I have a confession to make. I make it to myself but you can benefit from it too. Here it is in its entire destructive legacy: I’m a product of the cults. More than that, the cults have made me the transperson I am today.
Of course, a cult may be defined differently by different people, depending upon attitude. Some, including the Oxford Dictionary, apply multiple definitions, the first stating: “a system of religious worship, especially expressed as religious ritual.” By such a definition, most any religion can be defined as a cult, depending upon whom you ask.1
Evangelicals dispute that, however, asserting their war with the 4 great “cults”: the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Mormons, Christian Science, and the Worldwide Church of God, the last of which disintegrated with the death of Garner Ted Armstrong in the 1980’s. Their list of cults does not exclude others including some “borderline institutions” like the Seventh Day Adventists. Walter Martin, the radio apologist and polemicist from what used to be Melodyland Christian Center in Anaheim offered his list of bad guys in The Kingdom of the Cults and this list set the standard for Evangelicals in terms of who belonged in the growing Evangelical Alliance of the 1970’s and who did not.2
But Walter Martin based his approach to “cult” upon doctrinal shibboleths aimed at what’s “gathered about one perspn’s , most particularly the idea of the “trinity”, the resurrection, and justification by faith of a sort in which the view of the reformers had become compromised with the Tridentine theology of the Roman Catholics.3 Catholicism didn’t make Martin’s list of “cults”, and Melodyland, being a Charismatic entity after the tradition of Katherine Kuhlman and Ralph Wilkerson, accepted Catholic Charismatics as its allies. Catholicism, as the flagship of Western orthodoxy, was really what set the standard for Walter Martin instead of any Protestant interpretation of the Bible. Nobody after him spoke of the Roman Catholic Church as “the big cult” unless they happened to be members of an organization found in Walter Martin’s book.4
It’s easy to see where such definitions lead people if one group’s set of doctrines don’t agree with that of another: one man’s religion is another man’s cult. One may refer to the former positively, while intending the other to be derogatory. It renders the idea of a cult as something subjective, not anything to which anyone can speak of in terms of a real danger to avoid upon which all can agree.
The fluidity inherent in that definition has caused many within various churches to attempt a more precise definition of “cult”, following a subsequent definition offered by the Oxford Dictionary: “devotion to a person or thing…” or “denoting a person or thing popularized in this way” such as cult film or classic. Drawing upon this, some have defined a cult as “a following of one who has declared himself to be God, Messiah, or a prophet.”5 The weakness of this, of course, is that the Jehovah’s Witnesses who perhaps are the most despised of all because of their aggressive proselytizing, don’t accept that anyone can possibly be a prophet today let alone Messiah or Jehovah incarnate.6
But one thing is inherent to all of what Walter Martin labeled as cults also applies to the more orthodox of all persuasions: the iron-fisted control they too often exhibit. An organization often becomes truly oppressive when a congregation assumes authority over aspects of parishioners’ lives beyond that of the standards of morality acclaimed thereby, especially when it demands closed associations to anyone outside of business or demands multiples of tithe or other acts of economic oppression to fuel church ambitions.
An example of multiple tithe demands may be found in the practices of Seventh-Day Adventists. Tithe only goes to the salaries of clergy. Local budgets demand a second tithe and families are pressured to give liberally to the schools above that. Add a building project and a family will run 30-50% of gross income. If a family is driven into poverty thereby the breadwinner of the family reaps bitter condemnation a faithless person, imposing blame because the alternative would be to blame God who blesses liberally and in a manner determined by the local clergy.7
A similar claim has been alleged by some former Adventists with parents in the church’s convalescent home system. The Seventh-Day Adventist Church has long proposed to members to include a gift to the church in their respective wills. But it has been alleged that after admitted to the convalescent home, church officials return to the patient to increase their gift to the church and then disinherit their children entirely. The patients are assured that “the Lord will provide for them.” One family, upon learning that if they contested the will each would be left with one dollar determined to sue for their dollar. They never returned to the Seventh-Day Adventist Church.8
Manipulative entities like that literally pick apart families for its own purposes. A common evangelistic approach is the ad uxorem attack.9 This approach not only recognizes but manipulates on the presumption that the lady of the household will be the most inclined to spiritual pursuits. So the evangelist focuses his approach upon her. Once she is won over she will bring her children to the church to be indoctrinated. The husband will follow, usually to keep the family together, and if he takes teachings to heart, will be rewarded with a prestigious appointed office such as that of a deacon or an elder. If he refuses, then there will very likely be a divorce. The evangelist knows that in the case of divorce the courts will typically side with the woman in awarding primary custody of the children, so they will inevitably remain in the church whether or not the husband capitulates. If the divorce is finalized, the wife remarries a believing man in the church. Either way the church gains a family unit. This kind of manipulation has commonly and blasphemously been called “the work of the Holy Spirit.”10
Another common approach is gaslighting. Gaslighting has actually been practiced by seminary students to convince another that he is ill so that he could miss a critical assignment by staying in bed with an imagined fever, thereby changing the configuration of a grading curve if a professor uses it. Some openly brag about their prowess in gaslighting to parishioners. But after graduation and taking on a pastoral or evangelistic assignment, the same may gaslight any target to cause that person to doubt his own mental integrity and will also manipulate family members to discredit his or her abilities. After all, they claim, “the church is a hospital for sinners” and who needs a hospital more than the one who admits he is sick? Such a victim would be kept in a perpetual state of “illness” for as long as the church sees it convenient to impose. The parishioner’s weakness is a goldmine for the quackery of the unscrupulous evangelist.11
Techniques such as these detract from the object claimed, subjecting all to human ambitions instead of union with the divine as they all claim to assure. The real wit and wisdom of sacred texts must be digged for by each individual irrespective of what they get spoon-fed from the pulpit each week. The tools are available to everyone who cares to look for them. But none of this can be achieved when subverted by impositions of partisan propaganda.
So when it comes to cultism, many of those who point to the “cults” really need to give themselves a good hard look in the mirror. But must we stop at religion? I assert that we must not, and this is a pitfall to many in marginalized demographics like the trans community who often find themselves exploited outside religion.
Face it. We’re vulnerable because we’re a minority of minorities, lacking political clout to sustain the interests of lawmakers and law enforcement without the help of allies. We keenly sense our own weaknesses, many of them internalized because of the manipulations of others. Even some who have declared themselves “allies” could become as exploitative as the manipulations of ambitious religionists.
An example I can offer is one of many, a clothing designer who used to operate a boutique at a time in which many businesses catering to transpeople were closing down. She did many commendable things. She designed wardrobes with the needs of transpeople clearly in mind and did makeovers on many of them. She hired transpeople to help her in her business and arranged medical coverage for them when such insurance was still a relatively new concept. She even organized a sorority to which transwomen could safely go out, have fun, and socialize. She even brought an electrologist on board and arranged discounts with a favored surgeon. These were excellent practices of a sort I wish more would do.
But a dark side also lurked in her charity. She denied that anyone outside her plans could properly transition. She presumed the right to decide whom “her girls” may and may not date. She was eager to take credit as the only entity ever to provide transgender benefits even though the City and County of San Francisco predating her effort when the Board of Supervisors passed transition benefits for employees in 2001. Her statement concerning this shunned the efforts of LGBT activists over the course of years while tootling her own horn as a savior more than an ally.12 She made snap diagnoses of mental illness to silence disagreement when as a designer she had no credentials allowing this. The girl who leaves her sorority would find herself hated and shunned like a criminal for doing so. This modus operandi conveys the truth that this designer established a corporate cult.
Nor was she alone. Over the years this writer has observed cases of transpeople ending friendships when another chooses another electrologist, surgeon, coach, or therapist. Often this kind of devotion has been incurred because of discounts offered for referrals. Any thinking person must understand that such choices must not dictate friendships and that anyone who requires the same choices from a friend is herself not a genuine friend to the other. The “friend” has become a cultist. The “ally” has become the owner of a fiefdom.
To summarize danger signals one may encounter with a cult entity irrespective of corporation, political party, or religion:
- Presumption of the right to demand that one use a particular service with threat of some penalty for not doing so.
- Presumption of the right to demand that one pay into a particular fund beyond what a person has contracted to do by choice.
- Presumption of the right to demand attendance at events with threat of some sort of penalty for not doing so.
- Presumption of the right to authorize whom a person may love.
- False assertions that the entity is the only one who offers a service or is the first to offer a service.
- Accusations against the one who does not accept a service or membership as someone “evil” or “sinful”.
- Association based on membership of an organization. One is not really free to leave a group without facing opposition or even threat of personal harm that may include violence or ostracism.
- Recruitment of other members of a household to oppose the “wayward” member.
- Assertions that nobody outside a group can possibly do something properly when in truth everyone must find their own path to a goal which may turn out to be better than what a group proposes.
- Stigmatizing a “wayward” member as somehow ill, criminal, or otherwise defective when no such determination has been made by medical. psychiatric, or legal authorities.
Power-mongering like this destroys homes and fractures communities. It has no rightful place among a free people. It destroys by means of inevitable in-fighting the objective of securing civil liberties for all. One cannot achieve liberty for a demographic while harboring malice toward others in that demographic.
Yet many of us, including this writer, have been influenced by cult entities. The danger for every one of us lies in repeating cult practices we had been taught by example. Writers like me have a special burden of introspection precisely because persuasive powers manifest in our own practice of journalism. We promote our own writing because that’s the nature of the market. A writer may advocate and this is an excellent thing to do. But the writer who seeks a cult following he undermines what he has set out to do, especially with respect to advocacy. This writer is therefore content to simply function as a single voice among many advocates for the right of the trans demographic to exist in a world in which forces seek its extermination. It isn’t necessary for a reader to agree; in fact many readers often disagree. Apart from actual malice or other endangerment through trolling or other means, this writer has no interest in opposing them.
It’s a position that has often made this writer appear elusive to many local groups or services. This elusiveness is important to a writer because, apart from actual tutoring of individuals, such remains only a voice in the distance that cries for the exercise of conscience and some know better than this writer how to implement it.
I learned from the cults, not just dogmas, but about victimization and the destructiveness thereof. One can gain much from cults, both those things that enrich but also those things that imbue one with the traits of a willing equivalent of an automaton. I would that others learn also so that the cycles of doubt and manipulation may be broken and that a free people may emerge wiser than what the cults would ever permit them to be.
- Abate, Frank R., Editor in Chief. Oxford Dictionary (1999) Oxford University Press, Inc. ISBN: 0-19-513374-9, p. 189.
- Martin, Walter (auth) and Zacharias, Ravi (ed). The Kingdom of the Cults (updated 2003) Bethany House Publishers, ISBN-13: 978-0764228216. 1. A .pdf version from Parsons Technology also shows a version of this treatise at http://www.g4er.tk/books/Martin-Walter-Kingdom-of-the-Cults.pdf. But the hardcopy version is recommended by this writer for critical review representing the view of one of the most important Evangelical apologists of the 20th Century.
- Facts known by the writer by association with Melodyland Christian Center when it still existed.
- Oxford Dictionary, p. 189.
- Known by the writer through associations with Jehovah’s Witnesses.
- Known by the writer through associations with Seventh-Day Adventists.
- Confidential source known to the writer.
- Ad Uxorem is Latin for “toward the wife.”
- The technique has been observed by the writer having been a part of evangelistic teams.
- Sarkis, Stephanie, PhD. Gaslighting: Know It and Identify It to Protect Yourself (January 22, 1917) Web: Psychology Today: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/here-there-and-everywhere/201701/gaslighting-know-it-and-identify-it-protect-yourself . Retrieved February 17, 2017.