The Personality of Cults
California has a track record like no other locale when it comes to raising, attracting, and retaining the world’s most bizarre and tragic cults. No one will forget the heyday of the late 60s and early 70s when progressive laissez-faire culture and reactive, conservative politics collided to produce some of the most outstanding cults the nation had ever seen and established California as King of Cults for the next quarter century. But in recent years, cult activity has waned, making some worry the sun is setting on this dynasty. Followers are keeping a close eye on a new up-and-coming group in Redding, pinning their hopes to Bethel Church’s ability to again bring horrified scrutiny to the Golden State. While some see signs of immense potential—and there have been early successes—skeptics are saying don’t deed all your worldly property, cutoff relationships with loved-ones, and don foil hats just yet. The church has some hallmarks of a great cult in-the-making, but many, including hall-of-infamy members, are unconvinced they’re anything more than plain, old-fashioned demagoguery.
There’s a new group on the scene in California, and some say they could be the next big thing in cults.
A cult is nothing without its leader, and Bethel has a strong leader supported by willing and dutiful evangelists. While cults can be structured around a specific goal or operated as a disorganized mob, there is no question that at the center of every cult is a single, completely unhinged, puppet master directing chaotic action. Bethel has made fast work of infiltrating Redding, with some crediting the city and neighboring communities as having the perfect mix of gullible or ambivalent citizens who ultimately made it possible. SLA (Symbionese Liberation Army) founder and front man Cinque believes this is key to operating a cult in the long run. He states, “at the SLA, when we were forming our next incoherent move, we always looked for hideouts where we could operate under the radar. We went where no one cared about what we were doing. Now, the SLA was a cluster cult, in that we had no clear goal or message, which made operating covertly easier. It’s harder to predict someone’s
next move when there’s no logic informing their action. Bethel has some very specific goals though that they’ve made quite clear, so it’s amazing they have not attracted more disruptive attention. From what I’ve seen so far, Redding is not only giving them wide berth to make their moves, the gullibility factor of their more engaged citizenry is really clutch in turning this into a dream-team scenario."
In fact, the city has given cherry deals to incentivize their continued operation in Redding. While this leaves little doubt about the effectiveness of Bethel leadership, at least one former cult leader is not convinced it will be enough. “I’ve no doubt they’re motivated enough, OK? My concern is ‘Are they unstable enough?’” says former Heaven’s Gate co-founder Marshall Applewhite. “You see, a good cult isn’t just about leadership. People forget that. A cult leader is scarily effective for a period of time, but ultimately their own psychoses must get in the way. Otherwise you’re just reliably malignant.” Applewhite should know. His increasingly manic behavior and incoherent teachings on UFOs, ascension, sexuality, and gender make him the sweetheart for the Most Obvious Cult Leader title.
Applewhite isn’t alone in his uncertainty. Charles Manson, another member of cult royalty, is not pledging allegiance just yet. Manson worries Bethel is too focused on the Seven Mountain Mandate. While some cult leaders have lofty objectives, like Manson’s plan to accelerate racial Armageddon to solidify white supremacy, none are that interested in, or at all capable of, achieving them. This may come as a surprise to some cult fanatics who unflinchingly believe the utterings of these charismatic leaders. Manson explains: “That’s a common misconception about cult leaders. Yes, I hated black people, but in truth I was just using white supremacy as a hook to capture the interest of casual racists to join my cult. You have to groom your converts, give them a reason to follow you, a premise.” Thanks to years of ingrained, systemic racism, his followers remained focused on starting a race war rather than on Manson’s manipulation, sexual abuse, or murderous and criminal behavior. “If Bethel doesn’t start redirecting their efforts towards more helter skeltery stuff, they’re going to lose their window of opportunity. People will latch onto the false objective too hard, and your mayhem won’t work anymore.” Some Bethel congregants show signs of this mis-fixation already, wholeheartedly embracing, at the direction of
senior Bethel leadership, specific anti-LGTBQ agendas, advocating to keep so-called conversion therapy legal. Manson says “I made people do a lot of sex stuff where they were humiliated, but I never really tried to change someone’s sexual orientation because that’s impossible. It is cruel, and obviously I like that part, but focusing on a specific outcome is too square for me. I just wanted to be the pied piper and make people dance. I didn’t care who they were genuinely attracted to, love is love.”
The very vocal stance Bethel Church has taken regarding conversion torture might have been a larger hit to the church had it not been for their highly skilled communications department, part of standard operations at any mega–corporation but an oddity among cults. Purists, like Jim Jones, do not believe in public relations departments. Though Jones is rooting for Bethel, he believes trying to convince outsiders you are not a cult is a frivolous expenditure, and one that could drag Bethel’s ascent to cult stardom out. “First of all, you’re getting into the weeds if you’re going to go out there and try to win everyone over. Cults don’t integrate into communities; they just defect and form their own. Why would I spend money on some spin-doctor to make everything seem copacetic? Do you know how much building an entire, fully-functioning, self-contained community overnight costs? I didn’t care
Jim Jones thinks there's something rotten in the state of Denmark. Photo: Nancy Wong, January 16, 1977. CC BY-SA 4.0. Wix Kool-Aid Filter applied.
what anyone thought of me, I wasn’t in it for the long-haul; clearly nothing was sustainable.” Jones, famous for his hasty decisions, was also extremely frugal when it came to certain expenditures, saving pennies by buying off-brand beverages for congregants so that he could direct more funding to his proselytizing. An advocate for socialism, communism, and Marxism, Jones’ use of religion and the bible was mainly in support of his personal and political agendas. The ever-growing costs of developing and sustaining Jones and Jonestown was the perfect mechanism for keeping followers invested in the community. Jonestown residents were so hooked on Jones they could not leave him, even when they felt compelled to resist. Bethel Church, as with the People’s Temple, has a significant amount of money flowing into the organization, which they’ve invested in mostly themselves by expanding their own campuses and supporting their own parishioners. Money directly from Bethel Church as well as from Bethelite–run businesses have been keeping Redding from hitting the economic skids for several years, ensuring that people in the community who could inhibit their plans are sufficiently mute on the subject. They’ve given a relatively small amount of their tax-free revenue as a kind of aid to the city. This donation has Jones asking whether the contribution was redistribution of collective wealth to those that need it or just a little something to make their agenda go down easier.
Godfather of all cult leaders, Grigori Yefimovich Rasputin, 1909. Photo: K. Bulla (colorized).
Doubts have plagued Bethel and put a cloud over their status as the next big thing in cult followings for industry experts. On the ground though, few people who move to Redding for Bethel seem bothered by the negative buzz, and, for the most part, many non-Bethel affiliated residents seem pleased with the situation. People who enable Bethel to thrive are quick to defend the organization, citing the positive contributions they make to the community; doing the church’s work for them by quashing any dissention. It seems in the battle of Next Top Cult, Bethel’s most valuable assets are people who see what they are doing and support them through anything. While zealots are integral to all cults, this outer perimeter of unaffiliated but protective fanatics are somewhat of a cross-over from other forms of thought-groups. For Rasputin, a master at blending fetishistic cult theology and politics, this is the deciding factor on Bethel’s status. “They’re just not a cult. They’re too boring, too predictable. Too effective. I’m sorry, I know that disappoints a lot of people who want to believe that’s the type of group think you have in Redding. A lot of people are just waiting on the sidelines, hoping to see this go up in flames, but I don’t see that happening. I mean, yes, speaking in tongues may seem weird, but ultimately, it’s harmless. Faith-healing is reckless, but they’re doing nothing to instigate sickness; they don’t even handle snakes. If taking congregant’s money and in return sprinkling some gold dust is all Bethel has, they need to go back to the drawing board. There’s just no mystery. Are they dangerous? Yes. But unfortunately, no, they’re not a cult; just your standard,
tired, regressive bigots who use framing to validate their agendas, exploit ignorance to rouse intolerance, encourage condescending Christian paternalism, and practice selective socialism to prop-up flimsy prosperity gospel.”