Monday, June 18, 2007

Christian cultism?

Cults don't always look like this (actually, this is Aaron the Exorcist from the Zorro: la espada y la rosa telenovela, one of my favorite characters)

The 04/19/07 issue of Rolling Stone carried an article by Jeff Sharlet about Ron Luce's fundamentalist Christian group
BattleCry, "Teenage Holy War". Rolling Stone placed an excerpt from the first part of the article online.

Sharlet's article is disturbing enough. But I was struck by one passage in the print version that shows that the group has some definite cult-like tendencies. But Sharlet didn't flag them that way. I can only guess what decisions he or his editors may have made. But it's also possible that Sharlet, like most journalists, wouldn't recognize these as warnings of cult tendencies.

He reports on the Honor Academy, which is prominently featured on
the group's Web site at the present writing. The Academy is said to be a one-year experience for teenagers. Sharlet reports, "Students, called interns, come for a year or more between high school and college."

And he describes one of the striking features of the Honor Academy "campus":

There's also what they call the "Back 40," several hundred acres on which stand more primitive structures, retreats for toughening up the kids, and a Quonset-hut officer's club for those who stay to become employees or permanent volunteers, forgoing college or earning mail-order degrees from Jerry Falwell's Liberty University.
That mention of some of the kids deciding to stay living in apparently Spartan conditions permanently really caught my eye. Especially giving the socially restrictive conditions Sharlet describes. Here's his portrait of a typical day there:

Intern days begin as early as 4:45 A.M. •with an hour of group exercise on the court near the Academy's swimming pool. Mornings are for classes: There's "Character Development," which focuses on "obedi-ence" and "purity," and the "World View Mocule," in which one learns to see current events around the world through the lens of obedience and purity.
"Purity" for BattleCry means, especially, no sex. And presumably no lustful thoughts, either.

Then there's this:

Further reinforcement comes from the Academy's required "Life Transforming Events," the most grueling of which is ESOAL (Emotionally Stretching Opportunity of a Lifetime). Luce was reluctant to share details about the "Opportunity," a fifty-to-ninety-hour sleep-deprived endurance test, but a short video of the 2005 ESOAL provides revealing glimpses: students weeping and dragging giant wooden crosses on their shoulders; a boy rolling and puking across a field while a senior intern "sergeant" in camouflage and a helmet urges him on; a platoon of weeping girls; a shell-shocked boy mumbling into the camera, "Don't know what time it is.... Don't know what matters. ... Don't even necessarily know who I can trust." (my emphasis)
The Web site presents a 2006 ESOAL video as of this writing.

As hair-raising as that sounds, Sharlet's article doesn't provide enough information about the right factors, such as what kind of personal authority Luce and his senior assistants exercise over their most devoted members, to say definitively that he's describing a cult.

But there are some screaming warning signs there that this group could be a cult, or a group evolving into a cult.

In any case, it's hard to imagine a camp like that is really constructive or healthy for 17-, 18- and 19-year-olds.

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