Jul 30, 2015

Defending Religion From Itself

July 30, 2015

There is a growing threat to religious freedom around the globe. In an earlier era, the greatest hostility to faith came from secular autocracies or totalitarian regimes. But that has changed. Today, the most active persecutors of religious minorities and dissenters are religious extremists. In this still-young century, the world has witnessed a sharp rise in the number of extremist groups who attack the religious “other” for perceived transgressions.

No longer are states the sole perpetrator of abuses, as was the case during the Cold War. In the Middle East, the Islamic State has become the chief exemplar of a terrorist organization espousing a vile, religiously inspired ideology that despises diversity of thought and belief. Its genocidal attacks on the Yazidis almost one year ago and the choice “convert or die” it offers to Christians (also documented in a recent and much-discussed article in the New York Times) are gruesome evidence of its intentions. But Muslims aren’t safe, either. Shiite Muslims or dissenting Sunnis can also find themselves facing death sentences.

The Middle East is not the only region grappling with this new trend. In South Asia, the Taliban (in both its Afghan and Pakistani versions) have struck at Christians and other non-Muslims, while also viciously attacking other Islamic sects for being the “wrong” kind of Muslim. In Burma, the 969 movement of radical Buddhist monks has incited mob attacks against Rohingya Muslims. And these extremist monks are following the same agenda as like-minded Buddhist extremists in Sri Lanka, who have targeted Christians and Muslims in that small island nation.

In Africa, too, violent religious extremism can be found in a growing number of countries. The terrorist organization Boko Haram has assaulted both churches and mosques who speak out against its ideology and attacks. In the Central African Republic, religiously affiliated militias have been responsible for mass violence in Christian and Muslim communities. Extremists in various other parts of the continent have announced the founding of Islamic State franchises.

This new reality presents a vexing challenge to the international community and its commitment to human rights and religious freedom. These groups are often outside the reach of normal diplomatic channels. They don’t care what the world thinks, as they are actively trying to upend the international order.

In response, governments need to develop fresh approaches. There is no single recipe for fighting religious bigotry. Violent religious extremism grows out of many factors and is often situation-specific. So the response must be flexible, comprehensive, and coordinated, not fragmented across different bureaus and agencies. The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (of which I am director of policy and research) proposed a series of changes to U.S. law and policy last year that would better position the United States to engage on these issues. The Commission’s recommendations include expanding the “country of particular concern” designation of worst religious-freedom violators to include failed states and nonstate actors, increasing funding for fieldwork grants, and including messaging on the importance of religious freedom and tolerance in strategic communications programs.

Concerns about religious freedom are interwoven with many of the greatest foreign-policy challenges facing the United States. President Barack Obama recognized this in his speech at the Countering Violent Extremism summit in February, noting that genuine democracy and political stability require “freedom of religion — because when people are free to practice their faith as they choose, it helps hold diverse societies together.”

Better incorporating promotion of freedom of religion into American efforts to confront ISIS and others extremists can enhance efforts to fight terrorism. Religious freedom is ultimately about freedom of thought — the right of individuals to believe what they want and to act on those beliefs in peaceful and noncoercive ways. Environments that support religious freedom are therefore better positioned to reject violent ideologies. Religious freedom is certainly not a cure-all. But it can make counter-terrorism efforts more durable by protecting civic space for diversity of thought and belief.

But this cannot be the United States’ fight alone. The challenges are transnational, with extremist groups linked across borders through ideology and criminality. To respond effectively, countries that value diversity of thought and belief must, too, work in coalition. Already there are multinational efforts against extremism and terrorism, such as the Global Counterterrorism Forum. But other efforts are under way to build coalitions of like-minded governments to advance freedom of religion. A network of legislators from around the world has leveraged the political capital of its individual members to protect religious freedom in places like Pakistan, Burma, and Indonesia. The European Union’s new human rights action plan places a greater emphasis on promoting religious freedom and protecting religious minorities, more tightly focusing the 28-nation union on this issue.

And while the United States and other governments need new proactive policies, they must also discourage bad policies by partner governments that fuel extremism. Separate studies by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life have shown that, while the world is overwhelmingly religious, government restrictions on the free practice of religion are increasing. This is a recipe for increased violations and instability. In many places, heavy-handed government responses have made martyrs out of extremists and created grievances that fuel insurgencies. The recently released State Department country reports on terrorism noted this dynamic, especially in reference to several Central Asian states. To name but one example, the report on Tajikistan underscored the “negative impact on religious freedoms” of the government’s efforts to stem violent religious extremism, such as banning women and minors from attending mosques. These abuses can trigger violent reactions. In 2010, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan killed 25 Tajik soldiers in response to the country’s oppressive religion law, which limits the free practice of Islam.

Extremist groups can also find inspiration from regressive laws in the nations where they operate. Take the example of blasphemy laws. When such laws are on the books, extremists often feel emboldened to enforce them through their own rough justice. In Pakistan, which leads the world in the number of people jailed for this so-called “crime,” the blasphemy law has fueled extremist violence against human rights defenders and has instigated mob attacks against Christians and Ahmadi Muslims.

In an ironic twist, blasphemy laws empower the very extremists governments claim to be fighting against.

Religious extremists are killing religious minorities and dissenting members of their own faith, and they represent a clear and present danger to diversity of thought and belief. These violent groups will, for the foreseeable future, present a major challenge to the United States and its allies for reasons of national security, humanitarian concerns, and human rights. To be sure, secular authoritarian regimes like North Korea and Eritrea will continue their abusive ways, and the United States and the international community should redouble their efforts to press for authoritarian regimes to reform. But the rise of violent religious extremism requires a new approach — one where governments recognize the problem, pivot quickly, and work in concert to meet this challenge.


Jul 29, 2015

Psychic indicted: Found some victims at Synchronicity

Sandra Marks’ psychic reading business on Seminole Trail was raided in June 2014, and she was arrested a year later in New York. Staff photo
Lisa Provence
July 29, 2015

The business known as Readings by Catherine on U.S. 29 north became even more intriguing when it was raided by federal officers last summer. No charges were filed, and its owner, Sandra Marks, 40, a.k.a. Catherine Marks, disappeared until she was arrested last week and appeared at a bond hearing in New York for a 34-count indictment that accuses her of bilking clients of nearly $3.7 million.

Some of the victims walked into her business for palm readings, candle readings, tarot card readings, astrological readings and spiritual readings, and often they’d suffered traumatic events and were “emotionally vulnerable, fragile and/or gullible,” according to the indictment.

And some met Marks at Synchronicity Foundation for Modern Spirituality in Nelson County, where Master Charles Cannon, “a modern mystic,” according to its website, “delivers a living spirituality relevant to our times that awakens us to our source and unveils the experience of true holistic reality as one blissful consciousness.”

Marks’ role at Synchronicity was that of an outside consultant who offered her readings, says Bobbie Garvey, the foundation’s managing director. “We had nothing to do with her other than we allowed her to offer her services,” much like massage therapists do at the Faber retreat, says Garvey, who declined to comment on Marks or the charges against her, suggesting a reporter speak to her alleged victims.

Kerry Skurski from Evergreen, Colorado, was one of those victims, says her ex-husband, Mike Skurski, who contacted C-VILLE in April following a story, “Dark Cloud: No charges filed in Psychic Catherine raid.” She’s listed in the indictment by the initials K.S., and made wire transfers to Marks totaling $270,000.

Skurski had ALS, says her ex. The devastating degenerative neurological disorder robs sufferers of their ability to move, to speak, and, ultimately, to breathe. It is invariably fatal. “She tried anything and everything beyond Western medicine to extend her life,” including going to Synchronicity, where Skurski says Master Charles encouraged her to see Catherine Marks.

Synchronicity did not respond to a subsequent e-mail to comment on allegations that Master Charles recommended Marks.

Kerry Skurski’s illness left her vulnerable to Marks’ claims of being a clairvoyant with a “gift from God,” believes her ex-husband. His own estimate of how much Marks took from Kerry is around $400,000 over two-and-a-half years, “about half of her net worth.”

According to the indictment, Marks would tell clients that they or their families suffered a curse and “dark cloud,” and to be cleansed, they’d have to sacrifice money and jewelry because “money was the root of all evil.” Marks says the “Prince of Illusion” would let her know how much money would be needed, according to court documents.

Marks, who preferred cash, told her victims she would bury the valuables and cleanse them through prayer, rituals and meditation, says the indictment, and then return them. Instead, she kept the money in most cases, returning it in a few instances upon threats of legal action.

Often she told clients they needed to keep the money coming or the work would be undone and harm the client or the client’s family or loved one, says the indictment.

For instance, J.D. in Kentucky gave Marks nearly $1.4 million in 2011 and 2012 in amounts ranging from $13,000 to $200,000, according to the indictment’s lengthy listing of the 31 wire fraud counts against Marks. She is also charged with two counts of mail fraud for a contract J.D. sent her that detailed $720,000 given to Marks.

D.A. from Tennessee sent Marks $920,000 in 12 transactions between 2010 and 2013. And D.R. and A.R. from North Carolina wired her $231,000 between 2012 and 2013.

Not mentioned in the indictment is Donnie Marks, who helped run the business at 4621 Seminole Trail, according to the search warrant for last summer’s raid.

The warrant noted that in 2013, Sandra Marks saw a dark energy around a confidential witness who had recently received a large inheritance, and Marks told the woman she’d need $180,000 to get rid of the dark energy. The witness gave Marks $110,000, which the Markses deposited and spent almost immediately, including $17,100 for a 1968 Camaro purchased by Donnie Marks, says the warrant.

Marks demanded another $140,000 to continue the cleansing, and conversations between Marks and the confidential witness in April and May 2014 were monitored by a Department of Homeland Security agent, according to the search warrant. One of the counts in the indictment is for a May 7, 2014, telephone conversation between Marks and K.C., presumably the confidential witness, about the $180,000.

Victim Kerry Skurski died February 28. Mike Skurski says he talked to Marks the day after Kerry’s death, and then her phone number changed.

“We’ll never get any restitution,” he said before Marks was arrested, but he wanted the public to know to “save the next person.” C-VILLE has been unable to reach him through multiple phone calls since the indictments

Marks will appear in court in Charlottesville in the U.S. District Court, but a hearing had not been scheduled at press time.


Jul 27, 2015

What is Santa Muerte? A guide for 'True Detective' fans

Kevin Ferguson and Collin Campbell
Welcome to Vinci July 27 2015
Listen to this story 21 MIN 24 SEC

"True Detective" is a show that has defined itself with connections to evil spirits. In the second season, we've now heard "Santa Muerte" referenced more than once and seen an ominous skeleton in the house of Vinci city manager and kidnapping victim Ben Casper. So what's the deal?

Santa Muerte ("Saint Death" in English) has strong ties to Southern California. We have a temple devoted to Santa Muerte here. For this week's episode of "Welcome to Vinci," we met Robert Hemedes there. As part of the Atlas Obscura tours in L.A., he explains origins of the folk religion:

As Christianity spread and became popular, local customs and belief systems were integrated into the religion, modernizing holidays such as Christmas, Easter, and Day of the Dead. In Mexico, Aztec worship post-Conquistador era continued, going underground to avoid persecution. Soon, these two religions collided and the hybridization being Santa Muerte.

Hemedes says followers of Santa Muerte believe her to be a saint created by God himself, and appears in the bible as the Angel of Death. Hemedes grew up Catholic, and he said that Mass at Templo Santa Muerte held a lot more in common with traditional Catholic Mass than he'd anticipated.

"You had the eucharist, the catechism, even the drinking the wine, the sermon. It's pretty much copied sermon by sermon and practice by practice," he said. "I did notice the major difference is that during the ceremonial session the priest would take out this dagger."

The dagger, Hemedes says, is a symbolic tool used to break the "spiritual veil between reality here and to access the death goddess, herself."

Santa Muerte attracts a diverse group of followers and observers. In Mexico, cartel members and narcotraficantes are alleged to worship the saint—which "True Detective" seems to be alluding to here—but Hemedes said it's more complex than that.

"There's pretty much a saint for everything," Hemedes said. "What do you do with the sinners, and the outcasts of society? Well, they have their own saint. And it's Santa Muerte. It's not just drug dealers that worship Santa Muerte, it's the dispossessed, the outcasts of society, I even found out that she's the patron saint for the LGBT community in Mexico."

KPCC attended mass at the temple and talked to the man who leads the congregation there:

Jul 25, 2015

China jails five cult members in northeast province: Xinhua

Pete Sweeney
July 25, 2015

SHANGHAI (Reuters) - A court in China's northeast Liaoning province has sentenced five members of a banned religious cult to prison for trying to spread rumors and recruit believers, state media reported on Saturday.

China's Communist Party, obsessed with social stability, brooks no challenge to its rule. It has cracked down on cults, which have multiplied in recent years. Demonstrations have been put down with force and some sect leaders executed.

The official Xinhua news agency reported that the five accused, who live in the city of Panjin, were members of the group Quannengshen, or the Church of Almighty God. It said they were caught with proselytizing materials in their possession.

Quannengshen gained notoriety in 2014 when a video distributed online appeared to show group members beating a woman to death at a McDonald's food chain. That incident led to two members being sentenced to death for murder.


Jul 16, 2015

Opinion: Federal anti-radicalization efforts have taken too narrow an approach

July 16, 2015

Day after day, we read or hear about radicalized youth adopting extremist ideology. Events have abundantly proved that our country is not immune to the contagion. The attacks that killed two Canadian soldiers last year made plain our vulnerability.

Those terrorist acts also showed we’ve been relatively lucky, because neither of the attackers had prepared the means to inflict mass casualties. In that regard, they stood in contrast to the inept would-be bombers of a Via Rail bridge, and the fumbling young Muslim converts in Victoria who dreamed of exploding pressure-cookers on the grounds of the B.C. legislature. If either of those terrorist dreams had come true, Canada would have suffered its own 9/11.

Why, then, has the prevention of radicalization not commanded considerably more discussion at the highest level of our public discourse?

Montreal’s centre for the prevention of violent extremism, to open in September, represents an excellent local initiative and points the way for further action. Meanwhile, however, most of the anti-radicalization attention at the federal level, and virtually all the budgeted resources, are instead being spent on law enforcement.

Strengthening security agencies in the wake of terrorism has traditionally been the reaction of politicians. Such a policy can easily be understood, and no one can dispute its necessity. However, by treating only the endgame, law enforcement chases the horse long after the barn door has been torn off its hinges.

I have served for three decades on the board of InfoCult in Montreal. Since its inception, InfoCult has sought to understand the dynamics behind the radicalized mind. The organization’s strategy has been to understand the psychological trajectory of the “true believer,” and promote prevention through intervention.

Events are clearly proving that what we need in Canada are substantial resources that target the basis of the extremist appeal. The fight against radicalization requires, on the one hand, a major effort to identify why receptive people are succumbing to the extremist message and, on the other, a focus on working with the families of those people.

Family members are the ones most likely to notice risk situations. As recent events in Quebec prove, a significant part of prevention can come from tipoffs called in by parents and siblings. Not all families, however, are willing to alert the police. We should therefore make it easy for them to communicate with agencies that are not connected to law enforcement.

The Internet is a key battleground. Anti-radicalization programs in social media should be quadrupled in scope — and then quadrupled again. The first challenge is to systematically analyze the tactics being used by the various terrorist groups. The subsequent task is to guide the targeted audience into questioning the propaganda being sent their way. Engage the young in this manner, and at the same time provide trained people with whom they can interact.

At the national level in Canada, we seem to be reacting on the run. This is problematic, because we may be running faster than we should in terms of deciding the best ways to proceed.

In the coming election campaign and debates, we should hope that our federal leaders make known their respective stances. While we read of wannabe jihadists going overseas or being interdicted at airports, we can’t know the number of them lurking in our midst. Who can tell how many suggestible teenagers are today reading bomb-making manuals on the Internet, and listening to demented demagogues inciting them to mass murder?

It’s time for Stephen Harper, Justin Trudeau and Tom Mulcair to make known their plans to prevent the radicalization of young Canadians.

Herschel Segal is a Montreal businessman and long-standing board member of InfoCult, an organization that studies and combats radicalization.


Did I Belong to a Cult? The Story (in Brief) of My Spiritual Journey.

Roger E. Olson 
Patheos (blog)
July 16, 2015

Did I Belong to a Cult? The Story (in Brief) of My Spiritual Journey (Or How I Survived Spiritual Abuse but Still Bear the Scars)

One of the subjects I touch on here frequently (and one of my reasons for having this blog) is “cults.” We don’t hear as much about the issue as some years ago—especially from the late 1970s through the 1990s. That was the era when “cults” became a favorite topic in the media due to mass suicides and deaths in fringe religious movements and communes. Many of us remember well: Jim Jones and the “Jonestown” (People’s Temple) massacre in Guyana and David Koresh and the tragic ending to the government’s siege of the Branch Davidian compound outside Waco, Texas in 1993. But there were other, similar events less well remembered by most people. Several esoteric and apocalyptic religious sects committed mass suicides or bombings, etc. Because of these violent events, the word “cult” came widely to be associated almost exclusively with dangerous religious groups—dangerous to members’ and possibly others’ physical well-being. In a smaller group of people “brainwashing” was the watchword for identifying “cults.” Any religious group believed to practice “mind control” on its members was considered by many sociologists and psychologists a “cult.”

Due to the “cult hysteria” of the 1980s and 1990s many people became paranoid about unusual, “non-mainstream” religious groups—calling on the government to investigate them for no other reason than their non-mainstream status. An entire industry of “cult watchers” and “cult apologists” arose with the first group labeling almost every group they didn’t like a cult and the latter group (mostly religion scholars) defending the rights of non-mainstream religious groups. I participated somewhat in both while refraining from “buying into” either group’s driving ideology. To me, it seemed, the anti-cult fundamentalist “cult watchers” seemed to use the word “cult” too loosely—often labeling religious groups cults simply because they held one non-traditional, perhaps unorthodox belief. Some secular anti-cultists tended, in my opinion, to treat any religious indoctrination as “brainwashing.” At the same time, the groups of religion scholars I associated with, the “cult apologists,” tended to defend groups I considered fraudulent, only about enriching their founders and leaders. Many of them seemed to me extremely naïve about the abusive tendencies in some of the “new religious movements” they defended.

My own involvement in research and teaching about “cults” and “alternative religious movements” began as a child. My uncle belonged to a religious group my parents and others called a cult. He would not talk with anyone in the family about his group’s beliefs. Eventually I learned that the group, although quite large, eschews publicity and even refuses to call itself anything other than “The Truth.” Ex-members and critics (including my parents and other family members) called my uncle’s house church movement “Two-By-Twos.” They don’t use that label. I also had a cousin who joined the Baha’i World Faith and during college I worked with and became close friends with another Baha’i. Many Christian anti-cultists called the Baha’i Faith a cult. I attended some of their meetings to try to understand for myself whether they deserved such a pejorative label or whether they counted as a true world religion. And I read their own books as well as books critical of them.

While in high school I began reading books about “marginal,” “non-mainstream” American religions by then-famous religion scholar Marcus Bach, founder of the University of Iowa’s School of Religion. I found my own religious form of life, Pentecostalism, included in some of his books. I knew from school friends and relatives that my church was considered a “cult” by many people. I will never forget the Sunday night, after our worship service ended, and as we existed the front doors of our church, a group of neighborhood teenagers had gathered across the street, on the sidewalk directly in front of our church, mimicking what they thought of us—laying hands on each other and falling down, shrieking and yelling in false religious ecstasy, etc. Right then I knew why other people called us “holy rollers.”

But our little Pentecostal denomination (we preferred to call ourselves a “movement” and our form of life and belief “Full Gospel”) was a full charter member of the National Association of Evangelicals—along with a very diverse group of about fifty other generally conservative Protestant churches. We were enthusiastic about both Billy Graham and Oral Roberts. We certainly did not think of ourselves as a “cult” even if some others in our mainly Catholic and Lutheran cultural context (“religious ecology”) did. We were trinitarian (unlike those “Oneness Pentecostals”), believed in all the orthodox doctrines of historic Protestant Christianity, and participated in trans-denominational parachurch organizations and endeavors such as Youth for Christ and Evangelism Explosion. However, we also knew that some evangelical parachurch organizations such as Child Evangelism Fellowship (then, in the 1950s and 1960s) would not allow us or any Pentecostals to participate in their works. We thought they, other evangelicals especially, simply didn’t understand us. And to a large extent I think that was the case. Many of them held us at “arms’ length” mainly because of our admittedly strange doctrine that speaking in tongues is necessary for the fullness of the Holy Spirit in one’s life (“baptism of the Spirit”).

We Pentecostals thought “mainline Protestants” and Catholics were at best “nominal Christians” and at worst totally false, fake, “Christians”—mission fields for us and other evangelicals. Like many fundamentalists (we didn’t consider ourselves that) we looked at the secular and mainline religious “world” as “the world”—fallen, evil, corrupt, going to hell in a handbasket. We expected the “rapture” at any moment and that only truly “born again Christians” would be lifted up to meet the Lord Jesus Christ “in the air.” (I attended the world premier of the fundamentalist film “Thief in the Night” and it portrayed exactly what we believed.)

I often describe the church I grew up in as “urban Amish”—much to my students’ amusement. We drove cars (but eschewed expensive ones) and had electricity (but not air conditioning). We thought luxury was a sin (“conspicuous consumption”) as was make up and jewelry. Women in our church did not go to salons; men wore their hair short and rarely, if ever, grew facial hair. Women did not wear “men’s clothes”—which meant pants. Even boys didn’t wear shorts. At religious camp boys and girls, men and women, could not swim together (“mixed bathing”). Dancing of all kinds (except “in the Spirit”) was forbidden—even at school in gym classes which always had a unit on square dancing. We sat out. There was no question of going to “prom;” our church held an alternative “graduation banquet.” In typical fashion I did not darken the door of a movie theater, even to watch a “Billy Graham film,” until I was nineteen and even then half expected God’s lightening to strike me! Television was a matter of tension; church families that had televisions were expected to monitor it very carefully. I never saw the typical Sunday evening television movies such as “The Wizard of Oz” until I was grown up. We spent most of Sunday at church or (in the afternoon between church services) at church members’ homes for “Sunday dinner” and prayer and discussion of the morning sermon.

I knew we were not alone in many of these ways of life. One whole branch of my large, extended family (I had sixty-five first cousins when all were alive) was Christian Reformed and, in terms of lifestyle, they were very similar to us. Our one main difference had to do with the doctrine of predestination. But they, too, lived unlike their non-Reformed neighbors and much like us. Another group of family members belonged to the Church of God (Anderson, Indiana) and they, too, were like us in terms of lifestyle—extremely conservative and totally centered around home and church with much Bible reading and memorizing, “family devotions,” avoiding “worldly pleasures,” and “worldly fashions.”

I look back on all that now with some degree of fondness. I don’t think it hurt me to grow up that way. Many temptations faced by my “non-Christian” friends never faced me or were easily avoided. Church was exciting; neither my brother nor I, as children or teenagers, ever went to church reluctantly. All our friends were there; the church was our extended family. The worship services were enthusiastic, lively, never boring. But, then, going to church (many times a week) was never a question. I had to drop out of Cub Scouts when our pack moved its weekly meeting to one of the nights when our church had “Prayer Meeting.” All-in-all, for the most part, I don’t regret growing up in that particular religious form of life. I had wonderful, life-changing experiences in that context. Some of them I count as supernatural. I have no doubt at all that I was supernaturally healed of rheumatic fever when I was ten. To this day there is no sign of heart damage from it (and I was extremely sick with severe heart symptoms and stayed in the hospital much of a summer—before the elders of our church finally laid hands on me, anointed me with oil, and prayed for my healing.) I experienced conversion, water baptism (publically, outside, in front of many onlookers), speaking in tongues (which never really did anything for me spiritually), holy laughter (an expression of extreme joy in God’s powerful presence) and even falling down (“slain in the Spirit”), hitting my head on a church pew and feeling nothing and having no bruise or lump from it.

By the time I was a senior in high school I was as passionate, fervent, even slightly fanatical, as any seventeen year old evangelical Christian could be. I was deeply involved in Youth for Christ. Taught Sunday School to younger children in church. Read my Bible and voluntarily participated in our denomination’s “Bible quizzing” contests and “Music with a Purpose” program (singing in a trio that went all the way to “National Convention”). I loved gospel music (and still do), carried my Bible to school, witnessed to my friends and teachers, and loved God with all my heart. I had a sudden and very dramatic “call to ministry” and set my face toward Bible college against my high school teachers’ and counselors’ strong advice. (I got very good grades in high school, read fervently and wrote very good essays, etc. My teachers wanted me to go to a local liberal arts college if not state university.)

Before continuing, I need to “step back” a moment and explain something most people having read to here would not guess. My father, also my pastor, was an avid reader of novels—something most people in our church and home did not know about. He kept a pile of novels of all kinds in his bedroom and spent hours reading them at home—something he never mentioned around “church people.” They were good, clean novels. I remember some of his favorites were by popular authors of the mid-twentieth century: Zane Grey, Harold Bell Wright, even Leon Uris and James Michener! He encouraged me and my brother to read also. By eighth grade I was devouring novels such as The Count of Monte Cristo, Gone with the Wind, and The Fires of Spring—an early Michener novel. By high school I graduated to Hawaii and The Source and other historical novels. In school I loved literature and history classes above all and also participated in “drama club”—having parts in plays like John Brown’s Body by Stephen Vincent Benet and Antigone by Anouilh. I devoured both the assigned novels in literature classes and asked my teachers for recommendations of similar books. Even though we (my brother and I) were not allowed to own or read “comic books” (except “Classics Illustrated”!) my father, especially, encouraged me to read whatever novels, biographies and history books I wanted to. Reading made me a critical thinker. My high school teachers contributed to that as well. They encouraged me to ask absolutely anything and I did.

Church was a different matter. As much as I loved it because of its warmth and enthusiasm and the love between people that I felt there, I knew better than to talk about my novels or my intellectual pursuits. Our church, like our denomination in general, like Pentecostalism then, was extremely anti-intellectual. There was a Baptist seminary in our small city and our church people always referred to it as “cemetery.” That and the Baptist college (to say nothing of the Lutheran college!) were where “faith went to die.” I do not think anyone in our church graduated from college or university; some may have attended Bible institutes or even technical schools after high school—to learn a trade. But “liberal arts” and “theological education” were anathema—except to my father who quietly encouraged higher education and even secretly took some courses at a liberal arts university nearby. Almost no one in our denomination—including leading pastors, evangelists, executives and even Bible college teachers ever went to seminary or graduate school. One Bible college teacher had dared to earn a graduate degree in theology, but he then left evangelical Christianity behind (so the story went) and that is “what always happens” when you go to seminary or university—especially to study theology. Our little denomination thrived on anti-intellectualism even as I was beginning to thrive on reading novels, biographies and books of world geography and history.

Throughout high school I was a quintessential religious “good boy.” I didn’t smoke, drink, dance, go to movies, or have any kind of sex—even with my girlfriend with whom I “went steady” for a year. We kissed but never “petted.” I knew for sure God would strike me dead if we “went too far” and I loved God (and my dad!) too much to betray him that way. And I saw no conflict between the life of the mind, reading “secular literature,” thinking critically about the world, being knowledgeable about the arts and sciences and politics and world events, and being a passionate, devoted, even “Spirit filled” evangelical Christian—even if my church did.

Then came Bible college and my firsthand experience of being caught in a cult. To be continued….


China to prosecute 'cult' leader as crackdown continues

July 16, 2015

BEIJING (Reuters) - China will prosecute the leader of what it calls a "cult" on charges of rape, fraud, sabotage and other crimes, state news agency Xinhua said, as the government deepens a crackdown on what it views as illegal and dangerous religious movements.

Prosecutors in the southern province of Guangdong are charging Wu Zeheng, founder and leader of Huazang Dharma, and several others after a year-long probe, the official Xinhua news agency said late on Wednesday.

The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, a bipartisan U.S. government commission, says Wu and his followers are being persecuted for their religious beliefs.

Reuters was unable to reach Wu or his group for comment. It was not clear if he has a lawyer.

A statement on the group's website, which is blocked in China, appeals for international help for Wu, saying that he is a purely religious figure facing cooked-up accusations.

Xinhua said that Wu has already been jailed at least twice, and set up his Buddhist-inspired cult in 2010 upon his last release from jail.

"Glorified with fabricated educational background and life experience, Wu eventually became a master with supernatural power in the eyes of his followers," it added.

"In the name of charity and life science and through inflammatory preaching, Wu lured a growing number of believers who wished to study Buddhism, seek disease treatment, or ward off ill fortune by joining the cult."

China's official atheist Communist Party does not tolerate challenges to its rule and is obsessed with social stability. Religious activities must be state sanctioned.

Authorities have gone after what they view as cults, which have multiplied in recent years, and demonstrations have been put down with force and some sect leaders executed.

The government is considering tougher penalties for cult members, China's largely rubber stamp parliament said last month.

China executed two members of a banned religious cult in February for murdering a woman in a McDonald's restaurant after she rebuffed an apparent recruitment attempt by the group last May.

In 1999, then-President Jiang Zemin launched a campaign to crush the Falun Gong religious group. It was banned as an "evil cult" after thousands of practitioners staged a surprise but peaceful sit-in outside the leadership compound in Beijing to demand official recognition of their movement.

(Reporting by Ben Blanchard; Editing by Jeremy Laurence)


Jul 15, 2015

Report on Lev Tahor - Press Release

Report on Lev Tahor

The recommendations in the report on how youth protection handled the case against Lev Tahor indicate government awareness of the necessity and urgency to act in this area. Info-Cult is the only organization of its kind in Quebec that provides information, analysis and assistance concerning high control and extremist groups and related subjects. In its 35 years of operation it, has dealt with similar problems where the well being of children were involved. Carolle Tremblay, Info-Cult's president and a lawyer in family law, has in her legal career dealt with families with children in high-control groups including Lev Tahor. She had this to say, "Lev Tahor is not the first group nor sadly will it be the last where children will suffer at the hands of an authoritarian leadership and who will see their fundamental human rights ignored or denied. It is time now to implement the recommendations in this report and to do it in a comprehensive manner that includes all relevant expertise from those in diverse fields”.

Mike Kropveld, the founder and executive director of Info-Cult and court recognized expert, acknowledges that "cultic phenomena is ever-changing and it is not realistic nor reasonable to assume that those in youth protection and other related agencies will be at the forefront of knowledge in that area. Youth protection workers are experts in the area of child abuse and how to intervene when situations of that nature occur”. The cult phenomenon is where Info-Cult has developed a unique expertise and has proven its vital role as a resource to all sectors of our society. Info-Cult has garnered a world-wide reputation and possesses the most recent knowledge in this field. Info-Cult is committed to take an active role in working collaboratively to prevent future human tragedies

SOURCE Info-Cult

Information: Carolle Tremblay, President, Info-Cult, 514-871-2800, www.infosecte.org / www.infocult.org; Mike Kropveld, Executive Director, Info-Cult, 514-274-2333

Note: English version of Info-Cult press release. Original version in French can be found here: http://www.newswire.ca/fr/story/1569599/rapport-sur-lev-tahor

Jul 14, 2015

Jehovah's Witnesses take to the streets as busy heathens are rarely home

Harriet Sherwood
The Guardian
July 14, 2015

They take up position outside train and underground stations in all weather, smartly dressed, courteous and smiling. They are sometimes called God-botherers or Bible-bashers – but this army of polite, freshly-laundered missionaries neither bother nor bash. They may stretch out a hand to offer a pamphlet to commuters streaming past, but they rarely accost anyone.

In fact, on the rare occasions when a passer-by does show interest, the proselytisers seem faintly surprised. “Could I have one of your pamphlets,” I ask a young woman outside a London railway station. “Of course,” she replies – but I have to make a further request for a second title, and at no point does she try to engage me in conversation.

Jehovah’s Witnesses – for indeed, it is they – are stepping up their presence in city centres across the UK in an effort to attract converts to a church that claims more than 8 million adherents worldwide. Best known for door-to-door evangelism and persistent attempts to engage householders in conversation about God, Witnesses are increasingly to be found in shopping centres, stations, parks and squares in at least 13 cities in England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland. In London, more than 1,000 people regularly participate in “public witnessing”, handing out 6,000 brochures, 20,000 books and 100,000 magazines each month. In other cities, the number of volunteers averages around 200.

According to Jehovah’s Witness full-timers, the results have proved the value of the new approach, although figures prove elusive. “It’s hard to quantify by number ... but a lot of people express appreciation of the work we’re doing,” says Mark O’Malley, who is “assigned” to the public information desk at the Jehovah’s Witness UK centre in north London. “We now have more than 165,000 [literature] carts on the streets in over 50 countries. It gives us visibility and availability. It’s something we’re going to see more of, definitely.”

All those baptised as Jehovah’s Witnesses are required to proselytise, logging the number of hours spent in doorstep and city centre evangelism in a monthly “field service report”. A standard commitment to ministry work is 840 hours a year – more than 16 hours a week. “This is not the kind of movement where you can tag along for a free ride,” says Andrew Holden, author of Jehovah’s Witnesses: Portrait of a Contemporary Religious Movement.

“Jehovah’s Witnesses have always been an aggressively evangelistic organisation since inception. Proselytising is central to the modus operandi. They see it as a fulfilment of biblical prophecy,” he says. The move to public witnessing follows an increasing awareness of “how busy people’s lives have become, that people are often not at home. So door-to-door evangelism doesn’t really win many converts. And for every recruit, there are hundreds and hundreds of rebuffs.”

Before they are let loose on the public, JWs must first fill out an application form, asking such questions as “Are you now of good moral standing and habits?” and “Are you willing and able to follow theocratic direction on public witnessing?” A section of the form asks the local “congregation service committee” to rate the applicant on a scale from A to E on four criteria: dignified personal appearance; dependable and organised; balance in judgment and discernment; and physical stamina.

An internal letter sent to “all bodies of elders” in November 2012 issued detailed guidance on public witnessing, saying “it has proved to be an increasingly effective means to reach many with the good news of the Kingdom”. Amid advice on locations and display techniques, it adds that public witnesses “should present themselves in a dignified way. Their appearance and dress should be professional, well-arranged and modest.”

According to Holden, JWs are given careful instruction in proselytising, including role-play and detailed assessment of criteria such as eye contact and fluency. Individuals are given a personal assessment report to study in order to improve their performance. “The training involved in effective communication for the sole purpose of winning recruits is not unlike that undertaken by sales personnel in the secular world of business,” he wrote in an academic paper in 2003.

Simon Darling, who grew up in a Jehovah’s Witness family and was baptised into the church at the age of 15, spends his weekends in public ministry at an assigned spot among around 20 locations in central London. He is unsurprisingly enthusiastic about the practice. “It’s excellent. If I’m honest, what I’ve found is that people who I would never have approached have come up to me. We all make snap judgments in our heads about whether someone might be interested, but this allows people to come to us.”

This doesn’t quite square with an hour I spent watching six JW stands at Oxford Circus underground station one busy lunchtime this month. The only person I saw approach asked not for a copy of Awake! or The Watchtower or What Does The Bible Really Teach?, but for directions.

Former JW Robert Crompton says: “I’ve certainly noticed the carts everywhere. But quite frankly, a lot of us ex-JWs find the whole thing quite amusing. Knocking on doors has long been immensely unpopular [among JWs]. No one likes doing it. It’s embarrassing, you get rebuffed, often you’d just pretend to ring the doorbell. But with these carts, you can just stand there, not doing anything and not talking to anyone, just logging your hours.”

The 2012 letter emanated from the Christian Congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses, headquartered in Mill Hill, north London. It is a huge place, known in JW parlance as a “bethel” (house of God), where 800 JWs live and work. But, apparently, not huge enough. Work will start next year on a vast new £150m complex near Chelmsford, Essex, constructed entirely by volunteer labour. A model shows residences for 1,200 people, offices, printing plant, auditorium, hospital, fitness centre, water treatment plant and parking for more than 1,000 vehicles. I ask O’Malley, a former Catholic whose entire family became Witnesses when he was 10, if there were any objections at the planning stage; after all, not everyone wants Jehovah’s Witness Central in their back yard. “I think the council was happy that we were buying, clearing and developing the site,” he says.

At Mill Hill, the centre and residences are spread over several smaller sites. The day starts with the study of the scripture set for the global JW membership, followed by the standard working day from 8am until 5pm. “Bethelites” are assigned jobs and given training where necessary, for which they receive a stipend of £100 a month, with all necessities provided.

O’Malley hosts me for lunch in the dining room, where we are joined by fellow bethelites Andrew and Jane Schofield. On a hot June day, the men are wearing immaculate suits and ties; Jane, who is assigned to housekeeping duties, wears a cream skirt, floral blouse and suede ankle boots. Witnesses are instructed to dress modestly and presentably at all times. When I ask Schofield how bethelites afford such nice clothes on their modest stipend, he talks vaguely about donated items. On the day of my visit, lunch was roast lamb, roast potatoes, cabbage and carrots, followed by dessert and coffee. What happens if you’re a vegetarian? “There are vegetables,” shrugs O’Malley, as if no one has ever demanded a choice. Dinner is served from 5pm until 5.45pm.

JWs place great emphasis on personal as well as spiritual hygiene, cleanliness being next to godliness. The Schofields and O’Malley each separately tell me about the laundry facilities at JW headquarters. While showing me the printing plant in which millions of booklets are produced each year, O’Malley points with pride to the glossy polished concrete floor and gleaming machines. It is unlike any other printing plant I have seen.

Strict rules govern the lifestyle of Witnesses. “We stick by the Bible’s moral codes,” says Schofield. These include, he says, no sex outside marriage, no homosexuality, no smoking, no drugs (“though of course the Bible doesn’t talk about drugs,” he concedes) and only moderate alcohol consumption is permitted. Films, television and the internet are not banned, but Witnesses are “discouraged from viewing immoral or excessively violent” content. “We put an emphasis on a ‘Bible-trained conscience’ – a framework for life.”

The internet – “a wonderful tool, but with a sinister side,” according to Schofield – has been harnessed by Jehovah’s Witnesses, with a website (jw.org) in 540 languages, a broadcast channel (tv.jw.org) and various apps. In the first two years following the launch in August 2012, 850m visits were made to the website, according to the most recent JW yearbook. “We’re very ahead with technology,” says O’Malley, pulling up today’s set scripture on his smartphone. Later, he says: “We’re like Google – we’ve mapped the world.”

The global church is run by a seven-strong, all-male, self-selecting Governing Body, based in Brooklyn, to which all Witnesses defer. In the UK, a registered charity, the International Bible Students Association, runs the printing operation that churns out publications in 700 languages. The Watchtower Bible and Tract Society is the New York-based Jehovah’s Witness company responsible for the church’s administration. In 2001, Newsday listed the Watchtower Society as one of New York’s 40 richest corporations, with revenues of more than $950m. The organisation says it is financed entirely by voluntary donations, with no system of tithing.

Awake! and The Watchtower, the JW’s regular giveaway magazines, are essentially quotations from the Bible strung together by dire warnings, firm advice and tales of personal redemption. For example, the May issue of Awake! (print run: 51.7m) includes a section on “Teaching Children to Obey”, exhorting parents to “assert your authority”, quoting Proverbs 23:13: “Do not hold back discipline”.

The Bible is viewed by JWs as a historically accurate document and the absolute authority by which adherents live. Since the organisation was founded in the 1870s, its followers have believed humanity is living in the final days before the second coming of Christ, and has repeatedly prophecised Armageddon. “Islamic terrorism, tsunamis, earthquakes – they’re all seen as a fulfilment of biblical prophecy,” says Holden. But, he adds, given that the end has not materialised on the anticipated dates, “it is all the more surprising that the society has continued to recruit and expand with the success it has”.

These millenarians reject the doctrine of the holy trinity, refuse to celebrate Christmas or Easter (or birthdays), and avoid contact with “worldly” people (non-JWs) who are seen as morally corrupt. All other religions are considered false, ruling out ecumenicalism. Members are not allowed to challenge or debate the pronouncements of the Bible – or the governing body.

Most famously, JWs refuse blood transfusions, even when life is at risk. They say the Bible instructs the faithful to “abstain from blood”, which rules out accepting transfusions. “It’s a direct command in the Bible, but we also increasingly see medical evidence showing the advantages of not accepting blood transfusions,” says O’Malley. He cites the 2010 Haiti earthquake, when the National Blood Transfusion Centre in Port au Prince was destroyed, causing a critical shortage of blood and equipment, and says many people survived “bloodless” surgery. In fact, the World Health Organisation, Red Cross and medical charities made desperate appeals for international blood donations in order to save lives.

Many believe the Jehovah’s Witness organisation to be a global cult, escape from which is difficult and distressing. Bonnie Zieman, whose book Exiting the JW Cult: A Healing Handbook was published in May, speaks of her years of “submission” to the “toxic ideology” of a controlling and repressive sect.

She recounts how when she and her husband left the JW, their families “slowly began to cut us off. We are now not invited to family events such as weddings, funerals, family reunions; nor are we informed of births, accomplishments, illnesses or deaths in the family.” She adds: “Exiting the JW cult was one of the hardest things I have ever done, and one of the very best. I have never regretted it.”

Others’ experiences echo Zieman’s. Crompton, who was formally “disfellowshipped”, or expelled, 40 years ago, was “shunned” by his family. Having grown up in a JW family, “it took a long time to develop the normal social skills that most people get simply by growing up. I was entirely alone for a long time.”

Lloyd Evans formally left the JWs in 2013, three years after “I woke up from indoctrination”. He says: “It’s impossible to leave without punishment inflicted on you. I’m paying the price of something that happened when I was 11 [his baptism].” He is now “shunned” by his father and sisters. “My baby daughter has never seen her grandfather.”

Evans claims JWs are increasingly trying to win over children as adults become more sceptical about the nature of the organisation. “They are getting hammered on the internet. You can push any amount of [JW] material into people’s hands, but then they go home and open Google, and the whole thing collapses. The more you look at Jehovah’s Witnesses, you realise they are a fantastically successful cult.”

Other former JWs have alleged sexual, emotional and psychological abuse, domestic violence, the loss of autonomy, the denial of education and people driven to suicide or to attempt suicide. In June, a British woman won a £275,000 payout after a court ruled that JW elders had failed to protect her from sexual abuse as a child, in the first case of its kind brought in the UK. The judgment came two months after a California jury awarded a woman $28m in damages for child sex abuse. The Witnesses’ legal entity was ordered to pay almost $24m of the total after it was held responsible for covering up the abuse.

Holden points out that mainstream religions, including the Catholic church and the Methodists, have also seen cases of child and sex abuse. “I prefer the term religious movement to cult. JWs may not appeal to many people, but we need to be careful about branding them a cult. They’re not particularly renowned for doing dangerous things.”

O’Malley dismisses claims of a cult. “Anyone can make accusations, but that doesn’t make it the truth. People say things all the time. We’re not on a campaign to try to counter that, we’re just going to continue. We’re not embarrassed about anything we do.”

Back at Oxford Circus, there are plenty of takers for free samples of Lipton Ice Tea and the London Evening Standard, but none for Awake! and The Watchtower. Undeterred, Luis and Veronica, a married JW couple from northern Spain, politely tell me they are happy to spread the truth during their four-hour stints. “It’s wonderful,” says Luis, sporting the ubiquitous JW smile.

Are they taught to smile, I ask Andrew Schofield at JW HQ. “God loves a joyful giver,” he replies – with a smile.


A Major Witness in the Rape Case Against an Indian Guru Has Been Shot Dead

Rishi Iyengar
July 14, 2015

Another witness in the case was murdered in January, and seven others have been attacked in recent months

A key witness in an ongoing rape case involving a self-proclaimed Indian religious leader was killed on Friday, the second death and latest in a long string of attacks on those planning to testify against the guru.

The prospective witness, Kripal Singh, was shot by two assailants in the district of Shahjahanpur in the country’s northern state of Uttar Pradesh, Indian broadcaster NDTV reported.

The duo were on a motorcycle and warned Singh not to depose against the “godman,” Asaram Bapu, before shooting him and fleeing. The 35-year-old Singh was then rushed to a nearby hospital where he died of his injuries, police said.

Singh was an employee at a transport firm owned by a man whose daughter was allegedly raped by Bapu at his ashram in 2013.

The 74-year-old self-styled guru is currently in prison in the western city of Jodhpur, where that ashram was located, and has been there since September 2013. He was also accused of a second rape by two sisters — which he reportedly perpetrated along with his son — at another of his ashrams in the state of Gujarat two months after initially being jailed.

Akhil Gupta, Bapu’s former cook and a primary witness in the Gujarat rape case, was shot dead in another north Indian town in January, and the Indian Express newspaper reports that police have begun a joint investigation to determine whether he was a victim of the same killers.

Seven other witnesses in the case against Bapu (who is infamous for his 2012 statements blaming the victim of India’s most notorious rape case in New Delhi) have been attacked.

Recent developments in Bapu’s case coincide with multiple deaths connected to another high-profile investigation in India. Two people connected to what is being called the “Vyapam” scandal — a scheme to rig entrance examinations for medical schools and government jobs across the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh — died last week. Those deaths, that of a journalist reporting on the conspiracy and the dean of a medical college who was compiling evidence against those involved, took place under mysterious circumstances and are the latest in a string of close to 40 fatalities since the Vyapam scandal broke in 2013.


Scientology-Backed Group Lobbied Against Texas Mental Health Bill

July 14, 2015

A group associated with the Church of Scientology lobbied against a vetoed Texas bill that would have allowed doctors in the state to detain dangerous and mentally ill patients, The Texas Tribune reports.

The paper has obtained records showing that a conglomerate group that included the Scientology-founded Citizens Commission on Human Rights (CCHR) sent information to the state's Republican governor, Greg Abbott, who vetoed the bill. (Abbott is Christian.)

The legislation would have given emergency room doctors a four-hour window in which they could detain patients who were mentally ill or appeared unsafe until authorities could assess the situation. Two weeks before Abbott's veto, a group calling itself the SB 359 Veto Coalition hand-delivered a letter to the governor opposing the bill, the paper reports. The bill had passed through the state House and Senate with ease, and the governor's decision to stop the bill surprised many.

Other groups who were involved in the Veto Coalition include the Texas Home School Coalition, the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), the anti-vaccine group Parents Requesting Open Vaccine Education and Texans for Accountable Government. A LULAC staffer said his organization thought the law could be used unconstitutionally against non-English speakers.

"I don't think that it is very beneficial to try to break down those grassroots organizations," Johana Scot, the head of the Parent Guidance Center, which signed the Veto Coalition letter, told the Tribune.

Lee Spiller, a lobbyist for the Church of Scientology-backed CCHR, which is against psychiatry, was also in touch with the governor's office; the Tribune reports that he sent an email to the state's First Lady the day after the veto. "Please pass on my warmest regards and sincere thanks for upholding individual liberties and restoring my faith in our constitutional form of government," he reportedly wrote. "I have not forgotten about your last message. Please consider yourself invited to our office, and any event we hold, any time."

When he vetoed the bill, Abbott voiced sentiments that had appeared in the coalition's letter, saying it raised "serious constitutional concerns," among other things.

A group of doctors had previously sent Abbott a letter warning him of the CCHR's association with the Church of Scientology. "Their positions are well outside the mainstream," they wrote.

The governor "should have reached out to physicians and other medical personnel who provide care in the real world of our emergency rooms before vetoing this legislation," said the Texas Medical Association in a statement, which lobbied in favor of the bill.


Mormonism and the Problem of Jon Krakauer

Jon Krakauer

By Max Perry Mueller | July 14, 2015

Jon Krakauer got lucky. When Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith first went on sale in the summer of 2003, Krakauer hoped that the many sins of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS) he set out to expose would not go unpunished forever. And he certainly believed that his own book—framed as muckraking of faith gone bad—would help bring this day of reckoning forward. Yet Krakauer couldn’t have imagined the FLDS Church would soon become headline news for much of the next decade. In 2004, child sexual molestation charges against the FLDS Church’s reclusive prophet Warren Jeffs made him one of the most notorious men in America. Krakauer also could not have foreseen that Jeffs’ subsequent trials and police raids of FLDS communities in Utah and Texas would overlap with Mitt Romney’s two presidential campaigns, not to mention with the hit Broadway musical, The Book of Mormon. The fact that the “Mormon fundamentalist moment” of the aughts intersected with the latest “Mormon moment” in American history helped make Under the Banner of Heaven the bestselling book on Mormon history in recent memory.

Krakauer knows the work of Warren Jeffs well. Much of Under the Banner of Heaven examines how, starting in the 1980s, Warren and his father Rulon (who died in 2002) ruled with a potent mix of religious zealotry, intimidation, and corruption the 10,000-member sect, most of whose members reside in Colorado City, Arizona, located on the Utah-Arizona boarder. According to Krakauer, in the FLDS Church, men who do the church leaders’ bidding were rewarded with power, wealth, and very young wives. Dissenters and young men, who were seen as potential threats, were often run out of town. In 2004, just after Krakauer’s book debuted, Jeffs’ nephew filed a lawsuit accusing his uncle of abuse. That scandal was followed by allegations that Jeffs had presided over the marriage “sealing” of a fourteen-year-old girl to her nineteen-year-old cousin. Those accusations set in motion a series of events that began to dismantle the religious community, which was built on a “patch of desert,” as Krakauer put it, on the upper rim of the Grand Canyon. Church members had hoped that such isolation would allow them to be “left alone to follow the sacred principle of plural marriage,” which the LDS Church had officially abandoned in 1890. In May 2006, a nation-wide manhunt began after the FBI placed Jeffs on its “Ten Most Wanted List.” In August of that same year, Jeffs was arrested following a traffic stop in Las Vegas. Along with one of his estimated 80 wives, in Jeffs’ Cadillac SUV police found more than a dozen cell phones, a police scanner, dozens of pairs of sunglasses, three wigs, and $54,000 in cash. In 2011, Jeffs was convicted of aggravated sexual assault against two of his “spiritual brides,” aged 12 and 15, and sentenced to life in prison plus 20 years.

These events kept journalists, pundits, and casual readers coming back to Under the Banner of Heaven, in hopes of understanding the origins of this violent and abusive faith. After all, what Krakauer claimed on the pages of his book—that the church is run by pedophiles claiming to speak to and for God, and who use their prophetic authority to insist that teenage girls submit to their often octogenarian husbands—was borne out in the court documents and witness testimonies produced during Jeffs’ trials.

As Matthew Bowman, the author of the Mormon People: The Making of an American Faith, explained to me, Under the Banner of Heaven “rode the wave of Warren Jeffs for a few years until it became entrenched” as the single most influential book on Mormonism published this century. (Full Disclosure: Bowman is a friend and colleague and I consulted on much of his book.) The popularity of Krakauer’s book occurred despite the LDS Church’s efforts to keep modern-day Mormon polygamy and the LDS Church separate in the collective American mind. In fact, while Jeffs was on the run in 2006—and HBO’s Big Love was all the rage on TV—the LDS Church declared that “there is no such thing as a ‘Mormon Fundamentalist.’” Instead, the LDS Church insisted that journalists refer to Jeffs’ church as a “polygamist sect,” not a Mormon one.

Yet Krakauer, who grew up in heavily Mormon Corvallis, Oregon, doesn’t believe that the chasm between the two faiths is as vast as the LDS Church claims. After all, “Mormons and those who call themselves Mormon fundamentalists believe in the same holy texts and the same sacred history,” Krakauer writes in Under the Banner of Heaven. “Both believe that Joseph Smith, who founded Mormonism in 1830, played a vital role in God’s plan for mankind; both LDS and FLDS consider him to be a prophet comparable to Moses and Isaiah.” And like fundamentalists who claim to be his true spiritual descendants, Joseph Smith also took teenage girls as his plural wives, a fact that the LDS Church has only just recently acknowledged.

Based on this shared history, Krakauer claims that LDS authorities have learned to tolerate Mormon fundamentalists like “a crazy uncle,” but nevertheless an uncle within the same Mormon family. Despite their church’s protestations, many if not most Mormons still have “‘polygs’ hidden in the attic,” as Krakauer puts it. Even Mitt Romney’s father, George who also ran for president, was born on a polygamist compound in Mexico that was established by Mitt’s great-grandfather in the 1890s to avoid anti-polygamy prosecution.

But Krakauer is (mostly) wrong here. In fact, in their efforts to distance themselves from their polygamist past, the LDS Church and its members have become virulent “polyg” hunters. They are quick to call church officials and the cops on any suspecting offenders of the Utah State Constitution, which explicitly outlaws polygamy, or of LDS marriage norms of traditional, heterosexual monogamy.

The fact that the LDS Church hasn’t been able to shake off the scarlet letter of polygamy has a lot to do with, I would argue, the continuing popularity of Under the Banner of Heaven. This is what I call the “Krakauer problem”: more than twelve years after it was first published, and after Romney’s presidential campaigns helped make Mormonism an acceptable American religion, Under the Banner of Heaven remains the definitive book on Mormon history in popular culture. Under the Banner of Heaven spent months onThe New York Times bestseller list, and it is still ranked number one on Amazon’s bestsellers in the “Mormonism” list. Its popularity is also reflected at social events—even social events with other scholars of religion. When historians of Mormon history like me explain what they study, most of those who have read one book on the faith will tell us that they’ve read Under the Banner of Heaven. And, as Krakauer himself intended, they will also tell us that they understand it to be not only an exposé of Mormon fundamentalism, but also a reliable history of the origins of the LDS Church, too.
To be sure, this is a problem for the LDS Church and for its members. Mainstream Mormons don’t want to be called upon to answer for Jeffs anymore than “mainstream” Muslims want to be called upon to answer for jihadists. Yet, this is also a problem for scholars of Mormonism, a problem that we’ve yet to solve. Scores of both scholarly and popular books on Mormonism have been published since Under the Banner of Heaven was first released in 2003. Yet none have come close to displacing it as the dominant portrayal of Mormon history in American culture.

THE QUESTION IS, WHY? What’s so compelling about Under the Banner of Heaven? That is, what makes it such a gripping and troubling read? The primary answer is perhaps an obvious one. Krakauer knows how to write a page-turner. “In its depiction of that strange American blend of piety, violence and longing for the End times,” wrote Don Lattin in his review of the book in the San Francisco Chronicle, Under the Banner of Heaven is a true-crime thriller “right up there with In Cold Blood and The Executioner’s Song.” In the late 1990s, Krakauer became one of the most celebrated and controversial narrative non-fiction writers of his generation. All of Krakauer’s stories focus on the human desire to conquer their environment. Whether it’s in recounting a catastrophic Everest expedition or the story of a promising young man who dies alone in the Alaskan wilderness, Krakauer imbues his writing with a feeling of impending doom—when humans let their own hubris go unchecked, disaster is unavoidable. In Under the Banner of Heaven the disaster occurs in 1984, when brothers Ron and Dan Lafferty, recent converts to a brand of Mormon fundamentalism, cut the throat of their young sister-in-law, Brenda Lafferty, in her home in American Forks, Utah, and subsequently the throat of her infant daughter. Krakauer uses these murders as an entrance into three narrative strains that he interweaves throughout the book, the three narratives ultimately becoming one on Brenda Lafferty’s doorstep.

The first part of Krakauer’s narrative is focused on the early history of the LDS Church and centers on the life and leadership of the church’s founder and prophet, Joseph Smith, Jr. Krakauer follows Smith from the founding of the church in Palmyra, New York, through the nascent church’s tumultuous attempts to establish permanent settlements in Ohio and Missouri, to Smith’s eventual murder at the hands of an anti-Mormon mob in Nauvoo, Illinois. Krakauer describes Smith as a religious genius who taught an “optimistic cosmology” that departed radically from the Calvinistic doctrine of total human depravity that many of his earliest followers inherited from their parents’ Yankee Puritanism. Instead, as Krakauer explains Smith’s basic theological beliefs: “Anyone who elected to obey church authorities, receive the testimony of Jesus, and follow a few simple rules could work his way up the ladder until, in the afterlife, he became a full-fledged god—the ruler of his very own world.”

According to Krakauer, Smith’s success at attracting converts led him make increasingly brazen theological innovations. Smith’s revelations about “the Principle of celestial marriage” sparked internal feuds among the Saints, then gathering in Nauvoo, and angered the Illinois public at-large. After Smith’s death, the Mormons left the United States to seek isolation in Utah. Yet polygamy did not die with Smith. Instead under Smith’s successor, Brigham Young, “the Principle” became the defining organizing principle of Mormon culture as they built their Zion in the high plains desert. Only at the end of the nineteenth century did continual conflict with the federal government force the Mormons to give up polygamy.*

This drastic departure from what had been the defining organizing principle of early Mormons leads to the second part of Krakauer’ narrative—the history of Mormon fundamentalism, which emerged in 1890 when then-LDS President and Prophet Wilford Woodruff declared that “‘it was the will of the Lord’ that the church stop sanctioning the doctrine of plural marriage.” Most Mormons eventually accepted the change. But small groups of Mormons felt that the LDS Church had betrayed the true faith. A small number broke from the church, settling small communities throughout the American West. More than a century later, much to the dismay of the mainline LDS Church, not only do Mormon fundamentalists continue to practice polygamy, but they also “consider themselves to be the keepers of the flame—the only true and righteous Mormons,” Krakauer explains. The fundamentalist prophets like Warren Jeffs taught that plural marriage brings order to this world and the next. It forces women into their proper roles as servants to their husbands, and provides for their eternal salvation as no woman can enter the kingdom of heaven if she has not practiced the Principle. Unwilling to compromise celestial marriage for acceptance into the American mainstream as the LDS Church has done, Mormon fundamentalists leaders, who run Colorado City, Arizona “like Kabul under the Taliban” believe they alone carry forth Joseph Smith’s true message.

The story of the Lafferty brothers’ gruesome murders of their sister-in-law and infant niece in 1984 is the third and most problematic part of Krakauer’s narrative. He uses the Lafferty brothers to tie the present-day LDS Church to Mormon fundamentalism by demonstrating that, at its core, the LDS Church has not abandoned its violent polygamous past. After all, the Lafferty brothers were not raised as Mormon fundamentalists, but were reared in what Krakauer describes as a model LDS family. They were known as “hundred-and-ten percenters” in their Provo, Utah community, fully dedicated to living saintly lives—lives that today’s LDS Church maintains would be theologically and culturally incompatible with Mormon fundamentalism. And yet according to Krakauer, it was exactly this dedication to their faith taken to its logical conclusion that drew Ron and Dan Lafferty to begin studying Mormon origins, especially Joseph Smith’s revelations on plural marriage. After meeting a Canadian Fundamentalist prophet, Ron and Dan, along their other brothers, quickly worked to establish their own fundamentalist community based upon the principles of plural marriage and strict patriarchal control. While most of the brothers’ wives went reluctantly along with their husbands’ drastic changes, Brenda Lafferty, the wife of the youngest Lafferty brother, Allen, refused and urged her sister-in-laws to do so as well.* When Ron’s wife Dianna divorced him, Ron received a revelation from God to kill Brenda and her infant daughter, Erica. Ron and Dan carried out the revelation and after living on the run for a time, the two brothers were apprehended, tried, and convicted of the murders.

SCHOLARS OF MORMONISM—both within and outside the LDS Church—have taken Krakauer to task for his richly detailed, but ultimately self-serving research. (Following the initial publication of Under the Banner of Heaven in June 2003, the LDS Church published a lengthy critique of both Krakauer’s sourcing and his interpretation of Mormon theology.)

Bowman explains that because his book is so thesis-driven, in telling his tale about the origins of polygamy and about the Mormons’ propensity to violence in the nineteenth century, Krakauer “sacrifices accuracy on the alter of sensationalism. He treats as facts rumors and unreliable sources, which serious historians have debunked.”
J.B. Haws, a professor of history at Brigham Young University and author of The Mormon Image in the American Mind, notes that of particular concern is how Krakauer “makes little distinction between [LDS] polygamy past and [FLDS] polygamy present.” According Sarah Barringer Gordon, a renowned legal scholar on church-state relations who has written extensively on the history of Mormon polygamy, Joseph Smith built from the ground up a radical new Christian society, of which a radically new approach to marriage was one part. On the other hand, as Gordon explained to the Salt Lake Tribune a few weeks after Jeffs’ 2011 conviction, “[Warren] Jeffs inherited a great deal of religious power and spent his life exploiting it,” including teaching his young brides that their highest calling was to please him sexually. To be sure, historians continue to debate Joseph Smith’s fundamental motivations behind introducing polygamy to his followers. However, most agree that in the early 1840s, Joseph Smith revealed a theological system that empowered polygamous wives to participate in the civil and religious governance of Mormon communities. In the 2000s, Jeffs delivered prophecies that required that FLDS women submit unconditionally to their husbands.

And yet the Krakauer problem doesn’t end with problematic sources and faulty interpretations of theology. To contextualize Under the Banner of Heaven as a piece of writing, the literary “parents” to Krakauer’s book are not only twentieth-century true-crime thrillers and captivity narratives like Capote’s In Cold Blood (which, of course, has also been criticized for blurring the lines between fact and fiction in service of a better story). Bowman says Krakauer’s version of Mormon history is “descended from the works of Arthur Conan Doyle, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Jack London who all wrote nineteenth-century dime novels premised on the notion that Brigham Young’s Zion was a totalitarian dictatorship complete with secret police and young Mormon maidens pining for rescue from the grimly-bearded elders of the church.”

Part of the Krakauer problem then becomes a problem of genre confusion. To be sure, Under the Banner of Heaven is meticulously researched with extensive endnotes. And Krakauer’s hours of interviews with former members of the FLDS expose the abuses that the leadership of this insular community have long perpetrated. And he does so with arguably more authority than even the many Mormon fundamentalist captivity narratives published before or since. Yet, more than history or investigative journalism, Under the Banner of Heaven is first and foremost a page-turning polemic against religion in general and Mormonism—in all its forms—in particular. As such, if it can be solved at all, the Krakauer problem cannot be solved by peer-reviewed biographies of Joseph Smith, like Richard Bushman’s celebrated and exhaustive Rough Stone Rolling, published in 2005.* Nor can it be solved by trade press books like Bowman’s own The Mormon People, which came out in 2012, and has been perhaps the best single-volume history of Mormonism published in the last decade. Krakauer tells a better, more gripping story because he writes by a different set of rules that values thesis over fact.

Krakauer believes that there are degrees of difference—not distinctions of kind—between the murderous Lafferty Brothers, the Mormon fundamentalists, and the LDS Church. This despite the fact that the Lafferty brothers never belonged to Warren Jeffs’ church. And this despite the fact that the mainstream Mormons are, as Gordon has put it, “the most antipolygamy people you could meet.” Yet Krakauer, like others before him and since, makes the argument that because each group claims to be the true heirs to Joseph Smith’s legacy, whether they recognize each other as such or not, they all belong to Joseph Smith’s Mormon faith. However, while they all might belong to the Mormon movement, Warren Jeffs is not LDS. For that matter, Lafferty brothers aren’t FLDS. In fact, most Mormon polygamists look and live more like TLC’s Sister Wives—consenting adults with jobs and careers, who wear clothes from the Gap instead of long prairie skirts and bonnets, whose children attend public schools in communities far away from Colorado City, and who reject the FLDS as dishonoring the Mormon tradition even more vociferously than the LDS Church. When I had the chance to visit with Sister Wives’ Kody Brown and his four wives when they came Boston in 2011 to film an episode of their very popular reality show, they told that the main reason that they chose to “come out” as polygamists was to try to displace Warren Jeffs as the dominant face of Mormon polygamy.

At its core, Krakauer’s thesis is that faith corrupts. And absolute faith—like those held by Mormon fundamentalists—corrupts absolutely, to the point that brothers kill another brother’s wife and child; to the point that thousands of parents allow their teenage daughters to become the spiritual brides of church leaders. The closer the faithful hue to the origins of the faith, the more radical the faithful. As such, the difference between the FLDS and the LDS is that the LDS has moved away from the founding principles (notably the “Principle” of polygamy) to become the kind of friendly, family-oriented Mormon friends and playmates, teachers and coaches, whom Krakauer encountered when he was a child in Oregon. But, according to Krakauer these Mormons’ faith still corrupted their ability to reason, to “sustain belief when confronted with facts that appear to refute it.”

And yet for Krakauer the corrupting power of faith isn’t particular to Mormonism. Mormonism—in the extreme form he presents it—becomes a case study of the irrationality and violence inherent to all faith. “As a means of motivating people to be cruel or inhumane,” Krakauer explains in the book’s introduction, “as a means of inciting evil, to borrow the vocabulary of the devout—there may be no more potent force than religion.”

Krakauer’s view on Mormonism in particular and religion in general is a problem. But it’s a problem not only for scholars of religion but also religious people, whose faith Krakauer reduces to a tool of coercion. And as such scholars of religion should pay attention to how, beyond just the FLDS and Warren Jeffs, the lives of the religious people whose sins and traumas Krakauer profiled with such pathos have unfolded since the publication of his book.

The case of Elizabeth Smart might be a good place to start. In Under the Banner of Heaven, Krakauer chronicles the then-14-year-old’s abduction from her Salt Lake City home in 2002 at the hands of another self-proclaimed polygamist Mormon prophet and his wife. Krakauer argues that it was Smart’s devotion to her LDS faith that made her susceptible to the manipulation of her kidnapper, who allegedly quoted revelations from Joseph Smith while he raped her almost nightly during her nine-month captivity. In recent years, Smart, who has become an advocate for victims of sex crimes and human trafficking, has herself spoken out against how traditional Mormon sexual purity lessons kept her from simply running away from her captures while they were walking the streets of Salt Lake City, just miles from her home.

Yet, as JB Haws pointed out to me, Elizabeth Smart, who recently gave birth to her first child with her husband whom she met on her Mormon mission in France, has also spoken about how her faith sustained her during and after her captivity. “I wonder if Elizabeth Smart’s resilience, activism and strength and religious commitment will give readers [of Under the Banner of Heaven] pause—a sort of a decade-later postscript,” Haws suggested. “Will it make readers ask, ‘What is it about Mormonism that produces more Elizabeth Smarts than Laffertys?’”

Max Perry Mueller is a contributing editor to Religion & Politics.

*Corrections: The youngest Lafferty brother’s name was Allen, but he was originally misidentified as Dan. The LDS Church ended polygamy in the nineteenth century, not the twentieth. Richard Bushman’s book was published in 2005, not 2007 as originally stated. The paperback version came out in 2007.


Jul 12, 2015

Memories of Waco Siege Continue to Fuel Far-Right Groups

New York Times
JULY 12, 2015

The Shadow of Waco

In 1993, federal agents raided the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Tex., and generated a legacy of fear that continues to shape antigovernment groups today.

On Wednesday, the Army is scheduled to begin two months of training exercises across the American Southwest. If the past is a reasonable guide, some on the outer reaches of the far right are bound to recycle warnings that martial law is at hand. Conspiracy theorists were singularly imaginative after these war games, code-named Jade Helm 15, were announced.

Among the dire predictions: Citizens’ guns will be confiscated. Political opponents of President Obama will be rounded up and herded into detention centers. Mr. Obama will suspend the Constitution and cling to office indefinitely. All this is part of a plan to establish a “new world order.”

While not endorsing those prophecies, Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas did little to tamp them down when he ordered the Texas State Guard to “continuously monitor” Jade Helm to reassure Texans that “their safety, constitutional rights, private property rights and civil liberties will not be infringed.”

As the conspiracy theories bubbled, Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carterwas asked point blank at a news conference in May if a military takeover of Texas was in the works. “No,” Mr. Carter replied. Laughter accompanied both the question and the response, underscoring how frivolous the very idea seemed to those in the room.

Still, that such an exchange even took place was testament to the deep mistrust of government harbored by some Americans, more than a few of whom come to any dispute heavily armed. Hostility toward the federal government is hardly new. It can be traced at least as far back as the anti-tax Whiskey Rebellion of the 1790s. But its modern roots may be summed up in a single word: Waco.

That word and its abiding significance are explored in the latest episode of Retro Report, a series of video documentaries that study the lasting consequences of major news stories of the past. For right-wing militias and so-called Patriot groups, Waco amounts to evidence of a tyrannical, illegitimate government unblinkingly prepared to kill its own people.

In early 1993, a religious sect with apocalyptic visions, the Branch Davidians, was ensconced in a compound called the Mount Carmel Center, just outside Waco, Tex. Its adherents were led — some would say dominated — by a man with a messianic sense of himself, David Koresh.

Agents of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms suspected that, whatever their theology, the Davidians were amassing an illegal arsenal. On Feb. 28, 1993, agents descended on Mount Carmel. A gun battle broke out. Each side blamed the other for having fired first. Either way, the results were disastrous: Four agents and half a dozen members of the sect were killed.

The shootout led to a 51-day siege, with the Federal Bureau of Investigation taking charge for the government. Hoping to induce a surrender, agents tried to disorient the Davidians — by way of sleep deprivation, for instance, with all-night floodlighting of the compound and the blaring of horrible sounds like the screams of rabbits being slaughtered.

All that did was impel the group to dig in. Finally, on April 19, the F.B.I. mounted a full assault, pumping in large quantities of military-grade tear gas. Fires, which independent investigators later deemed to have been set by the Davidians, engulfed the compound. Shooting could be heard inside. When it was all over, 75 people were dead, a third of them children. Some, including Mr. Koresh, had been shot by fellow sect members. There were few survivors.

The Waco events did not occur in a vacuum. Eight months earlier, federal agents laid siege to the compound of a family of white separatists in Ruby Ridge, Idaho. That encirclement also ended badly, with several people killed, among them a 14-year-old boy. F.B.I. officials later acknowledged that their operations at Ruby Ridge had been “terribly flawed.”

As for Waco, a Harvard professor of law and psychiatry, Dr. Alan A. Stone, took the F.B.I. to task in a report to the Justice Department in November 1993. An apocalyptic sect like the Branch Davidians should not have been handled as if it would “submit to tactical pressure” the way a band of ordinary criminals would, Dr. Stone said. Government agents sought to prove to Mr. Koresh that they were in control. Instead, Dr. Stone said, they drove him to the “ultimate act of control — destruction of himself and his group.”

The grim events in Texas and Idaho proved sobering for the government. Its agents began to exercise more patience with defiant militant groups. An armed standoff in 1996 with the Montana Freemen ended without a shot fired and with the Freemen’s surrender after 81 days. In Nevada last year, agents of the federal Bureau of Land Management tactically retreated rather than get into a shooting war with rifle-toting supporters of Cliven Bundy. Mr. Bundy, a rancher given to racist rants, owed the government more than $1 million in grazing fees amassed over two decades, but cast his refusal to pay as the act of a patriot and not, as many of his critics suspected, of a deadbeat.

Throughout, the specter of Waco has not faded. Right-wing extremists regularly invoke it as a defining moment, proof of Washington’s perfidy. “Waco can happen at any given time,” Mike Vanderboegh, a prominent figure in the Patriot movement, told Retro Report. He added ominously: “But the outcome will be different this time. Of that I can assure you.”

One man who took the notion of a different outcome to a murderous extreme was Timothy J. McVeigh, who went to Mount Carmel and observed the siege. On April 19, 1995, two years to the day after the mass deaths there, he and an accomplice, Terry L. Nichols, bombed a federal building in Oklahoma City, killing 168 people and wounding nearly 700 others. It was the most devastating act of domestic terrorism in American history. Mr. Nichols was sentenced to life in prison, Mr. McVeigh to death.

Interviewed in prison by two Buffalo News reporters in 2001, the year he was executed, Mr. McVeigh said: “Waco started this war. Hopefully, Oklahoma would end it. The only way they’re going to feel something, the only way they’re going to get the message is, quote, with a body count.”

Post-Waco, many on the radical right organized. The number of Patriot groups rose sharply, to 858 by 1996, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks such organizations. But the number then plummeted, to as few as 149 in 2008. That happened to be the year America elected its first African-American president. In short order, the number soared once more, to a peak of 1,360 groups (including 321 militias) in 2012, though the law center reports that they declined to 874 in 2014.

In a survey conducted last year for the Police Executive Research Forum, a nonprofit group, law enforcement agencies expressed far more concern about threats from right-wing extremists than from Islamic fanatics. The New America Foundation, a Washington research center, has found that since Sept. 11, 2001, nearly twice as many people in this country have been killed by non-Muslim extremists than by self-proclaimed jihadists.

Even some Branch Davidians worry about the new militancy. One of them is Clive Doyle, who survived the 1993 inferno while his 18-year-old daughter, Shari, died. “Now everything’s likened to us: ‘Is this going to be another Waco?’” Mr. Doyle told Retro Report. Referring to the Patriot groups, he added: “I appreciate their support and their sympathy. But you listen to what they’re saying, and some of them scare me.”

On the eve of Jade Helm 15, the government has yet to find firm footing in how to deal with those who take up arms in defiance of lawful authority. “Two decades after the Waco debacle, federal officials continue to struggle with their approach to radical right extremists,” the Southern Poverty Law Center said in a 2014 report. “What they learned from Waco was that a heavy-handed approach risks a major loss of life. Yet allowing the antigovernment movement to flout the law at gunpoint is surely not the answer.”

The video with this article is part of a documentary series presented by The New York Times. The video project was started with a grant from Christopher Buck. Retro Report has a staff of 13 journalists and 10 contributors led by Kyra Darnton. It is a nonprofit video news organization that aims to provide a thoughtful counterweight to today’s 24/7 news cycle. Previous episodes are at nytimes.com/retroreport.