Children of Doom
The freakish fringe of religion is changing so fast these days that fiction cannot keep up with reality. Last week ABC Television presented Can Ellen Be Saved?, a TV movie that depicted an aggressive, doctrinaire Jesus sect called the Children of Jesus. The fictitious sect was obviously a thinly disguised counterpart of the real-life Children of God, complete with a West Coast farming commune, buses that sweep into cities to pick up new converts, biblical aliases for the members and a frank affection for the money and property gleaned from converts.
In fact, the dramatization was more like the Children of God of two years ago (TIME, Jan. 24, 1972). Today the Children are scattered to the four corners of the earth, preaching doom to America, buttering up Libya's latter-day caliph, Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, and loosening up their sex ethics enough to lure new members. Only a few hundred of the 3,000 or so hard-core members remain in the U.S. The reason, according to Founding Father David Berg, alias "Moses David," has to do with the comet Kohoutek, which was supposed to herald catastrophe to the nation beginning on or about Jan. 31. In the weeks before doomsday, some of the Children of God appeared in red sackcloth at United Nations Plaza in New York City warning Americans to flee. A good many of the Children took their own advice, removing themselves also from the scrutiny of New York State's attorney general, whose charity frauds bureau last month issued a 23-page report on the sect and recommended that its questionable activities come "under the umbrella of state regulation and scrutiny."
The information center for the Children of God today is London. But Leader Moses David stays as elusive as Howard Hughes, making contact with the members only in his weekly epistles called "Mo Letters" and through what might be described as fundamentalist pornography. Berg's poem Mountin' Maid, for instance, is 300 lines of awful doggerel urging women to bare their breasts. Sample line: Can't we leave those summits bare Without all that underwear?
An even stranger flight of fancy is Berg's courtship of Libyan Strongman Gaddafi. Last spring, the Mo Letters began to talk about "godly socialism" and to describe Gaddafi as the savior who will ignite the young and rescue them from those twin sources of evil, godless Communism and American materialism. The Moslem leader, in return, has commended the C.O.G. on Libyan radio and has invited a son and daughter of Berg to visit him in Tripoli.
There are other changes. In Great Britain, where disillusioned hippies seem a likely target, C.O.G. evangelists are preaching a sexual-freedom line unusual for the Jesus movement. Masturbation and premarital sex, for example, are now only sinful if indulged in "too much," like "hiking, swimming or exercising too much." Polygamy is also condoned, though not recommended. In Stoke-on-Trent, C.O.G. pitchmen greet the uninitiated temptingly: "Want to read something sexy, something that'll turn you on?" Elsewhere, they take a different line: recent C.O.G. immigrants to France, where their name is les Enfants de Dieu, have taken Berg's advice to woo Roman Catholics, whom he admires as doctrinaire soul mates. ("Kiss the Pope's foot if necessary," he advises.) It has apparently worked: a priest at Notre Dame found them lodgings near the famed cathedral, and Le Monde's religion writer lauded the spontaneity and faith of "the missionaries in blue jeans."
All this might be amusing if the Children were not so efficient in their indoctrination of converts, who still go through months of spiritual brainwashing. Those who escape often have to leave a lot behind. When David Hoyt, an early leader of the Jesus movement, joined the C.O.G. in Atlanta, he took along many of his flock-and found himself and his friends shipped out within days. "They took over our houses, our vehicles, and about $17,000," recalls Hoyt, who rose to leadership in the C.O.G. before leaving them in disgust. But Hoyt, now in Britain and one of the Children's most outspoken foes, lost more than that: his wife and three children are still among the Children of God.