Stuart Wright

Stuart Wright, professor of sociology at Lamar University in Beaumont, Texas, and co-author of the forthcoming book Storming Zion: A Comparative Study of Government Raids on Religious Communities. Photo courtesy Stuart Wright

Most readers have probably heard of Scientology, the Branch Davidians and the FLDS Church, but what about the Apostles of Infinite Love in Canada, the Pinnacle Rastafari in Jamaica and Hikari no Wa in Japan? These are among more than 30 new and nontraditional religious communities that governments have raided in the Americas, Western Europe, Australia and Japan over the past 70 years, according to new research by Stuart Wright.

Wright is professor of sociology at Lamar University in Beaumont, Texas, and co-author of the forthcoming book Storming Zion: A Comparative Study of Government Raids on Religious Communities due to be published in mid-2014. This interview was edited for length and clarity.

Brian Pellot: You say you’ve documented more than 80 raids on new and nontraditional religious movements (NRMs) since 1944. How do you define a raid?

 Stuart Wright: Raids are usually used when states think they might encounter armed resistance or want to achieve an element of surprise. They’re high-risk operations. These raids have become more militarized and more aggressive. It’s not a couple of police officers walking up to the front door with search warrant asking to speak to someone. These are raid teams operating on basically the same protocol you’d see with counterterrorism units going after terrorists or a drug cartel. They expect to encounter an armed group, but most of the time there’s no real evidence that these groups present any harm. They’re overwhelmingly benign. Raiding inflates or exaggerates the alleged threat of these groups, usually for partisan reasons or ulterior motives.

BP: Talk me through some of the most famous or noteworthy government-sponsored raids you’ve come across in your research.

SW: My co-author Susan Palmer and I have identified case studies that are especially spectacular in terms of size, scope and intensity. We have chapters on the Branch Davidians, the FLDS Church, Scientology, Twelve Tribes and the Nuwaubians. These are groups that have been subject to overreaching raids where the evidence was flimsy or weak and charges were sometimes trumped up to justify a raid.

I’m not saying there’s nothing illegal going on in these communities, but often the charges or allegations reach way beyond what the real violations might be, with allegations of brainwashing, mass suicide, armed encampments with stockpiles of weapons, underground tunnels, enslavement, forced labor. Oftentimes authorities won’t act on a single charge, so claimsmakers or accusers up the ante to get official responses or to create moral panic.

BP: Why do you focus on raids against new and nontraditional religious movements (NRMs) specifically?

SW: That’s the niche I’ve been fascinated by since the 1960s and even before that. I’m much more interested in first-generation NRMs when the prophet is still alive. It’s like a lab, a social experiment going on. A lot of NRMs do not survive after the founder, prophet or guru dies. They just don’t have what it takes to move forward. It’s a lot like small businesses. They fail at high rates if they’re not the best religious entrepreneurs in the spiritual marketplace.

BP: What’s the general argument in your forthcoming book?

SW: I’d done a number of case studies on raided groups. After the 2008 FLDS raid in Texas, I started thinking that maybe we should look for patterns in these individual raids. It seemed to me the number of raids had been increasing. I started documenting them and realized that most had occurred since 1990. I realized that we had this white-hot mobilization of countermovements against NRMs at the time, which helps to explain what was going on there.

The 1990s was also the last decade before the turn of the millennium. That probably contributed to some of the anxiety or apprehension officials had about NRMs, that maybe they would turn violent or act as a catalyst to the apocalypse. But even after the turn of the millennium, apocalypticism and the idea that Christ will return has persisted. I would have expected that sentiment to decline after Y2K, but it doesn’t seem to have done that.

We also had a series of violent episodes in the 1990s with the Branch Davidian Waco siege in 1993, the Aum Shinrikyo sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway in 1995, the Heaven’s Gate mass suicide in 1997. I think those incidents gave the anti-cult movement even more ammunition to do what it was already doing, to paint all these groups as violent and to bring some kind of action against them.

 I thought we’d find the U.S. to be an epicenter of government raids on NRMs because this is where the anti-cult movement originated with Free the Children of God (FREECOG) and other anti-cult groups. But over time, that movement became transnational. They started sending out missionaries, if you will, to European countries. France incorporated third-party anti-cult organizations into the state infrastructure, and they became an arm of the state with real powers. It’s not surprising we started to see France become the epicenter of these raids.

BP: You’ve mentioned that a lot of raids don’t get much media attention. Why do some, like those against the Branch Davidians and the FLDS Church, get more coverage than others?

 SW: In France, a lot of raids are on relatively small groups in remote areas most people have never heard of. They’re flying so far under the radar that even if they get raided it’s not a big story. In the case of the 2008 raid on the FLDS Church, more than 400 kids were put into state custody. With the Branch Davidians, there was a shoot-out in 1993 and people died. These were huge stories for months.

Scientology has gotten a reputation for being controversial, so when raids on Scientology happen, that gets picked up in the news. They’ve also got a global presence and get a lot of trouble in Germany and France.

BP: What do these raids mean for religious freedom?

SW: One of the main arguments is that NRMs don’t get the same kind of treatment that established or mainstream religious institutions get. There have been more than 11,000 complaints filed against the Catholic Church for sex abuse by priests but very few raids for these pretty serious crimes. Yet a single allegation of sex abuse against these NRMs is cause to send out 100 armed SWAT team members. The principle of religious equality, that all should be equal under the law and that states shouldn’t single religions out, isn’t being applied. I definitely think this is a religious liberty issue.

One-third of all the raids we’ve identified have been in France. Constitutionally, there is separation of church and state there, but in practice, there is not. The Catholic Church has enormous influence. Catholic Church officials are heavily involved in the anti-cult movement in France and have become part of the animosity that’s built up in the cultural climate against NRMs.

BP: When would you say a raid on a religious community is appropriate, if ever, and how should law enforcement officials make this call?

SW: When is a raid appropriate? When good police investigative work reveals there’s some real substance to charges being made. Many raids have been predicated on bogus allegations. In 2008, Texas organized a raid with 100 agents and five different state agencies against the FLDS based on a bogus series of phone calls. It was lousy police work. Make sure your sources are reliable and don’t have a partisan agenda. Ex-members of a group with an axe to grind are probably not your most reliable sources.

 BP: You focus on NRMs, but do you have any thoughts on recent debates around trying to put a number on global Christian persecution?

SW: When Christians are a minority in a host country, like Copts in Egypt or other Christians in Iran, India or Pakistan, then you could see some parallels between discrimination against Christians and NRMs. In one sense, we’re looking at minority religions in both cases. Where Christians have hegemony, I don’t think you can talk about persecution. You hear that rhetoric, but it doesn’t really have legs.

28 Comments

  1. “overreaching raids where the evidence was flimsy or weak” Just from the Scientology perspective, the seizing of documents was long overdue and uncovered the largest infiltration of the US government in history, and the plot to frame or kill journalist Paulette Cooper. To this day Scientology imprisons it own members and conducts criminal operations around the world. Yet they enjoy protected legal status and tax exemptions because they call themselves a religion. Criminal activity is criminal, no matter what label you hide behind.

    • Scientology management by David Miscavige is totally criminal.
      The coverup criminal arm of Miscavige comes down through OSA legal and Dept 3. It infiltrates the organization through their Justice section which in reality is the Injustice section. The Office of Special Affairs (OSA) is really the Secret Serrvice SS. Parishioners are lead to believe that these people are ethical and the protectors of Scientology when in reality, they are there to cover up his crimes. It all looks totally rational and docile until something happens that gets their attention and then the parishioner finds real trouble for the first time.

  2. You say MANY raids have been predicated on false reports, yet offer only one in this article – the case of Rozita Swinton and the FLDS. Rozita Swinson was never even a member and this strange case has been examined at length by other journalists, deservingly so. The Catholic Church has been raided several times over the sexual abuse claims, FLDS was raided (Swinson wasn’t the only person making allegations over time). You claim ex-members with “an axe to grind” aren’t the most reliable sources. That is what the groups who are the focus of attention always say, and are most often found to be lying. The “bitter apostate” claims were made by ALL of your examples. The issue is behavior. Where there is good evidence of criminal behavior as there is for Scientology in many areas, the Catholic Church and FLDS for sexual abuse (and other groups also deserving of such raids today), and the suicidal/violent groups, they MUST be raided to protect their own members and innocents. The “Bitter Apostates” are the best source of information, particularly when there are many of them with corroborating stories as is or was the case for Scientology, The Branch Davidians, the Catholic Church, and the FLDS. There is no issue of religious liberty here, these groups have violated the law repeatedly and certainly in the case of Scientology still do so today. The issue is CRIME and CRIMINALS masquerading and hiding behind religion. When credible information is found these groups should, have been, and will be raided. It will never be applied to ALL religious groups equally because the CRIME and CRIMINALITY isn’t spread amongst them equally.

  3. Members that flee these groups and than turn whistleblower are often the very best sources of information, and sometimes the ONLY reliable sources of information.

    That you would brand them as unreliable is pretty disturbing.

    Who should journalists speak with to find the true information?

  4. I hope Mr. Wright at least reads the 3 recent books on Scientology, which include ample first person stories of illegal activities. Janet Reitman, Lawrence Wright and Hugh Urban. Janet is contributing editor of Rolling Stone, Lawrence Wright writes for the New Yorker Magazine, and Professor Hugh Urban is Socitiology Dept staff at Ohio State University.

    If Mr. Stuart Wright gives not citings of the relevant information in these 3 above recent authors’ works, I would say Mr. Stuart Wright is not doing his job!

    The ex Scientology ex member community, and still practicing Scientology spiritual practices community gave the above 3 authors a huge amount of their time and firsthand stories.

    I’ve spent hundreds of hours with NRM scholars and new NRM students, and frankly, the ex member community chat sites for Scientology, have years worth of raw information and leads, for serious NRM researchers, those truly wishing to do the work and ask the firsthand participants the blunt history questions about illegalities, or not, within Scientology, as relates to “raids” being overblown or not, in Scientology history!

    From this edited interview, I’m hoping Mr. Wright’s book is most well researched than the details on Scientology that were printed here!

    Chuck Beatty
    866-XSEAORG toll free advice to ex Sea Org members, Scientology movement, 1975-2003

  5. I understand your concerns Brian. All I ask is that you carefully consider that you weigh very carefully the deceptive and slick facade that can be presented to you in your research activities from cultic groups who hide under the religious banner.
    While I am a very strong proponent of freedom of thought and non-harmful action there is a need to be well aware that certain ideologies contain education and training to their adherents and use that manipulation while presenting themselves to the world at large and especially to ‘investigators’.
    Please consider using both the following educated views in your pulling back the truth.
    1) Psychologist Michael Langone, executive director of the International Cultic Studies Association, defines a destructive cult as “a highly manipulative group which exploits and sometimes physically and/or psychologically damages members and recruits.

    or if your prefer Mind control groups ( which I might add very much includes the mind control upon sincere investigators )

    2) Lifton investigated the thought-reform procedures used against American POWs returning from the Korean War while involved in their psychiatric evaluation.[3] Lifton’s 1961 book Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism: A Study of “Brainwashing” in China was a study of coercive techniques that he labelled thought reform or “brainwashing”, though he preferred the former term. Others have labelled it also as “mind control”. Lifton describes in detail eight methods which he says are used to change people’s minds without their agreement:
    Milieu Control – The control of information and communication.
    Mystical Manipulation – The manipulation of experiences that appear spontaneous but in fact were planned and orchestrated.
    Demand for Purity – The world is viewed as black and white and the members are constantly exhorted to conform to the ideology of the group and strive for perfection.
    Confession – Sins, as defined by the group, are to be confessed either to a personal monitor or publicly to the group.
    Sacred Science – The group’s doctrine or ideology is considered to be the ultimate Truth, beyond all questioning or dispute.
    Loading the Language – The group interprets or uses words and phrases in new ways so that often the outside world does not understand.
    Doctrine over person – The member’s personal experiences are subordinated to the sacred science and any contrary experiences must be denied or reinterpreted to fit the ideology of the group.
    Dispensing of existence – The group has the prerogative to decide who has the right to exist and who does not.
    The term thought-terminating cliché was popularized by Robert Lifton in this book.

    3) What is just now November 2013 being described as “invisible handcuffs” in the broad UK media

    That said, any effort to protect individual ( and I emphasize individual as that is the building block of civil ) and civil rights is strongly supported by myself.

    I personally have limited scope experience with NRM, however I can say having been in over a dozen scientology “churches’ the financial coercion is carried on out of view of the general public but is done frequently locked exits, phone calls to worldwide possible lenders, and manipulative threats (some quietly some in yelling mode) of lost spiritual eternity and extreme ad hominem such as being an evil oppressor of all mankind.
    http://www.youtube.com/user/SurvivingScientology
    And to Mark, I don’t believe I have heard of the 1961 police officer shooting of a Scientology Director. Could you possibly provide some more detailed reference while I try to locate the information?

  6. I wish there would have been more than a half dozen police officers on the raids while I was being hidden by the Apostles of Infinite Love. I was being hidden there despite a court order that awarded custody to my father back in the US. There was all manner of evidence that this was the case, yet only a few agents of La Securite Quebec would show up. The faithful adult members would quickly scurry us away into various hiding cubbies they had set up throughout the complex. Yes, there was brain washing, there was physical abuse, sexual abuse was rampant there but much more covert, children were exploited for many uses. At 8 years old, I was out in the woods clearing trees and brush from properties given to them by recruits so they could build mission houses. At 9 years old, I was put to use in the print shop while they were hiding me from my dad. At 13 years old, I was doing commercial type construction work from the ground up to several stories high. At 15 years old, after spending the winter in tents, I was back in the woods again, cutting down trees to build log cabins after the main building was burnt to the ground. There would be huge outcries if people heard of this going on in the normal world. In my opinion? Bring on the raids and bring them on 10 times as strong as they need to be. These cults need to be put out of business. I lost 8 years of my life to the Apostles, because they took advantage of my family back in the 60s, when the Catholic Church switched to Vatican II. That’s just my story. I had three cousins there. I had friends there, my cousins had friends there. Our friends had friends there. It needs to stop!!!

  7. Scientology is not a religion. Anyone who researches what Scientology is will find that it is a criminal organization, nothing religious about it.

    Anyone who thinks Scientology is some how a religion has not done their homework. Look at the crook’s “Narconon” frauds. Most countries in the world have Scientology classified as organized crime, and Germany has stopped watching the criminal organization because Scientology has less than 20,000 victims world wide now.

  8. I rarely call people names. I’m not somebody who makes angry comments on web sites. This guy is a whore. Plain and simple, on the cult gravy train. It’s a shame that he wants to make money while people suffer.

  9. Helene Boulanger

    I’ll have to agree with Dan Spangler’s comment. The Apostles of Infinite Love have destroyed many families and continue to do so. My families experience goes back to the 70′s but still affects us all today. Children should never be abused in any form. There is no healing. It is a constant nightmare running through your head. The only thing “holy” about these places is the “swiss cheese” brains behind them and the people who support this. Don’t be a swiss cheese. I am patiently waiting for the day this place gets raided again and eventually shut down so bring it on …and bring it on strong!!!

  10. Suzanne Short ZumFelde

    I am the older sister of 3 siblings hidden in the Apistles of Infinite Love “cult ” in the 1970 and 1980′s. I am the cousin to Dan Spangler who told his story here. BIG Raids are necessary because of the children who are no longer protected by their parent (s). My mother turned my three young siblings over to the control of the ruthless so called leaders. Cousin Dan talks about his child labor situations. His mother had absolutely no say in what he did or where they took him. She, like my mother, were brain washed into believing it was God’s desire to have their children removed from their care. Under these circumstances raids could save children from their rapists and ” slave masters ” . Knowing the facts that young children have no say, no protection from sexual predictors and are at the whim of some perverts at any given time in these religious cults , authorities must raid until the children are found . Luckily , Cousin Dan and my siblings,( one by one) secretly and under great risk and peril ran away to save themselves from the hideous situations they were forced into as young children against their will.

  11. @Larry “Members that flee these groups and than turn whistleblower are often the very best sources of information, and sometimes the ONLY reliable sources of information. That you would brand them as unreliable is pretty disturbing.”

    I have experienced that personally. I am a survivor of the Children of God cult, now known as The Family International.

    I have a real problem with academics like Wright who discount the testimonies and evidence of former cult members. The academic field of cultic studies is completely divided between academics who discount, downplay or dismiss allegations of abuse in what they call New Religious Movements, and more honest academics who still use the word cult and who do not just ignore former members of cults as biased, but actually investigate and research their claims. They each even have their own academic journals: Nova Religio and Cultic Studies Review.

    One of those NRM academics, James Chancellor wrote a book called “Life in The Family: An Oral History of the Children of God”. The only problem with that oral history is that it only included the voices of cult members and leaders. No former member was interviewed for his so-called oral history and their perspectives were not included. So, I wrote an article for the Cultic Studies Review to rebut his article and report all the abuse issues he either ignored or downplayed.

    I first sent a draft copy to the editors of Nova Religio. They had three people review it first, and then rejected it. In the email informing they would not publish it, they mistakenly sent me the actual comments of three reviewers, which were not intended for my eyes. It was extremely revealing to see how they reacted to all the issues I presented in my article, basically dismissing me as completely biased and untrustworthy, without any seeming awareness that Chancellor’s book was entirely based on people completely biased and with very strong reasons to mislead him. After all, that group, like the Mormon and Catholic churches, has a doctrine that permits believers to lie to and deceive outsiders, including legal authorities. Yet Chancellor just swallowed their stories that everything was okay now and any abuses were things of the past.

    After that, I revised my article based on some of the criticisms of those reviewers, and with some additional editing help it was published in the Cultic Studies Review, which was my original intention as I had no illusion Nova Religio would publish it:

    http://perry-bulwer.blogspot.ca/p/response-to-james-d-chancellors-life-in.html

    By the way, Stephen Kent is an academic who does not dismiss survivor accounts. He’s written some excellent research articles on both the Children of God, fundamentalist Mormons and Scientology:

    http://www.artsrn.ualberta.ca/skent/index.html

  12. Another issue I have with these NRM academics is that they frequently appeal to religious freedom, yet completely ignore the religious freedom rights of the children in those groups.

    Wright says in this article: “I definitely think this is a religious liberty issue.”

    But he is certainly not talking about the religious liberty of the children, just their parents. The right to religious freedom obviously includes the right to be free from religion. That goes for children too. Denying children religious freedom when they are children, interferes with their future rights as adults. Children have a right to an open future, but that is denied them when they are indoctrinated in these fringe groups that often isolate their children from society, and abuse them spiritually, physically and intellectually.

    I think this denial of children’s rights is related to the fact that the US is the only country, along with the failed state of Somalia, not to ratify the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. The parental rights and religious lobbies ensured that most Americans, including these NRM academics, seem oblivious to the fact that children have inherent rights of their own, including the right to believe or not. Perhaps that explains why Wright focuses on the rights of the parents, but ignores the rights of their children to be free from religion-related abuses of all kinds. He simply does not respect a child’s point of view:

    http://chainthedogma.blogspot.ca/2011/12/respecting-childs-point-of-view.html

    p.s. it sure would be nice if there was a way to follow these comment threads with email alerts like disqus.

  13. Who is the real troll here? People using their real names to post comments or the person who remains anonymous, who obviously has no understanding of the meaning of religious freedom?

  14. The religiousfreedomwatch site is owned and operated by Scientology. “Controversial” sounds explicitly vague, considering it’s Scientology, “mean-spirited” and “aggressive” are probably accurate. Scientology has sown the whirlwind, by even persecuting FreeZone Scientologists, why should we be surprised or sympathetic.

  15. For the the most important information you’ll ever see on how to save your soul go to www.vaticancatholic.com. They also have the truth on what really happened to the Catholic Church after Vatican 2. They have a ton of interesting and crucial info and a fascinating news section that is updated quite frequently. Check it out!

  16. Let’s hear it for religious freedom. I’m going to invent a religion where my buddies and I marry several women each,then raise a bunch of young daughters who we’ll educate from birth that their only role in life is to “Keep Sweet” and be obedient little sex slaves for us older men. Any young boys will be given only enough education to be construction and farm workers, and we’ll kick most of them out before they get old enough to bother the girls in our harems. And we’ll do all of this under the protection of U.S. Religious freedom.

    Oh,wait – someone already did his?

    What about the rights of women to be given more options in life than to churn out babies like a termite queen? What about the rights of children to get educations? What about the rights of girls not to be raped and beaten in the name of a made-up god?

    If your religion deprives your followers of the right to Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness, go find another country in which to practice it. Seems like a simple enough rule.

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