You probably were shocked when you read about the nightmare of Waco, Texas and the man who thought he was Jesus Christ, but if you pause and think it through you should not be "shocked" at all. We live in a culture that feeds this kind of religious insanity. The distinguished psychiatrist Dr. Karl Menninger once said that fundamentalist Christianity had put more people in mental institutions than any other cause.
Those who study cultic movements estimate that today within the United States there are at least ten million who are members of groups and organizations not far removed from Jim Jones and David Koresh. The language they use, as well as the ideas and concepts they spew out, are directly related to orthodox Christianity, and especially evangelical, fundamentalist Christianity.
In the words of Norman Cousins: "so long as we in the United States are prepared to provide unlimited hospitality, and give status and tax benefits, to those claiming to speak for God, who call themselves religious, then we must be prepared to deal with all the horrors that are the natural progeny."
The Duke University anthropologist Weston La Barre in his classic The Ghost Dance: Origins of Religion, made this observation: "the traditions of orthodox Christianity give powerful support and impetus to cult fantasies and fanaticism."
There is no concept of being "saved," as such, outside of orthodox and fundamentalist Christianity. You cannot have a cult without a savior leader, promising to lead you out of darkness into light. . . and who claims to speak for God. The concept of an authoritarian savior figure is repugnant to Taoist, Buddhist, Zen Buddhist, classical Hindu or Native American.
In our country we live in a religious climate that breeds father, savior, authoritarian religious figures. I say that there is a very fine line between cult leaders and their language and the Billy Grahams and Pat Robertsons of the world who will stand before people and say "everyone is going to the hell of judgment unless you listen to me and my words of salvation . . . I have the 'saving' words for you that will lead you to heaven."
Now, there is also a very fine line between the Billy Grahams of the world and any orthodox, traditional, Christian minister who actually believes that he/she is speaking for God.
A number of years ago I was invited to speak to an annual ministers' conference in the state of Washington. The ministers were all from mainline Protestant denominations. There were around 170 present. They asked me to speak on "The relationship between Cult Movements and Orthodox Christianity." They did not like what I asked them. I asked, "how many here, really, believe that when they stand in that pulpit on Sunday morning, they are speaking for God? . . . that God is literally speaking through them?"
"Raise your hand," I said to them, "if you believe that." About three-fourths of them raised their hand. Can you imagine it? These ministers cannot even explain how a light bulb works, and yet they think that they are the spokesperson for the mystery that is behind millions of galaxies and the entire universe. And they proceed to tell people. speaking for "God," what this God wants them to read, what movies God doesn't want them to see, what God wants them to do, etc., etc.
Religious arrogance, insanity and lethal superstition comes in many forms. It is a very fine line between various expressions of these forms.
Nobody should be "shocked" at Waco, Texas. The soil is fertilized for such outbreaks every Sunday morning, all over this country.
More of this fine essay can be found at Religion and Morality.