Religious Movements, the State, and the Law: Reconceptualizing the Cult Problem


Since the horror at Jonestown, controversies over “cults” have intensified. The dangers allegedly associated with such groups and their potential for harming individuals and disrupting the social fabric have been widely discussed. Such groups allegedly use sophisticated techniques of mind control and brainwashing to mentally enslave individuals and paralyze their critical faculties, thereby producing “armies of zombies” whose existence imperils democracy, order, and civilization. Various remedies have been proposed, including the criminalization of “menticide” (the destruction of an. individual’s free will), voluntary deprogramming or forcible treatment through conservatorships, and the application of state and federal kidnapping statutes. Others have suggested that authoritarian “false religions” should not receive the privileges and protections accorded the “true” traditional religions. While considerable attention has also been given to possible abuses regarding the finances, political lobbying, and commercial activities of cults, the most persistent allegations involve the use of psychologically coercive indoctrination techniques and their potential for producing harm to individuals, families, and society as a whole.

I contend that cults do indeed present a problem of social control. Civil liberties, however, will be endangered if this problem is conceptualized as primarily one of mind control. This conceptualization makes it relatively easy to treat devotees as if they were mentally incompetent and to confine them forcibly for therapy and enlightenment. A proper conceptualization of the problem should consider: (1) the activities of cults that ordinarily are subject to regulation but escape normal scrutiny because of first amendment protection; and (2) the stringent regimentation of devotees by the cults that produces conflicts with other institutions, notably the family and the state. These two dimensions of the cult problem produce a “state-within-a-state” pattern whereby sectarian movements seek to exempt themselves from legal constraints and to exercise social controls generally reserved to government authorities. This pattern maximizes both the tension between cults and governmental authorities and the potential for clashes between the cults and competing societal forces.

Comprehensive treatment of the legal and moral issues associated with cults must consider not only the rights of cults, ex-devotees, families, and the state against cults, but also the rights of committed devotees who claim fundamental freedoms of religion and association and affirm the legitimacy and rationality of their spiritual commitment. Coercive deprogramming, which treats these rights and affirmations cavalierly, is not an appropriate response to the abuses of authoritarian sects.

Suggested Reading

Panel I: Defund Means Defund Andrea Ritchie (she/her) is a Black lesbian immigrant whose writing, litigation, and advocacy has focused on policing of women and LGBT people of color for the past two decades. She is currently a researcher with