September 28, 2023

The 70s 80s 90s Blog

Three Decades of History with TV historian Tony McMahon

1970s parents: is my child in a cult?

3 min read
In the 1970s, parents increasingly tried to rescue their children from cults but ACLU objected on civil liberties grounds
1970s cult parents ACLU

The 1970s was a bumper decade for every kind of cult. Terrorists, violent extremists, fringe religions, etc. By the end of the 70s, many parents wanted to extricate their children from organisations, groups, and churches. They were convinced that their offspring were being brainwashed into submission. It was time to rescue them! But there was a problem. Were these children really in a cult – or was it just that their parents held a different point of view?

Parents versus the ACLU over what defines a cult

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) began defending children who wanted to resist their parents’ demand they leave whatever they had joined. In effect, ACLU argued that what some parents were doing was just brainwashing their kids into whatever they deemed to be the truth. For example, in 1978 in Nebraska, Mennonite parents won custody of their children who had joined the First Baptist Church. The ACLU view was that this infringed the right of a young person to decide their own philosophy or faith.

The use of conservatorship laws to “deprogram” a young person was hugely controversial. They may indeed have been brainwashed but equally, they may have adopted a set of beliefs very much of their own volition. Being forced to undergo a harsh regime of therapy by alleged “experts” was surely a breach of their human rights, the civil liberties lobby argued.

What added grist to the civil liberties argument was the use of the term “cult” by right-wing media commentators to refer to any group they didn’t like. In my research, I found a 1978 newspaper article referring to anti-hunting groups as “cults”. By extending this definition in all kinds of directions, the opportunity for abuse was widened considerably.

FIND OUT MORE: Five most evil brainwashing cults from the 1970s to 1990s

ACLU says no to deprogramming

In March 1977, ACLU outright condemned the use of deprogramming which in turn provoked a stormy response from parents. Even a member of ACLU who had taken his 25-year-old daughter out of the Unification church, better known as the “Moonies”, condemned his own organisation. He claimed she had endured sleep deprivation and “fed a low protein diet” (sic).

Among the organisations that deprogrammers and parents targeted was Hare Krishna. On March 17, 1977, the New York State Supreme Court threw out a case against Hare Krishna that had alleged unlawful imprisonment and extortion. This followed a complaint by a member of Hare Krishna that she had been kidnapped by her mother and a private investigator for deprogramming.

Citing the First Amendment, the judge insisted that church and state must remain separate and that the woman’s constitutional rights had been infringed. This caused uproar and the debate seethed throughout the late 70s and early 80s.

The cult problem continued past the 1970s

In 1984, I was a full-time student union officer at Liverpool University and in my first few weeks in office was visited by the Catholic and Anglican chaplains. I was concerned by one religious cult that I found out, through somebody I knew who joined, members were forced to clean the toilets of the elders and perform other demeaning tasks.

But…as the Catholic chaplain encouraged me to take on this cult, a troubling thought crossed my 21-year-old mind. Firstly, was this just an older established religion trying to knock out the new competition? After all, having been brought up a Catholic myself, I knew that the church of Rome was more than capable of indulging in some low level brainwashing. And secondly, didn’t we used to burn people at the stake for not being sufficiently aligned to the Pope?

In the 1970s, these issues set civil libertarians and parents groups at each others’ throats. The battle has been raging ever since.

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