Lessons to be learned when cults make news
Press » Los Angeles Daily News » 2007-12-30
By Tina Dupuy
I was born into the group the Children of God -- or as they are called now, the Family International -- a Christian cult that started in the late '60s made up of dropout hippies in Huntington Beach, California. They went international after the leader was sought for kidnapping and tax evasion. I'm in denial that anyone has heard of them. I pretend like they're obscure. Many will remember the 2005 suicide of their heir apparent, Ricky Rodriguez, right after he killed his childhood nanny, Angela Smith. That was sensational enough to make headlines and inspire a "Law and Order" episode. Recently author Don Lattin released a book about the cult's history titled "Jesus Freaks."
My parents left the sect when I was 5, while my uncle and cousins remained members for the next 20 years. I obsessively follow any press that the group gets. While watching CNN's "Anderson Cooper 360" report detailing Rodriguez's death and the group's well-known child sex practices, Cooper said, "Well, that has nothing to do with Jesus!"
This is how the public has always reacted to the COG. It's upsetting and so it's dismissed outright as not actually Christian. It's a quick effort to make sense of it.
That is how we deal with things we don't like in religion. We reject all unpleasant elements as being frauds. Calling for the death of a teacher because she agreed to name a teddy bear Muhammad? That isn't actually Islam. The widespread molestation of boys by priests? That isn't actually Catholicism. The institutionalized and systematic abuse of lower and lowest classes? That isn't actually Hinduism. We even go so far as to tout pre-Columbian religions as being peaceful and passive. If we sidestep all the human sacrificing and war-making, they were.
So if the COG has "nothing to do with Jesus," then what does? The Crusades? The Inquisition? The Conquistadors? The witch hunts? The slave trade? Manifest destiny? The Holocaust? Miscegenation laws? Fred Phelps? Crimes against women of questionable virtue? The entire presidency of George W. Bush?
All have to do with Jesus because they were all justified by Christianity. Just like the COG's prostitution and child abuse was justified.
When you say you are a Christian, you become everything that is or was Christianity. Good, bad or indifferent -- it's all Christianity. A drop of water doesn't get to claim autonomy while swimming in the ocean, even if that drop of water happens to be Mormon and running for president.
The alternative is a skewed and inaccurate, albeit a more comfortable, belief in one's faith. It's the new iTestament, where you can customize your beliefs so you can stand out among your friends.
And why is that so bad? What could go wrong if we forget history under the guise of glossing over what's objectionable?
The first answer is that we can repeat it. We can have another pre-emptive invasion in the Middle East just like in the First Crusade. Shudder. If we wear rose-colored glasses and refuse to see the problems, then we will never solve them.
When the faithful aren't aware of the true, unflatteringly lit, warts-and-all history of their religion, its past follies and its vulnerability to mistakes, it leads to the insistence that America is and should be a Christian nation. Our Constitution is a product of the era of The Enlightenment, where the foundation was reason. But we are told that our Constitution "rests on a foundation of faith."
This type of revisionist history causes the line of church and state to be blurred, which is precisely what our Constitution tries to guard against. And there is plenty of evidence that when that happens, it isn't beneficial to the church or to the state.
So when stories of cults and abuse in the name of religion make national news, let's look at the similarities instead of dismissing them because they don't apply to us. See what they can teach us. And be open to the answers.
Tina Dupuy is a stand-up comic and a writer living in Los Angeles. She blogs at insidesocal.com/friendlyfire and [http://sardonicsideshow.com/ sardonicsideshow.com.