Religious Totalism as Slavery


Previous discussions of proposed intervention into the conversion activity of religious cults begin with considerations of harm and voluntariness. Intervention is justified, proponents argue, because the practices that cults utilize are damaging to the physical and mental health of converts, reduce autonomy, and threaten such social institutions as the family. Moreover, these advocates assert, intervention does not conflict with notions of liberty and freedom of judgment, because the individuals harmed are young persons who are not fully informed and whose decisionmaking abilities are impaired by peer pressure, isolation, sleep and dietary deprivation, and manipulation of guilt and anxiety. Those who counsel intervention argue that it is possible to “draw the line” between the more extreme forms of thought control practiced by cults and those practiced by military school, Jesuit seminaries, and television advertising.

The opponents of intervention argue, however, that cultist conversion practices do not harm the convert, they are undergone willingly and freely, and they do not differ significantly from those of other social institutions or groups. These opponents assert that any determination that an individual suffers from mind control must be made under strict and clearly defined standards; an individual must be “demonstrably deprived of his ‘own’ mind by specific techniques of involuntary coercion” before intervention can occur. Both sides of the debate therefore use the terminology of harm, voluntariness, and line-drawing. In this article I propose a new way of looking at the cult controversy, and a new set of terms for analyzing the issues raised by cultist thought reform. As one who has come to believe that cult practices deserve greater public scrutiny than they have so far received, I shall proceed from a viewpoint that is largely pro-intervention.

My thesis is that looking at religious totalism in terms of slavery can help illuminate some of the difficult conceptual and legal problems it poses and, possibly, show the way to a practical solution. The argument has two variants. The first asserts that the rigidly hierarchical, authoritarian, and isolated living arrangements established, by certain religious cults with the aid of intensive thought manipulation techniques, contravene the thirteenth amendment. A second, more limited variant, asserts that these arrangements, if not themselves constituting slavery and involuntary servitude, nevertheless violate a number of values protected by the thirteenth amendment, giving rise to a compelling state interest in their abatement. Since the present inquiry is a highly tentative and preliminary one, I shall not differentiate between these two theses but instead shall address those features of cult life that trigger thirteenth amendment concerns generally.

First, I discuss a number of the advantages, both doctrinal and practical, that a thirteenth amendment analysis can offer. Next I review the case law relating to slavery and peonage in an effort to identify points of similarity and difference between the fact patterns of existing cases and those presented by religious cults. Finding the results inconclusive, I then identify four values fundamental to the thirteenth amendment and its implementing legislation and explore the extent to which the conditions established by cult groups offend these values. Finally, I review the remedies that are available if we conclude that in a given case religious totalism constitutes slavery.

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