One of the themes that emerged out of the Stockholm conference was the way in which cults often divide families. This also seems to be a theme that pertains to many high-demand Christian groups, from the JWs to independent fellowships like Trinity Brentwood. Recently Nigel Davies, the blogmaster who writes about the latter church, has been describing the way that his own daughter was alienated from the family by the machinations of the Trinity leadership. While the details of this are not given us, there is enough information to see the kind of traps and techniques that were employed. I will be returning to Nigel’s daughter later but I want to set out first the processes that I believe are involved when cult leaders wreak devastation on families, by splitting them apart and creating divisions and alienation.
Every cult or high demand religious group has one thing in common, a charismatic leader. This adjective ‘charismatic’ is a little slippery in its meaning, but here it refers to the fact of an (normally male) attractiveness to others. The quality of being attractive to would-be followers will have elements, not only of physical magnetism, but also the ability to entrance and fascinate through words and teaching. The relationship that will exist between this charisma and those that are drawn to it will have some of the qualities of ‘being in love’. In most cases the relationship will not have a sexual component but other aspects of being in love will be present. These include a sense that the charisma is ‘the’ answer to current questions and uncertainties. The leader will be able to persuade the follower to trust in his words in the same that the lover is completely prepared to trust the object of his love. The word ‘fascinate’ plays an important part in this process. In a book written about 100 years ago, Rudolf Otto described what he called the Idea of the Holy. This set out the notion that to be attracted to a holy object, idea or person was a key component in religious experience. This object was said to be a ‘tremendous mystery that fascinates’. I have often pondered Otto’s ideas since first reading them. They seem to apply to the experiential forms of religion that have appeared in the past 50 years. Both mainstream forms of religion and the cultic manifestations seem to tap into the need of people to be drawn to forms of new experience. They do not understand these but they are fascinated and enthralled by them.
The relationship with a religious leader and a follower is itself something to be pondered about in every type of religious group. Even the boring old C of E is not always free from unhealthy dynamics in this area. In cultic groups the leader will often get close to the followers and work his ‘magic’ on the followers, typically young, directly. Sometimes he is kept deliberately remote so that the follower has to make do only with occasional glimpses of him. These manifestations will be rationed so that the followers are kept to a high pitch of longing for the leader’s attention. However the dynamic of the religious group operates, there is clearly a very important bond between leader and led that is developed and cultivated in the group. The power of charisma is not to be underestimated as an important dynamic in every kind of church. Attractive people will always find it easier to persuade others and indeed get their own way. A readiness to ‘convert’ may come out of an intense desire to please.
When we enter the murky world of more obviously malign cults and extreme Christian groups, we see more clearly how charisma often becomes toxic. The experience of having perhaps dozens of followers being in love with you will easily turn the head of many leaders. He may or may not translate the adoration of disciples into the sexual conquest of female (or male) members, but he is highly likely to exploit them in other ways. We have looked at the issue of inflated salaries and financial perks in the last post and we can pass that over for now. The real temptation for toxic charismatic leaders is to have the undivided attention and adoration of individuals who will be loyal to them alone, untrammelled by family or other attachments. The splitting apart of families in cultic groups often seems to come about as the desire of a leaders to have the complete loyalty of one individual. Other loyalties must be put aside so that the relationship may be ‘pure’ and uncontaminated. You can imagine a leader whispering to a favoured follower about leaving all, including families and possessions, for the sake of the kingdom. The sense of fascination and enthrallment with the leader will allow the favoured one so honoured to commit the blasphemy of abandoning wives, husbands and children to follow the suggested path of utter devotion to the leader. The acolyte will believe that that they are doing it for God but in reality they have be seduced by the attraction of charismatic power.
The word ‘seduction’ with its overtones of sex and irrationality is a good one to use in the context of cultic groups. The combination of religion, power and heady experience is hard to resist for many people. The follower will feel intoxicated with all the attention that is lavished on him or her by the leader. But such intoxication will last only so long as they remain in the leader’s favour. The motivation for pushing out the follower’s spouse and children, which was to gain the undivided loyalty of the follower, was based on something fairly fickle. Very quickly the once favoured individual can find themselves passed over in favour of someone else. The devastation can be tremendous. It is a bit like leaving a husband or wife for another lover, only to find that the new lover has no intention of remaining loyal. The jilted follower is also left devastated in a similar quandary. They have been betrayed by a cult leader who has used his power abusively and without a trace of real concern for the well-being of the follower.
The fragments of Nigel Davis’ story in connection with Trinity Brentwood seem to fit in with this pattern. When Nigel left the church in 1997, the leaders appealed to the loyalty of his daughter to remain part of the church. This ‘seduction’ lasted only long enough to alienate her from the family and so, when she too left the church, she fell into the arms, not of her family, but of people who cared nothing for her well-being. Bereft of family support she has tragically acquired a drug problem which now threatens her life.
This blog post has tried to uncover the dynamic of the way that some religious and cultic groups use the ‘seduction’ of charisma firstly to attract and hold members, and then often discard them as the whim of the leader so decides. The effect on the well-being of people treated in this way and on their alienated families is nothing short of ruinous. Family relationships are extremely difficult to repair in these circumstances. That individuals in charge of these groups can behave with evident cruelty towards their followers is seemingly a mystery. But we have to leave an explanation as to how leaders possess such capacity for indifference towards their followers as a subject for another blog post.