Spiritual Abuse, Pastor Ken Garrett, Spiritual Abuse in the church: A Guide to Recognition and Recovery
This is an ongoing series on spiritual abuse using excerpts from Pastor Ken Garrett’s dissertation on spiritual abuse, Spiritual Abuse in the Church: A Guide to Recognition and Recovery. We will use excerpts from Ken’s dissertation as a springboard for discussion. You can find all of the other posts in this series here.
Ken begins his next section entitled, Cults in America, noting that in the past 50-60 years, an estimated 2,500,000 Americans have been a part of cult groups and how cultists are viewed.
The United States has a strange relationship to cults. A person’s religion can be seen as strange, abnormal, mysterious, or even downright creepy, but as long as that religion does not hurt anyone or break any laws, it is not just tolerated, but protected under law.
He then identifies a few celebrities in American culture who have joined movements and non-traditional groups:
The Beatles had a guru, folk musician John Denver attended and enthusiastically promoted EST (1) courses, Madonna observes Cabalism, and Tina Turner, a self- described Buddhist Baptist, practiced chanting. . . . Actors, politicians, poets and musicians became Scientologists, espousing the religious creation of science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard, seeking personal improvement and happiness through the exploration and study of the immortal, eternal spirit called a Thetan that presumably resides in the human mind and body.
Apart from Tom Cruise’s involved in the well-known cult, Scientology, when I think of these specific artists that Ken mentioned, I found it interesting that I dismissed their involvement in non-traditional groups or movements in my mind. I have always loved the peaceful sing-along music of John Denver, and it was his musical talent that I focused on, not is spiritual beliefs or practices. Perhaps we as Americans are just tolerant of various practices and we look beyond them, focusing on whatever talent a person has to offer.
Although Americans have long held a benign tolerance for such avant-garde movements and groups, it was not long after their introduction into the religious scene of the nation that disturbing stories arose regarding their inner workings, including accounts of deception, manipulation, and abuse of members. Groups like the Children of God, the Unification Church, the Church of Scientology, the Church Universal and Triumphant, Twelve Tribes, Heaven’s Gate, The People’s Temple, etc., some of which were founded by men and women from Christian homes, experienced various (and v public) scandals and scrutiny. Some of them went on to become bywords of tragedy and death.
It’s important to note that the above-mentioned groups were started by “men and women from Christian homes.” How many people innocently connected and felt safe with the Christian aspect of what these folks were offering, but were then led down a harmful and destructive path?
Today, the mere mention of The Peoples Temple of Jonestown, Guyana (formerly of San Francisco), the Branch Davidians of Waco, and Heaven’s Gate of San Diego evokes memories of death, murder, and horror. Such memories are now permanently attached to the word cult in the American vocabulary. Currently, the word is routinely used to describe “an ideological organization held together by charismatic relations and demanding total commitment.”
These are the groups that most people feel very comfortable in labeling as a cult. I think when we look at our spiritually abusive leaders, we tend to minimize the label because our experience wasn’t as bad as “theirs.” After all, we did not die or kill, did we?
Ken shares from experts about what actually happens to cult members as they surrender themselves and their minds to cult leaders:
Researchers, academicians, and practitioners have studied the effects of cultic involvement as they have interviewed and cared for the survivors of cults. The processes that lead to the purposeful, drastic change of the thinking processes of members are referred to as thought reform, coercive persuasion, extraordinary influence, thought struggle, brainwashing, mind control, exploitive persuasion, etc. These terms refer to processes of gaining undue and unhealthy control and influence over the thinking of a member of a group (2).
In the non-Christian world of research and study of thought reform and abusive, aberrant groups, there is ongoing struggle in arriving at an accurate, helpful understanding and appropriate use of the word cult. In the article “Traumatic Abuse in Cults,” psychotherapist Daniel Shaw defines a cult as “a group that is led by a traumatizing narcissist, in which members are subjugated by the leader in various ways, mainly through the destruction of their subjectivity—their objectification.”
Shaw argues that a cult may be recognized by the relationship between the leaders and its members—that of the removal of healthy independence and replacement with unhealthy dependence on the leader, along with the leader’s malicious treatment of his followers.
Clinical psychologist Margaret Singer addresses the changes of the thinking and attitudes that happen in cultic groups through deception (here referred to as thought reform):
A certain type of psychological con game is exactly what goes on in a thought-reform environment. A complex set of interlocking factors is put into place, and these factors, either quickly or slowly depending on the situation and the subject; bring about deep changes in the mindset and attitudes of the targeted individual. Though the manipulation of psychological and social factors, people’s attitudes can indeed be changed, and their thinking and behavior radically altered (2).
It’s pretty clear when reading the definition of cults and looking at thought reform, the focus of cult leaders to control our thinking, our activities, and our lives, that many of us truly were involved in cults. We were devoted to our leader, we lost our independent thought and critical thinking while under our leader’s influence. We were in cults, they just weren’t the ones that we heard about in the news media that advanced to such extremes as murder or suicide.
- EST training: Erhard Seminars Training (1971-84), an organization founded by Werner H. Erhard, offering a 60 hour course promising personal transformation and empowerment to overcome the various hang-ups and hassles of life that led people to attend such a course.
- See Margaret Thaler Singer and Robert Jay Lifton. Cults in Our Midst: The Continuing Fight Against Their Hidden Menace. 1st ed. (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2003), 53.