Rethinking Jonestown

A new academic movement argues that cults fulfill needs not met by our soulless consumer society.

Published June 17, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

Cults make great video. The TV newsmagazines have rediscovered this lately, and it's a good bet they won't forget it as we count down to the millennium. This spring, ABC's "PrimeTime Live" devoted a segment to a group called the Brethren -- an itinerant cult, adept at recruiting teenagers, whose male members resemble Hasidic Deadheads. (The group combines intense Bible study with regular dumpster-diving expeditions.) Another hard-hitting exposi concerned the followers of an Arizona New Age figure called Gabriel of Sedona -- a channel for space beings who reveal (in high-pitched voices) that the earth will soon be a paradise. The bummer is that certain catastrophic events are scheduled in the meantime. This good news-bad news message has attracted a number of disciples who've turned their possessions over to the group; they now live in a commune. A hidden camera recorded a session in which the space folk insisted on two basic points: 1.) Obey Gabriel! and 2.) Don't leave the compound!

Besides offering a lot of emotionally charged visuals -- charismatic leaders, glassy-eyed followers, weeping families desperate to renew contact with children who have disappeared into an alternative reality -- cults generate a special thrill in the viewing audience: an almost Gothic sensation of contact with the mad, bad and dangerous-to-know. What makes these people tick? Who knows what they're planning? What are they capable of?

It's been a little over a year since the Heaven's Gate crew gobbled down their toxic pudding cups -- and not quite 20 years (the anniversary is in November) since Jim Jones preached his final sermon in Guyana, assuring his congregation that the world would never forget their gesture of "revolutionary suicide." And those are the images that inevitably come to mind whenever the subject is cults: massed corpses, sprawled face down on the jungle floor or arranged neatly on beds in a mansion, dressed in uniforms.

But is this fair? The difference between a cult and an established religion is sometimes about one generation. In the mid-19th century, the Mormons evoked much the same horrified fascination as did the followers of Rev. Moon. And the comparison does fit, come to think of it. During the '70s, media coverage of the Moonies aroused tremendous public anxiety. Then they launched the Washington Times, a conservative newspaper that pretty much printed Reagan administration press releases under a reporter's byline. Suddenly you didn't hear very much about the sinister Unification Church anymore. Good business practices -- like buying Utah real estate when it was cheap, or giving the Republicans a newspaper of their own -- can bring a cult into the mainstream with alacrity.

For one group of scholars, the word "cult" itself has become a problem. They claim it's too charged with emotion to be useful, and have adopted the term "new religious movements," or NRMs, instead. According to NRM researchers, the emergence of nontraditional beliefs and living arrangements during the '60s and '70s provoked a strong societal backlash. This had its most concentrated expression in the rise of a self-described "anti-cult movement" (frequently abbreviated as ACM), which consisted mainly of people confused and upset by family members' involvement in new religious groups. The anti-cultists also included a certain number of academics, journalists and professional "deprogrammers."

The anti forces helped promote a certain view of new beliefs and organizations as "cultic" -- that is, intrinsically totalitarian, exploitative and destructive. This stereotype ignores the considerable variety among doctrines and organizations so labeled. Or so goes the argument of those who prefer the term new religious movement -- which carries no emotional overtones at all. It's comfortingly jargonlike and bland, and fits anything from Scientology to the Promise Keepers.

For those who are interested, there are NRM monographs on everything from the Rastafarians to the Branch Davidians, as well as on a wide variety of New Age currents. My favorite NRM book, by far, is a 1995 collection of essays called "The Gods Have Landed: New Religions from Other Worlds" (State University of New York Press). There are papers on the loosely organized "contactee" groups of the '50s, on the benign kitschiness of the Unarius Academy in San Diego -- and on the following of "the Two," which later became Heaven's Gate. Some of these organizations are creepy; others just seem odd. But the diversity among them suggests that NRM scholars are on to something. New religions, even those with an extraterrestrial component, aren't all the same.

Whatever advantages this kind of relabeling may have for academic research, its benefits are even greater for groups that otherwise might be labeled as cults. Particularly vehement in denouncing the term cult as "hate speech" is the Church of Scientology. After climbing the hierarchy and paying the church many tens of thousands of dollars, a believer is permitted to read certain handwritten documents by founder L. Ron Hubbard, the late science-fiction writer and sometime amphetamine enthusiast, who provides instructions on how to rid one's body of "thetans" -- i.e., a species of intergalactic cooties sent to Earth billions of years ago by the evil cosmic overlord Xenu. Half the actors in Hollywood have spent at least a little time in this new religious movement, yet somehow it has not gained perfect respectability. (Imagine John Travolta in his trailer, after a long day in front of the camera, yelling "Get behind me, thetan!")

But perhaps the most striking expression of anti-anti-cult thinking is a new book called "Hearing the Voices of Jonestown," by Mary McCormick Maaga, who's currently a pastor of a United Methodist Church in New Jersey. If Jones' Peoples Temple wasn't a cult, then the term has no meaning. That's obvious. And Maaga would agree. That is, in fact, precisely her claim: The Peoples Temple wasn't a cult, and the word itself is an expression of bigotry.

The argument is compelling in its sheer chutzpah. The more than 900 people killed by poison and bullets in Guyana were not victims of a madman; their deaths were not pointless. "Peoples Temple was an attempt by its founder and participants to create an egalitarian society in which hierarchies based upon race, class, and gender would be erased," writes Maaga, invoking the holy trinity of multicultural academia. "The horrific end to the Peoples Temple grew out of a combination of both its success and failure in creating a community based upon Christian and socialist ideals."

Her book employs the critique of cult stereotypes developed by new religious movement scholars. Here's how the argument goes: In modern, secularized society, it is very nearly impossible to imagine that people could be passionately and consequentially involved in a religious belief system. We are expected to make our deepest commitment to some combination of work, love and recreation. Should these familiar and sanctioned things fail to engage us deeply enough, there is therapy -- and also a certain number of religious groups that have the sanction of tradition.

At least these established organizations won't take you too far from mainstream life. By contrast, a group likely to be dubbed a cult makes substantial demands on the member. Its existential gratifications may be so profound that the person withdraws completely from the established institutions. (You may even forget to be a good consumer, and give your money to the group instead.)

For society at large, this is anxiety-inducing. And so, to defend itself, the mainstream conjures up images of the "cult member" and "cult leader" -- treating them as pathological Others who are either 1.) somewhat "touched in the head" to begin with or 2.) very quickly rendered so by the charisma and brainwashing techniques of the leader. According to this consoling stereotype, the group's ideas and decisions flow from the top down. Cultists are passive. They absorb (and obey) the leader's word. They surrender responsibility -- in effect, their souls -- to someone else.

In the case of Jonestown, Maaga is quick to label this notion as racist. The leader, Jim Jones, was white. The majority of his followers were black, and to depict them as brainless slaves doing their master's bidding has unsavory overtones. Maaga also dismisses what she calls the "deprivation theory" of Peoples Temple recruitment -- the idea that poor and/or elderly African-Americans were attracted to the group because they were impoverished and otherwise socially disenfranchised. People joined, and remained, not because Jones had some power to cloud their minds, but because he preached a message of social equality and revolutionary justice. He gave them something capitalist society could not.

Maaga insists that the group was appealing in ways that should not be trivialized. Members drew meaning and self-respect from Jones' teaching. (That is far more important than the fact that Rev. Jim -- also known as "Dad" -- eventually discovered he was the reincarnation of Jesus Christ and V.I. Lenin.)

The "anti-cultist" stereotype treats followers as puppets on a string, jerking when the leader twitches. Maaga, by contrast, emphasizes the "agency" of Temple members. They possessed intellect and free will. Jonestown held periodic "assemblies" at which anyone could speak, where issues facing the community could be discussed. Maaga does admit that, unfortunately, this institution of participatory democracy became less and less open as time went on. "Assembly" gatherings became a kind of theater or ritual, directed by Jones' inner circle of apostles -- mostly white and mostly female -- who administered the group's day-to-day operations.

It is this core group, more than the black rank-and-file, that Maaga is especially concerned with defending -- even celebrating. The standard image of the male cult leader (David Koresh, for instance) treats him as a sexual predator. His revelations entitle him to full gratification of the libido; building a harem is not simply a fringe benefit of his power but its clearest expression. Maaga flips this interpretation of Jonestown on its head. There was no "glass ceiling" preventing women's advancement at Jonestown! "Within Peoples Temple," she writes, "there was an opportunity for some women to exercise power and authority beyond what either their gender or educational training would have allowed in mainstream society." Sex with "Dad" was
empowerment itself: "It was the power to influence Jim Jones and the authority to make decisions about the day-to-day functioning of Peoples Temple."

Yet, despite all this wonderfulness, members defected from the group. There was, for one thing, what the laity came to refer to as Rev. Jim's "blood sugar problem," which required him to gobble down a wide array of pharmaceuticals. The press began to have a closer look at Jones, who in the early 1970s had developed some impressive connections with the San Francisco political establishment. The utopian project of Jonestown seemed threatened; a siege mentality set in.

And so Jones instituted the sacrament of the "White Night" -- a call to group suicide designed to test and solidify his congregation's devotion. Members drank the ritual Kool-Aid a number of times, but without real poison.

Evidently this did not fully convince the core group of its following's loyalty. Maaga reproduces a lengthy and very disturbing letter to Jones from one of the (dynamic, autonomous) women closest to him: "I never thought people would line up to be killed but actually think a select group would have to kill the majority of the people secretly without the people knowing it ... I am basically cynical about how far you can trust our people ... I'll do whatever is expected of me no matter what you have me to do." Hear the "voices of Jonestown"! What a joyous spirit of communal democracy!

Despite banishing the word cult from her vocabulary, Maaga nonetheless ends up drawing conclusions that no one would dispute: "People's Temple developed the level of loyalty that led them to suicide in part because its view of the world was based on a highly developed 'insider-outsider' ideology and also because the views of only one group of people -- the inner circle surrounding Jim Jones -- were privileged over those of the others." At some points, the argument seems almost to parody itself. Jim Jones was no cult leader, dominating the life of the group. After all, Maaga says, decisions about livestock and agricultural work were made without his direct supervision.

Not every group with unusual beliefs (and "a highly developed 'insider-outsider' ideology") is bound to end up like Jones' flock. The panicky and stereotypical discourse on cults needs to be scrutinized. But "Hearing the Voices of Jonestown" -- in treating Peoples Temple as simply another variety of religious experience -- reduces the arguments of new religious movements scholarship to absurdity.

Jim Jones employed the rhetoric of social radicalism -- democracy, equality, justice. And what was the end product of the "agency" of Temple members? Corpses, the stench of death, a cloud of flies. Thinking about what happened during the final White Night in Guyana, 20 years ago, means confronting a question that sociology is ill-equipped to address -- and that theology has seldom answered to anyone's satisfaction: namely, the problem of evil.

By Scott McLemee

Scott McLemee, a contributing editor at Lingua Franca, writes regularly for Salon.

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