cult

Religious mystery at heart of Jonestown: Why did this madman's disciples follow him?

Religious mystery at heart of Jonestown: Why did this madman's disciples follow him?

Whenever I think about the Jonestown massacre in 1978, I always think of one question.

No. It’s not, “Why did he do it?”

The Rev. Jim Jones was a classic “cult” leader in every sense of the word, in terms of sociology and doctrine (click here for background on that tricky term). He was an egotistical control freak who was used to having his own way. He took a congregation that started out in liberal mainline Protestantism and then took it all the way over the edge.

No, the question that always haunted me was this one: “Why did THEY do it?”

Why did 900-plus people, to use the phrase that changed history, “drink the Kool-Aid”?

What happened inside their heads and their hearts that led them to follow their preacher into what he called “revolutionary suicide,” rather than face legal authorities?

Yes, they were following a madman. But what was Jones preaching that created this hellish tragedy? WHY did they follow him?

That’s the mystery that host Todd Wilken and I explored during this week’s GetReligion “Crossroads” podcast. Click here to tune that in.

It’s pretty clear that religion was at the heart of this tragedy, even though very few mainstream news organizations — especially those blanketing TV screens with the ghoulish images from Jonestown — saw fit to explore that fact. Few, if any, religion-beat specialists got to cover that story.

Why did editors and producers settle for a splashy, simplistic take on Jonestown? That was the question that I explored in my earlier post on this topic: “Thinking about the Rev. Jim Jones: A classic example of why religion reporters are important.”

As I wrote in that earlier post:

There was no logical explanation for this gap in the coverage (especially in network television). To me, it seemed that newsroom managers were saying something like this: This story is too important to be a religion story. This is real news, bizarre news, semi-political news. Everyone knows that “religion” news isn’t big news.

Yes, there was a deranged minister at the heart of this doomed community. Journalists described him as a kind of “charismatic” neo-messiah, using every fundamentalist Elmer Gantry cliche in the book. OK, so Jones talked about socialism. But he was crazy. He had to be a fundamentalist. Right?

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Why did that bizarre AR-15 wedding-renewal rite get big-time national news play?

Why did that bizarre AR-15 wedding-renewal rite get big-time national news play?

"Crossroads" host Todd Wilken opened our conversation this week with a rather snarky question: Why did those rather bizarre AR-15 infused wedding rededication rites at the World Peace and Unification Sanctuary draw attention from national media? (Click here to tune that in.)

Obviously, it had something to do with the mass-shooting in Parkland, Fla.

So this story had guns. That's a very big deal right now.

What else? This is the snarky part. The Associated Press report featured a car in parking lot with a sign requesting prayer for President Donald Trump. So the story had -- sort of -- the Trump factor. There was an earlier "President Trump Thank You" dinner.

What else? Maybe a bit more snark. It also had amazing visual images -- always crucial in a world of glowing screens -- showing lots of very non-mainstream looking religious people. The crowns made out of rifle bullets were especially nice.

Thus, Wilken said, you have guns, Trump and crazy religious people. And the tsunami of Parkland follow-up stories on AR-15s provided the news hook, turning a rather strange local or regional story into a national story. Take it away NPR:

Hundreds of faithful at a Pennsylvania church on Wednesday carried AR-15-style rifles in adherence to their belief that a "rod of iron" mentioned in the Bible refers to the type of weapon that was used in last month's mass shooting in Parkland, Fla.
The armed ceremony at World Peace and Unification Sanctuary in Newfoundland, about 20 miles southeast of Scranton, featured gun-toting worshippers, some wearing crowns of bullets as they participated in communion and wedding ceremonies.
Attendants carefully placed a zip tie into the receiver magazine well of each weapon to assure that a clip could not be loaded.
Concern over Wednesday's gathering prompted a nearby elementary school to cancel classes for the day.

Now, pay close attention to that last part. This congregation has held these rites before. Were classes at that school cancelled then?

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Death outside Waco: Did Mount Carmel believers die because the experts didn't get religion?

Death outside Waco: Did Mount Carmel believers die because the experts didn't get religion?

The subject of the class at Baylor University was contemporary movements in American religious life. On this particular day, the subject under discussion -- with the help of a guest speaker -- was debates about the meaning of the hot-button word "cult."

I was taking the class as part of my master's degree studies during the late 1970s in Baylor's unique church-state studies program, an interdisciplinary program build on studies in history, theology, political science and law. This particular class was important, since legal disputes about new religious movements have helped define the boundaries of religious tolerance in our culture.

To paraphrase one of my professors: Lots of people with whom you would not necessarily want to have dinner have helped defend your religious freedom. True tolerance is almost always tense.

The speaker in our class that day was a soft-spoken leader in a ground that would become infamous more than a decade later -- the Branch Davidians. His name was Perry Jones and it would be another five years or so until a young guitar player and Bible-study savant named Vernon Howell would arrive at the group's 77-acre Mount Carmel headquarters. Howell, of course, would change his name to David Koresh. Jones' daughter Rachel married Koresh, who would eventually become a polygamist.

The main thing I remember about listening to Jones that day, and talking to him after class, was his consistent emphasis on pacifism and biblical prophecies about the End Times -- remaining doctrinal ties back to Seventh-day Adventism, the movement from which the Davidians split decades earlier.

Why share this information? Well, this was the rather personal frame around the contents of my On Religion column this past week and the "Crossroads" podcast that followed. (Click here to tune that in.)

Both focused on religious issues -- in journalism and public life -- addressed in the six-part Paramount Network miniseries called "Waco," which will run through the end of this month.

It was, to say the least, rather haunting to see Perry Jones fatally wounded in the dramatic recreation of the first moments of the two-hour gunfight on Feb. 28, 1993 that opened the 51-day siege outside Waco by an army of federal agents. The hellish fire that ended it all -- its cause remains the subject of fierce debates -- claimed the lives of 76 men, women and children.

Were the Branch Davidians truly a "cult"?

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Carly Fiorina visits Bible Belt territory and is too serious for the humble natives?

Carly Fiorina visits Bible Belt territory and is too serious for the humble natives?

cult, noun ...

: a small religious group that is not part of a larger and more accepted religion and that has beliefs regarded by many people as extreme or dangerous

: a situation in which people admire and care about something or someone very much or too much

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If you pay close attention to the cult of American political reporting -- "cult" in the second definition shown above -- you know that it has its own unique rituals that are repeated time and time again. This is especially true during its high holy days, which are the two years that precede a presidential election.

One of the cult's most important rites comes whenever a relatively unknown individual suddenly pops out of a pack of candidates -- usually through a strong performance in a debate, or a surprisingly solid showing in a poll or primary -- and emerges as a "frontrunner." Of course, the priests of the political-reporting cult are in charge of determining whether said candidate has or has not achieved "frontrunner" status.

This rite of passage immediately leads to the next, crucial, ritual in which the candidate -- Carly Fiorina in this case -- is placed under a much more intense spotlight in order to judge his or her worthiness in the eyes of the priesthood. This is especially important in Fiorina's case because (a) she is a Republican, (b) she is a woman and (c) her ascent is linked to taking a strong stand in opposition to an institution held sacred by the cult (as in Planned Parenthood).

You know, beyond all doubt, that this rite has begun when something bizarre happens -- such as a Washington Post Style section reporter heading deep into the American South to observe this candidate in the wild. (However, in this case Fiorina was in Charleston, S.C., so the reporter may have been able to do an architecture or food feature on the same trip.)

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