from moon beam - Tuesday, May 24, 2005
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Going on a provisioning/singing team and attending a few gypsy nights, does not constitute good or reliable research.
Gary Shepherd and Lawrence Lilliston
In this chapter we wish to expand on observations and conclusions presented in the preceding chapter with two objectives in mind. One is to shift focus from younger children to teens. The second is to amplify our account of activities, interaction patterns, and socialization experiences of Family young people based more on informal observations than formal testing. In so doing we occasionally replicate ourselves, but this tends to occur with regard to points that bear repeating.
Youthful Face of The Family: Implications and Consequences
The Family's young people-infants through teens and early twenties-are immediately its most notable element. For outsiders who know only of this religious group through sensationalized media portrayals, the young have become a paramount focus because of persistent allegations of child abuse. In this view, the young are understood only as tragic victims of religious perversion who must be rescued from a life of unspeakable degradation enforced upon them by their own parents. For outsiders who come into direct contact with Family homes, young people dominate one's initial perceptions by their sheer numbers, appealing interpersonal qualities, and the overwhelming degree in which they are involved in virtually all aspects of homefunctioning. In this view, the young come to be understood as representing remarkably well socialized new generations who constitute The Family's best hope for survival against the weighty opposition of detractors and secular authorities.
Full-time membership in The Family as of this writing numbers about 10,000 people (scattered in approximately 50 countries). Of this number, somewhere between six and seven thousand are young people under the age of eighteen. These young people are not recruits who have been converted into The Family. They are the second, and even third, generation of children born into The Family during the last thirty odd years. These numbers point to several facts of importance about this new religious movement.
The first fact is that The Family is not really preoccupied with recruiting new members (or "disciples") into the organization as a result of their missionary activity. Rather the primary objective is simply to save as many souls as possible prior to the "End Time" via the evangelical mode of urging listeners to repent and accept Jesus as their savior. Individuals thus "saved" are not required, nor routinely urged, to forsake their current social obligations and join The Family.
A second numerical fact is that the family has been very successful in retaining the faith and commitment of its young people. Most new religious movements (including the Church Universal and Triumphant, which we lived with and observed intensively in Montana just prior to our initial stay in Family homes in California), experience difficulty in infusing the second generation with the equivalent motivation and conviction of the parent generation (individuals who were converted as adults). In contrast to this usual trend, our observations suggest that The Family's older youngsters are an increasingly vitalizing force, in some ways perhaps even more committed to the missionary work than their elders. (As many as 2,000 people may have dropped out of active Family home participation during the last five years, presumably because of the high level of commitment expected relative to the hardships and opposition that often must be endured in many parts of the world.)
Thus the face of The Family is a predominantly young face, and it is likely to remain so for several reasons. Birth control practices are not generally acceptable whereas sexual relationships are valued. The result is a high birth rate. It was not uncommon among adults we talked to of long-time Family membership (over 15 years) to report having ten or more children. Furthermore, young people are encouraged to marry soon after reaching the age of 18 and to begin having their own children soon thereafter. Finally, it is the case that even when some adults choose to leave The Family some of their teen-aged children elect to remain.
The result of these factors is a skewed age pyramid that is not likely to shift away from its youthful base in the foreseeable future. The San Diego home we stayed in provides a somewhat typical illustration: Of a total of 40 home residents (as of July, 1993), only ten people were over the age of twenty-one. Fourteen of the residents were under the age of eleven, and three mothers were expecting new babies (all of whom were successfully delivered in the fall after our departure). In the Michigan home we have more recently been visiting, only eight of 44 residents are over the age of twenty-one, and twenty-five are under the age of thirteen.
The age imbalance portrayed in these numbers in turn has several important consequences for The Family. Internally, it means that (1) a proportionately very large amount of time, energy and other resources is allocated to child care and socialization; (2) that home rules, interpersonal relationships, and Family philosophy have all undergone significant adaptive changes that reflect and accommodate problems associated with a burgeoning child-youth population; (3) and finally that The Family has perforce become unusually dependent on contributions of young people in both the operation of homes and in the performance of missionary and other outreach activities. Age imbalance also contributes to at least one important external consequence: It reinforces rumors, allegations, and public perceptions of Family-sanctioned child abuse.
Charges of child abuse, particularly sexual, do not, of course, originate in the mere existence of an usually large younger population. As pointed out in the preceding chapter, such accusations most obviously gain credence because The Family teaches a radically liberal view of sexuality and sexual relationships (at least from a traditional religious perspective) and actively practices these views. Two fundamental notions are invoked: One, that God created our sexual nature, so that it cannot be inherently bad; in fact it must be inherently good. And two, the law of love is the operating principle of human life and, appropriately applied, extends to heterosexual relationships between consenting adults outside the constraints of marriage. When these beliefs and certain applications are combined with communal living arrangements that feature a disproportionate number of young people, most outsiders don't think twice about accepting whole cloth the worst tales of anti-cultists and disaffected ex-members.
Reprise of Conclusions Regarding Charges of Child Abuse
The fundamental reason for our initial agreement to visit the California homes was to address these charges through direct observation of Family life. Our more clinically focused report summarizes assessment results (particularly for younger children) that produced no evidence of abuse. Here we want to emphasize the extent to which this outcome of more formal testing was corroborated by constant informal observation of interaction patterns and activities in the households in which we lived. We ate meals with Family members; engaged in simple household chores and recreational activities; observed daily devotional meetings and children's home-school classes; traveled with missionary outreach teams of young people to such destinations as restaurants and fire stations where they "witnessed" through song and literature; and we interviewed many members (both young and old) about their lives in the family and their attitudes concerning a multitude of personal and public issues. In all of these activities we were particularly alert for indications of potential abuse occurring. We detected none.
It is conceivable that a troupe of trained actors, while under constant observation for a period of days, might be able to sustain convincing, coordinating performances that would conceal the true nature of their lives and characters. But as we previously argued, it is inconceivable that young children and toddlers would be able to do so: It strains the bounds of credulity to believe that children who are physically and/or emotionally mistreated on a regular basis could suddenly be made to behave toward their putative abusers in such a way as to avoid giving off the slightest clue that anything was wrong and to instead consistently respond to older household members in persuasively secure and affectionate ways.
It is true that sexuality is not a repressed topic of interest in Family homes. Again, extra-marital relationships are condoned between adult members of households (although it has not been our impression that such liaisons are incessantly engaged in). Discussions of sexual issues and problems are open and candid. Family members did not avoid such discussions in our presence, nor did they inhibit normal behavior patterns tinged with sexual overtones, such as occasional wearing of a moderately revealing article of clothing, physical expressions of affection (a kiss, a hug, holding hands; but not "making-out" between couples), moderately sensual dance movements, etc. Teens are well informed about sex and are capable of talking about it without being either silly or mortified. After the age of 18 it is clear that young people engage in complete sexual relationships with one another, because a number of them are already a marital couple with a baby on the way. However, since 1986, Family rules prescribe instant excommunication for engagement in sexual relationships between adults and young people under the age of 21.
Our initial California observations have since been supplemented by visits to three additional Family homes (one in Michigan, two in Washington, D.C.) totaling approximately 100 other members and resulting in similar conclusions. Our overall sample of homes still remains small and non-random, but, as suggested in our earlier chapter, we nevertheless have several reasons to think that what we have observed so far is likely to be typical of Family homes throughout the world. The Family is a small, culturally homogeneous population that operates on the basis of a very standardized set of rules and values. High levels of geographic mobility insure circulation of membership between homes and countries, and this is also an important standardizing force. (In every home so far visited, we have seen the arrival of new members to the household from previous stations in such countries as Canada, Greece, Japan, Mexico, Brazil, and Argentina. These migrants appear to be quickly integrated into their new homes. They easily assume tasks and roles with which they are utterly familiar, and their smooth merger into the new home is further facilitated by the fact that they often already know many of the extant household members from previous associations over the years.)
Two additional considerations bolster our confidence in the reliability of our conclusions about the absence of child abuse. First, similar inferences are starting to be drawn by other colleagues (some of whom are represented in this volume) from their own recent observational experiences with The Family. Second, the succession of police raids, arrests, and formal changes brought against The Family by authorities in four different countries over the last four years have all failed to yield any acceptable proof of abuse. With the latest such case in Argentina rapidly unraveling at the time of this writing, more than 700 minor children have been removed from homes around the world, placed in state "protective" custody, examined for signs of abuse, and subsequently reunited with families after authorities have not uncovered evidence that would justify the original accusations.
We repeat: None of the above considerations mean that individual instances of abuse can't or don't occur. All long-term groups must be presumed to harbor a wide range of personalities and are subject to individual acts of deviance from established norms. But the above considerations do greatly decrease the likelihood that there are systematic abuses occurring throughout The Family as a matter of policy, custom, theology, or isolation.
Summary of Teen Educational and Social Functioning
We have previously described some of the personal characteristics of young people (particularly children) that we observed in California homes, some of the child rearing practices of parents, and the system of home-education for the elementary and nursery grades. Here we will summarize selected qualities, activities, and patterns of social interaction characteristic of the older youth, including the JETTS (Junior End Time Teens, ages 11-13), Older Teens (ages 14-17), and Young Adults (ages 18-20).
As a general rule, The Family's young people seem above average in intellectual and social development. In the preceding chapter we summarized younger children's performance profiles on several educational and psychological tests and noted the effectiveness of home schooling that children receive through the sixth grade level. We did not formally test teenagers, but as a group they did strike us as bright and creative problem solvers. However, while teens are encouraged to continue a series of self-study programs that can lead to high school certification, this objective is not accorded the same priority and institutionalized support as the mandatory elementary education program. Most teens are eager to become more deeply involved in basic Family work and missionary activities. Indeed, this orientation is shared by adults who also assume that the nearness of the End Time precludes the need for preoccupation with higher levels of education. Consequently our discussions with teens and young adults revealed them to be rather bereft of accepted notions of history, politics, economics, social science, and literature, i.e., the traditional liberal arts areas. For the most part, these young people do not seem to be critical thinkers. Virtually every subject they have learned at home is linked to or understood in light of a biblical or Family perspective.
We have seen very little evidence of ordinary teenage sloth and whining in the homes we have visited. To the contrary, one is immediately struck by the degree of disciplined responsibility assumed by teens of all ages within Family homes. The general impression conveyed is not that of fearful subservience, but rather of genuine acceptance (and usually enthusiasm) while carrying out a variety of tasks that tend to be outside the expected realm of performance for same-age counterparts in modern society. Of course enthusiastic task performance over a limited time period for the benefit of strangers is probably among the easiest of behaviors to simulate. And even when performances are collectively authentic there are bound to be surly exceptions.
Such exceptions are in fact discussed candidly in Family home literature. "Rebellious" young people-especially among the JETTS age group-emerged as a topic of considerable concern about six years ago. Typical concerns centered around the flourishing of such undesirable personal qualities as selfishness, pride, cynicism, faultfinding, complaining, defiance of authority, susceptibility to worldly allurements, and so on. This is a list of traits for pre-teenagers and teens that is not at all remarkable in the modern world. But in an intimate "gameinschaft" society that depends upon consensus, solidarity, and the subjugation of personal wants to collective needs, these are precisely the kinds of individualistic expressions that are perceived as most threatening and therefore most in need of being quelled.
An initial approach to this problem was the establishment of special youth centers in certain areas of the world (e.g., Japan, Mexico, and Brazil) where young people who had been identified as "problems" could be sent for an intensive period of social and spiritual "retraining and strengthening" under the direction of adult teacher-supervisors). (Contemporary jargon distinguishes between a teen who is "DT," meaning a "determined teen," which is bad; and one who is "IC," meaning "intensive care," which is very bad.) These centers were called "Victor" programs, signifying the hope that those who entered the program would be able to gain a "victory" over personal problems and return to their homes in a "yielded" state, with heightened motivation to make more positive contributions.
But the real solution to the problem of building high levels of commitment and conformity in a new generation has not developed from focusing resources on reformatory style rehabilitation programs for a minority of "delinquents." What has apparently happened instead is simply recognition of the need for parents and other Family adults to seriously devote much more systematic attention in every home to socialization issues that affect every young person. This recognition first began to be officially articulated about four years ago by Father David's wife, Maria, in a series of articles that promoted the now widely implemented "Discipleship Training Revolution" and resulted in the dissolution of the Victor Program. From a social psychological perspective, the essence of the DTR, as we observed it being applied in California, may be reduced to such basic principles as emphasizing positive rewards, listening, soliciting opinions and suggestions, conferring important responsibilities, and respecting decisions of young people when conscientiously made in the performance of their duties. When consistently experienced, the cumulative effect of these practices is to strengthen feelings of both personal worth and attachment to the purposes of the group.
These effects were in full blossom at the time of our California observations. According to one only slightly hyperbolic Family adult: "Eighteen-year-olds are running the whole show now. It's a challenge to keep our kids. There are some drop-outs, but with so much good training, the Lord will still find ways to make use of them." Below we present a brief sampling of some of the activities in which the operation of these integrative socialization policies are manifest.
Observational Examples of Youth Integration Activities
One of our first Family experiences in California was sitting in on the daily home devotional-an hour-long session of singing, praying, scripture applications, testimonials, and occasional skits. Older teens were completely in charge of these activities in both homes we visited. They selected the songs to be sung, provided the guitar accompaniment, dictated the format for collective prayer and scripture recitation, and led the discussion of goals that had been accomplished versus those that had not. These activities were carried out with natural ease and authority. Adult family members complied with directions, did not intervene in the programming, and in general responded to the young as one would to peer and status equals. At the conclusion of these sessions, a roundrobin of hugs and verbal expressions of affection and personal encouragement were exchanged among all members-young and old, male and female.
The most important devotional of the week is the Sunday communion service. Given the spiritual significance of this event, and the traditional assumption of sacramental officiating by the clergy in established religions, we anticipated that an adult leader might take charge on this occasion. Instead, a fourteen-year-old girl led the service with casual aplomb. She began with a few extemporaneous comments about the significance of communion, uttered an informal sacramental prayer, and then initiated the passing of a platter of bread and a glass of wine from which every household member except infants partook.
Older teens (particularly eighteen- and nineteen-year-olds, who are now accorded the status of "Young Adults") assume virtually the full range of "ministries," or roles, necessary for the functioning of Family homes. Some of the more visible of these roles include meal preparation; home maintenance and repairs; "provisioning" of food, clothing, and household goods; child care supervision; pre-school and elementary education; and finance and home budgeting. One eighteenyear-old girl was apprenticing to a traveling midwife (who in turn delivers a large percentage of Family births throughout the United States: Approximately 700 babies over the last eleven years). The young apprentice in fact successfully supervised the delivery of a baby in the temporary absence of the midwife after our departure. Younger teens and older children also make household contributions through regular chores such as house clean-up, laundry, table setting and dish washing, assisting in yard care and child care, and singing gentle wake-up songs for morning reveille in the various home sleeping quarters.
One more particularly good example of the implementation of youthful responsibilities may be cited in the area of finances. Individually Family homes do not open banking accounts: they do not have credit cards or write checks. All goods, services, and supplies that cannot be "provisioned" are paid for in cash. In one of the California homes, a young man who had just turned eighteen had been designated as the "money person," the person responsible for keeping the home's available cash, budgeting its expenditure for routine needs, and making decisions about its allocation to individuals who make requests for items that must be purchased. On one occasion we observed an older adult male-the home cook and one of the longest tenured members in The Family-approach this eighteen-year-old with a request for a small amount of money to buy an ingredient that was lacking for a meal entre he was planning to prepare. The young man checked his cash flow record and denied the request: Current cash level was low and other budgeted items and requests, in his judgement, had priority. He suggested the cook substitute a different ingredient that was on hand or prepare something else. The older man began to bridle, then stopped, grimaced, and without further argument accepted the decision.
Outside the home, young people also make substantial contributions to missionary and other outreach efforts. In so doing, they can concretely identify themselves at an early age with the fundamental purpose of The Family's existence. Outreach efforts may take a variety of forms for the young. It may be as simple as having children regularly create batches of drawings, cards, poems, or letters to send to people who have made donations, or to organizations that have permitted Family member visits, or to institutions that may have some other kind of potential relationship to The Family. Older teens assist in clerical computer tasks necessary for conducting the "mail ministry"-sending out of regular literature to "Turf Supporters" (former but non-alienated members), "Friends," and other sympathetic parties, solicitations and acknowledgments of contributions, etc. Older teens may also be sent considerable distances to offer volunteer relief aid in the aftermath of various natural and social disasters such as Hurricane Andrew, the Mississippi floods of summer '93, or the Los Angeles riots of spring '92.
But the most frequent, visible, and uniquely effective form that youthful outreach and missionary contributions take is through group musical presentations. Over the years, talented Family musicians and composers have created an impressive body of religious songs (emphasizing a folk-rock style) that virtually every member appears to know by heart. From an early age children are trained to sing and dance unself-consciously before audiences, and many also learn to play musical instruments, particularly the guitar. "Performance teams" of various youth age groupings are formed. Specific numbers are imaginatively choreographed and rehearsed. A wide variety of organizations and institutions (local businesses, shopping malls, senior citizen complexes, nursing homes, hospitals, prisons, juvenile homes, police and fire stations, etc.) are contacted to inquire about performance opportunities (which are especially forthcoming during Christmas, Easter, and other holiday periods).
The religious pitch linked to these performances is typically kept very general and low key, sometimes involving nothing more than the generic Christian religious content of the songs themselves. These performance opportunities are esteemed, however, because (1) they do convey a positive outreach message of Christian affirmation and hope; (2) they may open the door to further missionary inroads among receptive listeners, whose "hearts may have been touched"; (3) they convey an extremely positive image of The Family to the larger community that challenges stereotypes of debased cultists; and (4) they provide an ideal vehicle for introducing children and teens to a working conception of themselves as actual missionaries.
We accompanied performance teams on two separate occasions. The first was with a combined group of a dozen JETTS and older teens in a jam-packed van to a fire station in downtown San Diego. A musically talented married couple was in charge of the expedition, participated in the performance themselves, and maintained a constant stream of advisory suggestions and comments on lessons learned during both the drive into the city and the return home. The half-hour performance itself was polished, touching, and very well received by an audience of about 30 fire station personnel. Among the most affecting numbers was a rendition of "The Fireman's Prayer," composed and set to music by the adult male team supervisor.
The second outreach performance we observed was significantly different in several respects. The group was smaller, consisting of just female JETTS (who were under the supervision of an 18-year-old girl, the younger girls' designated "Shepherd"), and was not a pre-arranged performance date. This team drove to a community some 15 miles distant from their home and began searching for a promising restaurant where they might inveigh permission to perform. A modest Italian place was located, a parking lot prayer for success was offered, and an impromptu meeting with the manager was skillfully negotiated by the 18-year-old team Shepherd.
The manager's initial suspicion was mollified by demonstration of a photo album crammed with pictures of Family young people performing in other locales (including the White House for the Bushes during the 1992 Christmas season). When the manager said they could sing in a back room where no customers were currently seated, the 18-year-old asked if they might take a quick poll of customers themselves to see whether there would be any objection to the girls performing in a more central spot nearer the customers. The poll was taken, no objections were registered, and suddenly, in the middle of the restaurant, these six young girls between the ages of eleven and thirteen were confidently launching themselves into a mini-version of the same performance given previously at the fire station.
Reactions at tables ranged from indifference to pleased attention. As soon as the last number was completed, the girls quickly fanned out with literature in hand, trolling their audience of diners for potential receptivity to a more pointed religious message. Two of the youngest girls claimed later they had gotten two men to pray with them and were elated at having "saved" them. Meanwhile, the manager had ordered up deluxe pizzas "on the house," and the team sat down to feast. Prior to leaving, the team went into the kitchen area and serenaded the cooks. The expedition ended with a follow-up parking lot prayer of thanksgiving for its success. (Two days later, when the authors volunteered to treat the entire home to carry-out pizza, in order to reciprocate the hospitality provided us, a youthful provisioner was careful to choose this same restaurant from which to order over a dozen large pizzas.)
While the above observations clearly emphasize the degree to which young people are socialized to serve Family organizational needs, one should not imagine that life for the young is a relentless round of unrelieved work, religious indoctrination, and weighty responsibilities. The daily schedule allocates an hour of private "quiet time" and an hour of "get-out," or recreational exercise, for every home member. Sundays are designated as "Family Day," during which smaller nuclear families are expected to interact together in some enjoyable and relaxing activity. (In cases where adults or older teens are living in a home separate from their "flesh" families, they are "adopted" into one of the existing nuclear units.) Swimming, picnics, and intra-family soccer matches were the activities of choice we observed in California.
Parties are also popular forms of diversion. One regular occasion for parties is a collective birth celebration, held sometime during the appropriate zodiac period, for all home residents who share the same astrological sign. Such a celebration was planned in one of the California homes midway during our visit. Various activities involved in bringing this party to its conclusion are worth mentioning here, because they illustrate additional small but telling ways in which Family values are manifest in young people's routine home experience.
Basic ingredients (including some imaginative substitutes) for making a half dozen "carrot-chocolate" cakes from scratch were identified and prepared by a group of JETTS. A creative older teen adapted a Black and Decker power drill for mixing the batter in a large tub. What was missing was ice cream. The lack of ice cream for the party was presented to a group of younger children (who had elsewhere been engaged in a competitive team game revolving around knowledge of Bible passages) as an opportunity to pray for a "miracle"; i.e., the obtaining of the needed ice cream. The children enthusiastically bunched together and united their voices in a prayer for ice cream. An older teen provisioner then retired from the children's classroom to call local ice cream parlors listed in the phone directory, explaining that she represented a missionary organization that depended on contributions for its sustenance. Would the store consider donating ice cream for the party? Within a short time the teen returned with the news that "we have our miracle": Two different stores had each agreed to donate two gallons of ice cream. This announcement brought cheers from the children, followed immediately by a session of writing and illustrating thank-you notes to the store managers.
The party itself clearly represented a significant entertainment and social outlet. This was a "new" home, only established and operating for about a month prior to our arrival. This meant that at least some residents were still probably in the process of establishing personal relationships with one another, and a party-this was apparently the home's first-presents a number of different relationship opportunities that are not available in routine work settings. Additionally, a traveling Family film crew of four males (two YAs and two older adults) had just arrived, and the temporary presence of more males in a home where women outnumbered men contributed a small portion of extra excitement. Several females-particularly the YAs-exchanged jeans, shorts, and sundresses for dress-up apparel and make-up. Social dancing-including slow and cheek-to-cheek modes, "jitterbugging," and more contemporary, uninhibited movements to a hard rock beat and pulsating strobe light-quickly became the predominant activity. Dancing partners usually rotated between musical selections, and both males and females actively solicited new partners.
Space limitations preclude a fuller account here of additional relevant details from our initial, exploratory study of Family relationships. We are engaged in on-going research that we trust will soon permit a more comprehensive, comparative, and analytical assessment of this group's unique capacity for incorporating the creative energy and enthusiasm of its youth in its so-far successful struggle to survive in a world hostile to its existence. From the perspective of many outsiders who share such a hostile view, the preliminary report offered here will be a disappointment: No confirmation of sex crimes, nor of pathetic dupes being hypnotically controlled to serve the malevolent purposes of psychotic leaders. However, our report does point to at least two social truths that are always crucial to remember.
One truth is that things are rarely as they seem on their surface. A very old dictum in interpreting social behavior says that if people perceive something to be true it will, for them, become true in its consequences. If, in this case, we construct a general stereotype of destructive, religious "cults," we are very likely to begin applying this label to every new religious group we encounter that appears to depart from "normal" religion. We assume the worst, fail to make critical distinctions, are receptive only to evidence (oftentimes shaky at best) that supports our assumptions, and respond to members of groups thus defined in exactly the objectionable ways that characterize racial, ethnic, and gender prejudice.
The second, related truth is to acknowledge the difficulty in arriving at critical, rational judgments about complicated issues in a diverse social world. When issues arise outside the boundaries of our own direct knowledge, we typically seek advice or suggestions from sources that are presumably knowledgeable about these issues. For many, the mass media are such a source. In the area of new religious movements, however, the media's usual approach has been to elaborate upon and strengthen the very stereotype of religious "cults."
We can cite one personal example. After completing our observational visit in California, the authors were contacted by CBS television news to provide an interview for a special program they were doing on The Family. We agreed and the interview was video taped-a sober 20-minute summary of our research observations and conclusions. When the program aired, none of our interview was included. Nor was the information included from any other scholarly or objective sources to which CBS had easy access. The story presented to viewers was completely negative, lacking even a passing nod to the existence of evidence or views that might contradict the lurid opening program previews that trumpeted "Story coming up on a bizarre California sex cult!" When one of the authors called the producer to complain about such unbalanced, unprofessional reporting, the producer sheepishly agreed and lamented the need to employ a National Inquirer approach to the news in order to attract viewers.
A fierce struggle is being waged in many nations, our own included, to define what constitutes "valid" religion. This is, in some ways, simply the continuation of a very old struggle in modern guise. In past times, and in pre-modern societies, this conflict is couched in terms of religious heresy. In our own time and society, the conflict has been redefined in the language of secular criminology and psychology. The modern version of this struggle is not just being waged on television screens and in the pages of newspapers or magazines. It is also occurring in courtrooms and within all levels of government concerned with issues of social control. Perhaps it is too naive to hope, as expressed in the concluding statement of the preceding chapter, that some officials and opinion shapers prominently involved in this conflict will heed the cautionary notes sounded by scholars in volumes such as this. But in the aftermath of the Waco debacle, it seems worth a try.
"Heaven's Children": The Children of God's Second Generation
Susan J. Palmer - Dawson College
Susan J. Palmer received her Ph.D. from Concordia University in Montreal, Quebec, where she worked on a research project involving new religions, directed by Frederick Bird. She has engaged in research projects in new religions funded by the Social Science in the Humanities Research Council in Ottawa, and teaches in the Religion Department of Dawson College.
On September 8, 1993, I was flying over the Grand Canyon to visit The Family in Los Angeles. The leaders in L.A. had found out about my SSHRC grant to study children in new religious movements (NRMs) and had demanded, "We need to be studied, so why don’t you come out and study us?" They had offered unlimited access and cooperation (in contrast to Quebec NRMs I’d approached who definitely didn’t want me snuffling around their kids).
Looking down at the purple-orange crusts of the Grand Canyon, I thought of my family’s "warning", "What if you get hauled off to jail in the middle of the night as a child molester?" I didn’t know what to expect--utopia or distopia?
One week later I was back in Montreal, and everyone seemed to inquire, "Well, do they? Do they abuse their children?" "No, they don’t, I’m convinced of it." My friends looked doubtful. "Are you sure? That’s not what Time magazine said. How can you be so sure?" Now that I know the disciples, have studied their literature and tried to figure out their history and communal patterns, my own common sense is telling me these allegations of "kidnapping, rape, sodomy, and child abuse" are ludicrous--but it is difficult to convince others.
After living with the Family for an action-packed week and pouring over the Mo Letters, I decided that perhaps these people were, after all, merely Christian Fundamentalists with a heavy millenarian and communal emphasis. ... They "mess up" our categories, our preconceptions concerning the sexual repressions and hypocrisy of Christian Fundamentalists, particularly those who (like Father David) are inclined to denounce sin, doomsday, abortion and "sodomites."
One must consider that religious founders often display unconventional approaches to the moral dilemmas and obsessions of their age, and an uncanny ability to predict future trends through setting up laboratories of social, sexual and familial experimentation. Thus, the changing sexual mores and patterns of marriage and parenting from the COG days to the present might be analysed as reflecting, magnifying and occasionally even parodying social tensions and moral trends in the surrounding culture.
In attempting to chart the changing communal patterns and the development of parental roles and models of childrearing, I relied upon three sources: 1) Interviews; 2) 50 questionnaires were filled out, 35 in the San Diego Home and 15 in the L.A. Media Home; 3) A study of a cupboardful of COG to Family literature.
The Mo Letters mirror and magnify these larger shifting social dilemmas and it would be fairer to treat them as an exploratory narrative, rather than as evidence of pathology when quoted out of context.
My purpose in writing down my thoughts and experiences of the past week is to convey my impressions of life in The Family today, as related by an outsider who at least strives towards the elusive ideal of "objectivity." Next, what I find most extraordinary about The Family at this phase in their history is their success in socializing their children who, it seems, have absorbed their parents’ fiery evangelical spirit and intense religious commitment. Since Foster (1) (1981) and other historians have observed that one of the main causes for the decline of two great utopias in American history, the Shakers and Oneida Perfectionists, was their failure in inculcating religious values in their children, I am going to address the issue of how The Family has accomplished this feat. Finally, I feel compelled (more by a feeling of exasperation than by a larger sense of justice) to refute the lies and gross inaccuracies inundating the mass media concerning The Family--and to present my own theories as to why this particular NRM invites this currently fashionable brand of religious persecution--allegations of child abuse.
The media portrait of "the sex-for-salvation cult" suggests aging baby boomers enslaving and molesting little children. What I actually encountered was a society run by dynamic teenagers and young adults born into the movement. Attractive and clean cut, they brought to mind the Pat Boone Show rather than the ragged hippies who "forsook all" to become Children of God. Trained in music and choreography from an early age, they perform on the streets and make the outreach videos; they teach the children, preside over devotional services in the Homes, and deal with the public.
The Home in San Diego was a large, ranch-style L-shaped house with a swimming pool. After I had been introduced to the 15-odd adult brothers and sisters and finally mastered the ritual hug, I was taken on a tour. It was during the two-hour "Rest and Word" period (2:00-4:00 p.m.) and all the children were asleep. ... Four little "MC" boys (Middle Children) of 6-8 [years of age] lay in their bunks beside a fan’s cooling buzz. I was interested to note that they segregate their children’s sleeping quarters by sex at an early age. ... The children’s rooms were clean and pleasantly arranged, from the YC’s (Younger Children) of 3-5 [years of age] to the OC’s (Older Children) to the OT’s (Older Teens). On viewing the five empty bassinets in the Infants and Toddlers’s room, I asked, "Where are the babies?" "With their mothers," was the logical reply.
Two young teachers introduced me to The Family’s rich and extensive literature on childbearing and education. Parents consult the three-volume Childcare Handbook (1982), and the book Raise ‘em Right, which is a compilation of writing and theories from secular sources. The educational material used in their home schooling program contains a broad range of information in the same subject areas found in public schools. The main difference lies in the rejection of Darwin and the emphasis on Bible studies, prophecy and prayer. Various teaching methods are employed--books, workbooks, Family-produced "GAP" videos, a (secular) Skillbank computer course on reading, comprehension, dictionary, language tutorial, composition, grammar, spelling ("We consider it pretty godly") and field trips. The Family’s schooling has been registered under an umbrella school, and they periodically hand in samples of work, put out report cards and have been examined by schoolboard officials in five or six countries ("They have told us our program is superior to most regular programs").
On the third day I was invited to accompany the children on a Get Out. The KIDS (Kind Inspired Dedicated Soldiers) and the JETTS (Junior End Time Teens) were well-groomed and dressed like any middle-class kids but in matching T-shirts, jeans and sneakers that were factory-donated, not personally chosen. Throughout the trip the teachers kept brushing their hair and spraying their small hands with an alcohol bottle. This latter custom, they explained, was picked up in Asia, where it was used as a safeguard against tropical diseases when children rode on subways or played in parks.
The next evening I drove the van for the Senior Teens and the YA’s witnessing/provisioning expedition. The girls resembled all-American upper middle class teens in shorts and blouses, their long hair brushed neatly. Eight young people and two guitars piled into the van and, before setting off, we prayed for safety. Sometimes the team would stop at a restaurant that knew them and had invited them back. ... We had already sung in a few restaurants, when they decided it was time for "provisioning." I pointed out an expensive-looking restaurant as a joke, and they said, "OK, stop!"
I panicked, "Come on, there’s no way we can barge in--nine strangers--and ask for free food!" But we pulled into the parking lot, prayed for the Lord to "soften the manager’s heart," and then the girls went in, asked to speak to the assistant manager, explained they were from a "Christian missionary movement," got permission to sing a few songs and started right away. The guests, surprised by the high quality of the performance, put down their forks and clapped. The girls performed exuberant choreography, and waiter and cooks gathered at the kitchen and stared. The eyes of some were tearful, evidently moved by the singers’ intense religious expression. After a few songs, everyone in the room was charmed by these talented, attractive, clean-cut kids--who then mentioned they were hungry and asked the manager to provide some food ... "just something simple."
To my surprise, heaping plates of burritos and salad arrived at our table, with sugarless drinks. While the boys wiped their mouths, the leader girl got them organized: "You go take those cooks in the kitchen. You take the manager and the waiter--take them into the hall, and I’ll talk to this table." It was now serious soul-saving time when receptive "sheep" would be warned of the impending End Time and invited to repeat a prayer so that Jesus could come into their hearts.
"Heaven’s Children," The Future of The Family
Family teenagers appear to be far more cautious and conservative than their parents’ generation in their attitudes towards sexuality. ... The second generation appear to regard their parents’ time of sexual excess with a kind of amused indulgence. A group of YA’s showed me their albums and pointed to photographs of their parents in their hippie heyday with pride. "There’s my Dad. He used to be a drug dealer before he got saved." "Did you see my Mom? She was in a biker gang when she met the disciples on Miami Beach." "My Dad was from a very old Argentinean family. They were very wealthy and he was a famous guitarist, but he forsook all because he really loved the Lord." "My Mom was feeling really depressed and guilty when she met the disciples because she’d just had an abortion. She was so grateful to the Lord when she met my dad and they had me." Whether their parents had been down and out or aristocrats, the point was they had forsaken all for Jesus, and their children looked back on them as legendary heroes and pioneers.
The rather wild impression I had received of the Children of God in the 70s was of an erratic band of rebellious hippies-turned-Jesus Freaks who indulged in what [sociologist] Roy Wallis (1979) dubbed "antinomian" behaviour (2) ... So, naturally, I wondered how they had arrived from there to here--to developing this rich, highly organized and elaborate culture of childhood.
The empowerment of youth is a theme that runs through the movement’s history. Today this pattern has returned. Now that the second generation have reached the same age as the original Children of God, they are being groomed to take over the administration and executive posts of the movement.
1. Foster, Lawrence (1981) Religion and Sexuality: Three American Communal Experiments of the Nineteenth Century. New York: Oxford University Press.
2. Marriage and the Children of God" in Salvation and Protest: Studies Wallis, Roy (1979) "Sex, of Social and Religious Movements (ed.) Roy Wallis. New York: St. Martins Press.