Holy Alliance: The Cult Scare and the Shifting Politics of American Religious Freedom, 1975-1985

by Tisa Wenger, Yale University

Professor Wenger’s remarks may be viewed HERE.

How did the “cult scare” of the 1970s, when controversies raged over new religious movements like the Church of Scientology and the Unification Church, change the politics of religious freedom in America? Surprisingly, my research suggests that the cult scare and its aftermath helped make religious freedom a key rallying cry for the new religious right.

The tragedy of Jonestown in December 1978, when more than nine hundred members of the radical “People’s Temple” commune died in a mass suicide in rural Guyana, gripped the American public’s imagination. The covers of Time and Newsweek famously depicted horrific scenes of bodies scattered around the Jonestown compound. Some writers distinguished “the Moonies, the Scientologists, or the Hare Krishnas” from the “insanities of Jonesism,” but most associated all new religious movements with the People’s Temple.

Jonestown gave the burgeoning anti-“cult” movement an unexpected boost. State legislatures took up bills aimed at controlling such groups. Advocates of “deprogramming” sought to extend conservatorship laws to enable family members to take responsibility for adults allegedly held mentally captive by a cult. The IRS and other federal agencies investigated reports of fraud and financial mismanagement against the Unification Church, the Church of Scientology, and other controversial groups and challenged their tax-exempt status.   

Two months after Jonestown, Senator Bob Dole (R-Kan.) convened an informal congressional hearing on the “cult phenomenon in the United States.” The anti-cult “experts” who testified included a staffer who had accompanied Rep. Leo Ryan (D-Cal.) to Jonestown, psychologists and popular writers, and a Catholic priest who argued that prosecuting “pseudo-religious cults” would not violate the freedoms of legitimate religions. The handful of defenders of new religious movements who were belatedly invited to speak included representatives of the ACLU and mainstream religious organizations, but an unexpected speaker: Neil Salonen, the Unification Church in America president, who appeared without an invitation and was grudgingly allowed to speak. In his remarks, Salonen linked the interests of his church to the principle of religious freedom, arguing that the anti-cult movement was anti-religious and was targeting an ever wider circle of religious groups, including “born-again Christians… transcendental meditation, [and] Christians who receive the gift of tongues.”

Salonen was seeking to align the Unification Church with conservative evangelicals but none spoke at the hearing on either side and continued to keep their distance from the Rev. Sun Myung Moon. Speaking at an October, 1981 “Rally for Religious Freedom” following his arraignment on federal charges of tax fraud and conspiracy, Moon represented his trial as a new episode in America’s long history of racial and religious persecution, but evangelicals remained disinclined to support Moon, much less the new religious movements, which they had criticized for their theological heterodoxies. Some, convinced that the “cults” were a danger to society, joined in anti-cult organizations like FREECOG (Free the Children of God). Most, however, avoided direct political engagement on either side.

By the mid-1980s, however, feeling themselves increasingly under siege from a secular society, many conservative evangelical activists were rethinking the politics of religious freedom and with it their approach to new religious movements. The Christian Inquirer headlined its May 1981 issue with a piece entitled “Pastor & Wife Threatened with Jail,” which told the story of Nebraska pastor Everett Sileven, who refused to cooperate with state licensing requirements for his church school. Another article reported an IRS investigation of the Church of Christian Liberty in Brookfield, Wisconsin, for alleged “noncompliance” with government requirements for tax exemption. The Moral Majority had also begun to publicize a host of evangelical crusades in the language of religious freedom. “Church schools and many preachers are being harassed by the liberal forces, and their religious liberties are being tampered with,” complained Jerry Falwell in his 1983 Special Report. The right to practice and proclaim Christianity in the public sphere was becoming a rallying cry.

By 1984, some right-wing evangelicals had found a congruence between their cause and the religious freedom claims of the Unification Church. At a conference on religious freedom held in January 1984 by the Center for Judicial Studies, panels titled “The Case Against the Internal Revenue Service” addressed the cases of Bob Jones University and the Rev. Moon. The panel moderator was right-wing political theorist Cleon Skousen. The conference provided conservative evangelicals a sympathetic introduction to Moon’s cause.

Evangelicals would prove invaluable allies in the Unification Church’s long quest for religious legitimacy. The church contributed start-up funds to the nascent Coalition for Religious Freedom (CRF), whose first president, the Rev. Greg Dixon, a Baptist pastor from Indianapolis, had, as head of the American Coalition of Unregistered Churches, had helped publicize Everett Sileven’s case. With fundamentalist luminaries like Hal Lindsey, Timothy LaHaye, and Jimmy Swaggart on its Executive Committee and Board of Directors, CRF made a significant impact in evangelical circles. In CRF-organized rallies around the country in May and June of 1984, thousands of pastors signed the group’s “Religious Liberty Proclamation” and pledged to stand in solidarity with Moon and Sileven, to observe the second Sunday each June as “Religious Liberty Day,” and to organize religious liberty committees in their churches and communities.

CRF leaders also helped convince a subcommittee of the Senate Judiciary Committee, chaired by Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), to hold an oversight hearing on Religious Liberty. CRF board member James Kennedy, pastor of the fundamentalist Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Ft. Lauderdale, testified that atheists were attempting to force a communistic secular humanism on the American people, and had distorted the meaning of religious freedom through the misleading “cliché of the separation of Church and State.” By attempting to limit and control the activities of religious groups the government was directly transgressing the real meaning of the First Amendment.

Evangelical conservatives had found—sometimes to their amazement — that the Unification Church shared much of their political orientation, especially anti-communism and celebration of American exceptionalism. Highlighting Moon’s cause also helped evangelicals make the case that they were not attempting to impose their own religious vision on all Americans, but were simply calling for a return to national ideals of religious liberty.

That theme emerged in sharp relief during the “Pageant and Rally for Religious Freedom,” held in Washington, D.C. in July, 1984. Over a hundred actors and musicians dramatized the history of American religious freedom, from Roger Williams to James Madison to Everett Sileven. The Washington Post reported that “the most dramatic moment” was “an emotional message” delivered by the Rev. Moon’s daughter, In Jin Moon, who told the story of her father’s  liberated from a concentration camp in North Korea by American troops in 1950 and his journey to America 21 years later “to do God’s will and repay [his] gratitude.” Now he had been wrongfully imprisoned solely for practicing his faith, in violation of America’s tradition of religious freedom. The crowd of four thousand, many of them heartland evangelicals, waved pre-printed placards in Moon’s support and “broke into a prolonged chant of “FREE REV. MOON!”

Not everyone was happy with this turn of events. One Illinois pastor told the Post that like many of those present he had accepted an all-expenses-paid trip to D.C. only to find out later that his trip was “paid for by the Unification Church,” and that he “felt a little bit used.” Several CRF board members along with the organization’s first president, Greg Dixon, left the organization because they believed it had become a mouthpiece for the Unification Church.

CRF found a variety of ways to foreground “religious freedom” as a key frame for evangelical concerns. An hour-long documentary film, “Assault on Freedom,” aired in almost a hundred major media markets in January 1985. The following year CRF’s new president, Donald Sills, a Baptist pastor, embarked on a cross-country tour, accompanied by Skousen, to make the case for the Christian origins and foundations of the nation. CRF mailed free educational materials and newsletters to pastors around the country and its Religious Freedom Alert carried stories on the  growing “government encroachment on religion” in the U.S. The Alert regularly accused the deprogrammers of targeting members of evangelical churches they considered “cults” simply because they made Christianity a full-time commitment. To CRF, the anti-cult movement was just one more avenue for secularist attacks on the free practice of Christianity.

The “new religious right” attached enormous meaning and significance to the idea of religious freedom and that reshaped public and legal frameworks for religious freedom in late twentieth-century America. While from one perspective, the alliance between conservative evangelicals and the Unification Church seems surprising, from another it makes sense. The proliferation of new religious movements in the early 1970s triggered the creation of anti-“cult” organizations, which labeled a disparate assortment of new religious movements “cults”, accused them of posing a danger to American society, and portrayed members of such groups as captives. In the 1970s, it was civil libertarians and mainline Protestants who were most vocal in defense of new religious movements. Ten years later, CRF and its affiliated organizations had articulated and promoted a vision of religious freedom that while not inspired by the Unification Church was shared by it. The Rev. Moon had not initiated the evangelicals’ concern for religious freedom, and their alliance remained a tentative one. But their convergence of interests helped make religious freedom a conservative rallying cry for the culture wars of the late twentieth century and well into the twenty-first.

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Tisa Wenger is Assistant Professor of American Religious History in the Divinity School and in American Studies at Yale University, where her courses address topics such as race and religion, religion in the American West, religious freedom in US history, and Native American encounters with Christianity. Her book We Have a Religion: The 1920s Pueblo Indian Dance Controversy and American Religious Freedom (University of North Carolina Press, 2009) explored the dilemmas of religious freedom for Native Americans. Her next book will chart the shifting meanings of religious freedom in the twentieth-century U.S.

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