Cults

Why did that bizarre AR-15 wedding-renewal rite get big-time national news play?

Why did that bizarre AR-15 wedding-renewal rite get big-time national news play?

"Crossroads" host Todd Wilken opened our conversation this week with a rather snarky question: Why did those rather bizarre AR-15 infused wedding rededication rites at the World Peace and Unification Sanctuary draw attention from national media? (Click here to tune that in.)

Obviously, it had something to do with the mass-shooting in Parkland, Fla.

So this story had guns. That's a very big deal right now.

What else? This is the snarky part. The Associated Press report featured a car in parking lot with a sign requesting prayer for President Donald Trump. So the story had -- sort of -- the Trump factor. There was an earlier "President Trump Thank You" dinner.

What else? Maybe a bit more snark. It also had amazing visual images -- always crucial in a world of glowing screens -- showing lots of very non-mainstream looking religious people. The crowns made out of rifle bullets were especially nice.

Thus, Wilken said, you have guns, Trump and crazy religious people. And the tsunami of Parkland follow-up stories on AR-15s provided the news hook, turning a rather strange local or regional story into a national story. Take it away NPR:

Hundreds of faithful at a Pennsylvania church on Wednesday carried AR-15-style rifles in adherence to their belief that a "rod of iron" mentioned in the Bible refers to the type of weapon that was used in last month's mass shooting in Parkland, Fla.
The armed ceremony at World Peace and Unification Sanctuary in Newfoundland, about 20 miles southeast of Scranton, featured gun-toting worshippers, some wearing crowns of bullets as they participated in communion and wedding ceremonies.
Attendants carefully placed a zip tie into the receiver magazine well of each weapon to assure that a clip could not be loaded.
Concern over Wednesday's gathering prompted a nearby elementary school to cancel classes for the day.

Now, pay close attention to that last part. This congregation has held these rites before. Were classes at that school cancelled then?

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Blessing the AR-15s: So this was a 'mass' in an ordinary church linked to famous 'evangelist'?

Blessing the AR-15s: So this was a 'mass' in an ordinary church linked to famous 'evangelist'?

If you want to understand the current cyberspace freakout about those church rites to bless AR-15 rifles (or something like that, that were based on the Bible, or something like that), please watch this CBS News video.

If you are a journalist who works on the religion beat, you are going to want to place coffee cups or other beverage containers far, far away from your computer keyboard or the glowing-screen device of your choice. Try to stay calm.

Did you watch the video? OK, now let's proceed. Based on the contents of this video, answer this: Who are these people and what kind of church is this?

Apparently, these are run-of-the-mill Christians at a normal church. Right?

Or maybe you turned to CNN for further information -- like this online report, with this headline: "Pennsylvania couples clutching AR-15 rifles renew wedding vows." Pretty far into this report, news consumers learn the following about the Rev. Sean Moon, the head of this organization:

Moon is the son of Rev. Sun Myung Moon, who founded the Unification Church in the 1950s. Before he died in 2012 at age 92, the elder Moon was a high-profile international evangelist for decades. He was famous for conducting mass weddings, including at New York City's Madison Square Garden and another one uniting 360,000 couples in South Korea.
The Sanctuary Church calls itself Rod of Iron Ministries, and is a breakaway faction of the Unification Church, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. The Unification Church distanced itself from Wednesday's event, saying its ceremonies and teachings do not involve weapons.

Wait, wait, wait. Sun Myung Moon was famous because he was AN EVANGELIST, as opposed to the content of his teachings? He was an "evangelist" like, well, the Rev. Billy Graham?

Believe it or not, even that wording is a little bit better than an Agence France-Presse visual report that started like this:

A mass of unusual sorts takes place in a church in Pennsylvania, where dozens of revelers come to pray armed with semi-automatic weapons.

Wait, wait, wait. A "mass"? You mean like a Catholic Mass? I don't think so.

So what is going on here? Let's turn to religion-beat veteran Bob Smietana, who shows remarkable restraint here:

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Death outside Waco: Did Mount Carmel believers die because the experts didn't get religion?

Death outside Waco: Did Mount Carmel believers die because the experts didn't get religion?

The subject of the class at Baylor University was contemporary movements in American religious life. On this particular day, the subject under discussion -- with the help of a guest speaker -- was debates about the meaning of the hot-button word "cult."

I was taking the class as part of my master's degree studies during the late 1970s in Baylor's unique church-state studies program, an interdisciplinary program build on studies in history, theology, political science and law. This particular class was important, since legal disputes about new religious movements have helped define the boundaries of religious tolerance in our culture.

To paraphrase one of my professors: Lots of people with whom you would not necessarily want to have dinner have helped defend your religious freedom. True tolerance is almost always tense.

The speaker in our class that day was a soft-spoken leader in a ground that would become infamous more than a decade later -- the Branch Davidians. His name was Perry Jones and it would be another five years or so until a young guitar player and Bible-study savant named Vernon Howell would arrive at the group's 77-acre Mount Carmel headquarters. Howell, of course, would change his name to David Koresh. Jones' daughter Rachel married Koresh, who would eventually become a polygamist.

The main thing I remember about listening to Jones that day, and talking to him after class, was his consistent emphasis on pacifism and biblical prophecies about the End Times -- remaining doctrinal ties back to Seventh-day Adventism, the movement from which the Davidians split decades earlier.

Why share this information? Well, this was the rather personal frame around the contents of my On Religion column this past week and the "Crossroads" podcast that followed. (Click here to tune that in.)

Both focused on religious issues -- in journalism and public life -- addressed in the six-part Paramount Network miniseries called "Waco," which will run through the end of this month.

It was, to say the least, rather haunting to see Perry Jones fatally wounded in the dramatic recreation of the first moments of the two-hour gunfight on Feb. 28, 1993 that opened the 51-day siege outside Waco by an army of federal agents. The hellish fire that ended it all -- its cause remains the subject of fierce debates -- claimed the lives of 76 men, women and children.

Were the Branch Davidians truly a "cult"?

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Friday Five: An abusive cult, Top 10 religion stories of 2017, guns in churches and more

Friday Five: An abusive cult, Top 10 religion stories of 2017, guns in churches and more

Today's Friday Five will be a Roy Moore-free (and Doug Jones-free) zone.

Hey, it's nothing personal (we've got posts here, here, here and here if you want to read more about this week's big politics-and-religion news). Plus, my inside sources tell me a must-listen-to GetReligion podcast on the subject is coming real soon.

But for a twist, the "Five" will focus on subjects besides "Sweet Home Alabama" (the above video notwithstanding).

Here goes:

1. Religion story of the week: The Associated Press published another riveting installment in its ongoing investigation of North Carolina-based Word of Faith Fellowship. Earlier this year, we called attention to this "important AP investigation on physical and sexual abuse" at that church. The latest story by Mitch Weiss and Holbook Mohr — "‘Nobody saved us’: Man describes childhood in abusive ‘cult’" — is again must reading.

2. Most popular GetReligion post: I mentioned the upcoming podcast. But if you missed last week's podcast ("Cakeshop question: Is 'tolerance' a bad word in America today?"), you can listen to it now. Terry Mattingly's post tied to the podcast — "Masterpiece Cakeshop waiting game: Are the bakers of all 'offensive' cakes created equal?" — was the No. 1 most-read post of the last week.

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In 2,500 words on abusive psycho-spiritual group, New York Times buries crucial four-letter word

In 2,500 words on abusive psycho-spiritual group, New York Times buries crucial four-letter word

Anyone who has followed the history of new religious movements in the United States and elsewhere knows that, since the 1970s, the word "cult" is one four-letter word newspapers have often been loath to apply to controversial groups.

That wasn't the case before and after the 1978 Jonestown massacre, when newspapers saw cults under almost every rock.

But now, there's a great reticence at using this particular four-letter word in many news organizations. What, however, can a newspaper do when a group really and truly has the markings of a, well, cult, at the level of sociology and human behavior? Do you use the word or bury it?

For an answer, consider this front-page story from The New York Times, which reports on what can easily be considered a psycho-spiritual group, called NXIVM (pronounced neks-ee-um). In some cases, this organization literally leaves its mark on adherents, according to the story, headlined "Inside a Secretive Group Where Women Are Branded."

Read this longish excerpt to understand the scene being set:

ALBANY -- Last March, five women gathered in a home near here to enter a secret sisterhood they were told was created to empower women.
To gain admission, they were required to give their recruiter -- or “master,” as she was called -- naked photographs or other compromising material and were warned that such “collateral” might be publicly released if the group’s existence were disclosed.
The women, in their 30s and 40s, belonged to a self-help organization called Nxivm, which is based in Albany and has chapters across the country, Canada and Mexico.
Sarah Edmondson, one of the participants, said she had been told she would get a small tattoo as part of the initiation. But she was not prepared for what came next.
Each woman was told to undress and lie on a massage table, while three others restrained her legs and shoulders. According to one of them, their “master,” a top Nxivm official named Lauren Salzman, instructed them to say: “Master, please brand me, it would be an honor.”

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Has Apple become a kind of secular faith? Maybe someone should write a story about that

Has Apple become a kind of secular faith? Maybe someone should write a story about that

Let me start with a confession: There are 19 Apple devices in use, to various degrees, in my home and home office. (Music lovers need back-up iPods since they are now endangered species.) There's another iMac on my desk in New York City.

So, yes, I worked my way through an online copy of the latest Apple announcement event, the first one staged in the Steve Jobs Theater at the company's massive new Cupertino, Calif., headquarters, the one that looks like it is part high-tech monastery, part "resistance is futile" spaceship.

Some might call me an Apple believer, even though CEO Tim Cook lacks the shaman skills of Job. My last Windows machine was killed by the Sasser virus in 2003, after several expensive healing rites.

So I get the fact that Apple is, as one of my mass communications texts puts it, a "belief brand" that has reached "iconic" status for many users. I know people who feel the same way about Tesla automobiles, Birkenstock sandals, Chick-fil-A and various craft beers.

So I was intrigued when I saw that New York Times (another belief brand) headline that read: "At the Apple Keynote, Selling Us a Better Vision of Ourselves."

I thought, for a moment, that someone had finally written a hard-news report about the semi-sacred role that Apple plays for many. I was disappointed when I saw that it was a first-person "Critic's Notebook" essay by James Poniewozik. Still, this is -- as GetReligion co-founder Doug LeBlanc told me in an email -- an "elegantly written piece" that, if you read between the lines, points toward a valid topic for news coverage.

Really? Well, read that headline again. Then read this passage:

This enhancement of reality is what each video-streamed Apple event sells, more than any particular iPhone or set-top box. If advertising once told us that “Things go better with Coke,” this event -- a jewel box for Apple’s products and the people who use them -- says that “Things look better with Apple.”

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Sex-trafficked Nigerian teens: Why so little reporting on religious roots of this tragedy?

Sex-trafficked Nigerian teens: Why so little reporting on religious roots of this tragedy?

There’s been some amazing articles out there about the modern-day slave trade involving Nigerians who think they’re fleeing to Europe for jobs, but end up getting forced into prostitution or crime.

The British press has been particularly astute in tracking this horrific trend, which involves west Africans, the majority who come from Nigeria, Gambia and Ghana and who head north via Libya only to end up in a tangle of slave markets patronized by Arab buyers. The Guardian, BBC, the Washington Post and many other media are describing how Libya is outdoing India in being the world capital of sex trafficking.

But not enough has been done when you consider there's a bizarre mix of voodoo and Pentecostalism undergirding it all. After all, CNBC calls Libya the “torture archipelago” for poor African migrants. The Guardian asks the world why it’s ignoring this African holocaust in its midst.

Possibly the best story of them all was the New Yorker’s “Desperate Journey of a Trafficked Girl” that ran in April. Now The Times of London did a piece on what happens to the few lucky Nigerian teenagers who get through this hell to reach Italy. 

 The Nigerian prostitutes working on street corners in Castel Volturno this summer look like schoolgirls dressed up for a fancy dress party in their mothers’ clothes and make-up.
The reason: they are schoolgirls, as young as 14, part of a new wave of children tricked into crossing the Sahara and forced by voodoo threats, beatings and gang rape to become prostitutes.
“No-one acknowledges what is going on, but customers are coming here from miles away just for a chance to have sex with these 14-year-olds,” said Blessed Okoedion, a Nigerian woman who escaped from prostitution and now helps working girls.

We’re not talking Sicily here; we’re only 12 miles south of Naples. And this is not a topic where one would expect religion to be an issue but the author does find a “Sister Rita,” who is an Italian Ursuline nun helping these girls. Then:

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Why is America crazy? That Atlantic cover story has the answer -- it's that old-time religion

Why is America crazy? That Atlantic cover story has the answer -- it's that old-time religion

Yes, I heard you.

There is no question that the think piece for this week was that amazing cover story at The Atlantic that ran with that fascinating double-decker headline that caused several of you to click your mouses, sending me the URL.

Normally, "think pieces" are non-newsy essays that offer information or commentary on a subject that I think will be of interest to religion-beat pros and to faithful consumers of mainstream religion-beat news.

This one is different. Let's start with that headline:

How America Lost Its Mind
The nation’s current post-truth moment is the ultimate expression of mind-sets that have made America exceptional throughout its history

Now, before we move on, please CLICK HERE (this is really important) and look at the illustration that ran at the top this essay by Kurt Andersen, an essay that was adapted from his soon-to-be-released book, Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire -- A 500-Year History. This is, of course, an image of crazy America.

So what do we see? Well, there's bigfoot and a church steeple, Mormons and hippies, Fox News and a burning witch, UFOs and Disneyland. Oh, and several symbols of Donald Trump's base. Wait, I guess that should be several OTHER symbols of Trump's base, because all of that craziness is linked to the rise of The Donald. And that craziness has been around in American since The Beginning.

Now, the question that I heard this week from several readers was this: Is this piece at The Atlantic telling us what American journalists think of the American people and, in particular, Americans who are conservative religious believers? Or, is this just what Andersen thinks and the powers that be at The Atlantic simply ran it on the cover as a way to fire up their base, their core readers (kind of like "War on Christmas" stories at Fox News, only in reverse)?

Now, I would stress that it is never helpful to say that journalists in America are some kind of cultural monolith. That's just wrong.

Trump was clearly out of his mind with populist rage when he said that journalists (or the "news media") are the enemy of the American people That's simplistic. As I said over and over on Twitter, it would be more accurate to say that many, perhaps even a majority, of elite journalists on the left and right coasts are the enemies of about 20-25 percent of the American people.

OK, so what does the piece say?

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Why did People magazine out-report the Associated Press on a cult-related killing?

Why did People magazine out-report the Associated Press on a cult-related killing?

If ever there was a crime for which the word "bizarre" was coined, the recent tragic events in Coolbaugh Township, Pennsylvania would likely be "Exhibit A."

Local police allege Barbara Rogers shot and killed her boyfriend, Steven Mineo, whose body was found on July 15 after Rogers called police to report the shooting. According to police, Rogers claims she shot Mineo at his request, over issues involving a religious cult to which both adults apparently belonged.

The Associated Press picks up the barest essence of the story from there, presenting us with a key journalistic issue:

Rogers told officers Mineo, 32, was having “online issues” with a cult and asked her to kill him, said Lt. Steven Williams, of the Pocono Mountain Regional Police. She said her boyfriend believed the cult’s leader to be a “reptilian” pretending to be a human, according to an affidavit.
Rogers, 42, told police the group centers on “aliens and raptures.” Online postings associated with the cult detail a theory that a group of alien reptiles is subverting the human race through mind control.

I should note that I found the AP story at the website of the Wilkes-Barre, Penna., Times Leader, a newspaper whose offices are a mere 45 minutes away, by car, from the crime scene. (I'll have more to say about that in a moment.) 

American author Mark Twain once declared, “There are only two forces that can carry light to all the corners of the globe… the sun in the heavens and the Associated Press down here.” In reporting this cult case, I believe the AP got a head start on that total eclipse of the sun due in mid-August.

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