Want to Join a Cult?

What does it take to start a cult? What does it take to join a cult? Both of these questions are extremely interesting because they try to get at the heart of human behavior. We are social creatures who crave acceptance – sometimes this acceptance leads people to believe in bizarre things. For example, take the Mormon cult leader Warren Jeff who controls a group of fundamentalists from prison – even after being charged with sexually assaulting children and having 70 wives.

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How about one of the most famous cult leaders of all time – Jim Jones. Jones led a group of over 900 people to Guayana, South America to start their own socialist colony. This socialist experiment in Jonestown quickly turned into a horror movie after Jones convinced everyone to commit mass suicide. I am amazed at the ability of cult leaders to have total power over their followers; I barely can keep my chihuahua from peeing on the carpet. To better understand the birth, growth, and death of Jim Jones, I read The Road to Jonestown: Jim Jones and the Peoples Temple by Jeff Guinn. This book is exceptional and really helps the reader understand the evil of Jim Jones. Jones was a charismatic leader who never backed down and desired complete control. Unfortunately, these traits were mixed with just enough moral ambiguity that followers thought they were being led to the promised land rather than their gravesite.

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Jim Jones was born on May 31, 1931, in a small Indiana town. He was raised by an eccentric mother who defied conservative social norms with her independent attitude, beliefs in reincarnation, and prickly personality. Jones’ father was a WWI vet who could not work because of his disabilities and who had no energy to raise an energetic boy. Jones was a loner and soon began to stand out from the other boys with his religiousness. On any given Sunday, he would go to several services, not to praise God, but to understand what preaching style worked best to energize congregants. By the time he finished high school, Jones was working at a hospital where he would eventually meet his future wife, Marceline Baldwin (not pictured below).

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Jones and his wife would quickly move to Indianapolis where Jones attended some college and preached at evangelical-tent events. Jones would eventually establish the Peoples Temple in the mid-1950s – a church that trumpeted racial integration, socialism, and community action. It was at the Peoples Temple that Jones discovered the power of deception by performing false healings and false prophecy; he would many times walk around the congregation with rotted chicken offal claiming it was cancer just removed from a member. Jones quickly gained followers from all walks of life who appreciated his message of social equality and marveled at his God-like abilities. Jones would eventually move this congregation to Northern California using the tool of fear – he claimed that there would be a nuclear holocaust in the Mid-West and that they were no longer safe.

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It was in Northern California that the Peoples Temple morphed from an eccentric Christian church to a full-blown cult. Jone’s began to have his members live communally and give large portions of their paychecks to the “socialist” cause. With greater wealth, Jone’s was able to expand his ministry and garner even more membership. Jone’s quickly began to stretch himself too thin and eventually, he began to take painkillers and amphetamines. His drug use made him more erratic and power-hungry – he would gradually start asking for sex from his female congregants. This sex was supposedly meant to lift up the women, and few members resisted; he would even have sex with several male members asking some if they wanted to be “fucked in the ass” after church meetings. This “uplifting” sex gave Jones greater control which eventually expanded to increased paranoia. Staged assassination attempts led his followers to believe that the FBI, CIA, and Fascists were after their happy community.

[Jim Jones, Peoples Temple Church Services]

The Peoples Temple morphed into a military compound with several members patrolling the grounds with firearms. This paranoia and the fear of nuclear holocaust led Jones to found Jonestown in Guayana. Jonestown was meant to be a sanctuary, but it actually represented the apex of Jone’s control over his members. In 1978, Congressman Leo Ryan went to investigate Jonestown which led to him being attacked by a Temple member – Ryan escaped with 15 of Jone’s followers. Jones, in all his paranoia, told his members that the government would soon come to torture them and convert the children to fascism – to prevent this from happening everyone had to commit suicide. 909 people, including Jones and his wife, died from cyanide in the mass suicide – 304 were children.

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So how did Jone’s get 909 people to commit suicide? It began with his ability to twist the truth so that the majority of his followers believed he had special powers – all while an elite inner circle assisted with these deceptions. Why did the inner circle help him? Because they often believed in his message of social change and felt powerful being in the graces of such an influential leader. Most of the congregation was made up of poor-uneducated members who were entirely dependent on Jones for their jobs, housing, and food.

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It was hard to leave the cult because Jone’s would actively prevent dissenters and it was easy to rationalize that he was telling the truth – “If there are lawyers, teachers, and businessmen following him, then he must be the real deal.” Finally, Jones was an expert at fear which he used as a tool to further separate followers from leaving the Temple. All these things mixed to create a twisted peer pressure that propagated infidelity, drug use, bullying, harassment, corrupt morals, and eventually death. We need to study these things because there are cults today and leaders who use the same principles. Be wary of half-truths and always seek knowledge so that this particular past will never be repeated.

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Abraham Lincoln vs. Donald Trump

The wise old owl lived in a oak,
The more he saw the less he spoke,
The less he spoke the more he heard,
Why aren’t we all like that old bird?

What do Abraham Lincoln and Donald Trump have in common? Almost nothing besides them being white-male republicans. Lincoln grew up in poverty, Trump grew up in wealth. Lincoln was self educated, Trump was ivy-league educated. Lincoln became a lawyer and politician, Trump became a real-estate investor. Lincoln took moderate stances on issues, Trump currently takes extreme stances on issues.Lincoln took great efforts to avoid political hostilities, Trump takes great pride in politic incorrectness. My mind has been comparing these two men because I just finished the Pulitzer Prize winning biography, Lincoln by David Herbert Donald. Throughout this read, I marveled at how Abraham Lincoln was able to walk the precarious tight rope of politics to achieve extraordinary goals. Lincoln had to appeal to Radical Republicans, Conservative Republicans, War Democrats, and Peace Democrats all while orchestrating a Civil War. He was elected in 1860 on a platform that supported the institution of slavery but not its expansion. Between 1861-1865 he slowly implemented policies that eventually abolished slavery through the ratification of the thirteenth amendment. Lincoln never made decisions lightly and would contemplate every outcome with the utmost detail. Many times, Lincoln would sit back and listen instead of jumping in and making a rash decision. Lincoln’s talents of compromise and patience are what I most admire about our 16th president. People don’t realize that Lincoln was not always popular throughout his presidency and at some points had lower approval ratings than George W. Bush. He was constantly racked with stress and by the end of war he looked as though he aged 20 years. He had to deal with a divided country, a war that resulted in 600,000 fatalities, the reconstruction of the devastated south, mounting federal debt, political rivals, and a crazy wife. Through all of this, he still managed to make great decisions that were moderate and in the end brought the country back together. The United States would not be the same without Abraham Lincoln and I am so grateful that I was able to learn about him in a in-depth manner.

So what about Trump?  Trump is currently the front runner for the Republican Party which ironically Lincoln helped found back in 1854. The Republican Party is quite different today than it was in Lincoln’s time but United States politics is not. As in Lincoln’s time, there are rival parties and a lot of bickering over how best to run the country. Trump unfortunately is far from one to compromise and is very quick to respond to opponents via the media. He spouts hate and reminds me of a bully with a lot of money. Lincoln never ostracized and downgraded members of his own party; Lincoln especially never offended others publicly with the intent to draw publicity. These contrasts make me sad because I want the next president to be like Abraham Lincoln and I want Americans to remember what works and what does not work in politics. Politics requires compromise and nothing can be accomplished without careful consideration of all perspectives. We should not base our vote on whether a candidate is a Republican or a Democrat but rather on their character and their ability to work with others. Can anyone honestly tell me that Donald Trump will unite our country and make it better through his graceful character? Lincoln was one in a trillion but we can at least look for a candidate that mirrors him in at least some manner. Let’s learn from the past and remember that great leaders are those who are humble, not those who hold themselves higher than everyone else…Trump Tower anyone?