By Rick Ross

In a recent opinion/editorial New York Times piece titled “The Cult Deficit” columnist Ross Douthat stated, “the cult phenomenon feels increasingly antique, like lava lamps and bell bottoms.” He concluded, “Spiritual gurus still flourish in our era, of course, but they are generally comforting, vapid, safe — a Joel Osteen rather than a Jim Jones, a Deepak Chopra rather than a David Koresh.”

Interestingly, Deepak Chopra was a disciple of Indian guru Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, who was often called a “cult leader.” Maharishi was the founder of Transcendental Meditation (TM), a group frequently included on cult lists and still quite active amidst allegations of abuse.

Douthat doesn’t seem to care much about destructive cults or the damage they do. He laments that the Branch Davidians were “mistreated and misjudged.” Apparently the columnist hasn’t bothered to do much research as he has ignored the facts reported in the press about the Davidians and as established through the congressional record, the Danforth Report and submitted through court proceedings. Suffice to say that despite anti-government conspiracy theories David Koresh was one of the most vicious cult leaders in modern history. He was a deeply disturbed man that sexually preyed upon children and stockpiled weapons for the purpose of a violent end.

Journalist Tony Ortega at Raw Story points out that “The same week the US goes to war with one, NYT’s Douthat asks, where are the cults?” Ortega recognizes that many terrorist groups today are little more than personality-driven cults, such as al-Qaeda once was under the influence of Osama bin Laden. History is strewn with examples of the destruction wrought by totalitarian cults from the Nazis led by Adolf Hitler to the family dynasty that continues to dominate and control North Korea.

Not surprisingly following up Douthat doesn’t quote Ortega’s response, but instead prefers “Reason Magazine,” a Libertarian leaning publication that essentially agrees with him. Calling a column written by Peter Suderman a “very interesting response” Dauthat again ignores the facts and reiterates his opinion, as supposedly supported by a “religious historian” and venture capitalist. Suderman doesn’t dispute Douthat’s claim that cults are in decline, but rather uses it as a hook for his own spin about the “rise of subcultures.”

However, despite all the liberal or Libertarian posturing performed by these pundits the cult phenomenon has actually expanded around the world.

Unlike the United States, other countries in Europe, Asia, Africa and the Middle East have taken steps to respond to cults both through regulation and law enforcement. For example, in Japan and Germany cults have been closely monitored and in China some have been outlawed. Recently in Israel cult leader Goel Ratzon was convicted of sex crimes. Ratzon’s criminal conviction followed a lengthy government investigation and raid by law enforcement.

In addition to malevolent cult movements that have captivated nations the old familiar groups called “cults” that Douthat thinks have faded away actually are still around such as Scientology, the Unification Church, Hare Krishnas, Divine Light Mission, International Church of Christ, and Est (the Forum), although they may now use new names to avoid easy recognition.

In fact the United States has become something of a destination point and haven for groups called “cults.”

Dahn Yoga, led by Ilchee Lee, which started in South Korea, later set up shop in Arizona and now has a following across America.

Another recent arrival is the World Mission Society Church of God led by Zhang Gil-Jah, known to her devotees as “Mother God.” Not long ago Zhang opened her first church in New Jersey. Since then the group has grown rapidly across the US and Canada. Mother has even rented space in Manhattan not far from the New York Times.

Exiled “evil cult” leader Li Hongzhi, founder of Falun Gong, had to leave China, but found refuge in New York. According to researchers Li now has a flock of about !0,000 followers in North America. He claims to channel miraculous healing powers, which has allegedly led to medical neglect and death. The group has regular parades and demonstrations in NYC, Apparently Mr. Dauthat missed that.

Just as there will always be con men running schemes to take people’s money, there will always be destructive cult leaders exploiting the vulnerabilities of humanity. For con men and cult leaders it’s a business and it seems to be quite profitable. When Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard died in 1986 his estate totaled hundreds of millions of dollars. Today, Scientology reportedly has a billion dollars in cash and vast real estate holdings. When Maharishi Mahesh Yogi died he left behind a spiritual empire valued in billions. Rev. Moon, the founder of the Unification Church, likewise left behind a hefty financial legacy, which is now managed by his children. Whenever there is cash and assets someone will step in to take over. And in the United States cults can operate with relative impunity as an unregulated industry.

No one knows exactly how many cult members there are in the United States. But almost every day I learn of a new group or organization that seems to fit the core criteria, which forms the nucleus for most definitions of a destructive cult. These core criteria were established by Robert Jay Lifton back in the 1980s. Rather than focusing on what a group believes Lifton’s criteria focus on the structure, dynamics and behavior of a group.

First, the single and most salient feature of a destructive cult is that it is personality-driven and animated by a living, charismatic and totalitarian leader. It is that leader who is the defining element and driving force of the group. Whatever the leader says is right is right and whatever the leader says is wrong is wrong. He or she determines the relative morality of the group and its core identity.

Second, the group engages in a process of thought reform to break people down and then redevelop them according to a predetermined mindset, which includes a diminished ability to think critically and/or independently. This is accomplished through a synthesis of coercive persuasion and influence techniques, relentlessly focused on individuals subjected to the group process.

Finally, the third criteria, is that the group does harm. This may vary from group to group as some groups are more harmful than others. One groups may simply exploit its members financially or through free labor, while others may make much more intense demands such as sexual favors, medical neglect or even criminal acts.

Whatever the group may present as its facade, be it religion, politics, exercise, martial arts, business scheme or philosophy, it is the structure, dynamics and behavior of the group that sets it apart and aligns it with the core criteria, which forms the nucleus for a definition of a destructive cult.

For those who would attempt to diminish the power of persuasion used by cults we have only to look at the pattern of behavior within such groups. Why would people act against their own interests, but instead consistently behave in the best interest of the cult leader? Why would cult members allow their children to die due to medical neglect or surrender them for sexual abuse? The most compelling explanation for such otherwise improbable behavior is that cult victims are under undue influence and therefore unable to think for themselves independently.

The dirty little secret about cults and their bag of tricks, is that we are all vulnerable to coercive persuasion and influence techniques. And this is particularly true when we are at a vulnerable time in our lives. This might include a period of grief, financial instability, isolation or some other personal setback. It is at these times that cults can more easily and deceptively recruit people. No one intentionally joins a cult. Instead, people are tricked by cults, through deceptive recruitment practices and a gradual indoctrination process that doesn’t immediately fully disclose the group’s expectations and agenda.

If people were not vulnerable to persuasion and influence techniques there would be no advertising or political propaganda. Every person approached isn’t taken in by cult recruitment tactics, just as everyone doesn’t buy a product promoted by slick advertising. The question is not why don’t cults recruit everyone, but rather how do they recruit people and why do those people often stay to their determent.

Instead of denial and fanciful claims about the decline of cults our best response regarding such groups is education and increased awareness. Understanding the basic warning signs of a potentially unsafe group is a good start. And utilizing the Web to find information about specific groups before becoming more deeply involved is always a good idea. More information helps people make more informed choices. Ignorance may lead to devastating consequences.

As Tony Ortega concluded, “As long as the media remains in the dark about destructive cults and the way they work, we’ll continue to get bewildering statements about ISIS, and ignorant columns from the New York Times.”

One of the most successful groups called “cults” that ever recruited on a college campus was the so-called “International Church of Christ” (ICC) founded by Kip McKean.

Kip McKean (left) with 'disciple'McKean, a former campus minister let go by the Houston Memorial church of Christ in 1977, formed a splinter group often called a “cult” by its critics.

Beginning in the late 1970s and through the 1980s around Boston the group grew, and ultimately peaked reportedly at about 200,000 members, mostly recruited at colleges and universities across the United States and eventually around the world.

McKean, a charismatic, controlling and authoritarian leader, contained and manipulated his followers through something he labeled as “discipleship.”

This hierarchical system required that every member of his church, with the notable exception of McKean himself, be assigned to someone called their “discipling partner” to “seek advice” from.

That “advice” influenced such things as decisions about school, dating, family involvement and visits, virtually every aspect of an ICC disciple’s life.

But the ICC discipling system led to serious problems including students dropping out, emotional breakdowns and in some situations suicide.

The organization began to stumble structurally during the late 1990s due to mounting media attention, its accumulated bad press, criticism from former members, increasingly serious complaints from current members and at times even some of its leaders.

All this took its toll, and eventually there were more former members of the ICC than current members. Morevoer, numerous colleges and universities banned the group, which effectively cut the ICC off from its most meaningful source for new recruits.

Former members began to organize and effectively networked through the Internet, speaking out increasingly against ICC practices and McKean, who was once compared to the apostles Peter and Paul.

Ultimately Kip McKean was forced to resign through a series of events and his once loyal subordinates staged something like a “palace coup” toppling the imperious leader and taking over the kingdom he largely created.

But it seems that you can’t keep an old “cult leader” down.

McKean ended up in Oregon and has been attempting something like a “comeback.”

Still able to “fire up” at least some of the old faithful, McKean took over the Portland Church of Christ. This church then became his launching pad for what is now called the “International Christian Church.”

Kip McKean, now in his fifties, but with an ego that apparently requires regular feeding, was once named “…the greatest living treasure that God has given the kingdom on the face of the earth…”

And though the new “ICC” is comparatively quite small, it is growing through an old formula called “church plantings.” This formula consists typically of sending out teams of “disciples” to start up new cell groups in other cities, which then are frequently fed by student recruits from nearby schools.

There are now McKean-dominated groups in Eugene, Chicago, Los Angeles and Salt Lake City.

The old ICC itself continues to decline. According to its own numbers the organization membership has dropped to below 100,000.

In the “old days” growth was touted as proof that “God” was on McKean and the ICC’s side.

Based upon that past claim what can the ICC or its old leader say now given their respective reduced followings?

Perhaps McKean and his old followers blame everything on an “attack of the Devil” and/or the “evils of the world”?

Whatever the rhetoric it’s unlikely that Kip McKean will ever again regain the following he once had during his “glory days” as “the greatest living treasure.”

But the aging and notorious “cult leader” appears still committed to creating continuing cause for concern and at times grief.

Has Paris Hilton somehow hooked up with a Los Angeles “cult”? The hotel heiress reportedly booked a gospel choir to perform for a private funeral at “Los Angeles’ International Church of Christ” (ICC) reports Tonight and Independent on-line.

Paris HiltonThe International Church of Christ founded by Kip McKean is a splinter group that broke away from the mainline independent churches of Christ in the 1970s. Led by the notorious and charismatic McKean the consortium of churches rose to span the globe, with LA eventually becoming its headquarters.

Critics called the ICC a “cult” and it was banned by colleges across the US where it targeted students for recruitment. McKean himself was ultimately banned by his own followers in something like a “palace coup” and is essentially exiled in Portland, Oregon, apparently praying for a comeback.

But has the ICC hooked itself a Hilton?

The church boasted as many as 200,000 members at its peak by the end of the 1990s, but has fallen on hard times to perhaps no more than half that number today.

Could the hottie Hilton become the church’s celebrity spokesperson, something like Scientology’s “Top Gun” Tom Cruise?

Probably not.

According to the same report Paris has also bought a grave next to Marilyn Monroe in the prestigious Hollywood cemetery often chosen as a final venue for deceased stars.

However, it’s rumored that Hilton wants to bury a goat there.  

This all sounds like just another publicity stunt to launch her latest commercial venture. 

First the “reality TV” star dabbled in Madonna’s Kabbalah Centre favored by her parents and now it’s the ICC, or is it?

The 25-year-old celebrity curiosity will seemingly do anything for attention.

Paris Hilton calls herself as an “iconic blonde” comparable to Monroe.

But the only thing Hilton has in common with the genuine 20th Century icon is that they both became blondes. 

Meanwhile, Ms. Hilton has made the Guinness Book of World Records as the most overrated person in the world, not exactly the kind of star status she keeps grasping for.

Salon calls Scientology Dianetics “stranger than fiction”

Academics often called “cult apologists” have come to the rescue and defended both Tom Cruise and Scientology in the press lately.

J. Gordon Melton and David G. Bromley were both quoted in a recent article run within the Chicago Sun-Times.

Bromley is an old friend of Scientology and has been officially recommended by the controversial church as a “religious resource.”

The so-called “new Cult Awareness Network” reportedly run by Scientology also once recommended both Bromley and Melton for “factual information on new religions,” in the wake of a California cult (“Heaven’s Gate“) mass suicide in 1997.

David Bromley’s frequent writing partner Anson Shupe made a bundle working for Scientology lawyers. He helped Scientology knock off its perceived nemesis the “old Cult Awareness Network” enabling a Scientologist attorney to eventually buy its name and files through a bankruptcy proceeding.

The files of Scientology’s former foe were later handed over to J. Gordon Melton.

Melton and Bromley can almost always be counted on to defend virtually any group called a “cult” no matter how heinous or harmful.

Bromley told the Chicago Sun-Times, “Cult is a four-letter word for a religion you don’t like.”

It seems Time Magazine must have got it wrong when it called Scientology the “Cult of Greed,” despite the fact that a subsequent libel suit filed against the publication by the purported “cult” sputtered to a dismissal without ever going to trial.

Mr. Melton has raked in quite a nest egg working for groups like the Children of God and the International Church of Christ. He was paid by J.Z. Knight (known as Ramtha) to write a book, not to mention his all expenses paid trip to Japan courtesy of the infamous cult known as “Aum Supreme Truth.”

Melton arrived in Japan in 1995 and promptly pronounced that Aum was the victim of “persecution,” despite the fact that the cult had gassed the Tokyo Subway system sending thousands of Japanese to hospitals and killing twelve.

Melton told the Chicago Sun-Times that “new religions,” his supposedly politically correct euphemism to describe “cults,” put people off because of their “newness.”

However, it appears that what puts people off most about Tom Cruise’s behavior and his strange Scientology banter is the bizarre nature of it all.

Today the London Free Press asked, “Has Cruise Cracked?”

Meanwhile Salon Magazine published a critique of Scientology and its founder titled “Stranger than Fiction.”

How convenient is the timing that these two alleged academics Melton and Bromley are now helping out Scientology’s “poster boy” Tom Cruise.

But the news media should know that such specious scholars cannot be counted upon for any meaningful objectivity, they are politically if not literally invested in their positions.

Benjamin Zablocki, a professor of sociology at Rutgers University put it succinctly when he said, “The sociology of religion can no longer avoid the unpleasant ethical question of how to deal with the large sums of money being pumped into the field by the religious groups being studied…This is an issue that is slowly but surely building toward a public scandal.”

Stephen Kent, a professor of sociology at the University of Alberta in Canada concluded, “Scholars who compromise objectivity or academic integrity threaten to diminish the reputation of social science.”

Rich religious groups like Scientology can easily afford to pump cash into the pockets of quite a few professors and assorted academics. Perhaps the press should scrutinize more carefully the likes of sources such as David G. Bromley and J. Gordon Melton.

There is no doubt now, after something like a “palace coup” that deposed him from his throne, Thomas “Kip” McKean is staging a comeback.

McKean is the founder and once undisputed ruler over a “cult” that includes more than 100,000 followers called the “International Church of Christ ” (ICC).

He said, ”We’re praying that God will lead us to a new ministry.”

But what the deposed despot seems to really mean is a “new ministry,” with him on the throne again, or at least playing an important if not pivotal role.

McKean is launching a newsletter to all ICC congregations worldwide and has been “attending whirlwind meetings with church officials and old friends,” reports the Boston Globe.

It’s not clear who those “officials and old friends” are.

But like Napoleon returning from Elba King Kip apparently covets a return to power and the spotlight.

The same old crew of sycophants he once appointed and moved up within the power structure now controls the ICC. And it is unclear who amongst them will support their old hero and who will try to keep him locked out.

McKean, historically known for his reluctance to grant any interview, suddenly gave the Boston Globe unprecedented access.

This can easily be seen as a cynical move to use the newspaper as a means to communicate with the faithful, tell his side of the story and rally his former “disciples.”

The official story given to the Globe is that McKean left the ministry due to family problems. Specifically, that his daughter opted to leave the controversial church while attending Harvard.

However, rumors persist that more than this may have caused the monarch’s eventual departure. And that his daughter’s defection was only a conveinent and superficial excuse.

Apologies for abuse published on the Internet by the current group in power at the ICC appeared hollow and rather unconvincing.

Probably the only solution for real change the ICC would be a complete house cleaning, which would include in an an entirely new leadership elected at large by the general membership.

Also, an independent accounting firm, to disclose where all the money went and/or has been deposited over the years should probably do a complete audit of the books.

It seems doubtful that any process like this will ever occur.

But given the millions of dollars in annual contributions and whatever assets the ICC may have accumulated since its founding in 1978, it isn’t difficult to see why the powerful within the organization are struggling to keep their seats at the table. And why Kip wants his back at the head.

Some prominent people within the organization have done well feasting at that table over the past decades.

As in any business or corporate empire, money and power are often the motivation for taking control and/or fighting for it.

Will King Kip be able to once again sit on his old throne and rule the kingdom he created?

Will some of his former courtiers be able to effectively keep their deposed monarch out of the palace?

Or, will the ICC’s touted “Kingdom of God” simply be split up into petty fiefdoms and/or eventually disintergrate without the charismatic personality at the helm that once made it tick?

Stay tuned as the saga of this “cult” empire continues.

The Boston Church of Christ founded by Kip McKean in 1978 grew to an organization of more than 100,000 members, with churches around the world. It is now known as the International Church of Christ (ICC).

The group has a deeply troubled history, which has included often being called a “cult.” The ICC has been criticized for allegedly “brainwashing” its members, through a tight system of control it calls “discipling.”

Abuses reported about the group led to it being banned on many college campuses, where it often focused much of its recruitment efforts.

Throughout the troubled years of its controversial existence the ICC was defined and led by one man. Kip McKean was known as its “World Evangelist” and at times compared to the “Apostle Paul.”

Not long ago McKean stepped down and now it seems he has been forced out of the movement altogether. This has been explained as the result of his “sin” and “arrogance,” while acting as the group’s effective dictator.

Now in an apparent effort to stem the tide of departing “disciples” leaving the ICC, key leaders have issued and published on the Internet apologies concerning the group’s abuses and errors.

Whether these apologies actually reflect real and/or meaningful change, or are instead a public relations ploy remains to be seen.

Apparently Al Baird, once McKean’s “right hand man,” is perhaps the “first amongst equals” in a new regime that controls the ICC.

Baird is an elder within the LA Church of Christ, which became something like the Vatican over the organization during McKean’s long reign.

The LA church has issued a statement that includes an apology for “arrogance in the staff,” “authoritarian discipling,” “abusive accountability,” teaching they are “the one true church” and “one way to salvation.”

Baird and other key leaders who endorsed this declaration say, “We are absolutely committed to change.”

But many “cults” have claimed they were “committed to change” and later found guilty of the same abuses.

In fact in an apparent defense of the discipling system that has caused so much grief and damage amongst ICC members the LA church “apology” states, “We definitely believe in Biblical discipling relationships and the need to be involved in each others’ lives.”

What does this really mean? A continuation of some vestige of this destructive system that has claimed so many victims?

Regarding their teaching of “exclusive salvation,” only available through their church organization, LA leaders seemed somewhat evasive.

They stated, “In spite of our many weaknesses and sins, the Lord’s church is still amazing.”

Who then is “the Lord’s church”?

Baird and his associates certainly didn’t name anyone specifically that might share in that title.

They added rather cryptically, “We do need to teach the one way to salvation as taught in the Bible, and let God determine who is in His one universal church… there is one church, and God knows who is in it.”

Once again, they seemingly sidestep a meaningful answer. This may be clever, but it is not clear enough to reflect real change.

The apology posted on line by the South Florida Church of Christ statement was a bit more detailed and explicit.

Its leaders stated, “Effective immediately, we are ending the practice of a discipleship tree, or one over another discipling. We are also ending the practice of assigning discipleship partners.”

But they too seemed to want some “wiggle room.”

“We encourage all members to be involved in several peer one-another relationships…[with] regular times of friendship, teaching [and] personal accountability,” they added.

Florida leaders also said, “Those who are young and newly baptized in the Lord to be involved in at least one ‘mentoring’…so that they will be safe.”

What does this all really mean? It sounds like some form of “discipling” will effectively continue in Florida.

The Florida church also revealed that some of the money its members gave through “special contributions” was “improperly used” to assist the LA church.

The leaders claim there will now be “100% local oversight of the money” with “a full accounting of exactly how the money will be spent.”

They mention an “outside CPA firm [that] conducts an annual audit.” But don’t discuss the details of that report will be published and/or available to members.

Apparently they plan to “appoint a committee” which will somehow “evaluate the financial affairs of the church and individual concerns such as staff salaries.”

But shouldn’t the general membership elect such a committee, given the leadership’s admitted failures and acknowledged history of financial improprieties?

Florida leaders repented regarding the excesses of “one man leadership,” but blamed this on the “cowardice…of the elders.”

However, it is unclear how any “elder” during McKean’s era of dictatorship could have effectively done anything except listen and obey, or leave.

As is often the case within the ICC, problems are blamed on people rather than the system or the church itself.

Florida discussed “dating rules,” but again offered no details.

They simply said, “There needs to be much additional teaching done on this subject.” Whatever that means.

Likewise, the leaders of the church in Florida mention the issue of “church autonomy.”

However they conclude, “We are still committed to a brotherhood of the churches.”

Apparently that “brotherhood” will be largely dominated by Al Baird and an insider’s group of the chosen few.

These recently published apologies don’t appear to reflect any sweeping democratic reforms, or even a concerted or serious effort to effectively dismantle an admittedly abusive and authoritarian power structure.

It doesn’t look like there is any reason to expect any drastic changes in the discipleship system, which is after all, the organizational glue that has always held the ICC together.

What is clear is that Kip McKean is out, removed through something like a “palace coup” and now “there’s a new sheriff in town,” but with largely the same old “posse” of “appointed” deputies.

The ICC remains essentially intact as an undemocratic and authoritarian system of church government, from the top down. It just isn’t limited to “one man rule” anymore.

But there are rumors that McKean is already planning a “comeback,” hoping to return and reclaim his throne.

If the history of other alleged “cults” is instructive, these recent “apologies” may be little more than slick spin.

If the ICC is really intent on change why not begin with a far more explicitly laid out framework, that offers meaningful details.

Why not start with a real “change,” such as the election of new leaders?

Replace what is an admittedly a failed and “sinful” leadership, through a genuine democratic process that includes all ICC members.

Don’t expect this to happen any time soon.

The power players drawing salaries and perks within the ICC establishment have benefited personally and financially from the organization.

It’s doubtful these guys want any change, which might change that.

George Geftakys a former Baptist minister has led an obscure group based in Fullerton, California called “the assembly” since 1971.

In 1992 this relatively small group, which has been called a “cult,” received attention within the book “Churches That Abuse,” by Ronald Enroth. Enroth is a professor of Sociology at Westmont College.

Geftakys drew his followers largely from college and university campuses within California. Many members stayed on for years raising their children within the group.

However, over the last three decades assembly members have been excommunicated, many walked away, while some were professionally “deprogrammed,” when concerned parents intervened.

Enroth quoted one member that concluded, “You don’t have a relationship with George unless George dominates.” And according to a “written code” the assembly’s work “is not conducted on the basis of democracy.”

George Geftakys effectively became a dictator. And the assembly in many ways became the Geftakys family business.

Then came the troubles.

First, George’s son David Geftakys, who had been given a comfortable salaried position in the group, was exposed as a wife beater and abusive father. Eventually, this behavior became a police concern and a matter of public record.

Geftakys struggled with this situation amidst escalating controversy within the group. It became increasingly difficult for the assembly leader to simultaneously uphold the group’s rigid rules, while his son broke them.

But far more serious concerns regarding George Geftakys’ own conduct are now an issue. Geftakys, who is married and in his seventies, has been exposed for what appears to be adultery and seeming sexual misconduct.

According to a posted statement attributed to assembly “elders and leading brothers in Fullerton” the fallen leader has now been excommunicated.

Their statement says, “The excommunication is for initiating, encouraging and engaging in immoral and unseemly relationships with several sisters for over the past 20 years.” And that Geftakys “repeatedly lied …and deceived …with regard to these relationships and continues to deny any responsibility for them.”

According to the statement “George Geftakys…is not welcome at the Lord’s Supper or at any assembly meeting or gathering until there is a full and complete clearing of these matters.” And “Due to our brother’s spiritual condition, we are also withdrawing all support for he and his wife’s personal needs.”

Can followers so easily dispossess and dethrone a “cult leader”?

Last year another purported “cult leader,” Kip McKean of the International Church of Christ, resigned from his role in what looked like a palace coup. But McKean is still receiving “support for…his…personal needs” and continues to work within the organization.

What will happen now to George Geftakys?

Will he accept his “excommunication,” or simply excommunicate those who have dared to question him?

And what will be done with any assembly assets? Is George entitled to something if he walks away into forced retirement?

A website run by a former member that was “excommunicated” himself keeps track of events within the assembly and allows former members to network through a message board.

It will be interesting to see how this story develops.

That is, what changes actually occur at the assembly and will some new form of leadership eventually replace the old regime? Will there be a new dictator, or will democratic reforms produce meaningful accountability? Maybe the group just fold?

Stay tuned.

Kip McKean; the founder of what was once the most rapidly growing group called a “cult” in the United States has resigned as its leader. McKean’s “International Church of Christ” grew from only a handful of devoted followers in the late 70s, to more than 100,000 within “170 nations,” according to its former head.

The ICC began 23 years ago and was once known as the “Boston Church of Christ” or “Boston Movement.” McKean started the group shortly after he was let go as a campus minister by the Houston Memorial church of Christ. The church ceased to support McKean largely for the same “sins” he now freely admits to. But more importantly due to the doctrines he taught.

In a resignation announcement now widely circulated through the Internet McKean admitted that his “biggest sin is arrogance.” He also said he “fostered an environment where people were afraid to speak up.”

But perhaps the most compelling reason for his resignation can be attributed to McKean’s admitted but unspecified “sins” that “surfaced” within his family, culminating in concern about their “spiritual condition.”

Interestingly, this is not the first time a leader of the movement has stepped down due to unspecified “sins.” The first such scandal was Chuck Lucas of the Cossraods church of Christ in Gainesville, Florida, who was McKean’s mentor.

Marty Wooten a leader of the ICC church in Los Angeles once claimed that there was “no greater discipler, disciple, brother, husband, father, leader, and friend than Kip McKean.” Wooten was apparently wrong. And according to recent reports he has also left leadership.

Steve Johnson another admirer of McKean once stated, “With eyes wide open I’m following Kip McKean; Consciously, Intentionally.” Johnson seems to have followed his idol out the door. Reports say he has left a key ICC leadership slot in New York.

In what looks increasingly like a “palace coup” many top ICC leaders closely associated with McKean appear to be moving on with their maker.

The ICC teaches a controversial form of “discipleship” that requires every member to have a “discipleship partner” selected for them by the group. This system has been criticized as an extreme means of controlling people. Former members have compared it to “brainwashing.”

Research once done with the cooperation of the Boston church seems to indicate that such criticism was true. That research and subsequent analysis was published in the seminal book regarding the movement titled “The Discipling Dilemma” by Flavil Yeakley.

Yeakley demonstrated that the group’s members did more than “follow the leader,” they actually were largely cloning him. Through “discipleship” training they mimicked personality traits of Kip McKean.

Perhaps this is what McKean meant when in 1992 he said, “Your church is going to be just like you.”

Scott Green an ardent disciple demonstrated this in 1988 when he said, “I want to be able to imitate Kip McKean. I want to preach like him. I want to think like him. I want to talk like him.”

The ICC essentially claims exclusivity as the “Kingdom of God.” The implicit understanding amongst its members is that they alone are “true disciples” and therefore “Christians.” Others outside their system are most often seen as “lost” and without salvation.

The ICC has historically been a totalitarian regime with power concentrated at the top of a hierarchical pyramid. McKean was known by the singular title of “World Evangelist.”

Now it seems a small tight knit group of men at the top, led by McKean’s former right hand man and frequent apologist Al Baird, has assumed power. And the demise of some of Kip’s most devoted sycophants can be seen as simply a consolidation of control by the new leadership.

It appears McKean and his family will be generously provided for despite their “spiritual condition.” Al Baird announced that the former “World Evangelist” has moved “into a full-time ministry role with the South Region of the Los Angeles church.”

It is unclear how McKean will continue to maintain his relatively lavish lifestyle, which has included a $500,000 condo in an exclusive gated community within Pacific Palisades owned by the church, expensive schools for his children and other perks.

Does Kip have a “golden parachute” like many exiting corporate CEOs? Or did he put away a substantial stash like some of Enron’s old execs? Maybe his old pal Al knows? Full and meaningful financial disclosure of all compensation paid to leadership has never been the policy of the ICC.

It is unlikely that the ICC will now fade away. Kip did build a “kingdom” and the remaining royalty at the top have a vested interest in continuing it.

Al Baird is also likely to continue Kip’s doctrinal legacy of “discipleship,” despite its problems. And it is unlikely that any significant democratic reforms, which would bring greater accountability to the organization, will be implemented anytime soon. No one should readily expect meaningful financial transparency from the ICC either, through its recent regime change.

It seems Kip McKean once again made a rather interesting observation in a 1992 leadership conference when he said, “I know this is either a total reflection of this man’s life, or he has lived such an atrocious life before the Lord, that this is a rejection of his life…your church is going to be just like you.” Little did he know then that he would actually later appear to have been speaking prophetically and to many definitively–about both himself and the ICC.

Kip McKean was once proclaimed as “The greatest living treasure that God has given the kingdom on the face of the earth,” now he seems little more than a former king who either abdicated or was deposed.

But the “reflection of this man’s life,” his “kingdom,” goes on. And what defines some kingdoms best, is that they are often ruled by despots.

Many experts have noted that not only has the number of groups called “cults” has grown substantially in the past twenty years, they have also gained considerable momentum and influence within the United States.

A featured presentation about destructive cults at the 2002 annual convention for the American Psychological Association (APA) drew this comment from its President Dr. Philip G. Zimbardo, “When some organizations that promote religious or self-growth agendas become rich enough to wield power to suppress media exposés, influence legal judgments or publicly defame psychology, how can they be challenged?”

Zimbardo observations were published within the APA’s Monitor.

Groups that have often been called “cults” such as Scientology and Rev. Moon’s Unification Church have in fact become “rich enough” to “wield the power” Zimbardo talks about. Within the United States and internationally these two “cults” alone control billions of dollars.

Scientology and the Unification Church have acquired political power that reaches all the way to the White House. This was demonstrated by Scientology’s unprecedented access during the Clinton Administration and the special relationship Rev. Moon has with the Bush Family.

It remains to be seen how Moon’s influence may impact the so-called “Faith Based Initiative” proposed by President George W. Bush, which would fund religious programs with government money.

Rev. Moon’s influence on Capital Hill cannot be denied. He has become part of its establishment, largely through control of the Washington Times. And Moon also courts religious and political leaders through banquets, celebrations and conferences, which are well attended.

Groups like Scientology and the Unification Church also have funded efforts to “suppress media” and “influence legal judgements.”

Scientology has arguably turned litigation into something of a religious rite.

Time Magazine published the cover story, “Scientology: The Cult of Greed,” and was promptly sued for $400 million dollars. Even though Scientology lost, the litigation cost Time millions of dollars and took years to resolve. This produced a substantial chilling effect within the media, which served to suppress stories about the controversial church in the United States.

Likewise, Scientology has made a point of going after its critics personally. This has included defamation, libel and personal injury. The net result is that many that might expose the group don’t—due it seems largely to fear.

The Unification Church has frequently funded efforts to “influence legal judgements.” Notably an ongoing campaign through academic surrogates to discredit research about cults.

Some years ago the APA itself became involved through the filing of a “friend of the court brief.” That brief effectively would have helped the Unification Church in its defense regarding a personal injury lawsuit filed by a former member. However, the brief was later withdrawn.

Dr. Dick Anthony was the psychologist largely responsible for that effort. Anthony continues to work for groups called “cults” and is paid $3,500 per day for his efforts. One of his employers is Scientology, which also recommends him, through a front organization called the “reformed Cult Awareness Network.”

Defenders of “cults” such as Anthony are anxious to disprove the “theory of mind control.”

However, Zimbardo has acknowledged the existence of mind control. He stated, “Mind control is the process by which individual or collective freedom of choice and action is compromised by agents or agencies that modify or distort perception, motivation, affect, cognition and/or behavioral outcomes.”

But how does this ultimately affect the general public?

In a survey done in 1980 by Zimbardo of more than 1,000 high school students in the San Francisco Bay area 54% reported a cult had attempted to recruit them and 40% said they had experienced multiple attempts.

Certainly on college campuses groups like the “International Church of Christ” (ICC), which has often been called a “cult,” are very active. The ICC has been banned by many colleges and universities, due largely to its aggressive recruitment practices.

And cults are not restricted exclusively to large metropolitan areas or schools. They are increasingly active in small towns and rural areas. In some situations groups called “cults” eventually exercise considerable influence within the small communities they inhabit.

A recent example is the “Fellowship of Friends,” which has been called a “cult.” The group led by Robert Burton has a troubled history in Yuba County, a rural area in California. Likewise the group known as the “Twelve Tribes” has moved into small towns in upstate New York.

The parallels between cults and terrorist groups cannot be ignored.

A charismatic and totalitarian leader who supposedly speaks for God dominates many terrorist groups, not unlike destructive cults.

What is the difference ultimately then, between suicide at Jonestown and the suicide bombers of al-Qaeda?

Each group had devoted followers willing to die for its cause. Jim Jones called this an act of “revolutionary suicide,” Osama bin-Laden said it was “Jihad.” But in the end the mindset is the same.

In the end the only practical difference between bin Laden and Jim Jones is the level of destruction wrought by their madness. The group dynamics that produce the tragedy are essentially the same.

Zimbardo concluded, “Understanding the dynamics and pervasiveness of situational power is essential to learning how to resist it and to weaken the dominance of the many agents of mind control who ply their trade daily on all of us behind many faces and fronts.”

It seems that “mind control” has become a modern mental health hazard. However, this illness unlike others, can potentially affect more than the personal lives of individuals.

This was first made clear through a horrific gas attack upon Tokyo’s subways by the cult Aum in 1995.

Today that realization is even more painful whenever we see the changed Manhattan skyline.

UC Berkeley is perhaps one of the most “politically correct” campuses in the United States. If you don’t speak PC there you might find yourself “communicationally challenged.”

Recently an article was run in the Berkeley Daily Californian student press about “suspected active cults on campus.” That’s sort of a PC way of simply saying “destructive cults are recruiting here.”

One student advisor said, “I’m very cautious with the word ‘cult’, as its definition is hotly debated.”

Is this guy PC or was he coached by the university’s legal staff? Maybe both.

Some lesser-known groups are named, but the “usual suspects” eventually emerge.

Two big “suspected…cults” named within the Berkeley article that work almost any worthwhile campus, are the “International Church of Christ” (ICC) and the Unification Church.

Rev. Moon’s Unification Church is perhaps the “gold standard” for “suspected…cults,” and has been diligently working campuses since the 70s. Moon’s followers were historically once identified by the now politically incorrect name—“Moonies.”

General Douglas MacArther once said, “Old soldiers never die…they just fade away.” But contrary to that analogy elderly “cult leaders” like Rev. Moon seem to soldier on relentlessly. He is now an octogenarian and controls billions of dollars. And Moon’s minions are still actively working college campuses, as attested to by the Berkeley article.

Of course one “Moonie” told the Daily Californian, “Rev. Moon is a great religious leader.” Right, and Saddam Hussein is a great humanitarian. Though it should be acknowledged that Rev. Moon’s cash and media holdings have garnered him some clout amongst politicians and religious leaders like Jerry Falwell.

It’s often hard to identify Unification Church recruiters, because their sponsoring organization names keep changing.

Historically, Moon’s Unification Church has used literally hundreds of front organizational names. For example, his current incarnation at UC Berkley is the “Family Federation for World Peace.”

UC Berkeley’s other substantial “suspected…cult” is Kip McKean’s ICC, once called the “Boston Church of Christ” or simply the “Boston Movement.” The ICC has been banned by scores of American colleges and universities.

Like Moon, McKean’s operation uses different names too, such as “Campus Advance,” “Upside Down Club,” “Alpha Omega Club,” “Campus Christian Movement,” “Christian Advance” and “Students Advocating Christianity Today.”

Both of these “suspected…cults” emphasize the value of personality—specifically, the leader’s personality.

In the ICC there is actually a system they call “discipling” to help members develop just the right kind of personality. Some say “follow the leader,” but in the ICC it’s more like clone the leader. And the prototype for this cloning process appears to be Kip McKean.

One ICC leader put it this way, “It would suit me just fine if I could leave this place and say you know – I just want to be exactly like Kip. I just want to be exactly like Kip. That would be enough.” Another claimed, “Kip McKean is the greatest living treasure that God has given the kingdom on the face of the earth today.”

Moon is a bit more presumptuous than McKean. According to a recent ad campaign that cost him more than $700,000, “Jesus, Mohammed, Buddha – even God – have told him he is now ‘the Savior, Messiah and King of Kings of all of humanity!'”

This would seem to trump McKean’s title of “greatest living treasure.” After all, Mr. Moon does have seniority.

Rev. Moon also appears to prefer a more traditional approach to “mind control,” such as isolated camps, retreats, sleep deprivation and dietary control.

So what’s a naïve college freshman to do?

The student advisor at UC Berkeley says, “All groups should be open to some questioning. Be critical, and talk to friends and family if you are ever in doubt.”

However, this response frequently doesn’t work. Don’t expect “suspected…cults” to be honest and/or forthcoming. And some may say, “Satan brings doubts.” They may also claim that family and friends don’t understand their spiritual ways, thus their feedback is essentially meaningless and should be ignored.

The best way to respond to “suspected…cults” is through research. Students should investigate and gather substantial information about a group before becoming initially involved. This can easily be accomplished by making use of the Internet or library.

Instead of asking questions from family members and friends who are typically ignorant, it is more practical to first query search engines on the Internet such as Google and Yahoo or request help from library staff at a periodical desk.

Many “cults” claim, “We have been persecuted by the press.” And, “They lie about us on the Internet.”

However, this type of response should raise serious suspicion. It is almost always proof that the group has something to hide.

A Berkeley devotee of Rev. Moon told the Daily Californian, “We cannot understand a person of great heart and thought [i.e. Moon] with a small mind.”

A more relevant observation would be, we cannot make a truly informed decision without sufficient information. And decisions about potentially unsafe groups should be made carefully.