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Are the Terms "Fundamentalism" And "Cult" Equivalent Terms?

Aug 13, 2008
In my mind, the term "cult" is an ugly word. It acquires that connotation by its usage. In a quite literal definition, the term refers to religion and religious practice, especially ceremonial practice. Therefore, we might refer to a bar mitzvah as part of the cult of Judaism. We might likewise refer to the Eucharist as being bound up with the cultus of Christianity. In its barest definition, the term "cult" is neither good or bad, evil or benign. It is a quite generic and non-specific word.

However, we all know that there is an entirely different meaning of the term "cult." When we think of that meaning, we usually think of some aberrant form of an established religion. Since there are so many varieties of belief within any given religious faith, it's a lamentable term - maybe not very useful. But, for the sake of argument, we must muddy the waters even further. It seems that many Christians use the term to refer to non-Christian religions in general. Many churches speak of Hinduism as a cult. Or they might refer to Zen as a cult. I've heard "A Course in Miracles" devotees called cultists. Even some techniques, such as transcendental meditation, which may be practiced completely apart from a belief in any sort of god, are often labeled cultish, despite the fact that many medical practitioners recommend meditation practice.

In its lamentable usage, it seems as if there are various defining characteristics assigned to the concept of a cult by those that use the word, a few come to mind quite readily:

1. Cults are authoritarian
2 Cults usually separate folks from mainstream society
3. Cults often use mind control methods
4. Cults brainwash people (This is a slightly nuanced version of number 4.)
5. Cults cause adherents to do illogical things
6. Cultists cannot be reasoned with by conventional methods

Usually, when cults are discussed, the discussion occurs in conservative churches, often churches that might be labeled fundamentalist or evangelical. (For the sake of this discussion both will be regarded as funadmentalist - although I know some evangelicals might object. "Evangelical" is a quite fluid term, historically identical to the term "fundamenatlist.") It would appear that fundamentalists have some need to "contend for the faith." It is rare to see many books written from a religious perspective dealing with cults that was not produced by a fundamentalist.This being the case - that they are the most likely to label alternative religious movements as cults - I am compelled to make a surprising observation. Usually, the characteristics ascribed by fundamentalists to cults - characteristics such as those listed above - are highly descriptive of Christian fundamentalism as well. This can be easily illustrated.

The characteristic of authoritarianism attributed to cults is surely true of fundamentalism. It is true on two counts. First, fundamentalism is a movement largely directed by charismatic figures. I'm not talking about the Warren Jeffs or similar folks here. I refer to the televangelists, megachurch leaders, and leaders of the religious right. Leading figures direct the faithful and teach them what to believe. Adherents "follow the leader" often blindly. This leads to the second source of authoritarianism. Here I am referring to the Bible/Bible interpretation package that directs fundamentalists. The Bible becomes a "paper pope," the fundamentalist interpreters regared as virtually infallible.

On the charge of trying to separate the faithful from mainstream society, surely the fundamentalist leaders must plead guilty. Adherents are encouraged to break ties with family and friends that get in the way of their belief system. They sometimes are forced to cut ties with friends in churches they attended before becoming fundamentalists. Alternative schools flourish to separate fundamentalist youth from "the world." Fundamentalists maintain separate institutions for arts (recording companies and labels, and publishing concerns, all adhering to the fundamentalist outlook) separate organizations teaching authoritarian ideas for husbands (Promise Keepers, for example), and distinct political action groups (guided by quasi-religious opinion).

Mind control methods? Yes, even here it must be noted that fundamentalists meet the qualification for cultists. Members of fundamentalist churches are taught to deny their questioning and maintain a mantra of "God said it! I believe it! That settles it!" Doubting and questioning are discouraged. "Proof texts" from the Bible are memorized for use when a church member might have a question. When taking up questions with church leaders, members are not enouraged to think things out for themselves. Just as when I was a fundamentalist, members are told the "right" answers for troubling questions.

Do fundamentalists brainwash people (remember, we are talking about the fundamentalist church down the street, not the Moonies)? They bombard them with many meetings each week. They often work themselves up into emotional frenzies. Even if that is not always so, one must admit that fundamentalist leaders know how to work emotionalism to arrive at their desired outcome. They threaten those who don't believe the "right way" with hell. They de-construct reality as we see it and create an alternate reality filled with devils, demons, and flaming perdition. Some have been able to get very sick folks to stop taking medicine to prove they have faith worthy of being healed. It would certainly appear to be a form of brainwashing.

What about logic? Is the fundamentalist's version of "science" logical? Is faith healing logical? Is it logical that mental illness is caused by demon possession? Is the fundamentalist world view logical?

What about reasoning with a fundamentalist? All I can say is forget it. We don't have enough time to review that question. Just give it a try some day.

It is a sad state of affairs that there are dangerous cults in our world. Certainly any fair-minded person would agree that white supremacist religious groups, polygamous groups, the Branch Davidians, Reverend Moon and his followers, and many others fit the negative use of the word cult. But, apparently so do fundamentalist Christians. They may not adopt the extremes that the "far out" cults embrace. They may be more socially acceptable. They may share many characteristics (perhaps negative) of Christianity in general. Nevertheless, the similarities remain. I have discovered all people are inconsistent (including yours truly). Maybe in one sense fundamentalists are no more inconsistent than the rest of us. But is fundamentalist Christianity a type of cult? We must agree, the similarities are striking.
About the Author
James C. Alexander, Ph.D. is an education professor at a church related college and a bi-vocational minister who publishes regularly in the areas of education and religion. His latest book is Stories of a Recovering Fundamentalism: Understanding and Responding to Christian Absolutism. His blog site is located at Repentant Fundie.
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