Cultic America: A Tower Of Babel

Waco is a wake-up call. If the cult watchers are to be believed, there are thousands of groups out there poised to snatch your body, control your mind, corrupt your soul. Witches' covens, satanic rituals, Krishna consciousness, fanatic fundamentalists, black and white supremacists, New Age cosmic crazies-few are armed but most are considered dangerous. They'll seduce you and fleece you, marry and bury you. Warning: do you know where your children are?

Prophecy or paranoia-it's hard to judge. Christianity itself began as a cult and so did America's most distinctive, homegrown religious movements: Mormonism, Seventh-day Adventism and Christian Science. In religion, as in economics, the United States has always been free enterprising and market driven. Anglicans begat Methodists, Methodists begat Pentecostals, and Baptists now come in 57 colorful varieties. "That's why we have the First Amendment," says Leo Sandon, professor of religion at Florida State University. "If people want to follow Donald Duck, so be it. The First Amendment guarantees neither taste nor truth."

But when Donald Duck turns out to be Charles Manson or Jim Jones, people die. Toward the end of the '60s, repeated shocks to the American psyche prepared the way for mesmerizing gurus. Coincidentally, changes in U.S. immigration laws allowed a number of Hindu, Buddhist and other spiritual masters to migrate here. Among them: the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, teacher of Transcendental Meditation whose followers now run a fully accredited university in Fairfield, Iowa; Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, who purchased a ranch in Oregon, a fleet of Rolls-Royces, and has since died, and the Rev. Sun Myung Moon, the South Korean whose well-heeled Unification Church is developing into a worldwide faith. Since these masters are their message, their movements are labeled by many as cults.

In religion, as in physics, actions breed equal and opposite reactions. Prodded by former cultists and parents who "lost" their children to the new religious movements, Christian and Jewish groups established an array of cult-watching organizations in the '70s. Today there may be more than 500 such groups, a figure that suggests that the watchdogs are almost as prolific as the cults they monitor. The largest is the Cult Awareness Network, which has 2,000 members in 20 cities and says it receives 18,000 complaints a year. And now these organizations determine what qualifies as a cult.

How many cults are there? The answer varies from 700 to 5,000, depending on whom you ask and what they mean by "cult." Sociologists routinely distinguish cults from sects, and sects from denominations or churches. Sects are usually offshoots of an older religious tradition and-if they thrive-often achieve the status of denominations. Cults are normally small, fringe groups whose members derive their identity and purpose from a single, charismatic individual. David Koresh is unusual in that he took over a heretical sect of former Seventh-day Adventists and turned it into a personal cult.

"The one thing all cults have in common is a leader who presents himself as the answer to all [the group's] questions and choices," says Woody Carlson, a sociologist at the University of South Carolina. But without further nuance that yardstick might well include everyone from Menachem Schneerson, the revered Lubavitcher rebbe, to Bobby Knight, the feared Indiana University basketball coach. The best working definition of a cult distinguishes the destructive from the benign. Focusing on behavior rather than ideology or creed, Marcia Rudin, director of International Cult Education Program in New York, defines the destructive types as "groups which manipulate, mistreat and exploit their followers and misrepresent themselves both to their followers and to the outside society."

The groups that are among the most troubling, however, are those that may be armed. Very few of these are religious. According to former members, the Church Universal and Triumphant, an apocalyptic cult estimated at 5,000 in Montana, has amassed an arsenal. The movement, whose followers harken to the words of Elizabeth Clare Prophet, is an odd assortment of survivalists, mystics and doomsday-sayers. But a CUT spokesman says, "There's no stockpile of weapons. The only guns the church has are for hunting." Cult watchers claim that other, smaller groups hoarding food and guns are scattered throughout the West-but details are lacking.

Closer to the definition of a "destructive" but nonviolent cult is the blandly named Los Angeles Church of Christ, a branch of a movement that began in Boston and, with an estimated 100,000 members, is now the fastest-growing religious cult in cultic southern California. Headed by founder Kip McKean, the church allegedly practices a particularly domineering form of "shepherding." According to cult watchers, each recruit is assigned a personal shepherd to whom they must report on their activities: when they wake up, what they eat, how often they masturbate and whenever they have sex with their spouses. Fraternizing with outsiders is discouraged and church permission is often required of college students before they visit parents. The church did not return NEWSWEEK's calls.

The cult-watchers network is now broadening its net. Researcher Rudin says that a new trend in cults stresses techniques rather than charismatic leaders and promises self-fulfillment rather than salvation. Instead of churches they use workshops but the result, Rudin insists, is the same "psychological hold, imprisonment and control over people's lives." These can be, she says, active on campuses and in corporate America, often appearing as benign efforts to help bring order and meaning to a chaotic culture.

Again, the wonder is that there aren't even more. In an age when millions of Americans feel codependent, when children readily label their families dysfunctional and there are as many therapies as there are pains, the search for a fast, fast relief can turn strange. G. K. Chesterton, an astute Christian apologist, once warned that when people stopped believing anything, they are prepared to believe everything. If the cult watchers are right, that time has come to paw.

Cults traffic in the prediction of disaster; sometimes they bring it on themselves. Manson, MOVE and Jones ended in death. Prophet awaits the final battle.

The self-proclaimed messiah and over 900 followers committed suicide in Jonestown, Guyana, in 1978

To end a standoff, Philadelphia police bombed the radical group, killing 11, leveling two city blocks

Elizabeth Clare Prophet and her Church Universal and Triumphant await Armageddon in Montana

His 'family' murdered eight people, including actress Sharon Tate. He's serving a life sentence in prison.