Cults on Campus: Wolves in Sheep’s Clothing
University Times (California State University), Los Angeles, November 9th 1992.
Commentary by Rev. Albert G. Cohen
The struggle for the minds and souls of college students goes on everyday on campuses in Southern California as young people are harassed and intimidated by recruiters of high pressure religious groups. Rachel and her friend have just left my office at Cal State L.A. after sharing with us their experience yesterday in the student union. They had just come out of a Bible study group only to be accosted promptly by two women not just inviting them but insisting that they come to a discipling session that evening. As a high schooler she had already encountered cult groups so she recognized the technique and quickly turned them off. Others do not escape the web so easily.
A new campus dynamic of the past 10 years is the multiplication of destructive cults and with them the disturbance of aggressive proselytizing, which is the opposite of the collegial, marketplace of ideas style characteristic of interfaith ministry. The attractive appeal of the cult is a combination of easy answers to life’s problems coupled with a sense of belonging to what on the surface appears to be a warm, caring, friendly, intimate group. The price soon turns out to be complete obedience and surrender of one’s individuality, usually including previous friends and family, and often resulting in poor grades, dropping out of school and giving up career aspirations.
Some of the high pressure groups working on my campus are the Los Angeles Church of Christ (not to be confused with the mainstream Church of Christ), the Unification Church (known on campus as CARP), Scientology and Hare Krishna. They are all similar in their techniques of disorientation and mind control and usually manage to separate their followers from previous religious training and church connections, however tenuous.
John was in here a week ago. He became involved in one of the groups because of their active social program in combination with Bible study. The next step for John was confession of all of the most intimate details of his life to his mentor or discipler. He was also told that his primary goal in life at that point should be to recruit new members, which was explained to him as particularly vital because, “everyone outside the group has been condemned by God to eternal damnation.”
The Bible study turned out to be superficial and in fact sometimes rigged to impress newcomers whose theological opinions are discounted anyway. When he resisted spending all available time as a recruiter and also persisted in asking questions about the group’s behavior and expectations of him, he was accused of showing signs of weak faith in God, was charged with rebellious behavior, and was told that the last person who behaved badly left the group and went insane. Group attention to him was withdrawn completely, so he quit, at which point he was hounded night and day by phone calls for months and was told that he was twice damned to hell by God for his disobedience. John’s story is repeated over and over again in one or another form as can be verified by campus ministers at our major universities.
What is the answer? Violation of university rules has resulted in suspension of some destructive cults from some campuses. The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees free speech on public property and besides all opinions should be part of the mixture so that students can learn to analyze and make choices. On the other hand if students are being manipulated and lured away from the academic process, then they should be protected from unscrupulous religious scavengers. At the very least students should have available to them presentations of a variety of the religious traditions which humankind has found valuable and helpful throughout the ages. At Cal State L.A. this happens through programming offered by the University Council of Campus Ministries, of which UMHE is a part. The university needs our participation in this marketplace of ideas and is grateful that your generosity provides our ministry to the students, staff and faculty.
Another answer is more thorough grounding of our high schoolers in theological understanding and commitment while they are still in their local church groups and attending worship services regularly. Charlie was giving his testimony at a gathering of campus ministers at UCLA last year. He had come from an Episcopalian background but would be representative of all our denominations in questioning the thoroughness of his religious instruction as he was growing up, a typical teenager not particularly interested in the fine points of doctrinal debate. This is a tough one. We would all like to do more with our children and young people, but how to motivate them when it must seem so abstract to them at that time? Yet it is not abstract for Charlotte who has been convinced that her break with the cult is a result of her own sin for which God will punish her forever, with no chance for forgiveness in this life or the next. She is searching for someone who will reassure her of God’s redeeming love and mercy. We can do that for her.
Yet a third answer is in the outstanding contribution made by Reggie, a student at Cal State L.A. who was drawn into a battle with the cults as a result of his personal engagement in challenging their influence in his life two years ago. He is the founding energy behind a chapter of CARES, Cult Awareness Resources, an officially recognized student organization organized to provide information and resources to the campus community about cult activity. The Campus Ministries office receives about two dozen calls a month from distraught parents, friends of recent converts and discouraged cult drop outs who are looking for a new grounding in reality and for personal support, psychologically and theologically.
National surveys show that millions of Americans are currently involved in religious cults at one level or another. It might be prudent for those of us committed to the mainstream denominations to take note of this trend and ponder its meaning for the future of the church.