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?

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.

Jones was charismatic, but he was not a “fundamentalist” preacher in any sense of that word. His roots of his ministry were quite complex, but he found his natural home in San Francisco and its evolving progressive counterculture.

Jones was a man of the far left and no one figured out that he was dangerous until close to the end.

Part of his disguise was the fact that he was part of the white-bread, middle-class Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). In those days, the best-known Disciples believer in America was a man named Ronald Reagan. If you read current news stories and features about Jonestown, and the anniversary of the massacre, the Disciples angle is still missing.

It also helps to know that while the national leadership of today’s Disciples is on the left side of old-line Protestantism, in terms of culture and doctrine, this denomination has always been — and it remains — a highly congregational flock. Its individual churches range from ultra-liberal to neo-evangelical, often depending on the zip code. And this shrinking, aging, denomination has always been famous for proclaiming, “No creed but Christ.”

The bottom line: Jones was pretty much free to preach whatever this flock wanted to hear.

So what did he preach that led his people over the edge? What doctrines did he warp or ignore? What did he do to twist the Scriptures? What was at the heart of this madman’s gospel that grabbed the hearts, minds and, ultimately, lives of his disciples?

This is where editors needed the help of religion-beat pros. They still do.

Enjoy the podcast.

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