SOME OBSERVATIONS CONCERNING
SENATE RESOLUTION 448
PREPARED FOR CONSIDERATION BY
THE ILLINOIS STATE SENATE
AND DELIVERED ON JULY 5, 1994
GREGORY HOLMES SINGLETON, Ph.D.
PROFESSOR OF HISTORY
NORTHEASTERN ILLINOIS UNIVERSITY
Few topics generate as much controversy, fear and irrational
reaction as "alternative" or "non-normative" religions. The
problem is difficult enough in a political body with one dominant
or established religious form. The situation in the United States
is complicated by a number of factors. Primary among them are a
legal tradition of religious freedom and the multiplicity of
religious forms. This reality makes your task under SR 448 complex
I present the following observations as a scholar who has
spent over twenty years investigating, analyzing and interpreting
the religious elements of America's past and present. I do so as
part of my mandate as a professor at a public university to provide
service to the State of Illinois within my area of competence. My
interest in this matter is primarily professional. I am a member
of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, which is a
"mainstream" denomination. I have, that is to say, no brief to
present on behalf of "cults."
It is as a scholar with a specialty in the study of religion
in America that I have serious reservations about the assumptions
articulated in Senate Resolution 448. The wording of the
foundation ("Whereas") clauses is imprecise, vague and misleading.
My concern is that this Committee develop the final report based on
a solid understanding of religion in its infinite variety in
American life. I applaud your decision to consult those of us who
have systematically studied the phenomenon. The rhetoric of the
resolution (which I realize is not the product of the committee)
suggests that the document was influenced by religious and/or
secular organizations with ideological agendas which put them at
odds with the groups they have generically labeled as "cults." At
the very least, the committee should require that those who are
calling for action define what they mean by "cult" and identify the
alleged 2000 organizations thus labeled. This information should
then be measured against scholarly evaluations.
I hope that I can aid in that process with the following
observations, which fall into two general categories: (a) PROCEDURAL and
The PROCEDURAL problem can be addressed simply. In all
fairness, testimony should be explicitly solicited from persons who
are members of organizations designated as "cults." One would gain
a biased and skewed impression of the Roman Catholic Church, the
Pentecostal Church, or even the Evangelical Lutheran Church in
America if one limited the information base to former members,
organizations opposed to the denomination in question, and families
of those who have chosen any of these organizations as a different
path. One would certainly want to talk to those who have chosen
that path and seem to be happy with it. One could argue that they
are covered under "other witnesses," but the interests of fairness
and objectivity would best be served by explicitly soliciting
testimony from such sources.
The CONCEPTUAL observations are more elaborate. For the sake
of clarity and relative brevity, I will address the specific
foundation clauses of the Resolution.
"WHEREAS, The recent activities of David Koresh and his Branch
Davidian sect in Waco, Texas have increased national awareness of the
destructive nature of cult activities. . ."
The word "awareness" is bothersome here. The media attention
given to the events in Waco has, quite properly, given rise to a
variety of concerns. Concern, however, is not the same thing as
awareness. The phrasing of this section of the Resolution
presupposes a body of certain knowledge of which the public has
become aware. I would suggest that part of the committee's
responsibility is to test that assumption. As it stands, this
section of the resolution begs an important question. Do we have
sufficient evidence that the Branch Davidian incident is typical of
a general trend among "cults"? Would the aberrant activities of
one minister, priest, rabbi or congregation of a "mainstream"
denomination call into question the ethos and activities of
Protestantism, Catholicism, or Judaism in general?
The most serious problem with this section of the Resolution
(and the Resolution in general) however, is the word "cult." It is
used throughout without definition. The term comes from the Latin
cultus, one meaning of which is "to worship". The Roman Catholic
Church uses the term in a variety of contexts: e.g., the Cult of
the Blessed Sacrament; the Cult of the Blessed Virgin Mary. In the
early twentieth century the term was given more precise
Sociological definition. Max Weber and Ernst Troeltsch, and a
variety of scholars since, have used the term "cult" as one of
three major categories of religious organizations. The other two
are "church" and "sect." A "church" is generally made up of
people who are members of the social and political establishment,
and who are usually among the more affluent members of the larger
society. "Churches" usually endorse the prevailing social order.
A "sect" is generally made up of people who are marginalized--
socially, economically, and politically. "Sects" usually consist
of people who have ben excluded, or have withdrawn, from "Churches"
and often see themselves at odds with the prevailing social order.
A "cult" is generally made up of people who are alienated. The
adherents often have no social ties except for the "cult". Crucial
to the concept of a "cult" is the central authority of a strong
charismatic leader. Please note that I have used terms such as
"generally," "usually," and "often." Neither Weber nor Troeltsch
nor any who have written in their tradition have accepted the
"Church--Sect--Cult" typology as anything except a device for
facilitating scholarly analysis. Not everyone, nor every
congregation, in a "church" is "church"-like. The literature is
filled with examples of "sect"-like and "cult"-like clusters within
mainline "Churches." A Pentecostalist Assembly may exhibit "sect"-
like characteristics in New York City, but might be a "church" in
rural West Virginia. The term "cult of personality" has been used
frequently to describe the relationship between specific
charismatic ministers and their congregations in a variety of
mainstream "churches." One person's "cult" may well be another
person's "church." Indeed, those of us involved in the study of
religious forms have often commented that it is easy to define a
"church," "sect," or "cult," but identifying a specific
organization as one of these categories is very difficult.
This last point has been the subject of a significant portion
of scholarly studies of religion in America published in the last
two decades. Realizing the slippery nature of the three
categories, several noted scholars have eschewed the terms "sect"
and "cult" in favor of "unconventional," "experimental," "religious
outsiders," and the like. This has not been a mere exercise in
cosmetic rhetoric. It is a recognition of the fluid nature of
religious organizations. "Cults" and "sects," while in origin
peripheral or alienated from the core of society, often go through
a developmental process and become "churches." In our own national
history, we have many examples of the process, the most famous of
which are the Latter Day Saints (Mormons) and Christian
Scientists. Indeed, every Christian denomination can be
understood as the outgrowth of a "cult" or a "sect". All
Christians trace their origins to the first century of the Common
Era when adherents of the faith were waiting for the physical
return of the risen Jesus, their charismatic leader. The creeds
and confessional formulations associated with "Church"-like
organizations were largely absent from the first three centuries of
Christianity, and were flatly rejected by some of the reformers of
the sixteenth century, who were called "sectarians." Even if we
could all agree on what constitutes a "cult," "sect" or "church" at
any given time, the protean nature of these organizations makes
permanent categories impossible.
"WHEREAS, It has been estimated that there are as many as 2,000
cults operating within the United States with 4 million to 6 million
members. . "
This foundation clause can be dealt with briefly. I have
frequently seen such claims with both higher and lower estimates.
I have never seen a convincing discussion of the data bases, the
operational definitions of "cult," or the methods used to derive
Even if the estimate in the Resolution is valid, what is the
interest of the State of Illinois in such information? While such
numbers may be alarming to religious and ideological "competitors,"
the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States
Constitution would suggest that this ought to be a matter of
indifference to Federal and State governments. Even if we had an
adequate definition of the term "cult" and precise information, the
Constitutional prohibition against legislation respecting an
establishment of religion raises serious questions about the
wisdom--and legitimacy--of using any typology which distinguishes
between types of religious organizations as the basis for public
"WHEREAS, Cult recruitment activities are often directed
towards students on college campuses. . ."
I would accept this as almost axiomatic. All kinds of
organizations, from MacDonalds to the Central Intelligence Agency,
recruit on college campuses. I recall both the Campus Crusade for
Christ (Conservative Evangelical) and the Newman Center (Roman
Catholic) attempting to convince me of the error of my neo-orthodox
ways during my undergraduate years. The Newman Center, by the way,
was named after an Anglican convert to Roman Catholicism, and at
the college I attended was staffed by Paulist Fathers who had an
apostolate to reclaim lost Protestants. Christian religions (among
others) are in the conversion (that is to say, recruitment)
business, no matter how they are classified.
"WHEREAS, College students are particularly vulnerable to cult
recruitment because they are often wrestling with becoming independent,
overwhelmed with new responsibilities and relationships, adjusting to new
environments, and anxious about their future. . ."
This statement is probably true, but incomplete. College
students encounter a world of analysis and interpretation they may
not have been exposed to before. It is a time of excitement,
anxiety and experimentation. As a result, college students are
particularly vulnerable (that is to say, open) to a variety of
alternative idea systems. It was within such an intellectual
climate that luminaries such as Robert Lowell, Avery Dulles, and
Thomas Merton underwent profound conversion experiences. All three
became prominent Roman Catholics, and were subjected to initial
ostracism by some members of their families.
"WHEREAS, College students who become involved with cults
undergo personality changes, suffer academically, are alienated from
their families, and are robbed of the very things universities were
designed to encourage: freedom of thought, intellectual growth, and
personal development. . . "
I have seen only anecdotal evidence to support any of these
assertions (e.g. "Well, my neighbor's cousin's son went to Southern
Illinois University, and. . ."). My observation (something more
than a collection of anecdotes but less than a systematic study)
based on over two decades of full-time college teaching is that
some students do undergo personality changes, suffer academically,
and are alienated from their families. I know of two cases where
these things happened coincident with (but not necessarily caused
by) a student's involvement in a new religion. The great majority
of cases with which I am familiar, however, have to do with falling
in love (which includes alienation, if the family of origin
disapproves of the object of affection's ethnic group), adopting a
new political ideology, or finding a worthy cause which re-orients
energies, exasperates parents, and robs time from studies. The
causes are varied, from Animal Rights to Pro-Life Activism. When
the student places the cause before studies, family and friends, we
see the changes described in this foundation clause. I hope that
the committee will solicit testimony from a scholar with competence
in the area of Student Development who has either conducted
research into this area or is qualified to summarize the body of
literature on this subject.
Whatever the literature suggests about personality change,
academic performance, or familial alienation, what shall we do?
Shall we preserve freedom of thought, intellectual growth and
personal development by forbidding students to explore new
directions, intellectually, politically, socially any spiritually?
Put another way, are we to defend freedom of inquiry by denying
certain kinds of inquiry? To follow this logic would lead to a
world of raging contradiction.
"WHEREAS, Some college administrators have become concerned
about cult activities on campus and have taken action to address the
situation, but many others have failed to recognize the threat, have
refused to deal with the problem, or are searching for policy directions
as to how to deal with it. . ."
As with the first foundation clause, this one begs a question.
The wording assumes that the situation described in the Resolution
has an unchallengeable reality and that administrators have either
done their duty, have failed to do so, or are muddling along
looking for direction.
I would argue that colleges and universities in the State of
Illinois already have an arsenal of laws and policies to use if any
individual or organization harasses a student. Why do we need
additional policies and procedures? What could be done that is not
already being done? What is the extraordinary power of "cults"
which calls for extraordinary measures? How can the State or any
college administration identify a "cult," given the difficulty
specialists have in doing so. Even if college and university
administrators could so identify such religious organizations, can
they do that without violating the letter and spirit of the
Constitution? How can an administration bar the proselytic
activities of one religious organization and not others without
violating the establishment clause of the First Amendment? If any
given organization or individual violates established policy, then
the administration should take action, BUT THE ACTION SHOULD BE
TAKEN BECAUSE A SPECIFIC BEHAVIOR HAS VIOLATED A GENERAL POLICY,
NOT BECAUSE THE BEHAVIOR IN QUESTION IS ASSOCIATED WITH A SPECIFIC
I could say a great deal more in elaboration of the points
already raised. I could also offer an analysis of the dynamics in
American culture which gives rise to these concerns, but I have
already tried the patience of the committee. I stand ready to
respond to any of the issues raised.