Cult suicides can serve as warning

Wisconsin State Journal/April 29, 1997

Maybe members of the Heaven's Gate cult didn't sacrifice their lives in vain, after all. By killing themselves in a senseless bid to hitch a ride on a spaceship lurking in the tail of the Hale-Bopp comet, they alerted other vulnerable people to the dangers of getting wrapped up with a bunch of folks who can be led around like sheep.

Awareness of the dangers of being sucked into a cult may be at a modern high. Thanks to the bizarre and well publicized suicides of the Heaven's Gate cultists in California, more Americans are attuned to what can happen if they join groups that may demand their unthinking loyalty.

Not every splinter religious group is a cult, of course. (Imagine what the ancient Romans must have thought 2000 years ago about those strange followers of a cruicified Jew from Galilee.) Likewise, not every cult is inherently dangerous in the physical sense, although most use pschological manipulation to recruit and hold their members.

The International Churches of Christ has been accused by many of fitting the definition of a cult. As the State Journal reported Sunday, the Los Angeles-based group is trying to set up a church in Madison and has scheduled its initial service for this weekend. That prospect has sounded alarm bells among those who say the church exercises mind control on unsuspecting members.

Usually, the church recruits young people from college campuses. At least 22 colleges, including Marquette in Milwaukee, have banned the ICC because of its aggressive tactics. Those familiar with the group say it cuts off recruits from family and friends and keeps its members completely occupied with church activities. The ICC has also been accused of telling young people to drop out of school and give their money to the church.

Leaders of the ICC deny all this and say their church merely appeals to lonely and spiritually unfulfilled people. And no-one has ever accused the group of being violent, just annoyingly aggressive.

Because UW-Madison is a public university that attracts all types of people anyway, it's unlikely that the ICC could be banned under any existing rules. But banning such groups probably isn't the right approach in any event. The First Amendment to the US Constitution guarantees freedom of religion, which means public institutions must be very careful in how they deal with groups claiming ar religious base. Besides, there are harrassment and stalking laws on the books that can easily discourage cult recruiters who get out of hand.

The best thing that can be done to prevent people from joining a cult is to inform them, in advance, of what the dangers might be. That's why the Heaven's Gate vistims may have done other people a service amidst their tragedy. If not for that eerie mass suicide in California, warnings about other mind-controlling groups might go unheard.

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