Book Review - Cults-Culture-and the Law

This article is an electronic version of an article originally published in Cultic Studies Journal, 1987, Volume 4, Number 1, pages 90-91. Please keep in mind that the pagination of this electronic reprint differs from that of the bound volume. This fact could affect how you enter bibliographic information in papers that you may write.

Book Review - Cults, Culture, and the Law: Perspectives on New Religious Movements

Edited by Thomas Robbins, William C. Shepherd, and James McBride

Scholars Press (Georgia). 1985.$13.50 (paper). (American Academy of Religion, Studies in Religion, No. 36).

Reviewed by Ronald Enroth, Ph.D. Westmont College

As is often the case with edited volumes, this collection of papers is a bit uneven in terms of style, depth, and even topical focus. It is also dated. The book evolved out of a seminar during the academic year 1981-1982 sponsored by the Center for the Study of New Religious Movements, an affiliate of the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California. The seminar brought together scholars and professionals with differing views on legal and civil liberties questions relating to cults and new religious movements. The presentations - by sociologists, philosophers, attorneys, psychiatrists, and others - form the basis for the papers found in this volume.

The lead essay, 'New Religious Movements on the Frontier of Church and State,' is a well-written overview by Thomas Robbins of some of the cult controversies facing our society at a time when church/state relations are increasingly a matter of public and judicial concern. Robbins views cults as multifunctional, unconventional religious organizations 'operating as privileged autonomous enclaves in an otherwise increasingly governmentally-regulated society.' Church/state tensions are therefore inevitable. Robbins repeats his now familiar thesis that a medical model has had considerable influence and legal impact on cult-related issues. Utilization of a medical-psychiatric mode of explanation for cult behavior, he asserts, has implications for parents, the clergy, and ex-cult members, as well as for mental health professionals. The 'therapeutic state' and the concept of religious liberty are seen as the crux of continuing legal battles.

Robert Jay Lifton, on the other hand, argues that cults are not primarily a psychiatric problem. He sees them as a social and historical issue. While he reaffirms his well-known concern for the totalistic orientation of cults, he feels that the problem is best addressed educationally, not legally. 'I think psychiatrists and theologians have in common the need for a certain restraint here, to avoid playing God, and to refuse the notion that we have anything like a complete solution that comes from our points of view or our particular disciplines.' Lifton also registers concern about coercive deprogramming: 'I am against coercion at either end.'

Robert Wuthnow contributes a brief but insightful essay which explores the social and cultural context of new religious movements. He says little about cults and the law, but provides a concise summary of why the new religions represent such a radical departure from the cultural mainstream. Wuthnow sees the current religious ferment as the product of broader, more pervasive tendencies in American culture, particularly our preoccupation with technology and technique.

Several contributors to the volume suggest that some of the new religious movements may be organized and operated for other than religious purposes, including the avoidance of taxes. Thomas Robbins, for example, is of the opinion that it is unlikely that certain unconventional groups would have defmed themselves as "religious" movements were it not for the legal protection afforded such organizations by the Constitution. He speaks of a 'regulatory gap" existing between secular and religious organizations, a gap which has resurfaced in discussions relating to the recent PTL fmancial scandal.

One of the most interesting essays in the collection is by a scholar not usually found in the roster of names associated with the growing literature on new religious movements. Herbert Fingarette, in a piece entitled, "Coercion, Coercive Persuasion, and the Law,' tentatively concludes that the claim of coercion and undue influence will be difficult to sustain, legally, in the religious context. But he admits that the law is still in flux on these matters.

The factor of 'flux' is indeed the problem affecting many of the issues raised in this volume. The problems of informed consent, conservatorships, 'brainwashing," tax exemption, and the separation of church and state are reviewed but surely not resolved. Although the content of the book is somewhat dated because of the constantly evolving nature of the subject matter, it is still a useful addition to the scholarly discussion on civil liberties and the new religious movements. 

Ronald Enroth, Ph.D., is Professor of Sociology at Westmont College, Santa Barbara, CA, and author of The Lure of the Cults & New Religions, InterVarsity Press, 1987.

Cultic Studies Journal, Vol 4, No. 1, 1987