Book Review - Worship and Sin An Exploration of Religion-Related Crime in the United States

Cultic Studies Review, 8, (1), 2009, 84-87

Worship and Sin: An Exploration of Religion-Related Crime in the United States

Karel Kurst-Swanger

New York, NY: Peter Lang Publishing Inc. 2008. ISBN-10: 0820463876; ISBN-13: 978-0-8204-6387-2 (paperback), $34.95. 276 pages.

Reviewed by Marcia R. Rudin

Karel Kurst-Swanger, a criminologist who is Associate Professor in the Department of Public Justice at the State University of New York at Oswego, has written what she claims is the first attempt to discuss religion-related crime as a unique category, emphasizing its “complexity and multidimensionality” (p. vii):

The specific purpose of this book is to provide a beginning point from which to conceptualize crime of which religion is a core feature… My hope is that others will see value in characterizing religion-related crime as a distinct subset of criminology. (p. 7)

The author divides the book into five major parts: 1) an overview of the issues; 2) examples of theologically based, religion-related crimes; 3) an investigation of crimes that are “reactive or defensive in nature—crimes that religious individuals or groups commit in response to some external pressure or threat” (p. viii); 4) examples of crimes that reflect abuse of religious authority; and 5) a concluding section that suggests future directions for research and discussion.

In the theologically based crimes section, Kurst-Swanger discusses crimes against children and women, and against illicit drugs. In the reactive/defensive crime section, she focuses on what we call cults and she terms “destructive religious groups,” on violence against abortion providers, and on hate crimes. The section on abuse of religious authority details clergy misconduct and economic, personal, and organizational crime that members of the clergy have committed.

We in the counter-cult movement have long been concerned about crimes that cult members commit with the sanction of the group’s leaders, or as a result of the pressures and ideology of the group (as opposed to individual crimes that are, of course, committed by various members of all religious groups); but Kurst-Swanger puts our concerns into a larger context, reminding us that such crimes are not unique to cults.

The sections of the book most relevant to cults are the chapters in which the author details theologically based crime (crime as a direct result of the group’s ideology and worldview) and reactive/defensive crimes (crimes committed as a result of direct or perceived threats from the outside world). Kurst-Swanger points out that

Children are particularly vulnerable to theologically based crimes, since their overall well-being is dependent upon their parents or caregivers. Also, since these crimes involve the belief systems of the parents or caregivers, it is especially challenging for child welfare and law enforcement officials to intervene using traditional approaches... (p. 51)

This excerpt illustrates the complexities associated with the U.S. legal system’s requirement to operate within our First-Amendment-guaranteed freedom-of-religion beliefs.

The author’s discussion of medical neglect is of particular interest to those concerned about the fate of children in cults. She details the efforts of Dr. Rita Swan’s organization, Children’s Healthcare is a Legal Duty (CHILD), to ensure that medical neglect cases are prosecuted. According to Kurst-Swanger,

The courts have generally acknowledged the right of adults to refuse their own medical care on religious grounds. However, the right to withhold treatment for children on the basis of religious beliefs has put the courts in the precarious position of balancing the free exercise of religion against the responsibility of the state to protect children. As a result, parents have found their decisions regarding medical treatment for their children subject to legal scrutiny. (p. 56)

This status is primarily the result of Rita and Doug Swan’s brave and persistent efforts over many years, since their son died in 1977 of h-flu meningitis due to lack of medical care because of their membership at that time in the Christian Scientist church.

Kurst-Swanger also discusses physical and sexual abuse of children, ritual abuse, and adults’ refusal to pay spousal support. In the chapter that details crimes against women, she discusses domestic violence, plural marriage, and financial and health issues.

The author’s section on what she terms reactive/defensive crimes is also of particular interest to those concerned about cults because most cults feel persecuted by the outside world; and we have seen many examples—Jonestown, in particular—in which this fear of persecution has resulted in tragedy. She also points to organizational elements in cults such as charismatic leadership, belief systems, and group processes that contribute to reactive/defensive crimes. She emphasizes how difficult it is to prevent such reactive/defensive crimes because

any monitoring of religious group activity must be undertaken with great care. The theology and ideologies of a group must be not only understood but respected. A delicate balance must be achieved whereby religious values are preserved while the health and well-being of the community at large are safeguarded and protected. (p. 143)

This fascinating book is extremely organized and well written. Kurst-Swanger employs many specific examples, frequently citing Websites of groups for data and information. She adds to our knowledge of the abuses of cultic groups and also sets that knowledge within a wider context of general religion-related crime, reminding us that cults are not the only religious groups that are abusive. Readers not especially concerned about cults will also receive comprehensive general and specific knowledge of crimes committed in the name of religion and by clergy and other religious leaders.

Although it appeals strongly to the general reader, Worship and Sin also contributes to the fields of sociology and criminology, with an extensive bibliography and careful footnoting. And Kurst-Swanger’s chapter at the beginning of the book that discusses religion, crime, and the First Amendment is a lucid and excellent summary of the history and complexities of First Amendment and freedom-of-religion issues in the United States.