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"Law & Order" Apocrypha (1993)

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What is a cult?

Author: Robert J. Maxwell ( from Deming, New Mexico, USA
5 September 2011

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

A young woman explodes a home made bomb in a financial building and dies in the process. The detectives discover from her parents, who haven't heard from her in a long time, that she was a member of a small religious organization based on fundamentalist Christian beliefs and run by the charismatic and avuncular but stern leader, Sam Robards.

The DA's office charges him with murder, arguing that his flock merely carries out his orders because he's brainwashed them. He's convicted and his followers, some of them with sympathetic characters, commit mass suicide.

Once again the series tackles a challenging issue, and this time without slanting in unnecessarily it favor of the law. Robards isn't ugly or nuts, despite Dr. Olivet's offhand diagnosis of manic-depressive. (Where she got that from is anybody's guess.) He genuinely believes the apocryphal nonsense with which he's imbued his followers. And in turn they worship him as if he represents the Second Coming.

The whiffs of Jonestown and the Manson Family are obvious, but the more relevant incident involved the Hale-Bopp or Heaven's Gate cult, thirty-nine suicides in San Diego which followed the airing of this program by a few years.

The defense raises an absorbing question. Why should we call this organization a "cult"? Doesn't every church have a leader of some sort? And doesn't every religion preach a gospel that, in a sense, "brainwashes" it's followers? Beyond that -- an issue not raised in this program -- doesn't every organization, whether business or government, try to impart a set of values to its members? In other words, and to put it simply, isn't every religion a "cult"? Sociologists have wrestled with this problem -- cult members, apocryphal beliefs, brainwashing -- for years and the answer they've come up with is a simple one: "We don't know." Pundits appear after every morally offensive act by one of these groups and explain their actions intuitively -- child abuse, drugs, or whatever -- without any evidence. The "dysfunctional family" explanation is not only unjustified but painful to the parents and siblings of the victim. I happened to know one of the members of the Hale-Bopp group since she was a child and no accusation could be more wrong.

The fundamentalist beliefs are seeing a resurgence in the political arena these days. We see terms like "Anti-Christ" aimed at the president of the United States. Christian precepts are being turned into law. Politicians announce that God has told them to support some particular policy, usually against the disenfranchised, the agnostic, or one or another non-Christian religion. A Republican candidate for president is suspected of being a "cult" member because he belongs to the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints instead of being, say, a Methodist, Baptist, or Presbyterian.

What is a "cult"? And how do you define "brainwashing"?

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