Cults of Anti-Cultism by Anton Shupe et al, 1980

This is a paper written in 1980 on the AntiCult Movement, as it existed when the authors estimated when it was 10 years old.

Can you see any differences in the AntiCult Movement today?


Cults of Anti-Cultism by Anson D. Shupe, Jr., Roger Spielmann, and Sam Stigall

During the mid-to-late 1960s and early 1970s a number of religious movements-including “foreign” reli­gions of both recent and traditional origins, such as Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Church, the Meher Baba movement, Hare Krishna, and groups with more Judaic­ Christian roots, such as the Children of God-began pros­elytizing in the United States. Because of their highly publicized rapid expansion, these groups (often popularly referred to as “cults”) have commanded widespread at­tention by social scientists in a growing body of research literature. At the same time, social scientists have rela­tively ignored those organizations that form a burgeoning countermovement dedicated to opposing the cults, often vaguely aware of such a countennovement only from hearing of its most sensational tactic, deprogramming.

It is worth examining the structure and ideology of this anti-cult movement (hereafter the ACM) for a number of important reasons, not least of which is the fact that the movement has undergone growth and progressive cen­tralization over the past decade. Currently its spokesmen lobby for investigations and repressive legislation against cults at both state and national governmental levels and have sparked a civil libertarian controversy that involves theologians, the American Civil Liberties Union, and even a presidential hopeful. Ultimately, if ACM propo­nents have their way, its efforts will change America’s legacy of church-state relations and alter the scope of constitutional guarantees to religious bodies.

Origins and Organization of The AntiCult Movement

Since 1976 we have been researching the ACM now spreading throughout the United States and Canada. It is composed of numerous organizations quite diverse in size and resources, all dedicated to curtailing the growth, missionary activities, and fund raising of a number of marginal religious groups loosely characterized as “cults.” To piece together the ACM’s decade-Jong his­tory and to understand its structure and leadership we gathered data from a variety of sources including the movement’s newsletters, news releases, memoranda, and pamphlets as well as from interviews with rank-and-file members and leaders and participant observation in meetings and day-to-day activities.

The American ACM is a grass-roots crusade of average middle-class men and women often reluctantly (and at personal sacrifice) involved in its various activities. Its beginnings as a nationally organized, unabashedly con­servative response to the religious ferment and ex­ perimentation of American youth in the late 1960s and early 1970s can be traced to 1971. At that time a retired naval officer-turned-school teacher and his wife living in Chula Vista, California, discovered that their daughter (then a registered nurse) had abruptly abandoned home, fiance, and career to join a transient branch of the Children of God sect. They eventually located her in a north Texas commune, and their unsuccessful attempts ”to bring her out” (plus a law suit for $1.1 million filed against them by the group when the couple held a press conference in Dallas to denounce COG) motivated the couple to seek noninstitutionalized means of dealing with what they per­ ceived as an abduction. At first they believed their experi­ences to be unique. However, contact with other families reporting similar experiences led them to construct a pub­ lic (in the sense of the term meant by C. Wright Mills) of angry families determined to find their teenage and even adult children and “expose” the Children of God. A national group of like-minded families met at San Diego in 1972 and founded the FREECOG (Free the Children of God) movement.

FREECOG underwent several successive changes. Re­sistant at first to involvement with families seeking infor­mation on, and sons or daughters in, numerous other marginal religions, the leadership of FREECOG gradu­ ally perceived similarities in the stories they were told: of “overnight” conversions, of cult-encouraged estrange­ment of members from their biological families, and of sexual/economic “exploitation” of converts for the per­sonal gain of cult leaders. An organized attempt to expand the range of cults monitored by FREECOG, called the Volunteer Parents of America, was short lived. Realizing the need for centralization and better communications, families and local leaders representing this wider base of cult opposition met in the fall of 1974 at Denver, Colo­rado. From this conference came the Citizens Freedom Foundation (CFF), the first of several major organizations created with a dual purpose: to publicize the allegedly deceptive fund-raising and recruitment activities of cer­ tain marginal religions; and to locate and regain their “lost” family members.

Within a two-year period, from 1974 to 1976, groups with such expressive names as the Spiritual Counterfeits Project (Berkeley, California), Citizens Engaged in Reuniting Families, Inc. (Scarsdale, New York), Love Our Children,  Inc.  (Omaha,  Nebraska), 

Champions of civil liberties tend to stereotype members of the anti-cult movement and lump them together ideologically as well as organizationally.

Return to Personal Choice, Inc. (San Diego, California), and Citizens Engaged in Freeing Minds (Arlington, Texas) spontane­ously arose throughout the continental United States. Many others, of more limited means and goals, appear to have surfaced, merged, or dissolved. Many were unaware of their counterparts elsewhere until their paths crossed in press reports or by happenstance encounters. However, communications among the major groups quickly estab­lished their common interests and particularly their frus­trations: limited financial resources, perceived govern­ mental indifference toward cults, and widespread public ignorance (and apathy) of the latters’ activities.

Cooperatively orchestrated public forums, such as the 1976 and 1979 public hearings chaired by Senator Robert Dole in Washington, D.C., presented these groups with opportunities to confer face-to-face and to reinforce their resolve. Such occasions also convinced many that the ACM, fragmented as it was into geographically disparate organizations of various sizes and emphases, could never hope to achieve the clout necessary to bring forth an institutional (particularly political) response until these groups first achieved some degree of organizational unity. After the failure of an interim umbrella organization to coordinate ACM activities, the potential turning point of the ACM’s fortunes came in the formation of a new unified organization dubbed The International Foundation for Individual Freedom (IFIF) which obtained tax-exempt status with the Internal Revenue Service as an educational trust. In late February, 1977, the leaders of the nation’s six largest ACM organizations met for three days at the Uni­versity of New Hampshire in Durham. On March 1 they announced a new “united front in order to pursue our mission effectively.” Relabeling marginal religions as “closed systems” and conventional religions as “open systems,” the IFIF announced three goals:

  • to “disseminate information on the nature of, and the methods used by, closed systems in structuring human thought, and the consequences thereof;”
  • to “disseminate information on the nature of, and the

methods used by, open systems in freeing human thought, and the consequences thereof;”

  • to “disseminate information on a fast-growing number and variety of groups which inhibit free thought and violate the human rights of individuals under the United Nations Charter and the U.S. “

At the organizational level, there is little question that such a move served as a necessary, if not a sufficient, step towards a more financially viable and ideologically co­herent social movement. However, not long after this merger internal factors made its long-term vitality prob­lematic. Stubborn issues of coordinating the literally doz­ens of small and large separate groups and chapters (and their apparent unwillingness to submerge separate iden­tities and structures into the national organization), the failure of a national fund drive to materialize, and dis­agreements over the method of collecting and distributing funds among national and local groups remained. One tactic in the summer of 1977 was to divide the continental United States into eight regions, each supervised by a volunteer director who assembled mailing lists, moni­tored legal/media/cult activities in his or her region, and served as liaison between the regional and national levels. This arrangement preserved much of the local organiza­tional structures and personnel as they had existed before IFIF in that most groups continued to retain their original names while still working in and with IFIF.


What persons make up the membership of the ACM? While no representative sample has even been drawn (or indeed may even be feasible), our impressions from correspondence, interviews, and anti-cult literature suggest three broad categories of members. The first category, comprising as much as 80 to 90 percent of the ACM’s constituency, is made up of immediate relatives and friends of persons who have become cult adherents. They assume that such groups have gained loved ones’ commitments through “mind control” or “brainwash­ing” and are exploiting these persons for the economic/ political/sexual gain of a few leaders. Often their goal is simply to learn the geographical whereabouts of sons or daughters, spouses, or friends. If they are located but refuse to leave their religious groups, the alternative goals of forcibly removing and detaining them for depro­gramming may be pursued.

The second category is composed of former “cultists” who have left their respective religions, either because of disillusionment or forcible removal. Many of these per­sons have undergone deprogramming, and, provided with a perspective for reinterpreting their religious experi­ences, remain adamant in their opposition to various cults for some time after contact has been broken. Some go on to conduct deprogrammings of their former fellow believers.

The third category is numerically the smallest but critically important to the ACM. Its members represent vari­ous professions, such as the clergy, psychiatrists and physicians, social workers, and educators. Some mem­bers of this third category overlap with the first. Many have become involved for purely personal or scientific/ research motives. Since the majority tend to perceive cults as threats to the mental and physical health of adherents, particularly psychiatrists who have been in the forefront of denouncing such groups as pathological, their testimonies serve an important legitimating function for the ACM. Their assurances that marginal religions are winning con­verts by manipulative conversion processes provide seemingly impressive scientific support for anti-cultists’ contentions that their loved ones indeed ought to be re­moved, by force if necessary, from the influence of such groups.

The persons in these three categories have joined to advocate the curtailment and investigation of innovative religious groups such as Hare Krishna and the Unification Church. They are sincerely convinced that many individ­uals are being duped or entrapped by totalitarian indoctri­nation techniques, and they are accordingly frustrated by the disinterest or inability of local and national law en­forcement officials to locate family members/friends or to prosecute cults. As one long-time ACM leader put it: “Many congressmen say it is a local problem while local officials are saying write your congressman. Some mem­bers of the media are doing great harm because of their ineptitude while some others use their position to aid and abet these subversive forces. Lacking affirmative action by our established institutions, it is apparent to me that we must use every means at our disposal to  effect a rescue to remove this insidious threat from our society ”


Their activities cast ACM groups in several roles. First, and primarily, as disseminators of information, such or­ganizations provide news of cult activities and specific descriptions of beliefs, structures, geographical move­ment, and “front” organizations to interested persons. They circulate periodically updated reading lists of cult­ related books and articles in magazines and journals as well as reproductions of the latter. Currently one can even purchase cassette tapes of Walter Martin, a conservative Christian critic of cults ranging from Jehovah’s Witnesses to Unitarians, denouncing specific groups. In addition, most major anti-cult organizations publish their own in­expensively reproduced newsletters that serve to maintain contacts between central “offices” and members and among different organizations. These report on current legal battles involving various religions, suggest tactics for bringing cults and their activities to the attention of the media, and continually reaffirm the commitment of mem­bers to conventional patriotic/religious values. As part of this information dissemination, anti-cult groups strive, with varying success, to bring their accusations against cults before public forums. Often this may be an interview on a local television or radio news program. Occasionally they succeed in gaining the attention of influential gov­ernmental leaders, as was the case with the public hear­ings involving Senator Robert Dole, assorted federal bureaucrats, and several hundred angry ACM members in 1976 and again in 1979.

As lobbyists, these groups persistently seek to convince legislators and executives at local, state, and federal levels that various unconventional religious groups present a clear and present danger, not only to the integrity of basic American values but also to  the  safety  of  individual cult members. In states as different as Vermont, New York, and Texas they have so testified at formal legisla­ tive hearings. In the past two years, largely as a result of their lobbying, one New York state assemblyman twice introduced a bill to make initiating a “pseudo-religion” a felony. In 1977 ACM groups pooled contributions to hire a Boston attorney to repeatedly visit congressmen in Washington, calling for a vote of contempt on Unification Church leader Dan Pefferman who refused cooperation with the House Subcommittee on International Organiza­tions during its inquiries into Korean-American relations. ACM newsletters frequently provide the names and ad­dresses of legislators and other government officials to whom members are encouraged to send complaints. Lob­bying efforts are not restricted to government. For exam­ple, one write-in campaign in spring, 1978, involved contacting leaders of the national PTA convention in Atlanta, Georgia, to pass a resolution to establish semi­nars, workshops, and programs to “educate” youth about new religious movements.

To the extent marginal religions reach an accommodation with American society, there will be a complementary withering of the anti-cult movement.

As noninstitutionalized responses to the perceived urgency of removing cult members from the influence of their respective groups, many anti-cult organizations also function in a referral role. They often maintain ongoing files of successful deprogrammers and refer families to such persons (and others) who specialize in locating and detaining “cult” members for deprogramming. Anti-cult groups have also provided kits of legal advice and guidelines on establishing temporary conservatorships over sons or daughters, a legal tactic extensively utilized by attorneys Michael Trauscht and Wayne Howard who, with Joseph Alexander, Sr. (a deprogrammer/protege of Ted Patrick), until 1978 operated a “rehabilitation” ranch in Tucson, Arizona, called the Freedom of Thought Foundation. Many anti-cult spokesmen explicitly ac­knowledge their counseling/referral function, offering practical sympathetic advice for parents still bewildered and concerned at their offsprings’ sudden belief and per­sonality changes.

AntiCult Movement Deprogramming Rationale

The practice of deprogramming is unquestionably the single most publicized issue connected with the ACM. Some, including the American Civil Liberties Union, much of the press, and a number of sociologists, have erroneously identified the entire ACM with advocates of this one sensational tacitc. Many of the ACM’ s critics are also unaware that the term deprogramming carries, for ACM supporters, a range of meanings, from the pub­licized coercive extreme to a simple phone call that ends in a person’s reconsidering his or her new religious faith in light of parental objections.

Deprogramming has been justified by its proponents by redefining cult members’ religious commitments as the result of “pseudo-conversions.” According to this per­spective, individuals have had their normally resistant critical faculties systematically impaired by one or more techniques (such as sensory deprivation or over-stimula­tion, lack of sleep, hypnosis, drugs, and nutritional defi­ciencies) coupled with relentless, deceptive challenges to conventional religious beliefs. Under such manipulative conditions, anti-cultists argue, these individuals have come to accept and follow creeds, lifestyles, and behav­ioral imperatives that they would not otherwise have freely chosen. Their uncritical compliance resembles the behavior associated with accounts of “brainwashing” by communist captors during the Korean and Vietnam con­ them ideologically as well as organizationally together in much the same way that many ACM spokespersons throw together widely disparate religions into the vaguely de­fined category of “cults.”

Thus this change of religious orientation does not constitute “true” conversion. Rather, cult members are regarded as victims of “thought control” or “mind man­ipulation.” The implication follows that no one so “en­slaved” could break out of this “mental bondage” by his or her own will alone; a process reversal, or deprogram­ming, to undo the “programmed” cognitive/behavioral patterns is required. In this way the practice of seizing young adults and browbeating them until they recant their new faiths ceases to be considered a violation of First Amendment rights and in fact becomes defined as an act of Jove and concern.

Two final points on the deprogramming controversy are worth noting. First, civil liberties groups such as the ACLU have erred in too closely identifying the ACM with this single sensational practice, ignoring the movement’s other more conventional and frequent tactics of opposing marginal religions. The latter, as we have indicated, in­clude educational seminars, media debates with repre­sentatives of marginal religions, lobbying, and article writing. Critics of the ACM have also overestimated the consensus and approval within the ACM for the perspec­tive just outlined. There is a tendency for champions of civil liberties to stereotype ACM supporters and lump

Second, this new backlash opposition to deprogramm­ing, which has occupied participants in several large con­ferences throughout the country, arrives as the practice itself is being deemphasized by anti-cultists in general. Our interviews with ACM leaders suggest that they are conscious of the larger society’s overall negative reaction to deprogramming, and that, in fact, the practice was never intended as more than a stopgap or emergency tactic in the face of perceived institutional indifference to ac­cusations against marginal religions. This deemphasis on deprogrammings accompanies the progressive institu­tionalization of the ACM itself (now almost a decade old), its structural differentiation through the IFIF and similar mergers opening access to more conventional channels of influence in American society.  Public  awareness  of cults’ entanglements in economic  and  political  spheres as well as forewarning of their regimentation/fund­raising/proselytization activities have always been important goals of the ACM, and it is likely that they will continue to be so.

In the most general terms we anticipate that to the extent marginal religions reach an accommodation with Ameri­can society, deemphasizing those elements which put them most in tension with it, there will be a complemen­tary withering of the anti-cult movement. The past record of religious movements and their opponents in America has been one largely of cycles: from sectarianism to re­spectability to innovation again. There is no reason to expect that the current furor will not follow that pattern.□


Bromley, David, and Shupe, Anson D., Jr. “Moonies” in America: Cult, Church and Crusade. Beverly Hills, Ca.: Sage Publications, 1979.

Cox, Harvey. Turning East. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1977.

Lofland, John. Doomsday Cult. New York: Irvington Publishers, 1977.

Shupe, Anson D., Jr.; Spielmann, Roger; and Stigall, Sam. “Deprogramming: The New Exorcism.” American Behavioral Scientist 20 (July/ August 1977):941-56.

Stoner, Carroll,  and  Parke,  Jo Anne. All God’s Children.

Radnor, Pa.: Chilton Book Company, 1977.

Anson D. Shupe, Jr., is associate professor of sociology  at the University of Texas at Arlington. He is co-author,  with David G. Bromley, of “Moonies” in America: Cult, Church, and Crusade and is currently engaged in a long-range study of social movements and societal reaction in American society.

Roger Spielmann is a doctoral candidate in the Department  of Anthropology and Sociology at the University of British Co­ lumbia whose principal research interests include marginal religions.

Sam Stigall is an evaluation specialist with the Dallas Housing Authority.