Cults Evangelicals and the Ethics of Social Influence

Cultic Studies Journal, 1985, Volume 2, Number 2, pages 371-388

Cults, Evangelicals, and the Ethics of Social Influence

Michael D. Langone

I submit this essay with enthusiasm and trepidation. The topic interests me because the ethics of how we influence one another in religious contexts is at the heart of the controversy cults have engendered. Yet I shy away from “wrapping up” this special issue because my study of the thoughtful submissions and re- prints of others, as well as supplementary material collected by the Inter-Varsity group, has filled my head with more ideas than I can tie together. Hence, I’ll impose order on my confusion by building the essay around the three key questions listed in the introduction. I won’t be able to say all I’d like, but perhaps what I do say will be reasonably coherent.

What is the Proper Place of Proselytizing in an Open, Pluralistic Society?

Discussion of Terms

It would be misleading to answer this question without attempting to clarify the two key terms, “pluralism” and “proselytize.”

In contemporary American culture, “Pluralism” (as applied to religion) seems to have different meanings, which can be grouped under three categories: truth-denying pluralism, truth-obscuring pluralism, and truth-affirming pluralism.

Truth-denying pluralism. The truth-denying pluralist believes that all religious claims are equally unprovable and, as McClosky relates, a mere matter of taste. Some truth-denying pluralists are tolerant people, not believing in anyone’s religious claims, but not opposing their attempts to convince others of their “truth” (provided that these attempts do not ultimately aim to suppress expression of any but the “established” truth). Such truth-denying pluralists may, for instance, view religious claims as dispensable, though possibly useful, myths.

There is, however, another kind of truth-denying pluralist, who is the object of McCloskey’s criticism- These truth-denying pluralists are intolerant relativists. They not only deny the epistemological integrity of religious claims, but seek to .outlaw” them from the public arena, not necessarily through legislation, but through ridicule and selective influence within educational, legal and other social institutions. This pluralism is, in a sense, deceitful. It officially tolerates religious claims, but unofficially underlines their expression, trivializes them and implicitly puts forth relativism as the “king of equals.” Thus, intolerant relativists, in their zeal to save us from unseemly metaphysical claims, may, like the gentleman McCloskey referred to, find themselves blurting that “the right not to hear and not to be bothered takes precedence over the right to hear.” (Perhaps such silliness reflects the difficulty— impossibility even—of sustaining a culture which denies the possibility of obtaining even fallible answers to life’s fundamental philosophical and religious questions.)

Although I endorse McCloskey’s critique of intolerant relativists, I believe he and many other evangelicals make a mistake in identifying pluralism with that particular subgroup of pluralists. Their error is analogous to the error Enroth criticizes in his article “Of Cults and Evangelicals: Labeling and Lumping.” They classify disparate groups under one label. McCloskey calls them pluralists, a term which I am here trying to differentiate. Many evangelicals, however, would probably lump McCloskey’s pluralists in with a variety of secularists and liberal Christians or Jews, all excoriated as “secular humanists.” Now, secular humanists exist (Free Inquiry, for example, is a publication of the Council for Democratic and Secular Humanism). And some secular humanists are intolerant relativists. But not all.

Such “labeling-and-lumping” efforts occur because, in part, negative experiences are readily remembered. Hence, even if only ten percent, to use an arbitrary figure, of people worship the “right not to hear,” the evangelical burnt by this ten percent will remember them much more vividly than those who take his literature and walk away. The evangelist will, consequently, tend to overestimate the prevalence of intolerant relativists in the general population. The result can be a siege mentality and a counter-response of persuasive evangelizing that seems unnecessarily aggressive to the ninety percent who aren’t intolerant relativists. Thus, when they overreact, evangelicals may undermine their own cause and stimulate overreactive responses from secularists and sectarians who do not distinguish among evangelicals.

On the other hand, some (e.g., Cuddihy, cited by McCloskey) argue that intolerant relativists constitute a majority in our culture, at least among intellectuals and academicians, even though their influence may be on the wane. If this position is true (a question that could be investigated through social scientific methods), aggressive evangelizing may be an understandable survival mechanism in a world of hostile relativists. If, however, the position is inaccurate or if relativism is losing favor, aggressively persuasive evangelicals would be advised to reevaluate their attitudes toward pluralism by considering, for example, the kinds of pluralists discussed in the next two sections. They may discover that the world is not as hostile as they fear.

Truth-obscuring pluralism. Truth obscuring pluralists do not deny the possibility of knowing religious truths. But they conceive of such knowing as so difficult, uncertain, abstract or complex that they recoil from the confident truth-proclaiming of evangelicals. For truth-obscuring pluralists, truth is a form of “becoming,” of mystical syncretism. It cannot be neatly packaged and bounded in a Nicene Creed. I call these pluralists “truth obscuring” because their concept of Truth is so encompassing or ineffable that it is either indistinguishable from falsehood or so utterly beyond our ken as to be unknowable to all but an elect.

Because their own vision of truth is so admittedly obscure, abstract, or mystical, truth-obscuring pluralists will often tolerate religious truth claims. In order to maintain their epistemological integrity they must cultivate humility, openness, tolerance, and a spirit of reconciliation. Nevertheless, they may fear that their open-ended posture toward truth could be proscribed by an evangelical resurgence that would lead to a reestablishment of religious absolutism, and a consequent end to pluralism. Very few of us, including truth-obscuring pluralists, are so tolerant that we will passively submit to the destruction of our psychological identities (which is why guile and coercion are the preferred methods of absolutists). Truth-obscuring pluralists, then, will tend to look uneasily on aggressive evangelicals, while simultaneously feeling obligated to defend their right to preach and seek converts.

In its positive form, truth-obscuring pluralism can facilitate dialogue and encourage people to pursue the truth as they see it. The mutivocal monists referred to by Robbins are examples. They see the “truths” of all belief systems as maya, or illusion. Yet because they believe that all paths ultimately lead to enlightenment and because they recognize that the vast majority of us must live our lives as though maya were real, they are respectful toward and tolerant of the diverse strivings of individuals. The swamis heading the Vedanta Societies in many American cities axe, with some exceptions perhaps, representative of this constructive form of truth-obscuring pluralism.

Truth-obscuring pluralism, however, can also be destructive. It may, for example, become so “openminded” that, to paraphrase Gary Scharff’s professor, its proponents’ brains fall out. Or, it may become so obsessed with the limits of reason that it becomes an anti-rational ideology, as has happened to many humanistic psychology groups. The “becomingness” or “experiential” nature of truth may serve as an alibi for never having to say (while operating in the main world of the mere mortal multitudes) that one is wrong, or never having to confront another with one’s belief that he is wrong, even when the thinking of either or both borders on the magical or is out-and-out bizarre. Such an attitude can make for a mush of non-thinking agreeableness (“You do your thing and III do my thing and isn’t it beautiful!”) which, although initially analgesic, can lead to heightened suggestibility and serious conflict with the non-magical world. Many cultic horror stories come out of this tradition.

Truth-affirming pluralism. Truth-affirming pluralists recognize that the necessity to act demands the assertion of belief commitments, even if with varying degrees of confidence and sources of motivation (e.g., pragmatic necessity, faithbound duty). Truth-affirming pluralists acknowledge the value of their freedom and rationality, as well as their fallibility and propensity for self-deception. They also respect the freedom reason, fallibility, and capacity for self-deception of others. Hence, they accept disagreements persuasion, debate, and self-correction as essential aspects of an open, tolerant society. However, they also maintain that an open society must have ethical rules and systems of accountability to guide social influence interactions; otherwise, the society’s intolerant “true believers” would suppress those with whom they disagree.

Most members of mainstream religions, as well as some atheists (e.g., Ayn Rand Objectivists), are truth-affirming pluralists. They advocate the truth as they see it, but also endorse a high level of tolerance and a balance between listening and speaking, between changing and being changed. This balance is the essence of dialogue: “dialogue ... means openness, welcome, listening, knowledge of the other, collaboration, discussion, exchange” (Arinze, 1985, p. 118). However, the balance of dialogue is always threatened by the opposing forces of nonthinking agreeableness and intolerance.

The tension between the missionary thrust of Christianity and the call to respect the religious views of others can lead some Christians into untenable positions. Some can come dangerously near to holding that all religions are essentially the same, that everybody is an anonymous Christian, that every religion is equally a way to salvation and that the era of missionary work and conversion should now give way to a new emphasis: that of respectful dialogue and fraternal co-existence of an religions. Others are tempted to the other extreme: not to see much good in non-Christian religions and to regard interreligious dialogue as a marginal exercise which busy bishops and priests cannot afford. (Arinze, 1985, p. 131)

I believe that the tension sometimes observed between evangelicals and liberal Christians or secularists reflects in part the pull of the two tendencies described by Cardinal Arinze, with secularists and liberal Christians leaning toward the former, truth-obscuring tendency, evangelicals toward the latter, non-pluralist tendency. Thus, even though many evangelicals make obvious attempts at dialogue (such as those in this special issue), they may still find themselves the object of suspicion, similar to that encountered by Christians seeking dialogue with non-Christians:

Some non-Christians are not sure of the Christian motives of dialogue. They fear that it is conversion. They are afraid that dialogue is a trojan horse which Christians want to bring into the fortified cities of the non-Christians. They need assurance that dialogue, although not opposed to conversion, does not aim at conversion, but at mutual exchange and enrichmen4 deepening of one’s faith, and greater fidelity to God and openness to His action. (Arinze, 1985, p. 132)

The challenge for evangelicals and all other truth-affirming Pluralists is to find ways of assuring others that truth-affirmation occurs in a context of sincere dialogue, and is not a trojan horse, a mere tactical maneuver in a campaign to foist a religious, philosophical, or political belief on others. Clearly defining the ethical boundaries of religious influence processes and developing accountability mechanisms to keep one’s fellows in line will contribute a great deal toward the establishment of such assurance.

Proselytize. Prior to undertaking this special issue, I did not realize that .proselytize had taken on such a negative connotation that evangelicals would reject the word as a description of their work. In the prologue to the lnter-Varsity collection, Dietrich Gruen says: “The task force agreed that the term “proselytizing,” with all its current pejorative connotations, was not a word whose original positive denotation (“the effort to persuade”) we could redeem and claim for ourselves. It seems “proselytizing” is almost always used in an adversarial sense, as something done by “the bad guys on the other side.” In deference to the Inter-Varsity team’s knowledge of this area, I will not use “proselytize” to describe evangelism.

On the other hand, I’m not convinced that Rev. Lewis’ distinction between ethical evangelism and unethical proselytizing is quite accurate. Evangelism, if practiced according to Christian tenets, should be ethical. And proselytizing (which Webster, 1960, defines as “to make a convert of) often is unethical, e.g., Moonie recruitment that makes liberal use of “heavenly deception.” However, what word do we use to describe the actions of a Meher Baba devotee (a benign cult, cf., Robbins & Anthony, 1972) who praises Meher Baba, whom he considers God incarnate, “with a view to persuading people to come to Him personally and be reconciled to God” (quote from the Lausanne Covenant—see McCloskey’s “What is Evangelism” in this issue)? The Baba devotee’s goals and methods may be quite similar to those implied in the Lausanne Covenant, with the very important difference that the Baba devotee is proclaiming his faith in Meher Baba, rather than Jesus Christ. We certainly cannot say that the Baba devotee is evangelizing, i.e., spreading the “good news” of the Gospel. Yet if he is behaving ethically, we shouldn’t use “proselytize” either, according to Rev. Lewis.

When confronted by such dilemmas, I turn to Rogeft’s Thesaurus (1977). Unfortunately, Roget isn’t much help here. Under the heading “conversion,” we find the following: “convince, persuade, wean, bring over, win over; proselyte, proselytize, evangelize.” (145.16)

It seems, then, that the propagandists who sullied the reputation of “proselytize have put a crimp on our linguistic freedom. I want to say that the ethical Baba devotee “proselytizes” when he convinces or seeks to convince others to follow Meher Baba. But I guess I must say he “proselytizes (nonpejorative connotation).”

For the reasons just discussed, I retained the word “proselytize” in the three central questions posed in the introduction.

Evangelize. Fortunately, the integrity of the word “evangelize” has thus far survived the propagandists.

McCloskey cites the Lausanne Covenant in his attempt to define evangelism:

To evangelize is to spread the good news that Jesus Christ died for our sins and was raised from the dead according to the scriptures, and that as reigning Lord, He now offers the forgiveness of sins and the liberating gift of the Holy Spirit to all who repent and believe. It is the proclamation of the historical, biblical Christ as Savior and Lord with a view to persuading people to come to Him personally and so be reconciled to God.

In his citation of the Lausanne Covenant, McCloskey italicized the last phrase, “with a view to persuading people to come to Him personally and so be reconciled to God.” His emphasis reflects what appears to be a point of disagreement among evangelicals, as well as other Christians.

Rev. Litfin and Rev. LeBar, for example, both describe “evangelization” as “invitation,” and warn about the perils of persuasion. Even the Lausanne Covenant, as I read it, sees persuasion as a desideratum (“with a view to persuading”), not an injunction (e.g., “with a goal of persuading”). Furthermore, “persuasion enters the definition only toward the end. The heart of the Lausanne Covenant seems to be to “spread the good news” and to proclaim the “historical, biblical Christ.” These seem to be the Christian’s obligations, not to “persuade,” which is merely a hoped-for outcome. McCloskey’s inference that persuasion is central to evangelizing (“The Christian communicator, then is an unashamed and conscientious persuader”), despite his qualification (“Our persuasive efforts are grounded in humility and integrity.”), strikes me as more imposed on than derived from the Lausanne Covenant.

My opinion on this matter certainly doesn’t carry the weight of theological authority. However, if McCloskey’s interpretation is incorrect (a word that has meaning to a truth-affirming pluralist, which McCloskey seems to be), he and those who subscribe to his view may not be quite as ethical as they may think.

An example of a questionably persuasive approach to evangelism, in my view, is a poster used at Rice University in Houston. Tie flashy poster announced.- “Does Josh know everything about sex? NO. But what he does know will keep you talking for days. MAXIMUM SEX. That’s Josh!” Josh is Josh McDowell, an evangelist who, for all I know, may be a sincere and ethical Christian. But is that kind of Madison-Avenue hype (which is probably quite effective in “gaining the desired response,” a preaching goal criticized by Litfin) appropriate and consistent with the Lausanne Covenant? Or does it reflect well-meaning, but undisciplined enthusiasm? (Recall the ex-Maranatha member’s quote in Bjornstad et al: “We were the most dynamic, exciting young people for God they had ever seen... God’s Green Berets!”) If the latter, it could generate what psychologists call “cognitive dissonance,” the tendency to maintain consistency between our beliefs and actions. Undisciplined enthusiasm may lead a well-meaning evangelist to use hype in an attempt to persuade others to follow Christ. He then will experience a tendency to modify certain beliefs (i.e., what constitutes ethical evangelism) in order to make them consistent with his behavior.

Thus, without sufficient self-scrutiny and discipline, lapses from ethical behavior can, through cognitive dissonance, erode the ethical beliefs that prohibited the behavior in the first place. As the domain of the permissible expands, the viability of ethics diminishes. Many persuasion-oriented evangelicals would probably agree that this process characterized the growth of sexual permissiveness. Perhaps they should examine the process’s influence on their own behavior and beliefs.


As should be obvious by now, I cast my vote with the truth-affirming pluralists. Individuals have the right to proclaim their view of the truth with a view to converting others. As with all rights, however, this right carries responsibilities. Proselytizers (nonpejorative connotation) ought to respect the freedom integrity, and rationality of those they seek to influence. Furthermore, they ought not overlook the capacity for error and self-deception of all men, especially themselves.

I believe this is the position of most thoughtful Christians, Jews, multivocal monists, and sincerely tolerant secularists. Furthermore, I suspect that truth-affirming pluralism could be shown to be a positive evolutionary development of the Judaeo-Christian tradition, rather than a rare compromise with an unbelieving world. If, for example, 99% of the world became Christians, those Christians, if they remained true to their Christian ethics, should show as much respect for the one percent of unbelievers in that hypothetical Christian society as they do for the multitudes of unbelievers in this secular society. Obviously, many observers do not believe this would occur; they would expect a resurgence of oldtime “Christian” intolerance. Given Christianity’s history (or that of most other religious or political belief systems), this is not an unreasonable expectation. Hence, it is the Christian’s responsibility to show that this is not the case, that Christian dialogue is not a trojan horse.

Although it is easy to see that the proselytizer has ethical obligations in a pluralistic society, it is not so easy to recognize that the proselytizer’ s targets also have responsibilities. If, as the Vatican Declaration on Religious Freedom states, all men are “privileged to bear personal responsibility,” they should not demand that the freedom of proselytizers be restricted merely to spare the target the discomfort of asserting himself. To do so is to suggest that the “right” not to hear outweighs the right to free speech, a position which implies that the goal of life is the pursuit of pleasant feelings, rather than the pursuit of truth in a context of personal responsibility.

If proselytizers’ targets have responsibilities in regard to proselytizers, the religious as well as secular teaching authorities of those targets should prepare them for the “marketplace of ideas.” Rev. Dr. Ross Miller’s article, “How to talk to People Who Are Trying to Save You,” can be a useful resource in this endeavor.

However, much more effort should be devoted to teaching young people how they can be manipulated by individuals and groups. Churches and schools have too long neglected this area.

What Are or Should Be the Ethical Boundaries of Proselytizing?

The Continuum of Influence. A Proposal

Figure I conceptualizes psychological influence as a continuum On one extreme of the continuum lie nondirective techniques, such as reflection and clarification. On the other extreme we find physical restraint and punishment. The specific techniques listed in the figure have been grouped under four methods of influence: educative, advisory, persuasive, and coercive (adapted from unpublished ideas of Margaret T. Singer, Ph.D.). Further, educative and advisory methods of influence are classified under the choice-respecting mode of influence, which emphasizes effectively communicating one’s message, while persuasive and coercive methods are classified under the “compliance-gaining” mode, which emphasizes obtaining the desired response from the influences.

According to this schema, a particular social influence interaction may be categorized with varying levels of precision, e.g., compliance-gaining mode, persuasive method, foot-in-the-door technique. Furthermore, a particular environment may be evaluated according to the frequency with which social influence techniques occurring in that environment fall under the particular modes or methods of influence. If, for example, researchers developed a method for classifying discrete social influence interactions according to this schema, they could observe an environment over time (e.g., a Moonie three-day workshop at Booneville, a Young Life meeting) and develop a profile on that environment (Figure 2 illustrates a hypothetical profile). One could speak, then, of “climates of influence” and could say, for instance, that a coercive climate of influence characterized Jonestown.

Influencer Goals and the Influence Continuum

Obviously, to some extent the ethical propriety of a particular influence mode, method, or technique will depend upon the goals of the influencer. Figure 3 joins the influence continuum with an “intent continuum” reflecting the extremes of influencer-centered goals and influencee-centered goals. These two continua form four quadrants, which may be considered influence attitudes. When the influencer’s mode of influence is choice-respecting, he may have an inspirational attitude (seeking self-sacrificing action from influencees while carefully respecting their right and capacity to choose to accept or reject his appeal) or a self-development attitude (which characterizes, for example, ethical psychotherapists) toward influencees. If, on the other hand, the influencer’s mode is compliance-gaining, he may possess a caretaker or an exploitative attitude toward influencees, depending upon whether he uses compliance-gaining tactics for their benefit or his.

Figure I

The Influence Continuum

Modes of Influence Method of Influence Techniques



Educative Discussion


Directed questioning

Creative expression

Choice Respecting

Commenting on problem or alternative solutions

(emphasis on

message) Advisory Suggesting ideas or solutions

Recommending solutions

Rational argument: message oriented

Rational argument: compliance oriented

Persuasive Emotional appeals

Compliance tactics (see Cialdini book review in this issue

Gross deceptions

Compliance Gaining

Denigration of critical thinking

(emphasis on response) Dissociative states to suppress doubt and critical thinking

Coercive Severe threats of spiritual or physical harm

Guilt-induction to gain control

Establishment of enforced dependency


Physical restraint/punishment

Note: Increasing Levels of Influence go from the top of the chart to the bottom

An exploitative attitude toward influencees will nearly always be considered unethical (an exception being undercover police work), while the ethics of a caretaker attitude will depend upon the influencee’s capacity to make responsible choices. It is acceptable, for example, to take a caretaker attitude toward a young child or a mentally retarded adult, but not toward a reasonably well functioning adult in psychotherapy. Inspirational and self-development attitudes will nearly always be ethical, although exceptions exist, e.g., naively accepting a psychotically depressed person’s wish to jump off a bridge.

As with the influence continuum, the four attitudes of the influence-intent coordinate system could theoretically be operationalized into influencer attitude profiles, although the difficulty of measuring intent would make this an onerous task.

Ethical Implications

Controversy and confusion regarding the relationship of cults and evangelicals occur because so much cultic and evangelical behavior is persuasively oriented. Thus, some cult defenders will point to the persuasive behavior of evangelicals (whether contemporary or historical) and say in essence, “Cults are Eke evangelicals, so they can’t be that bad.” Some cult watchers, on the other hand, will point to the persuasive behavior of evangelicals and say in essence, “Evangelicals are like cults and, therefore, must be bad too.”

Both positions are incorrect, for neither is sufficiently discriminating.

First of all, many, perhaps most, evangelicals are not persuasion oriented. Secondly, persuasive techniques fall on a continuum, with some techniques being more focused on compliance than others. Thirdly, the occasional use of persuasive techniques does not make for a persuasive climate of influence. Although the “Maximum sex” hype of the Josh McDowell advertisement may be a persuasive technique (an improper technique in the view of many), McDowell’s talk itself may have used little persuasion. Its influence climate profile, in other words, may show a much weaker persuasion orientation than, say, a Moonie three-day workshop at Booneville, which is carefully orchestrated to try to produce the desired response (see Gary Scharff’s article in this issue). Fourthly, most excoriated cults use the full range of persuasive techniques and many coercive techniques as well. Although there will be much variation even among these cults, their influence profiles will, I submit, be much more skewed toward the persuasive and coercive modes than would those of evangelicals. The enthusiastic response received by Inter-Varsity when it contacted over 100 evangelicals about the possibility of drafting an ethical code attests to evangelicals” concern that they consider the ethical aspects of their behavior. McCloskey’s persuasive evangelism, for example, categorically rejects coercive techniques and the more controlling persuasive techniques. Whatever one may think about the propriety of McCloskey’s emphasis on persuasion, sincere pluralists must, I believe, respect his eagerness to address the ethical aspects of his position.

I believe the Inter-Varsity wants draft ethical code is an important and courageous start in defining the ethical boundaries of proselytizing (nonpejorative sense) in a truth-affirming pluralistic society. Thee code affirms Christians’ right—obligation even—to proclaim the truth as they see it. It affirms Christians’ duty to respect the freedom, integrity, rationality, and vulnerabilities of those whom they hope to influence. And it condemns deception and persuasive appeals that, however noble the goal, assault these values.

I believe the major defect in the code, as currently drafted, lies in item five, which states:

We believe the “rightness” or “wrongness” of persuasive means is determined largely from the way they are used in context and from the intent of the speaker. For example, the so-called “testimonial” device, the “card-stacking” device, the “bandwagon” device, the use of suggestion and pathos, and the appeal to recognized authorities and personal needs may all be decidedly ethical depending on how they are used.

I fear that without further explanation, this item may cause many observers to sense a “trojan horse.” As I have argued earlier, the ethical propriety of an influence interaction depends partly upon the context and intent of the influencer. So I agree with the Inter-Varsity team on the general principal enunciated in item five. However, I also believe that if evangelicals are to respect the views of those, including other Christians, who look upon evangelicals with some suspicion (“Love thy enemies”), they should take care to open any box suspected of carrying a trojan horse. Therefore, I believe Item Five requires revision.

What is Needed

In order to put substance into an ethical code for evangelists, specific accountability mechanisms are obviously needed; otherwise the code will be a mere piece of paper. The next section will address this issue. In this subsection, however, I would like to offer five suggestions on how the ethical boundaries of proselytizing (nonpejorative sense) can be spelled out more clearly:

The ideas advanced in this special issue should be discussed further. The CSJ will remain open to comments and future articles on this topic. However, I believe that discussion-oriented conferences are needed as well, especially conferences that will bring together authorities from various religious denominations, experts in communication ethics, and cult watchers.

These discussions should also investigate a topic not addressed in “ special issue, that is, the influence of political ideology on the perception of ethical influence within the religious arena. I suspect, for instance, that much hostility directed toward evangelicals stems more from a distaste of the political views of certain of their members, e.g., Jerry Falwell, than from a concern about the proper place of evangelizing in a pluralistic society. I also suspect that advocacy of pluralism is often used as a political weapon, e.g., on Monday praising the Catholic Bishops for a pastoral letter on the economy, then on Tuesday accusing Catholic Bishops who oppose abortion of trying to “impose their values on others” (or vice versa). This kind of ideological warfare replaces propaganda with argument and corrupts our language and thinking. It destroys perfectly fine words, such as “proselytize.”

Participants in the discussions advocated in (1) should appoint or form a committee to develop a casebook on the ethics of proselytizing (nonpejorative sense). Former members of religious cults, cult critics, evangelists, and college students who have been approached by evangelicals and/or cults ought to be consulted. In time a large collection of religious influence scenarios can be collected and analyzed according to various ethical criteria. Collecting and analyzing specific examples will enhance revisions of the ethical code and assist in developing curricula to teach people how to abide by it.

The steps described above will apply Christian beliefs to the development of guidelines on Christian behavior in religious influence settings. Using Dr. Kreider’s notion of the tripartite structure of religious experience, I believe an argument could be made to add an element of ritual to this process. Therefore, I suggest that someday someone write a prayer that will take the dryness out of the ethical code and replace it with some feeling.

As should be clear, I support Rev. Litfin’s concerns about the perils of persuasive preaching. However, I do not agree with him because I oppose persuasion. On the contrary, I don’t think an open, pluralistic society could exist without accepting certain persuasive forms of influence. But I do believe that the more people trust a certain class of people, the more obligated is that class to eschew persuasive modes. Not to do so is to use “St to enforce compliance. Recent Gallup surveys have found that organized religion is the most trusted institution in America. Therefore, clergymen, if they are to live up to and maintain that trust, should avoid the compliance-gaining mode of influence, which includes persuasion.

One last point: Recall the intent-influence diagram (Figure 3). It should be obvious that psychologists who lose their ethical moorings can slide into inappropriate caretaker roles with patients who aren’t showing sufficient improvement This skid is often due to nothing more than the common human failings of pride—none of us likes to fail—and self-deception—none of us likes to face his failures. Evangelicals, who are influencers like psychologists, can also falter ethically. I suggest then to evangelicals that if they find themselves using persuasive techniques, they ask themselves the following: “Is the use of this technique in this situation consistent with Christian ethics? Or am I using it because I don’t want to admit that I have failed to inspire others?”


Ethics and the Law

To the best of my knowledge, every profession that seeks to change people has an ethical code to guide the behavior of its members. Physicians, psychologists, social workers, rehabilitation specialists, lawyers, accountants, advertisers: all have ethical codes.

The ethical codes protect the professions as well as the consumer. I don’t say this cynically. I disagree with those who accuse professions of being more concerned about protecting their turf than helping the consumer, although I don’t question that professions do obviously watch out for their own interests. What critics of professions often overlook is that the “business” side of professional organizations rests upon established ethical codes concerning behavior toward the profession’s client group. Given, for example, that most members of the American Medical Association abide by that organization’s ethical code, the AMA is able to advance the interests of the medical profession, because its members are trusted and credible. Ethical codes, then, help consumers by protecting them against shady practices and help professions by maintaining their credibility in the public eye, even as they ethically look after the profession’s business interests.

If the profession becomes sloppy in its enforcement of professional ethics, the public outcry that will eventually arise may bring about legal restrictions that are not in the profession’s or the consumer’s best interests. If, for example, scandals within the journalism profession occurred with increasing regularity, the public’s respect for journalists would diminish and the possibility of congressional action to deal with abuses would increase. In a free society, congressional correction of journalistic abuses would be a tragedy, not a “problem solved.”

A robust ethical code, then, protects a profession’s client group, maximizes the responsible freedom of a profession’s members, and minimizes legal regulation.

I believe that the keen interest evangelists have shown in the ethical code being developed by the Inter-Varsity team reflects their perception that mounting abuses perpetrated “in the name of the Lord” (whether Christian, Hindu, or whatever) could lead to legal actions that would interfere with the freedom of responsible evangelists. The growth of cultism, the opportunities that televangelism has created for religious charlatans (cf., Randi, 1986), the public’s habitual lack of discernment, and the media’s unavoidable penchant for bad news combine to cast a frightening shadow over the responsible evangelists whether on television or on campus. Evangelists may no longer be able to depend on the public’s historically high regard for religious persons. They may have to find more effective ways of distinguishing themselves from fanatics and phonies.

They have apparently achieved some success in the financial arena. In a scathing critique of the televangelist W. V. Grant, magician James Randi (in Free Inquiry, which is published by the Council for Democratic and Secular Humanism) writes approvingly of the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability (ECFA):

Most of us, but not all, are required to account for our income and pay appropriate taxes for our share of the financial burden of government. Religious organizations are not required to. Though the laws of the United States do not specify that churches are exempt from taxation, the First Amendment has been taken to mean just that. Many churches and religious organizations register with the Internal Revenue Service as nonprofit organizations, though they are not required to do so. Many evangelists, such as Billy Graham and the Wycliffe Bible Translators, have joined the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability, a Protestant group that publishes the financial statements of its 305 members for public scrutiny. But W. V. Grant is not a member, nor is his corporation registered as a nonprofit organization. If it were, we would have some way of knowing just how much money goes into the wastebaskets carried about by his ushers at revival meetings and how much is deposited by the mailmen at all the post-office boxes and street addresses he uses for his mail-order business (Randi 1986, p. 12).

In his prologue to the Inter-Varsity team’s articles, Dietrich Gruen suggested that consideration be given to an “Evangelical Council for Accountability in Ministry,” which would address the interpersonal ethics of evangelism, much as the ECFA deals with its financial ethics. Unless the abuses associated with cultic groups subside significantly (which I doubt), I suspect that the creation of an organization such as that advocated by Rev. Gruen is inevitable. By doing a better job of policing themselves, evangelicals (and other religious persons who join them) will decrease the likelihood of restrictive legislation that would not discriminate sufficiently between those who exercise freedom responsibly and those who abuse it.

Accountability Methods

Individuals and groups which violate or tend to violate society’s ethical norm can be restrained by encouraging their participation in a pluralistic community, criticizing them (publicly and privately), educating influencees, and taking appropriate legal actions.

Participation in a pluralistic community. A truth-affirming pluralistic community is open to the flow of information. It generates respectful dialogue, which can include disagreement and debate. By participating in such a community, we expose ourselves to corrective influences. By avoiding an open flow of information, as extremist cults do, we run the risk of persevering in unethical and destructive behaviors.

It should be noted that some purportedly “evangelical” groups appear to have a strong tendency to avoid participation in a pluralistic community, frequently because evil spirits are thought to dominate the world outside the group. (They act as though God is a former boxing champion trying, against heavy odds, to regain the tide that Satan took away from him.) Such groups build psychological walls around themselves and their members (e.g., if members doubt the group’s doctrine, they are advised to speak in tongues in order to get rid of the tempting spirits, rather than critically examine their doubts, which may have some substance). This tendency is dangerous. It leads, as Harold Bussell notes, to mistaking uniformity for unity. It also seems to de-Christianize Christianity. While counseling a former member of Maranatha, for example, I was struck by the amount of fear she experienced while in the group. I kept asking the question, “Where was the love?” I’ve always thought that “Love thy neighbor” was Christ’s fundamental message, not “Fear thy neighbor.”

Criticism. Criticism is probably the single most important corrective influence in a truth-affirming pluralistic society. A pluralistic society can be open as the skies. But if there is a tacit agreement not to criticize one another (a state of affairs that characterizes some subgroups within our society), the society becomes pseudo-pluralistic: we are all different, but we behave in ways that enable all of us to act as though everyone else believed as we do. Instead of correcting our errors, we pat ourselves on the back. Hence, if we want to promote ethical behavior in ourselves and others, we ought to be able to give and to take criticism, within ethical boundaries.

Because totalist cults reject pluralism, they reject the interpersonal ethics that sustain it, and tend not to initiate self-corrective measures without outside pressure. “Therefore,” as Marcia Rudin says, “to cease or blunt public criticism as opponents of the counter-cult movement desire, is to remove one of the major forces that is bringing about positive change, such as it is, in these groups.” Such criticism does not negate the totalist group’s right to exist; it merely affirms an open society’s need to keep non-pluralistic groups in line. Not to do so would be cultural suicide.

If a group violates the law or society’s ethics, observers should not shy away from publicly criticizing the group; otherwise the group learns that “crime pays.” To actively defend a group or individual that has done wrong (e.g., to march in defense of Rev. Moon after he was convicted of tax-evasion) because one fears governmental interference in religious affairs is even worse than merely remaining quiet. Not only does the group learn that “crime pays,” it also gains “allies” who will either have to defend the group’s future “crimes” or admit that they had erred in defending it in the first place. Ironically, defending a violator in the name of religious freedom will, in the long run, increase the likelihood of governmental interference. The more violators are protected by “allies” who fear the government, the more likely are they to continue their violations.

Eventually, their abuses of freedom will reach a critical level that will overwhelm the protective capacity of their by then discredited “allies” and will lead to harsher public action than might initially have been called for. The death penalty probably would not have returned to the American scene had so many murderers not been allowed to roam the streets in the name of “civil liberty.“

Supplementing public criticism is private criticism. Private criticism occurs within a group, or between sympathetic groups. Frequently, this is the most effective form of criticism, for it comes from a respected source. Thus, Inter-Varsity, which maintains a cordial relationship with many groups that cult watchers have criticized, is likely to have much more constructive influence over “fringe” groups than would distant critics, such as myself.

Education. Although monitoring socially destructive groups is vital to a pluralistic society’s remaining open, it is far from sufficient. The “totalist impulse is inextricably linked to human irrationality, which can thrive in a pluralistic society that shirks its responsibility to educate and socialize its members. If young people are not socialized into viable religious or philosophical value systems and are not taught the ethical rules that govern social influence in a truth-affirming pluralistic society, serious problems will arise. First of all, their religious-philosophical vacuum will render them susceptible to modern-day sophists selling irrational, even magical world views. Secondly, because irrationality is vulnerable to feedback from the wider society, irrational persons and groups will tend to close themselves off to outside influences and enforce a rigid internal conformity to the irrational belief system i.e., become totalist. Thirdly, ignorance of the ethics of social influence will cause people to be insensitive to those they might want to influence. Lastly, those who lack a religious/philosophical base and do not know the rules of social influence in an open society will have no reason to respect and conserve the pluralistic society into which they were born.

Educational authorities (sectarian and secular) should teach young people for whom they are responsible how to affirm a particular heritage, A (whether A be evangelical Christianity, Greek Orthodoxy, Judaism, secular humanism or whatever), while respectfully listening to and disagreeing with people who affirm B, C, and D. They should also inculcate youth with an understanding and appreciation of the rules that prevent such dialogue from degenerating into mere power struggles.

Legal Action. When necessary, the legal system can restrain violators.

Obviously, the legal system isn’t appropriate for dealing with what Dr. Robbins calls “petit deceptions.” These must be responded to by criticizing the deceivers and teaching their prospective targets to recognize deception. On the other hand, beating a child to death because one believes that Satan possesses his body is an abuse that the legal system should deal with. These two examples mark the extremes in a continuum of abuses. Determining precisely where on this continuum legal action should begin is no easy matter. Legal scholars will probably debate this subject for many years. It should be remembered, however, that such debate is part of the process through which society determines the proper scope of the law, not a sign of failure to deal with an issue. Fortunately, our constitutional system, despite its failings, has an admirable track record for ultimately resolving social conflicts that impinge on the legal sphere. I am confident that in time the legal system will find its way through the cult thicket as well— provided that those of us who defend and criticize cultic groups abide by the rules that for over two hundred years have enabled us to disagree and live together at the same time.


Arinze, Francis A. (1985). Prospects of evangelization, with reference to the arm of the non Christian religions, twenty years after Vatican H. Bulletin: Secretaiatus pro non Christianis, 20, 111-140.

Gallup, George, Jr. (1985). Religion in America - 50 years: 1935-1985. The Gallup Report, No. 236.

Princeton Religious Research Center. (1985). Emerging Trends.

Randi, James. (1986). “Be healed in the name of God.” Free Inquiry, 6, 8-19. Robbins, T., & Anthony, D. (1978). Getting straight with Meher Baba: A study of mysticism, drug rehabilitation, and postadolescent role conflict. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 2, 1-27.

Roget’s International Thesaurus (Fourth Edition). (1977). New York. Thomas Y. Crowell.

Michael D. Langone, Ph.D., is Director of Research for The American Family Foundation and Editor of The Cultic Studies Journal.