Religion News Briefing, Sunday May 6, 2012

checkmark Founder of Centrepoint spiritual commune dies

Herbert Thomas Potter, or “Bert” Potter, the founder of a controversial spiritual community many considered a cult, has died at the age of 86, news outlets in New Zealand report.

Opened in 1977, Centrepoint was based on therapeutic encounter groups popularised in California in the 1960s, promising social transformation by encouraging open communication.

The commune was shut down in 2000 after some leaders, including Potter, were convicted of sexual abuse and drugs crimes.

A study published in May, 2010 of 29 children who lived in Potter’s Centrepoint community found continuing effects on their adult lives.

In March, 2010 Bert Potter was featured in an episode of TV New Zealand’s ‘Beyond The Darklands.’

checkmark Ugandans turn to witchcraft to keep jobs

As unemployment continues to bite, more literate Ugandans are turning to witchcraft to get and secure their jobs, a survey by Uganda’s New Vision shows.


The paper says the survey shows some use Witchcraft to get a pay raise or a promotion, while others seek to either to harm or hurt workmates.

New Vision notes that “According to the Witchcraft Act 1957, practising witchcraft is a crime punished with imprisonment exceeding five years on conviction. Threatening someone with death by witchcraft attracts life imprisonment on conviction. However, despite the law barring it, the vice continues unabated across the country because many people are desperate.”

checkmark Family Battle Offers Look Inside Lavish TV Ministry

The New York Times has a feature-length article on the Trinity Broadcasting Network — the allegedly Christian television network where money appears to be worshiped more than God.

Pundits have referred to TBN as “The Blasphemy Channel,” due to the sheer amount of aberrant and heretical teachings it broadcasts.

A golden thread in the station’s teaching is the so-called Prosperity Gospel — considered by many to be a scam designed to separate gullible people from their money.

Here how it works: God wants you to be rich (and/or healthy), but He can not bless you unless you first send money (also known as a “seed-faith offering”) to whichever televangelist or teacher tells you about this scheme.

Does it work? Well, it does for Jan and Paul Crouch, TBN’s founders and operators. The New York Times says, “Almost since they started in the 1970s, the couple have been criticized for secrecy about their use of donations, which totaled $93 million in 2010.”

Now, after an upheaval with Shakespearean echoes, one son in this first family of televangelism has ousted the other to become the heir apparent. A granddaughter, who was in charge of TBN’s finances, has gone public with the most detailed allegations of financial improprieties yet, which TBN has denied, saying its practices were audited and legal.

The granddaughter, Brittany Koper, and her husband have been fired by the network, which accused them of stealing $1.3 million to buy real estate and cars and make family loans. “They’re just trying to divert attention from their own crimes,” said Colby May, a lawyer representing TBN. Janice and Paul Crouch declined requests for interviews.

In two pending lawsuits and in her first public interview, Ms. Koper described company-paid luxuries that she said appeared to violate the Internal Revenue Service’s ban on “excess compensation” by nonprofit organizations as well as possibly state and federal laws on false bookkeeping and self-dealing.

The lavish perquisites, corroborated by two other former TBN employees, include additional, often-vacant homes in Texas and on the former Conway Twitty estate in Tennessee, corporate jets valued at $8 million and $49 million each and thousand-dollar dinners with fine wines, paid with tax-exempt money.

checkmark Jim Jones’ sinister grip on San Francisco

This is an excerpt from “Season of the Witch: Enchantment, Terror and Deliverance in the City of Love,” the new book by David Talbot (founder and CEO of Salon), in which he tells the story of the wild and bloody birth of “San Francisco values.”

The book’s description says Talbot “recounts the gripping story of San Francisco in the turbulent years between 1967 and 1982—and of the extraordinary men and women who led to the city’s ultimate rebirth and triumph.” He does this by drawing “intimate portraits of San Francisco’s legendary demons and saviors.”

Included in Talbot’s book are not only icons like Jerry Garcia, Janis Joplin, and Joe Montana, but also some names familiar to those who study cults: Charles Manson, Patty Hearts and the Symbionese Liberation Army, and Peoples Temple head Jim Jones — who in November, 1987 led 914 people into a murder/suicide ritual.

Talbot recounts how Jones manipulated local politicians, and in part two he shows that when investigators began uncovering Jim Jones’ sordid web of violence and corruption, he was one step ahead of them.

Part three shows that even as he slid deep into madness in his jungle “paradise,” Jim Jones found support in high places in San Francisco.

checkmark Heaven’s Gate Website Still Active

In March 1997, 39 member of a religious cult known as Heaven’s Gate committed mass suicide inside a mansion in Rancho Santa Fe, near San Diego, California. They believed the earth was about to be “recycled,” and by committing suicide they hoped to survive aboard a space ship hiding behind the tail of the Hale-Bopp Comet.

CBS Las Vegas says the cult was ahead of the curve in the sense that they used the Internet, then in its infancy, to relay its message. Oddly enough their website, HeavensGate.com, remains online. CBS was unable to discover who keeps renewing the site’s registration.

checkmark Polygamous family deemed unworthy of special tax status

Canada’s federal government has been battling Winston Blackmore — who heads the polygamous community of Bountiful, B.C. — in court, claiming he underestimated his earnings by $1.5 million over a five-year period between 2000 and 2006.

As the tax trial is coming to an end Blackmore’s lawyer, David Davies, told the Federal Tax Court Friday that Bountiful is a closed society and deserves the same special tax status afforded to other communities, like Hutterite colonies.

In the process, Davies even appeared to justify human trafficking:

Davies said the proof of that closed society comes in the actions of the community in everything from educating their own children to bride swapping.

“As for the allegations about trafficking in brides, first of all in a closed society, it’s apparent that this has to be done, because to draw within one’s own ranks continually results in, obviously, consanguinity issues and the Hutterites apparently do the same.”

The Canadian Oxford dictionary defines consanguinity as a relationship with a common ancestor or blood relation.

Bountiful is the Canadian branch of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS) — the polygamous sect of Mormonism whose leader, Warren Jeffs, was jailed for life last year for sexually assaulting two underage followers he took as brides in what his church deemed “spiritual marriages.”

Last March Wendell Loy Nielsen, former president of the FLDS’ legal entity, was convicted of bigamy. During the punishment phase of his trial more evidence turned up of his involvement in abetting illegal marriages — some involving girls 12 to 18 years old.

checkmark A Queer and Pleasant Danger: Kate Bornstein, Trans Scientology Survivor

“I identify as neither male nor female. . . . I’m neither straight nor gay,” wrote transgender performer and author Kate Bornstein in her seminal 1994 book Gender Outlaw. Nevertheless, Bornstein ended up doing 12-year stint in the homophobic Church of Scientology.

Bornstein was excommunicated from the Church in 1982 and branded a “subversive person.” In exile she’s found her voice as a liberated, post-op, transsexual lesbian icon—though, of course, Bornstein bucks labels like these every chance she gets.

What the lengthy title of Bornstein’s new memoir, A Queer and Pleasant Danger: The True Story of a Nice Jewish Boy who Joins the Church of Scientology and Leaves Twelve Years Later to Become the Lovely Lady She Is Today (on sale May 1, 2012) doesn’t reveal is how scared she’s been to talk about her time in the Church, until now.

Thanks to the TV show “South Park,” which satirized Scientology for mainstream audiences, and the hope that this story might someday reach Bornstein’s daughter, who’s still a member of the Church, she’s overcome her fear of retribution.

checkmark The Rise of Online Worship

The Wall Street Journal has a blog post about the thriving online ritual industry in India, saying it is changing the way some people worship.

As you may have guessed, it involves paying money. “This is where online line shopping meets religious devotion,” says Joanna Sugden. “With just a few clicks of the mouse, you can enter a virtual shrine, light a digital incense burner, offer pixilated flowers and donate money online while saying a mantra.”

There are interactive onscreen versions of pujas (religious rituals), or you can simply “select from a list of 150 major Hindu temples, pay some money and have a puja performed on your behalf by a representative of the website, at a temple of your choice.”

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This post was last updated: May. 9, 2014