'The only difference between a cult and a religion is the amount of real estate they own.'
- Frank Zappa
Whatever your feelings about organised religion and whether you agree with Mr Zappa or not, there’s no getting away from the power of the word ‘cult’. In these terms, it’s a powerful pejorative. Small religious, spiritual or social groups certainly don’t appreciate the name. ‘Cult’ speaks to odd, all-consuming lifestyles held together by dogma laid out by charismatic but conniving Machiavellian figures. Devotion, veneration and self-sacrifice is often expected, if not demanded. Oftentimes, labour and even sexual exploitation features.
The Crime+Investigation series, Cults and Extreme Beliefs, dives deep into the murky and often secretively criminal world of some controversial sects. Here’s a little taster of some of the series’ discoveries…
Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints
OBSESSIONS: Polygamy, incest.
Episode seven of the series covers the rather innocuous-sounding Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (‘FLDS Church’ for short), It isn’t quite as asinine as it may appear, though. It’s an off-shoot of the Mormon Church, which explains its moniker’s similarity to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS Church). An extreme off-shoot.
The breakaway faction came to be after senior Mormon figures objected to the conduct of a follower named Warren Jeffs and his acolytes. Principally the sub-sect’s advocacy of polygamy was the biggest issue for Mormonism; multiple spouses being something that was rejected by them back in the late 19th century
The FLDS Church distanced themselves further from LDS when their secretive practices became wider known. Jeffs’ propensity to preach homophobia, white supremacy, underage sex, incest and fervent anti-government rhetoric - understandably - didn’t sit well with those that preach or practice Mormonism.
Jeffs was sentenced to life in prison in 2010, having already been indicted and imprisoned four years previously. His crimes included incest, sexual assault on a minor and being an accomplice to rape. His imprisonment hit the church hard, but they still persist. Albeit now as a more underground affair. It’s believed that Jeffs still runs the church from behind bars, with his brother Lyle acting as his right-hand man and proxy.
The Children of God/The Family
OBSESSIONS: Paedophilia, sexual exploitation.
Another cult with a sickening history of paedophilia and ‘religious prostitution’ are CoG - The Children of God.
This Christian sect has gone by a plethora of different names in its time. First established in Huntington Beach, California, back in 1968, The Children of God first began as ‘Teens for Christ’, before becoming ‘The Children of God’ and latterly ‘The Family International’ (and then simply ‘The Family’).
Headed up by ‘King’ David Berg until his death in 1994, CoG gained notoriety for its use of something the cult called ‘flirty fishing’. Effectively evangelical pimping, Berg would have pretty young teenagers lure in would-be members with seduction. Berg encouraged using sex and referred to it as ‘loving sexually’, claiming that God sanctioned and encouraged such behaviour.
That’s not the beginning or end of the cult’s perverse sexual crimes. Not only were young girls expected to have sex with strangers to help market the cult, they were sexually exploited by its leaders and forced into sexual relationships with other male members.
World Peace and Unification Sanctuary
Cults and their Extreme Beliefs explores the World Peace and Unification Sanctuary in its fifth episode. The Unification Church is run by Rev. Hyung Jin 'Sean' Moon. A Christian church run in the US by a Korean man sound familiar? Well, quite. Sean is the son of Sun Myung Moon, founder of The Unification Movement, also known as 'The Moonies'.
While the Moonies have always occupied an odd halfway space between religious movement and cult, Sean Moon's offshoot sits firmly in the latter category. It preaches fundamentalist Christian dogma via a more forceful form of extreme gospel. Central to the Sanctuary Church’s teachings is the belief that gun control is immoral.
The Sanctuary Church’s most controversial stunt saw them blessing 250 married couples’ union by donning ‘bullet crowns’ and marching around with AR-15 semi-automatic rifles just weeks after the Parkland school shooting. That’s right - guns in church. Lots and lots of guns in church.
Pastor Moon presided over the ceremony, inviting ‘all heterosexual couples’ to join him as he prayed to God for ‘a kingdom of peace police and peace militia where the citizens, through the right given to them by almighty God to keep and bear arms, will be able to protect one another and protect human flourishing.
OBSESSIONS: Hierarchy, sexual exploitation, the subjugation of women
We end this look into cults and their extreme beliefs and obsessions with a slightly different proposition. The previous three cults have very much stemmed from pre-existing religions. It’s an easy sell to new followers: a familiar God or venerated figure to worship and recognisable tropes. NXIVM is something else entirely.
On the surface, it’s basically a pyramid scheme. Or, to give it its more formal name, ‘a multi-level marketing organisation’. For years, head honcho Keith Raniere ran training seminars promising personal growth and development. To outsiders and even investors, NXIVM appeared to be a legitimate organisation, despite its pyramid-ish vibes. The truth was really quite different.
NXIVM was incredibly hierarchical, allowing Raniere to reward and punish members with promotions and demotions. This gave him a significant amount of power and control. Those members that won Raniere’s trust and ‘proved themselves’ to him were invited into his inner circle… a secret society within NXIVM known as ‘The Vow’ or ‘DOS’ (‘Dominus Obsequious Sororium’, which - according to one insider - means ‘master over slave women’.)
DOS invitees - all women - were welcomed in after being branded with a secret NXIVM logo. Once in, they would effectively become slaves.
In June 2019, Raniere was convicted of a whole host of federal crimes including the sex trafficking of children and conspiracy to commit forced labour. The following year he was sentenced to 120 years in prison.