U.S. Government and Religious Cults in America

You’ve no doubt heard the old saying: “One man’s cult is another man’s religion.” There is no doubt that numerous cults in the United States have pulled away from organized religious groups and are simply peaceful offshoots of a traditional religion. Some religious groups like Zion, Illinois, (see my earlier blogs) which was established as a theocracy, are often perceived as cults because they are led by autocrats who demand loyalty to their dogma. Other cults are dangerous, life-threatening groups. The cult led by Reverend Jim Jones is one notorious example and he and his followers are often cited in books and articles about cults.

In 1956 at the age of twenty-five, Jones started his own church, the People’s Temple in Indiana. He called himself a prophet and required his followers to address him as “Father.” In the 1960s, Jones moved his church and followers to California, settling in San Francisco in the 1970s.

To maintain discipline, members were required to spy on one another and subjected to intense, hostile interrogations about their activities and loyalties. Any infractions of the rules resulted in beatings, a form of abuse common in destructive cults.  The beatings that took place on the Temple stage with Jones calling out the number of each stroke.  One teenager was beaten so badly that her behind looked like hamburger.  All victims were required to go to the microphone and thank Jones for their punishment.

Young children who misbehaved were taken to the Temple infirmary where nurses used an electric cattle prod  “to send an electric shock through the child’s body,” according to investigative reporter Marshall Kilduff, a correspondent with the San Francisco Chronicle.  One member told him “There was never any sound but the screams of the children… When the sobbing, sniffling youngsters returned they were usually repeating a required “’Thank you, father.  Thank you, father.’”

For several years, little was known about the secretive People’s Temple.  However, about 1977, former members, who often feared for their lives, told news reporters stories almost too bizarre to be believed. As news of Jones and the Temple circulated, Jones ordered his followers to move to Guyana in South America.

Jones shocked the world when in 1978 he forced more than 900 of his followers to commit suicide or ordered their murder because he was convinced Armageddon—the end of the world—was at hand. He was convinced that everyone would be destroyed if people did not follow the “right way” as determined by Jones.

“The babies were the first to die. The cyanide was squirted into their little mouths with syringes,” reported Marshall Kilduff, who investigated the Reverend Jim Jones for more than two years and reported the horrific massacre of his followers in Jonestown, Guyana, in November 1978.  After the babies were destroyed, then came the older children.  They lined up in the central pavilion, where Jim Jones had addressed them so many times. This time they did his bidding again.  They lined up to accept cups of Kool-Aid laced with poison.  Next came their parents and the old folks.  They, too, waited their turn to obey the orders to die, while armed guards stood by ready to shoot down any who tried to escape. [1]

Why didn’t government officials intervene when they learned about Jones? Actually, U.S. Representative Leo Ryan of San Mateo, California, began to listen carefully to anxious relatives and ex-cult members; he flew to Guyana to investigate and try to stop Jones. Ryan interviewed Jones, but when he tried to leave the compound, he and his entourage were ambushed by Jones’ guards. Ryan, two reporters, a photographer, and a young woman who hoped to escape were shot to death.

If Ryan’s efforts had been successful, he might have advocated for U.S. laws against destructive cults. However, U.S. laws would NOT apply to Jones and company because they had escaped U.S. jurisdiction by moving to South America.

To date, there are no specific U.S. laws governing religious cults, which are protected under the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Americans are free to join any religious group (cult or not) of their choice and cannot be prosecuted unless members engage in criminal activities. But even then law enforcement cannot take any action unless they have evidence of criminality. In addition, before intervening, police have to make sure they are not interfering with religious freedom.

More about cult-like groups and government in the next blog.



[1]. Marshall Kilduff and Ron Javers, The Suicide Cult: The Inside Story of the Peoples Temple Sect and the Massacre in Guyana (New York, NY: Bantam Books, 1978), 64-65.

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