful in making students more aware of them.

However, Charles G. Donnelly, director of student life and associate dean of students at the university, says he hasn't had complaints about campus religious groups in several years. He adds that he wouldn't characterize any of the groups as cults.

Mr. Donnelly says the campus ministers are not employed by the university and the administration does not get involved in cult education. "Why should we get involved?" he asks. "We have no proof that anything is going wrong."

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