People

Religious mystery at heart of Jonestown: Why did this madman's disciples follow him?

Religious mystery at heart of Jonestown: Why did this madman's disciples follow him?

Whenever I think about the Jonestown massacre in 1978, I always think of one question.

No. It’s not, “Why did he do it?”

The Rev. Jim Jones was a classic “cult” leader in every sense of the word, in terms of sociology and doctrine (click here for background on that tricky term). He was an egotistical control freak who was used to having his own way. He took a congregation that started out in liberal mainline Protestantism and then took it all the way over the edge.

No, the question that always haunted me was this one: “Why did THEY do it?”

Why did 900-plus people, to use the phrase that changed history, “drink the Kool-Aid”?

What happened inside their heads and their hearts that led them to follow their preacher into what he called “revolutionary suicide,” rather than face legal authorities?

Yes, they were following a madman. But what was Jones preaching that created this hellish tragedy? WHY did they follow him?

That’s the mystery that host Todd Wilken and I explored during this week’s GetReligion “Crossroads” podcast. Click here to tune that in.

It’s pretty clear that religion was at the heart of this tragedy, even though very few mainstream news organizations — especially those blanketing TV screens with the ghoulish images from Jonestown — saw fit to explore that fact. Few, if any, religion-beat specialists got to cover that story.

Why did editors and producers settle for a splashy, simplistic take on Jonestown? That was the question that I explored in my earlier post on this topic: “Thinking about the Rev. Jim Jones: A classic example of why religion reporters are important.”

As I wrote in that earlier post:

There was no logical explanation for this gap in the coverage (especially in network television). To me, it seemed that newsroom managers were saying something like this: This story is too important to be a religion story. This is real news, bizarre news, semi-political news. Everyone knows that “religion” news isn’t big news.

Yes, there was a deranged minister at the heart of this doomed community. Journalists described him as a kind of “charismatic” neo-messiah, using every fundamentalist Elmer Gantry cliche in the book. OK, so Jones talked about socialism. But he was crazy. He had to be a fundamentalist. Right?

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Friday Five: Thanksgiving, missionary death, Jordan Peterson, hurricane heroes, homeless church

Friday Five: Thanksgiving, missionary death, Jordan Peterson, hurricane heroes, homeless church

Happy (day after) Thanksgiving!

I’ve been mostly away from the news this week, enjoying my favorite holiday.

If I missed any important headlines that I should have included here, by all means, leave a comment below or tweet us at @GetReligion.

In the meantime, let’s dive right into the Friday Five:

1. Religion story of the week: This is an international story, so you might have missed it. The Washington Post reports from New Delhi on an American missionary who tried “to meet and convert one of the most isolated hunter-and-gather tribes in the world” by offering them “fish and other small gifts.”

Instead, the Post reports that “the tribesmen killed him and buried his body on the beach, journals and emails show.”

The story offers revealing insights from the journal as well as quotes from the missionary’s mother.

2. Most popular GetReligion post: As often happens, the words “Jordan Peterson” in a headline tend to attract attention.

Last week’s No. 1 most-read post was by our editor Terry Mattingly — the piece that he wrote to support last week’s “Crossroads” podcast. The headline on that: “Why is Jordan Peterson everywhere, right now, with religious folks paying close attention?” Here’s a bite of that:

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Top Aussie wedding magazine forced out of business for not featuring gay couples

Top Aussie wedding magazine forced out of business for not featuring gay couples

You’ve heard of the fire chief in Atlanta who got fired because he wrote a book containing biblical references critical of homosexuality. And the couple in Oregon who refused to bake a wedding cake for two lesbians. And the Barronelle Stutzman case in Washington state, pitting religious liberty against floral arrangements for a gay wedding.

From Down Under, there’s the Australian version of all this, sort of. A major wedding magazine is closing because it won’t feature gay unions.

Now, the owners of the magazine said nothing to bring this on. But people got suspicious because the magazine wasn’t trotting out the requisite photo shoot of a happy gay couple. Then the advertisers revolted and that was that.

I heard about the magazine in a brief Washington Post piece:

An Australian bridal magazine is shutting down after standing by a controversial decision not to feature same-sex couples.

The founders of White magazine said in a statement Saturday that they have received “a flood of judgment” since making their decision during the same-sex marriage debate and legalization in 2017.

“Instead of allowing us the space to work through our thoughts and feelings, or being willing to engage in brave conversations to really hear each other’s stories, some have just blindly demanded that we pick a side. We’re not about sides, we’re about love, patience and kindness,” Luke and Carla Burrell wrote.

The couple said that magazine staffers, advertisers and even couples who had been featured in the magazine were suddenly “the subject of online abuse despite their individual beliefs.”

“The result has been that a number of advertisers withdrew their sponsorship out of fear of being judged, or in protest. We have had to recognise the reality that White Magazine is no longer economically viable,” their statement read.

We learn the owners are Christians but little else is revealed. The magazine was started 12 years ago and was doing well until the ground shifted under its feet when same-sex marriage was legalized in Australia a year ago.

I found some links in an Anglican publication and a story in the Sidney Morning Herald that shed some light. It was one of the magazine’s own photographers who blew the whistle.

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Sacred cows: Philadelphia Inquirer delves into a Hindu man's love for his 'ragtag herd of cows'

Sacred cows: Philadelphia Inquirer delves into a Hindu man's love for his 'ragtag herd of cows'

“Can being nice to cows save the world?” the Philadelphia Inquirer asks. “A Hindu man in the Poconos would like to believe so.”

On one level, the Inquirer’s feature on Sankar Sastri is simply an interesting read — a human- interest feature about a man with a unusual approach to life.

On another level, it’s a religion story.

The piece excels more at the former than the latter, although it’s not entirely devoid of doctrine.

The lede certainly paints a revealing portrait, albeit one with, um, some smelly stuff on the profile subject’s footwear:

STROUDSBURG, Pa. — Every day, a joyful man in dung-covered boots tries to balance the world's karma by dishing out love, compassion, and the occasional fried Indian delight to his ragtag herd of cows.

Sankar Sastri loves Sri, the shaggy Scottish highlander with eyes like jewels, and adores Lakshmi, a little black Brahman with horns pointing north and south. The mighty Krishna, a tall and hefty Angus, appears to be a favorite, but Sastri said each of his 23 cows is equally beloved at his Poconos sanctuary.

"Ah, Krishna, look at how big you are. You are the boss, Krishna," Sastri said to the cow on a recent cold November morning.

Sastri, 78, is wiry, bespectacled, and constantly smiling, and wears a blazer over his farm clothes while he walks around his 90-acre Lakshmi Cow Sanctuary in Monroe County. Sastri still resembles a college professor, albeit one who fell in mud. He grew up in Chidambaram, by the Bay of Bengal in Southern India, moved to the United States in 1964 for grad school, and spent 28 years teaching engineering  at New York City College of Technology in Brooklyn.

The Inquirer goes on to explain:

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Thinking about the Rev. Jim Jones: A classic example of why religion reporters are important

Thinking about the Rev. Jim Jones: A classic example of why religion reporters are important

You could make a strong case that GetReligion.org started with the Jonestown Massacre.

Yes, this massacre — a mass “revolutionary suicide” of 900-plus — took place in 1978 and this website launched in 2004.

What’s the connection? Well, in the late 1970s I was trying to work my way into the world of religion writing. I was already talking to the people who would serve as my links to that field — like Louis Moore, then of the Houston Chronicle, the late George Cornell of the Associated Press and others.

When Jonestown took place, here is what I heard these pros saying: This tragedy was the biggest story in the world. Why didn’t editors realize that this was a religion story? Why didn’t major news organizations assign religion-beat specialists to the teams covering this hellish event?

Why didn’t they get it? 

There was no logical explanation for this gap in the coverage (especially in network television). To me, it seemed that newsroom managers were saying something like this: This story is too important to be a religion story. This is real news, bizarre news, semi-political news. Everyone knows that “religion” news isn’t big news.

Yes, there was a deranged minister at the heart of this doomed community. Journalists described him as a kind of “charismatic” neo-messiah, using every fundamentalist Elmer Gantry cliche in the book. OK, so Jones talked about socialism. But he was crazy. He had to be a fundamentalist. Right?

The reality was stranger than that. Jones came from the heart of progressive old-line Protestantism, from the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). He was well-connected to the edgy, liberal elites of San Francisco — including the LGBTQ pioneer Harvey Milk.

At the moment, the 40th anniversary of this event us getting attention in Hollywood and in the media. As our weekend think piece, consider reading this from The Daily Beast: “The Ballad of Jim Jones: From Socialist Cult ‘Messiah’ to Mass-Killing Monster.” Here is a chunk of that:

A new series from SundanceTV (co-produced by Leonardo DiCaprio) takes an unflinching glimpse at the motivations of one of history’s most notorious cult leaders — for ultimately, that’s what Jonestown and the Peoples Temple became.

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Why is Jordan Peterson everywhere, right now, with religious folks paying close attention?

Why is Jordan Peterson everywhere, right now, with religious folks paying close attention?

Jordan Peterson is a very hard man for journalists to quote.

Some journalists have learned, the hard way, that he is also a very easy man to misquote.

Readers and “Crossroads” listeners (click here to hear this week’s podcast): Perhaps you are among the millions of YouTube consumers who witnessed his famous “Gotcha” moment on Channel 4, during a somewhat tense interview by British journalist Cathy Newman.

This was the viral clip that launched the University of Toronto psychologist even higher into the cyberspace elites. Read the following, from the Washington Times, but know that this is news media territory — on the issue of pro-trans speech codes. This was not an example of what this man is saying in the online lectures that have created a massive digital community:

“Why should your right to freedom of speech trump a trans person’s right not to be offended?” the reporter asked at the 22-minute mark of a 30-minute interview.

“Because in order to be able to think, you have to risk being offensive. I mean, look at the conversation we’re having right now,” the psychologist answered. … “You’re certainly willing to risk offending me in the pursuit of truth. Why should you have the right to do that? It’s been rather uncomfortable. … You’re doing what you should do, which is digging a bit to see what the hell is going on. And that is what you should do. But you’re exercising your freedom of speech to certainly risk offending me, and that’s fine. More power to you, as far as I’m concerned.”

Ms. Newman paused, sighed and struggled to find a response until her guest interjected, “Ha. Gotcha.”

“You have got me. You have got me. I’m trying to work that through my head. It took awhile. It took awhile. It took awhile,” she said with a repetitive concession.

I will admit that there is a guilty-pleasure factor, when watching reporters try to grill this man.

However, that’s not the point of this week’s podcast or my two recent “On Religion” columns on this topic for the Universal syndicate — “Jordan Peterson: The Devil's in the details of all those YouTube debates.” Click here to read Part II.

It’s obvious why Peterson gets so much analog news ink — his digital ink numbers are simply astonishing.

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Washington Post offers nice, but totally faith-free, look at Dan Crenshaw's redemptive SNL visit

Washington Post offers nice, but totally faith-free, look at Dan Crenshaw's redemptive SNL visit

Apparently, there is more to Lt. Com. Dan Crenshaw than an eyepatch, his history as a Navy Seal, a Harvard graduate degree, his Spanish-language skills and the ability to land a few humorous punches on Saturday Night Live.

The newly elected representative from Texas district 2, in the greater Houston area, is riding his victory in a purple district and his Ivy League level wits to leverage his moment in the YouTube spotlight. What happens next? That’s a good question.

However, this is GetReligion. So I would like to pause and note that it is hard to run for office as a Republican in Texas (or even as a Democrat in large parts of Texas) without people asking you about your religious beliefs and your convictions on religious, moral and cultural issues. This is especially true when your life includes a very, very close encounter with death.

So let’s start here: If you were writing about Crenshaw and what makes him tick, would it help to know what he said, early in his campaign, during a church testimony that can be viewed on Facebook? The title is rather blunt: “How faith in God helped me never quit.”

I am going to answer, “Yes,” especially with people using words like “redemption,” “grace,” “forgiveness” and “repentance” to describe what happened during his encounter with funny-man Pete Davidson on SNL.

I’m also going to say, “Yes,” because we’re talking about politics in Texas. Also, the language in that church testimony are rather strong. It sounds like faith is part of his story — period.

But let’s start with something good, in terms of the content of the lengthy Washington Post profile of Crenshaw that ran in the wake of his election and, well, that television thing. Here is the overture, which is long (but I don’t know what part to cut):

HOUSTON — Dan Crenshaw’s good eye is good enough, but it’s not great. The iris is broken. The retina is scarred. He needs a special oversized contact lens, and bifocals sometimes, to correct his vision. Six years after getting blown up, he can still see a bit of debris floating in his cornea. His bad eye? Well, his bad eye is gone. Under his eye patch is a false eye that is deep blue. At the center of it, where a pupil should be, is the gold trident symbol of the Navy SEALs. It makes Dan Crenshaw look like a Guardian of the Galaxy.

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Let's play 'Spot the religious test' in some big news stories -- on left and the right

Let's play 'Spot the religious test' in some big news stories -- on left and the right

I realize (trigger warning!) that the U.S. Constitution is a rather controversial subject right now, with all the talk about U.S. Senate “majority votes” and tiny little red flyover states getting to have two senators, just like blue powerhouse states on the coasts.

Still, it’s a good thing for journalists in mainstream newsrooms to know a thing or two about this document, especially when covering the religion beat. I’m not just talking about the free press and freedom of religion stuff, either.

Yet another wild story in the White House has raised an issue that, #ALAS, I think we will be seeing more of in the near future. The key issue: Candidates for public service facing “religious tests” served up by their critics.

First things first: Ladies and gentlemen, here is Article 6 of the U.S. Constitution:

This Constitution, and the Laws of the United States which shall be made in Pursuance thereof; and all Treaties made, or which shall be made, under the Authority of the United States, shall be the supreme Law of the Land; and the Judges in every State shall be bound thereby, any Thing in the Constitution or Laws of any State to the Contrary notwithstanding.

The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the Members of the several State Legislatures, and all executive and judicial Officers, both of the United States and of the several States, shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.

This leads us to several relatively recent news stories that raised questions about “religious tests.”

The key question: Can journalists recognize “religious tests” when they take place on the political left and the right?

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Monday Mix: 'SNL' forgiveness, hate list scrutiny, abuse vote delay, grieving California, Pittsburgh guns

Monday Mix: 'SNL' forgiveness, hate list scrutiny, abuse vote delay, grieving California, Pittsburgh guns

Religion? Maybe.

Redemption and repentance? You bet.

If you somehow missed it, you must watch Pete Davidson’s “Saturday Night Live” apology to Dan Crenshaw and Crenshaw’s gracious acceptance of it. It was the talk of Veterans Day weekend, and rightly so.

Welcome to another edition of the Monday Mix, where we focus on headlines and insights you might have missed from the weekend and late in the week.

The fine print: Just because we include a headline here doesn't mean we won't offer additional analysis in a different post, particularly if it's a major story. In fact, if you read a piece linked here and have questions or concerns that we might address, please don't hesitate to comment below or tweet us at @GetReligion. The goal here is to point at important news and say, "Hey, look at this."

Three weekend reads

1. “We and others like us who are on this ‘hate map’ believe that this is very reckless behavior. … The only thing that we have in common is that we are all conservative organizations.”

The Washington Post Magazine takes a deep dive into “The State of Hate.”

Please respect our Commenting Policy