Illinois legislators get their cults confused
June 15, 1979
I am not a religious man, but am more supportive of religious freedom than a great many believers in religion. Some of those believers have been members of the Illinois General Assembly. The bill discussed here was never seriously enforced, nor was it meant to be by most of the members who voted for it, who hoped only to Show Their Concern. But the affair left me fearful that this kind of illiberality might someday be harnessed to a more seriously intended purpose.
A side note: This piece was reprinted by Liberty magazine, published by the Religious Liberty Association of America and the Seventh-day Adventist Church.
It is often joked that no one's life or property is safe when the Illinois General Assembly is in session. As recent events have shown, one’s liberty isn't too safe either, and it's no laughing matter. The event in point was the passage by the Illinois House by a vote of 95-41 of a resolution authored bv Rep. Betty Hoxsey (R-Ottawa) that creates a temporary six- member commission to investigate what Hoxsey has called, “illegal activities of religious cults who are coercing our children to join up with them.”
Such a commission would trample over all the First Amendment guarantees of freedom of religion; indeed, it is so egregiously unconstitutional that some observers have been able to muster only a laugh in response to it. I did the same at first. But ninety-five presumably sober men and women voted for it. and I was reminded that even little children, if handed a box of matches and left unattended, can burn down a house.
The targets of Hoxsey’s wrath are plainly the People's Temples and Reunification Churches of the world, but the definitions under which her commission would operate are alarmingly fuzzy. "Any true religion doesn't have to worry about investigations into illegal activities." she is reported to have said, "because they would not commit any illegal acts." By "true" religions Hoxsey presumably means established religions: Judaism. Catholicism, the major Protestant denominations—in short, the ones that can afford lobbyists.
But every one of these bodies, of course, began as a cult in bitter and often violent opposition to the "true" religions of their day. Religious truth is a celestial matter, not a civil one. and attempts to sanctify "true" religions by statute by proscribing activities of dissident cults have generally led to unhappy results. It is worth remembering that one of the earlier chairmen of a commission to investigate illegal cult activities was named Pilate.
What troubles Hoxsey is not what is done in the name of religion but who does it. One wonders, for example, if she would brook a cultist threatening a child with the agonies of the flesh and spirit unless he takes part in the cult’s rites, forcing him (sometimes under threat of physical punishment) to memorize the sayings of its leader and teaching him that the cult’s laws are to be held above those of the state, indeed, that if necessary they must be obeyed even if it means death? One suspects that such a program would fall under the Hoxsian definition of illegal cult activities with room to spare. But what I've described may be seen any week, in any town, in any Sunday school class. One person's brainwashing is another's catechism.
What then distinguishes a cult and a religion? Belief in the Bible? Jim Jones was a Bible-thumping preacher. Bizarre ritual? To the unbeliever, the rites of the Catholic Church arc of surpassing strangeness. Respectability? There is no more upright citizen than a Mormon, but except for the fact that he wears suits, he is as unorthodox as any Hare Krishnan. If we may presume to read Hoxsey’s mind, we might attempt this definition: A cult is a small, unpopular group of people who do not think (and sometimes dress or speak) like most other people, who often display a discomfiting belief in the correctness of their views and who thus sometimes do things that are against the law.
That definition could easily fit the General Assembly.
It is useful to recall that the United States was founded in large part by cults (the Pilgrims are perhaps the best known of these) who had fled here or were driven here by the Hoxseys of Europe. Because of the miscellaneous nature of our religious heritage we escaped the domination of the state by monolithic Catholic and Protestant churches of Europe. In its place we adopted a more flexible rule by which church and state each agreed to let the other punish its sinners in its own ways.
As a citizen I may think it abominable (to pick just one example) for a priest to counsel a scared, poor pregnant teenager against aborting an unwanted child under penalty of perdition under the doctrine that while Life is sacred, people are not. But 1 will not be party to a law against him. I do not presume, as Hoxsey does, to mediate between God and humans.
1 trust my motives will not be misunderstood. I regard all cults as obnoxious, whether they are peopled by Moonies or Methodists: the only difference I can detect between religions and cults is that cults usually don't own their own Sunday school buses. But one can't pass laws against people being ignorant or gullible or fearful. If cultists kidnap or trespass or steal, there are civil remedies. To Hoxsey and her ninety-four colleagues who think otherwise. I offer this advice: Stay out of religion. You lack the wisdom, and besides, it's none of your business anyway. □