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The Effects of Religious Cults in America

Updated May 5, 2022
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The Effects of Religious Cults in America essay

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Don’t drink the Kool-Aid. The slang term is now a common knowledge phrase intended to mean “don’t conform to a group because of their radical ideals” or “take what a group may say with a grain of salt.” The history of this phrase is much darker, finding its roots in American cults, where a group of almost 1,000 individuals drank Flavor-Aid laced with a drug cocktail, commiting the largest mass suicide of United States citizens ever recorded. The event itself happened over 40 years ago, but the phrase still has a grasp on American society. This grasp is not a one-off capturing of the American public’s attention, though. Cults and their events have captivated the US and its inhabitants since the dawn of the nation. These religiously affiliated cults have a bigger effect on America’s culture than the country would care to admit.

A cult can defined as a manipulation and misrepresentation of Christianity or the early Christian church. That definition leans more Christian and one-sided, though, and other less Christian sources define it otherwise. A secular source defines it as a group participating in a committed movement with a charismatic leader, and offers the answers to life if you listen to said leader. A combination of the two definitions will provide a more universal definition of a cult: a smaller religious leaning group that requires commitment to a higher power or a leader that offers a meaning or purpose to its devoted followers. A cult, although it may not look like it on the surface, is different from a religion by three defining factors: a cult will isolate and coerce their members, along with maintaining a very secretive inner working (something even members of the cult may not have access to). In an organized religion, the members are encouraged to participate in society, and fully understand why and how they are participating in the religion. The inner workings are typically out as public domain too, something anyone could get ahold of and understand without participating in the religion, i.e. the Bible. Cults and their lack of these things, along with their strong, charismatic leaders, have lead to terrifying, even deadly events in US history.

The Peoples Temple of the Disciples of Jesus Christ, also known as Jonestown, was a cult so intense and persuasive, it lead over 900 American citizens into the largest known US mass murder-suicide to date. Peoples Temple was a twisted offshoot of Christianity, that started in Indianapolis during the 1950’s. The leader of this homicidal mess, Jim Jones, preached on the end of times, and he also preached against racism, something African-Americans quickly latched on to. He moved his followers to San Francisco in the 70’s, where he then stopped preaching Christianity. Shortly thereafter, for fear of the US government and losing his religious tax-exemption, he moved his whole operation to Guyana, where it grew for a few more years. Now, back to the deaths: Out of fear, Jones began launching practice suicide drills called “white nights.” Already a scary idea, that this man was premeditating the suicide of hundreds of people. What kicked off the actual mass suicide, though, was the murder of a Californian congressman and his associates who were intrigued by the stories he was hearing of this cult. Following this was the actual “White Night,” where all but two people in the cult either drank knock-off Kool-Aid, cyanide, and tranquilizer, or were injected with the cyanide and tranquilizer. The two who did not were Jones and his wife, both shot and killed; it is unclear whether their deaths were suicides or homicides to this day. Following the publicity of this event, the term “(don’t) drink the Kool-Aid” was coined, more likely than not due to the fact that Kool-Aid is more of an easier, more popular brand to roll off the tongue than Flavor-Aid. In reference to cults and politics, the phrase is used negatively, but in reference to business and entertainment, it is used as a describing phrase for showing disjointment and a lack of typical behavior. Regardless of how it is used, America still has not forgotten this event and what it did to their citizens, and it has become a general example on why cults are looked at in a negative light.

A cult that is still active with a deadly record, but far less of a body count, is Heaven’s Gate. This is technically the biggest mass suicide on US soil, as the Jonestown massacre was the biggest suicide of US individuals, but was not done in the US. The original cult in the 90’s lived in a large house in San Diego under the control of Marshall Applewhite (He went by the name of “Do” and “Bo”), and Bonnie Nettles (She went by the name of “Ti” and “Peep”). Applewhite genuinely thought he was the second coming of Jesus Christ. In some accounts, the members of the cult castrated themselves, or were deprived of sleep, as tactics, whether intentional or not, for Applewhite to control the members. Their cult believed that their leaders were The Two, foretold in the book of Revelation, if they left their human bodies they could join the aliens in a UFO they thought to be following behind the Hale-Bopp comet. Nettles died years before the mass suicide could be seen through, but Applewhite survived until the event. 39 individuals died over three days, and two more died within the next few years. Each member took drugs mixed in with pudding or applesauce, and put a bag over their head just incase, so they would for sure die of asphyxiation if not from the drugs. The cult is still questionably active too, Their website explaining how to join Heaven’s Gate still up and running in 2019. Although, said webpage has an entire article against suicide, stating that “The true meaning of ‘suicide’ is to turn against the Next Level when it is being offered.” This cult left its mark on the US, being the largest mass suicide on American soil. It is another cult usually referenced to as an example of why not to “drink the Kool-Aid” of things that seem too good to be true.

Another cult with a body count, the Branch Davidians, is highly influential on American culture. But this influence is in its controversy. Either the US government killed the Branch Davidians, or the Branch Davidians killed themselves. This cult was originally called the Davidian Seventh Day Adventist Church, which was a legitimate reformation of the Seventh Day Adventist church, contained in a compound named the Mount Carmel Center. This cult had not really made its mark in US history until a man named Vernon Howell, who called himself David Koresh, came along. He was highly charismatic and had a large knowledge of the Bible, and was thus able to convert over 100 people from around the world. He was also able to convince his followers that he could have many wives, some as young as the age of 10. The FBI only got involved, though, due to the fact they had heard the compound was stockpiling illegal weapons. And thus began the siege of in Waco, Texas. It lasted 51 days, and was ended when a fire broke out, killing David Koresh and around 70 other Davidians. Each party blames the fire on the other. The FBI later admitted of using flammable tear gas canisters on the compound. That being said, they were not found guilty of starting the fire. David Koresh himself, regardless of who started the fire, has been blamed for putting more than 20 children in danger. The question still remains on the forefront of this story, and will likely not ever be one hundred percent solved. The conflict, and the reason this cult is still discussed today, between who started the fire and caused the unnecessary loss of life.

Often called Mormonism, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has a less controversial background, and is a more well-known cult offshoot of Christianity. This cult starts with a man named Joseph Smith in the 1820’s who claimed that at the age of 14 he had seen God the Father and Jesus Christ, and at the age of 17 he had been told by an angel he was to translate the “book of Mormon,” an addition to the Bible, but in the Americas, allowing plural gods and polygamy. Smith supposedly found “golden plates” near where he was living in New York, and John the Baptist showed up to help him with the translation process. John Smith grew this Mormonism, and it split into two seperate groups. What is currently known as Mormonism, and what is currently known as the Community of Christ. Mormonism is currently more active and more well known. According to the most recent update on current Community of Christ members, there are about 197,000 internationally, while Mormonism has around 16,100,000 members currently. What started out as one 14 year old claiming he saw God in the 1800’s has grown to a multimillion member cult. On their website, www.mormon.org, it offers the meaning and purpose of life, along with how to join and other reasons why you should join. As a huge, growing cult in America, thankfully it’s unlike the others and their murderous and dangerous past. But it does cause America to beg the question, what is it with Mormonism, why is it growing so fast, and so much more fast than its sibling cult? Like Waco, it is an answer the US may never receive, but will always question.

Jehovah’s Witnesses, once known as the Watch Tower Society, is another distinct cult offshoot of Christianity, but slightly newer than Mormonism. In the 1870’s Charles Russell created Jehovah’s witnesses because he did not agree on the topics of Hell (that Hell even exists), Christ’s godliness, the Holy Spirit, and thus did not believe in the existence of a trinity. In 1931 the Watch Tower Society became the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Most Jehovah’s Witness’ congregations meet more than once a week, and the cult itself has a total about 20,300,000 members. Their past is the least controversial and raises the least questions, albeit just Christianity but with a few undoctinal altercations to the bible. The most profound thing about this cult is their need to spread and grow. Their pressure and intensity towards people of other religions and constant nagging to convert. They flaunt on their website two billion hours spent in the field, meaning going door to door and attempting to convert those who answer. Most Americans know what a Jehovah’s Witness is, and often use them as the target of soliciting jokes. It is not as much of an effect as some of the previous cults, but it is very prevalent in American society.

Some of these cults are not all that bad or controversial, but are still classified as cults. So why does the word cult have such a negative connotation about it? The most probable answer to that is the 1970’s Anti-Cult Movement. The Anti-Cult Movement consisted of a large amount of groups and associations determined to remove people from New Religious Movements, and set them back into society. Previous to this movement, the world had a more positive outlook on cults and up-and-coming religious movements. Positive or negative connotations aside though, America has an unhealthy infatuation with these cults. They dominate media and gain quick clicks and views, especially in comparison to new events and tragedies. Jonestown set the negative connotation in stone, and by the time the Waco Standoff came about, that was the only position the media took. And it never wore off. When the 9/11 terrorist attack struck, the media was all over the similarities between bin Laden and Jim Jones, or David Koresh. The death, the religious aspects, it got clicks. Forever immortalized by media and public record, there is no forgetting what has happened, and there is no ignoring the parallels that will be drawn for the rest of time.

Cults, minor cults from the 70’s to major cults that still exist today, effect American society in ways no one can predict or measure. The People Temple brought the US “drink the Kool-Aid,” and a body count of almost 1000. Heaven’s Gate brought the US their biggest mass suicide to date, and looming question of whether or not it could happen again. The Branch Davidians leave another question on the US’ mind: was it suicide or was it murder in Waco, Texas? Is there something true to Mormonism and is there a reason it was so much more appealing than it’s sibling cult, the Community of Christ? The Watch Tower Society brought the US some constant door to door soliciting, and a new turn of phrase about pestering. All of these cults have left behind questions, bloody trails, and even broken US records. They have all left their mark on American culture one way or another, and through America’s infatuation and media attention, that mark will not fade quickly. Drink the Kool-Aid, don’t drink the Kool-Aid, it does not matter. Cults are here to stay.

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