Defining cults is complex

Polygamists, former members speak out at Denver meetings

DENVER — Are polygamous groups “cults“?

That question was debated here Friday as former members of polygamous groups shared their stories of abuse and control in fundamentalist communities.

They came to participate in the 2006 conference of the International Cultic Studies Association, a group of academics, therapists and former cult members, being held over three days at a hotel near Denver.

Several sessions dealt specifically with polygamy, and members of the polygamous community of Centennial Park, Ariz., were among those who showed up to challenge the notion that they’re “cult members.”

“Your experience is not mine,” one woman told a panel of ex-polygamous wives and therapists. “My experience is not yours.”

She would not give her name to the Deseret Morning News but said she and others from the polygamous community on the Utah-Arizona border came here to educate themselves on the components of a cult and take steps to avoid falling under that definition.

The definition of a “cult” is something that not everyone here at the ICSA conference agrees upon. One man’s religion is another man’s cult, and in some cases mainstream religions consider other mainstream religions to be cults.

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In the case of polygamous congregations and communities, “What you see is you have different definitions,” said Mike Kropveld, the director of Info-Cult, a cult monitoring center in Montreal, Canada. “Do they all operate the same? Some are maybe more abusive and harmful. Some are probably more moderate, and with each group you cannot generalize, either.”

Cults are generally considered authoritarian, closed groups that exploit their members. However, some in polygamy freely say they are very happy in their lives.

“You can say every religion can be a cult,” the woman from Centennial Park said. “Destructive, I guess would be the word. We do not want to be destructive.”

Polygamous groups will not escape being classified as a cult, said Andrea Moore-Emmett, a member of Tapestry Against Polygamy and a presenter at this conference. She has been speaking about polygamy at the ICSA conference for the past five years.

“They are cults,” she said Friday. “They have all the dynamics of a cult as we discuss (it) here. They’re definitely considered a cult in my mind.”

Some ex-polygamists freely used the term to describe their former lives. Sylvia Mahr, who lived in the Utah-based Apostolic United Brethren’s enclave in Pinesdale, Mont., said all polygamous groups are “abusive.”

“The outside world sees them as a quaint, Amish people,” she said.

Laura Chapman said she was raised in the Fundamentalist LDS Church and forced into marriage at age 18. Coming out of a cult, she said she is grappling with post-traumatic stress disorder, trying to raise her children and reclaiming a lost childhood.

“I went trick or treating for the first time with my children,” she said Friday.

Other presenters criticized The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for what they said is its silence on some points of the doctrine of polygamy.

However, the LDS Church has repeatedly said it no longer practices polygamy and excommunicates members who do.

The polygamous Fundamentalist LDS Church and its fugitive leader, Warren Jeffs, were the topic of some discussion here. Audiotapes of Jeffs’ preaching racist beliefs were played. In one, Jeffs criticized rock music.

“When you enjoy the beat, the rock music, you’re enjoying the spirit of the black race,” he said in his monotone voice, which one cult watcher described as “hypnotic.”

Jeffs is on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list with a $100,000 reward for information leading to his arrest. He is facing criminal charges in Utah and Arizona, accusing him of forcing teenage girls into polygamous marriages with older men. Federal prosecutors have charged Jeffs with unlawful flight to avoid prosecution. Stephanie Spanos, a child psychiatrist from New York City, said she was interested in the discussions of polygamous cults as a societal model.

“It examines a society that is very isolated,” she said. “You can actually identify all the different problems that families face when they’re involved in this kind of social structure.”

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(Listed if other than Religion News Blog, or if not shown above)
Deseret Morning News, USA
June 24, 2006
Ben Winslow

Religion News Blog posted this on Sunday June 25, 2006.
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