02 December 2004

Why journalists push new religious movements to the edge.

Sean McCloud, Making the American Religious Fringe: Exotics, Subversives, and Journalists, 1955-1993 (University of North Carolina Press, 2004)

Reviewed by Gal Beckerman

In 1976, The Saturday Evening Post ran an article sure to startle a group of readers who could probably do without something else to worry about. The story, “Our Son’s New ‘Heavenly Father,’” seemed a direct hit on Jewish mothers. Lotti Robins, a member of that long-suffering species, chronicled her son Arthur’s descent into heresy and then his return back into the fold. To Robins’ despair, her son Arthur had joined the Reverend Sun Myong Moon’s Unification Church. She described how her heart was broken the day young Arthur came home and denounced his conservative Judaism, informing his mama that, “Reverend Moon and his wife are now my true heavenly parents.”

Robins quickly hired a deprogrammer, a shady but popular figure during the late 70’s, able to repair a supposedly brainwashed mind after its exposure to a cult’s propaganda. Coming home for a quick taste of his earthly mother’s kugel, the unsuspecting Arthur was locked in his room by his parents and the deprogrammer. “After twenty hours of discussing, persuading, loving, crying, and comparing Old and New Testaments with the Divine Principle [Moon’s holy book],” Robins reported, “the crisis broke.” Miraculously, Arthur was immediately transformed back into a good little Jewish boy. During this period of “crisis” in the family, Hanukkah had passed unnoticed, and Robins now apologized for forgetting to get her son a gift. He put his arms around his parents, Robins wrote, and told them, “No you haven’t. I’ve already got it — my freedom.”

Sean McCloud’s new book, Making the American Religious Fringe: Exotics, Subversives, and Journalists, 1955-1993, is filled with magazine articles like Arthur’s mother’s, bizarre stories of abductions and brainwashing and even stranger accounts of ritualistic human sacrifice and sexual abuse, all performed by groups now collectively (and pejoratively) called “cults.” Even before the mass suicide at Jonestown and the standoff atWaco, Texas when Americans’ worst fears about cults were seemingly confirmed, Arthur’s story of redemption from evil forces was not one of a kind (although I doubt anyone could beat that schmaltzy ending). His was one of hundreds McCloud found in a study that looks at how magazine articles over a forty year period played a part in drawing the border between appropriate and inappropriate religious expression in America.

McCloud contends that since the 1950s, mainstream magazines like TimeNewsweek, and U.S. News and World Report have tarred and feathered any group that displayed high levels of zeal, dogma or emotion. Whatever cultural stereotypes would make these groups look most peripheral and abnormal were thrown at them. Sometimes this meant lightly mocking them, at other times representing them as simply offering brain candy for poor people, and very often giving the impression that all “cults” were lead by charismatic serial killers and rapists who had turned their followers into zombies.

New Heavenly Father

At the height of the Cold War, in the 50’s, when American culture stressed conformity and consensus, the major fringe portrayals were of working class and, often, African-American groups that were regularly painted as threatening to American values. The Nation of Islam is McCloud’s prime example for this time period. Not only was their religious authenticity consistently questioned (as that of most “cults” would be), but they were portrayed as a mass movement, possibly violent, subversive, and lower class, characteristics that drew on Cold War fears of a Communist fifth column infiltrating America from within.

In the 1960s and 70s, the pressure for unanimity engendered by the Cold War lessened and American culture became much more permissive and accepting of diversity. The fringe groups featured on the cover of magazines were the ones young white middle-class Americans were tuning into: new Asian religions, occult spirituality and Evangelical Jesus movements. McCloud says the image of the religious periphery softened a bit during this period and consisted of funny portrayals of unthreatening, wacky yogis and blissed-out hippies living together in the mountains. But by the late 1970s what McCloud calls “cult menace” stories, like Arthur’s, were more frequent, often focusing on Moon’s Unification Church. They established the tropes that we have come to associate with “cults” today: members alienated from their families, a dictatorial leader, brainwashing, and economic or sexual exploitation. Jonestown confirmed these growing fears. And by the time the Waco standoff happened in the early 1990s, the coverage was so dominated by these stereotypes that any real examination of what happened between the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and the Branch Davidians was clouded by sensationalist accounts, based on little or no evidence, of David Koresh’s sexual proclivities and his member’s brainwashed minds.

McCloud’s historical presentation of the changing perception of the American religious fringe is informative and worth reading on its own — some good perspective that exposes the monopoly Protestantism, Catholicism, and Judaism possess when it comes to defining what counts for legitimate religion. But McCloud goes beyond just a historical reckoning. He wants to understand why journalists have consistently shoved these groups to the fringe. Why have journalists acted as “heresiographers,” as McCloud refers to them, delegitimizing the religious practices of certain groups by belittling and simplifying them?

McCloud’s answer is fairly simple: Journalists pushed these groups to the periphery as a way of reinforcing their own position in the center. Here is how McCloud puts it: “Journalists imagined the religious mainstream as moderate, tolerant, ecumenical, rational, and implicitly white middle class and upper middle class. They usually depicted the American religious fringe as just the opposite – fanatical, bigoted, parochial, emotional, and implicitly ethnic and lower class.” Inventing a cultic margin, McCloud says, was a way “to define what writers and editors either desired or perceived themselves, their readers, and American culture as a whole to be.”

To explain why journalists would do this, McCloud relies heavily on the French social theoristPierre Bourdieu and his reductive theory of everything. Bourdieu believes we are engaged in a constant class struggle. And so through what he calls “symbolic violence” Bourdieu says that we seek to “impose the definition of the world most in conformity with [our] interests.” McCloud believes journalists, as those who play the largest role in defining reality, are at the frontline of this struggle. But this is not a conspiracy theory. Mostly this process happens subconsciously (with one major exception being Henry Luce who tried very consciously in the 1950s to use his Time Inc. empire to ingrain certain American values). Journalists created a religious fringe not out of a concerted effort to ghettoize certain groups but, McCloud writes, because “writers and editors unwittingly framed stories in ways that reflected their backgrounds, interests, experiences, and worldview.”

For the most part this makes sense. If journalists overwhelmingly come from one demographic, which, for the period of study and up until today, they do, then it makes sense that they will treat certain stories more seriously than others, examine some issues deeply and skim over the nuances of others. During the 1950s, it seems accurate to say that journalists coming from the white middle-class probably had little understanding and made little attempt to take seriously religions that working class people and African-Americans found appealing.

But this argument can only be taken so far before it begins to suffer from the same reductionism that undermines many of Bourdieu’s theories about how the world works. The most extreme example of McCloud stretching his theory to make it fit the material he is confronting is when he discusses the phenomenon of brainwashing. He argues that journalists invented the idea of brainwashing at a period of time when members of their own socio-economic class were joining groups considered fringe. The idea of some kind of mind-altering needed to be introduced to explain away this reality. Journalists saw a “population of converts demographically resembling their own sons and daughters,” McCloud writes. “Brainwashing motifs allowed journalists, their readers, and distraught parents of new religion members to symbolically separate ‘mainstream,’ white, middle-class converts from the cultic ‘fringe’ groups they joined.”

This does sound like conspiracy theory. And it’s not necessary. McCloud himself acknowledges that there are other reasons besides insuring white, middle-class hegemony that clarify why “cults” were so simplistically and stereotypically drawn. He just doesn’t spend too much time exploring them in his book.

One very compelling explanation might be the change in the business of magazine journalism. McCloud quotes journalism historian J. Herbert Altschull saying that larger corporate-media “enterprises dedicated to profit and expansion have inevitably concerned themselves less than did editors of the past with ‘hard’ news and more with marketable commodities: ‘soft’ features, human interest, gossip about celebrities, and heavily dramatized stories of conflict and confrontation.”

Isn’t it possible that the focus and perhaps exaggeration of brainwashing resulted from the need to sell magazines? A National Enquirerization of American magazines? Can’t the “cult menace” phenomenon and the reduction of events like Jonestown and Waco to their most superficial juicy parts be seen as coming just as much from a commercial need as from a class struggle?

Still, McCloud does a service just by clearly laying out how the religious fringe has been represented historically and for making a strong case that, for whatever mixture of reasons, magazines have played a large part in limiting what is considered authentic religious practice in America. The result has been to turn us all into Arthur’s mother, incapable of accepting or even really understanding how anyone could ever want a heavenly father or mother other than our own.

Gal Beckerman is a former editor at the Columbia Journalism ReviewHe is currently writing a history of the Soviet Jewry movement, to be published by Houghton Mifflin.