The ACLU has often fought for the rights of minority adherents, including Eastern spiritual seekers. BRAVO ACLU!
I might not be able to avoid criticising some attorneys for harassing minority faith groups. But my purpose here today is to praise the American Civil Liberties Union for often coming to the rescue of minority adherents.
The backdrop for understanding these issues is this: America was built on noble ideals of religious freedom which are part of its very soul. Yet, religious freedom is not a given; it must often be won and re-won by successive generations of immigrant groups or new faith groups which spring up indigenously. Counterbalancing the ideals of religious freedom, we sometimes find that conformism, populism, and authoritarianism lead America in a quite different, less flattering direction.
In the mid-nineteenth century, conformism meant that Catholics were harassed for worshipping differently than Protestants. Populism meant that the public’s imagination was inflamed by hate material vilifying Catholics, such as The Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk. This genre has sometimes been called Protestant pornography, since under the guise of reading about the allegedly depraved life led by Catholic nuns, a good deal of material appealing to prurient interest might be shoehorned in. (See The Oxford Companion To United States History, which states that the wave of Catholic immigration after 1820 “provided a large, visible enemy and intensified fears for American institutions and values. These anxieties inspired vicious anti-Catholic propaganda with pornographic overtones[.]”)
The same technique is used today by anti-cultists. The press isn’t usually too interested in the ideological quibbles anti-cultists have with minority faith groups; but if anti-cultists can manage to work in a sex angle, they may get the press to bite. This technique has been used by cynical opportunists like Elizabeth Kracht, who got “her” author Edwin Lyngar to plant a fake story with a sex angle in Salon. (Do journalists, literary agents, and editors know no shame? Apparently not. Kimberley Cameron & Associates, your conscience is calling!)
While conformism and populism deal to some extent with attitudes, authoritarianism typically includes a strong element of social control, here meaning some sort of heavy-handed attack on spiritual minorities which physically prevents them from practising their faith — church-burning being a prime example. Although we like to think of church-burning as belonging to the bad old days, at least one modern day attorney — Joe Kracht of the Lawton law firm of San Diego — has suggested that his former church “might as well be burned to the ground.”
Interestingly, he’s the brother of Elizabeth Kracht, leading me to wonder if there’s a dominant gene for intolerance, demagoguery, and hooliganism. 😉 It’s certainly odd that the Krachts (whose early upbringing was Catholic) resort to the same techniques used to harass Catholics in the nineteenth century. But from my general purpose I digress…
In the 1970s, as many people began exploring new religious movements (some of which were actually very old religious movements rooted in Hinduism or Buddhism), the familiar pattern from America’s darker side once again emerged: There was a strong nativist reaction to the new freedom in religious choice being expressed especially by young people. As John E. LeMoult recounts in his seminal “Deprogramming Members of Religious Sects,” published in the Fordham Law Review in 1978:
Pot-smoking, motorcycle-riding kids become serene quoters of Scripture or oriental tracts. Young people doff sweaters, sneakers, and blue jeans for ties, jackets, long skirts, or flowing saffron robes. Parents assume their once normal offspring have lost their minds, been “brainwashed.” But what has clearly happened is that the young people have undergone a thing called conversion.
To most Christian groups, conversion is a sudden infusion of grace into the soul, a new birth, accepting Jesus as one’s personal Savior. To eastern religions, it is a slower opening to the awareness of God within oneself, or the universal Self or Soul or Consciousness underlying all Being. It is achieved through chanting, yoga, or some form of meditation, and through the abandonment of the lower self (the ego with its base desires). By means of detachment, one attains a higher state of enlightenment and oneness with the essence of the world around him.
The conversion experience has been well described by [psychologist] William James in The Varieties of Religious Experience. He considers it a crystallizing of unconscious aims and wishes, previously “incubated” in “cold” centers of the mind, and suddenly becoming “hot” — brought to the surface by some crisis or experience and occupying the center of one’s thoughts and activities. James says this happens particularly to people in their teens, and that certain psychological and emotional changes are characteristic of all conversions. The fact that a dramatic change takes place in a converted youth is neither new nor sinister. It may simply be a case of arriving at a new identity, perhaps a “negative identity” with respect to the role offered as proper and desirable in one’s family.
One possible explanation for parents’ opposition to new religious sects may be the rejection of materialistic values by some of these sects. In this success and status oriented society, the true religion is often the acquisition of money, material goods, and power. Religions that eschew such goals attack the most dearly held values of the depression era generation and hit a raw nerve of hostility.
No one has proved that any religious sect which has been the target of deprogramming engages in physical restraint, abduction, or any other such practice. What is probably true of most such groups is that they offer warmth, friendship, authority, and a prescribed course of conduct laced with plenty of dogma. No doubt there are serious efforts to influence the thinking of the new adherent, but these are clearly not “brainwashing,” since the adherent is free to depart if he chooses.
The new, and I believe dangerous, element in this conflict between parents and children is “deprogramming.” Deprogrammers are people who, at the request of a parent or other close relative, will have a member of a religious sect seized, then hold him against his will and subject him to mental, emotional, and even physical pressures until he renounces his religious beliefs. Deprogrammers usually work for a fee, which may easily run as high as $25,000.
The deprogramming process begins with abduction. Often strong men muscle the subject into a car and take him to a place where he is cut off from everyone but his captors. He may be held against his will for upwards of three weeks. Frequently, however, the initial deprogramming only lasts a few days. The subject’s sleep is limited, and he is told that he will not be released until his beliefs meet his captors’ approval. Members of the deprogramming group, as well as members of the family, come into the room where the victim is being held and barrage him with questions and denunciations until he has recanted his newly found religious beliefs.
One would ask where deprogrammers get the authority to make these cosmic judgments about religious sects. What qualifications do they have to adjudge persons “brainwashed” or to apply dangerous methods of enforced behavior modification? Is this a group of psychiatrists, theologians, and social scientists? No. [Deprogrammer] Ted Patrick, for example, says he is a high school dropout. His only training appears to be a working knowledge of the Christian Bible. There is no evidence that he knows anything about eastern religions. Nor are there indications that other deprogrammers are qualified to make judgements about the mind, the soul, God, or the Unborn, Unoriginated, Unformed One.
Parents’ real concern is not with any allegedly illegal action on the part of various sects, but with the process by which new members are proselytized and then confirmed in their beliefs by leaders of the groups. That process is speech. Preaching, praying, chanting, teaching, and meditating all constitute practices heavily protected by the Constitution.
— John E. LeMoult, from “Deprogramming Members of Religious Sects” [footnotes omitted]
An article in The Guardian on religious conversion takes the help of both William James and Carl Jung:
[People who experience conversion] can show a sense of regeneration, or a reception of grace, or a gift of assurance. What distinguishes religious conversion from more humdrum experiences of change is depth. Human beings quite normally undergo alterations of character: we are one person at home, another at work, another again when we awake at four in the morning. But religious conversion, be it sudden or slow, results in a transformation that is stable and that causes a revolution in those other parts of our personality.
Jung thought that the unconscious could play a redemptive role in life. Hence, conversion can be thought of as a precipitation from the unconscious and is, generally, for the good. It reorientates the individual around a new centre of previously submerged energy.
Conversion matters to James for reasons other than that it is a common religious experience. He recognises that the strongest evidence for the existence of God is found in such personal, inner experience.
James examines what he takes to be the most valuable material: the best articulated and most profound records of conversion. For him, to do otherwise would be like declaring you were going to study music by excluding the work of Bach in favour of nursery rhymes, on the grounds that more people sing Three blind mice than the St Matthew Passion.
— Mark Vernon, “William James, part 4: The psychology of conversion”
The latter jibes with a cardinal point made by the late sociologist of religion Dr. Bryan R. Wilson:
The first duty of those who wish to present a fair picture of a religious fellowship is to seek the views of those who are faithfully committed to it and to undertake a first-hand study of their lifestyle.
— Dr. Bryan R. Wilson, from this published letter
The common thread here is the admonition to go to the source, to consult people who actually practice and live a particular faith, rather than basing one’s conclusions on secondary sources which may be compromised by various forms of self-interest, including the apostate’s need for self-justification, or the deprogrammer’s need to ply his or her trade. (See this earlier post on finding reliable spiritual sources.)