The word “cult” gets tossed around to the point it takes on pejorative meanings. I resist using it, however, when the technical definitions are not met.
Strong allegiance to a religious or political leader is not enough to make one a cultist. Therefore, calling the broader swath of supporters of the current president or anyone else a cultist would be inaccurate.
But it is fair to ask if within this sea of political loyalists are those, in great number, who have taken Trumpism to the point of cultism.
The idea of a “cult of personality” was certainly raised by Trump himself when he bragged he could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot someone and not lose any voters.
His egregious behavior that followed – while retaining significant support, especially among conservative white Christians – suggests the accuracy of this claim from someone known for repeated inaccuracies.
While a cult rests on blind and unwavering allegiance to an authoritative leader, there are more requirements.
These include rejection of criticism and critical thinking, treating disagreement as disloyalty, allowing no room for independent decision making, a process of indoctrination (sometimes called brainwashing) and the elevation of specific teachings to an inerrant, infallible status.
Unfounded conspiracy theories about secret power structures and history-changing events on the horizon, unknown to or unaccepted by the masses, are fully embraced by cultists. Verifiable facts to the contrary are not persuasive.
Logic is sacrificed for inclusion in the esoteric group, and fears stirred by these theories fuel greater allegiance to the leader who is deemed the only source of hope.
Other typical marks include secrecy about finances, and leadership that is not held to behavioral standards expected of others. No room is allowed for truth to arise from within; it is dispensed solely and without questioning by an authoritative leader.
The Peoples Temple, led by minister Jim Jones, is one of the most extreme forms of cultic behavior, leading to the deaths of more than 900 followers in Jonestown, Guyana. The common use of “drinking the Kool-Aid,” when referring to someone uncritically accepting so-called truth espoused by an authoritarian leader, came from this tragic incident on Nov. 18, 1978.
This event coincided with my theological studies. So, I delved into it, trying to understand how religious people can become so easily led astray from truth, hope and life itself.
Many years later, as a writer, I contributed to the body of work exploring this phenomenon – the Jonestown Project, sponsored by the religious studies department at San Diego State University.
The extreme devotion to Jim Jones and the deadly results from his followers’ allegiance left no doubt that the Peoples Temple met every definition of a cult. But while the designation can be assigned too easily, the identifying marks can also be overlooked or excused.
Indeed, conservative Christians, often the first to warn of the dangers of cults, tend to find the identifying marks of cult behavior outside their own tent but rarely within.
During my earlier career in campus ministry, I became convinced that adherents to Bill Gothard and his Basic Youth Conflicts Seminars met the criteria for cultists. As part of my doctoral studies, I attended one of his seminars and researched this organization’s methodologies and doctrines, as well as his unlikely attraction.
He was not charismatic, but a quiet little man who never left home as an adult. My exploration and analysis of Gothard occurred long before he was exposed as a manipulator and alleged abuser of young women, which led to his removal from leadership late in his life.
Indeed, I discovered, all of the defining marks of a cult were present. Gothard spoke authoritatively with the assurance that God had spoken directly to him. Nothing could be questioned. There was no room for dialogue.
It was a pipeline of so-called ‘truth.” Therefore, he could give a quick, simple answer to a doctrinal matter, such as “the problem of evil,” without even acknowledging the complexities and challenges with which generations of theologians have wrestled.
The ridiculousness of those in attendance – who apparently exchanged their brains for sponges upon entering the hall – uncritically accepting Gothard was staggering. Gothard even told of a girl who suffered vision problems because she owned a Cabbage Patch doll named for the Norse god of blindness.
I looked around the sea of faces to see if anyone else might have noticed that this “Christian Bible teacher” had just confessed to being polytheist. Apparently not.
Later, when based on my studies, I offered critiques of Gothard among various evangelical Christian groups, he was roundly defended, and I was dismissed as not believing the Bible.
Gothard’s big red notebook – made available only to those who shelled out money to attend his institute – was clearly given the same authoritative status as the Bible itself if not more.
Numerous buses from Baptist churches and others, from miles and miles around Atlanta, were parked outside the convention center. Indoctrination by a cult leader had not been the advertised purpose of their trips, but it was the reality.
No two cults are exactly alike. But the same basic ingredients are always in the mix.
Trumpism follows this familiar pattern and checks all the marks, with unwavering allegiance – not to a party, organization or ideology as much as to an oversized personality who can save them from what they fear the most. This human savior, alone, can fix it.