American Cults: Cabals, Corruption, and Charismatic Leaders

American Cults: Cabals, Corruption, and Charismatic Leaders

by Jim Willis
American Cults: Cabals, Corruption, and Charismatic Leaders

American Cults: Cabals, Corruption, and Charismatic Leaders

by Jim Willis


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America has spawned hundreds of cults. Charismatic leaders periodically burst into the news for the most awful of reasons. We are awash with stories of brainwashed members’ struggles to leave. Meet the messianic leaders, see the indoctrination and manipulation, look at their beliefs, and read the stories of some of America’s most notorious, eccentric, and unusual cults!

From false religions and offshoots of traditional religions to political, financial, sexual, and hate groups, American Cults: Cabals, Corruption, and Charismatic Leaders looks at 40 groups and leaders, including their histories, deceits, manipulations, and twisted ideologies. Some rely on systems of obedience, submission, and dependency. More than a few have mystifying beliefs. Others are dark and murderous. You’ll encounter curious, bizarre, and sometimes upsetting stories of …

  • Charming, manipulative, and exploitative leaders—Jim Jones, Jim Baker, David Berg, David Koresh, and many, many others.
  • The breakaways from traditional religions—Father Divine and the Peace Mission, Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Westboro Baptist Church, the Gospel of Prosperity, and many more.
  • Political, Ponzi, metaphysical, and science schemes—the cult of the scientific method, pyramid schemes, political cults, the Unification Church, and much more.
  • Aliens, extraterrestrials, and the cosmos—Church of Scientology, Raëlians and Heaven’s Gate, to name a few.
  • End-times and doomsday cults—rapture beliefs, Edgar Cayce, the Ant Hill Kids and more.
  • Racial, radical, and social media cults—QAnon, Ku Klux Klan, Oath Keepers, Antifa, and others.
  • Sex, perversity, and submission—NXIVM, Sullivanians, Rajneesh, and many more.
  • American Cults looks at why America is such a fertile ground for cults, how some people got caught in their webs, and how some managed to escape! With more than 120 photos and graphics, this tome is richly illustrated. Its helpful bibliography provides sources for further exploration, and an extensive index adds to its usefulness.

    Product Details

    ISBN-13: 9781578598007
    Publisher: Visible Ink Press
    Publication date: 03/07/2023
    Series: Dark Minds True Crimes
    Pages: 368
    Sales rank: 655,866
    Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.90(d)

    About the Author

    Jim Willis earned his master’s degree in theology from Andover Newton Theological School, and he has been an ordained minister for over 40 years. He has also taught college courses in comparative religion and cross-cultural studies. His background in theology and education led to his writing more than twenty on history, religion, the apocalypse, cross-cultural spirituality, and the mysteries of the unknown. His books include Visible Ink Press’ Censoring God; Hidden History; and Lost Civilizations. He lives in the woods of South Carolina.

    Read an Excerpt

    QAnon: Political Conspiracy and Religious Icons

    That leads us to the whole field of conspiracy cults that seem to thrive in the United States today. And perhaps the grandaddy of them all is called QAnon.

    You probably didn’t know this, especially if you happen to be a Democrat, but in the presidential election of 2016, Donald Trump was running for president in part to expose a cabal of Deep State politicians, celebrity actors, medical professionals, and business tycoons who were engaged in satanic worship and pedophilia on a global scale.

    This didn’t become public knowledge until 2017, when an alleged top-secret governmental official who goes by the pseudonym “Q,” reminiscent of Jean-Luc Picard’s nemesis in Star Trek: The Next Generation, began to post online messages about the “truth” of what is “really” going on, not only in the United States but the whole world.

    As soon as Donald Trump became President Trump, he was going to order mass arrests and executions of members of the secret cult. This was going to happen on a day called either the “Storm” or the “Event.” The cabal was so worried about Trump losing the election that they conducted a secret conspiracy involving Russia in the election. QAnon supporters claimed that FBI director Robert Mueller’s inquiry into Russian interference was really an elaborate cover story for an investigation into the alleged sex-trafficking ring, along with an attempted coup d'état by President Barack Obama, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and philanthropist George Soros, who were the ringleaders.

    Somewhere along the line, “Q” learned of even greater plans. Deep research into George Soros and the wealthy Rothschild family—common targets of anti-Semitic conspiracy theories—allegedly revealed that Jewish instigators were at the bottom of the whole conspiracy, which used a well-known pizza chain as a front. Russian and Chinese state-backed media companies, along with the far-right Falun Gong–associated Epoch Media Group, were somehow in the mix as well.

    There is, of course, not a shred of evidence in any of these claims. The day of the “Storm” came and went. Trump was elected, and no arrests were made. But that didn’t make any difference to what is now often called the QAnon Cult. Facts simply don’t matter. The bulk of the news is reported by the “Fake Media,” and you can’t believe anything they say. Therefore, you have to get your real news by way of social media, the only sources to be trusted.

    Which social media sites, you might ask? Easy! The ones that agree with your opinions. All the rest are attempting to deceive you.

    And how do you know you are receiving the truth? Well, you must be, because you have gathered around yourself a virtual, online community consisting of hundreds, if not thousands, of people who all reinforce your beliefs. And that many people can’t be wrong. It becomes the main, animating force in your life.

    In 2013, a social media website called “Infinitechan” or “Infinitychan” was created. It was often pictured as ∞chan, employing the mathematical symbol for infinity, and this name became 8chan. It was a site that had been linked to white power groups, Neo-Nazis, and other far-right organizations and antisemitic groups. Mass shootings from El Paso and Dayton to New Zealand had been advertised on the site, and it hosted child pornography chats as well. This was the site that first spread the missives of “Q” to the world and is thus the home of QAnon.

    In 2015 the popular search engine Google stopped showing results for the site, and in August 2019 the service that hosted 8chan on the so-called clear web (where indexed, common-access websites reside, as opposed to the dark web that hosts unindexed, hidden sites) stopped supporting the site. Banned from its home, 8chan returned to the clear web as 8kun in November 2019, supported and funded by a Russian host provider.

    “Q”’s often symbolic and cryptic posts became known as “drops.” To say the least, they are enigmatic. Take this drop from 2019:

    [C] BEFORE [D]. [C]oats BEFORE [D]. The month of AUGUST is traditionally very HOT. You have more than you know.

    Once a message was dropped, it spread through private channels with amazing speed, posted and re-posted before search engines could catch up. It soon became a political tool, and Trump supporters began showing up at rallies with “Q Sent Me” placards. Trump himself began quoting so-called Q Drops on his Twitter feed.

    The QAnon cult has even taken on a religious component. Jacob Chansley, labeled the “QAnon Shaman,” made a name for himself by appearing at QAnon rallies dressed in animal skins and face paint while wearing a pair of bull horns on his head. He was easily the most identifiable character in any crowd that was photographed by reporters, and cameras frequently pointed in his direction. So it didn’t help his cause when, as one of the first wave of people who entered the Capitol Building on January 6th during the insurrection, he was photographed and later arrested. He had left a note inside the building that read, “It’s Only A Matter Of Time. Justice Is Coming!” At his trial, he was sentenced to 41 months in prison.

    Christian conservatives and Evangelical pastors have weighed in on religion and QAnon.

    The Rev. Jon Thorngate, for instance, is senior pastor at LifeBridge Church near Milwaukee. He is one of a small number of church leaders who will actually go on record about QAnon. Most fear backlash from their parishioners. He calls QAnon a “real problem” and recognizes that belief in conspiracy theories is a growing threat. Only five or ten of his church members have actually posted QAnon theories online, but many more—he doesn’t know how many—are open to them.

    Some of his members have held meetings in which they viewed a short film called Plandemic, which puts forth the theory that the whole COVID-19 epidemic was a moneymaking scheme by government officials. The film has since been posted on common social media sites like Facebook. Some of his members have also distributed a video, which has since been banned by mainstream social media sites, that promotes hydroxychloroquine as a cure for the virus.

    Many QAnon believers have crossed the line between following and acting. In 2018, for instance, an armed believer named Matthew Wright blocked a bridge that led over Hoover Dam. He later pleaded guilty to a terrorism charge.

    Several former associates of President Trump, such as former national security advisor Michael Flynn, and two members of Trump’s legal team, Lin Wood and Sidney Powell, have championed QAnon conspiracy theories. This led to a publicity crackdown on the movement and its claims, which only furthered distrust between followers of “Q” and the media, who were accused of a political witch hunt.

    Supporters have vowed there will come a day of reckoning, and many believe arrests, convictions, and executions of prominent figures will yet take place. Their slogan has become infamous: WWG1WGA! (“Where we go one we go all”).

    The movement most definitely has gathered political clout. Marjorie Taylor Greene, a United States congressperson from Georgia’s 14th congressional district, was elected in November of 2021. Since her election, she has quoted and championed a number of Q Drops.

    More than 21 past candidates for state legislatures have signaled their support for QAnon. Others, trying to be a bit more circumspect in their language, have decided simply not to publicly condemn the organization for fear of losing votes.

    How many QAnon members are there? It’s hard to guess. But QAnon-related traffic on social networking sites such as Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, and YouTube has exploded since the first Q Drop in 2017, and indications are the totals have gone up even further, especially during the coronavirus pandemic.

    Various social media platforms have instituted rules about QAnon content and have banned hundreds of Q-supporting videos. But it’s hard to stay ahead of a constantly evolving technology when so many users contribute to it with such growing technical savvy and political fervor.

    Who is “Q”? No one knows for sure.

    The Washington Post suggests it might be Ron Watkins, an administrator of the 8kun message board. The New York Times has entered the names of Paul Furber, an early follower of the movement, and Ron Watkins, who operated a website where Q Drops began appearing in 2018. Watkins launched a campaign to run for Congress in Arizona in October 2021.

    Frederick Brennan, the creator of 8chan, swears that his former business partner Jim Watkins, Ron’s father, is the culprit. Jim is a supporter of Q. He began the QAnon Super PAC and wore a “Q” pin during his testimony before Congress about 8chan in 2019.

    All candidates have denied responsibility.

    Is QAnon a cult? Many claim it is. Just as many seem to claim it is simply a truth-telling organization. Tempers run high on both sides of the issues. It might be a while before this one is sorted out for the history books.

    Sex in the City: The Dark Potency of Cults

    Throughout this book, we have surveyed various cults that developed, in one way or another, a component of immorality and subjugation that involved sexual dominance and exploitation. Sad to say, this happens more often than not when cults idolize or otherwise revere a vulnerable leader. Temptation rears its ugly head, and the whole organization goes downhill.

    What’s even worse, however, is when a cult begins its mission with sexual exploitation in mind. It’s hard to imagine how and why women, who are almost always the ones being exploited, fall into the clutches of real monsters such as the ones we are about to review, but it happens over and over again. It takes an experienced psychologist, with years of specialized training, to explain the power of sexual exploitation, but it is a real phenomenon. It’s hard to read about it. It’s even harder to write about it. But if it will help even one person recognize the trap before it is sprung, it is worth the attempt.

    Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh: Coming to America

    In the 1960s and 1970s, Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, who is called Osho or Acharya Rajneesh and whose name originally had been Chandra Mohan Jain, owned and ran a large ashram in Pune, India, that attracted thousands of visitors from around the world. Reports of violence and sexual aggression eventually accompanied the downfall of this ashram, and in 1981, Rajneesh moved to the United States. Soon after, he incorporated what he hoped would be a new city named Rajneeshpuram. The site was going to be built on an abandoned ranch near Antelope, Oregon. During the next few years, many of the people who had moved there with him, some of them his most trusted aides, packed up and left. Rajneesh himself came under investigation for multiple felonies, including arson, attempted murder, drug smuggling, and vote fraud. He plea-bargained guilty to immigration fraud and was deported from the United States, but he was refused entry to 21 countries before returning to Pune.

    Who was this guy, and how did this all happen?

    Rajneesh was born in 1931 in Kuchwada, India. When he was young, he lived first with his grandparents, and then with his parents. Apparently, he was a handful, intelligent but rebellious—traits that would later earn him a living, a following, and a jail sentence. After graduating from high school, he attended college for a while, but at least one of his professors remembered him as being just as much of a handful to them as he was for his parents and grandparents.

    In 1953 he took a year off from his studies to search for meaning and meditate, a common practice in India at that time. When he returned to school, he claimed to have reached enlightenment. He had come to believe that individual religious experience is at the base of spiritual growth, and that such experiences cannot be organized into any one belief system.

    He finally graduated with a bachelor's degree in philosophy and went on to study for a master’s degree as well. After he graduated, he became a college professor, teaching philosophy at Raipur Sanskrit College.

    Old habits are tough to break, however. His radical ideas got him fired, and he eventually moved to the University of Jabalpur. While still teaching, he began to travel throughout India, building a following by teaching some controversial ideas about spirituality.

    What was so controversial that it caused his ideas to catch on? What else? It involved sex. He taught that sex was the first step toward achieving what he called “super consciousness.” This was completely at odds with prevalent Hindu teachings.

    By 1964 he was experiencing so much success conducting meditation camps and recruiting followers that he was able to fulfill almost every college professor’s dream: he quit teaching. Because of all this, he became somewhat of an outcast in academic circles and earned the nickname, “the sex guru.”

    His following grew and in 1970 he introduced the practice of what he called “dynamic meditation.” It was a technique that, according to Rajneesh, enabled the practitioner to experience divinity. One can only assume that the whole technique was inspired by practitioners who were heard to exclaim, “Oh God!” when they reached enlightenment. Or whatever.

    Needless to say, Westerners began to flock to his ashram in Pune, India. They become known as sannyasins, disciples. Taking Indian names for themselves, they dressed in orange and red clothes and participated in group sessions that sometimes involved both violence and sexual promiscuity. Rajneesh taught them to renounce the world and practice asceticism. That’s a common Hindu teaching. But in his system, they were trained to still live fully in the world. They were just not to become attached to it.

    In a few years, the ashram was full to capacity, and Rajneesh was forced to look for new and larger quarters. Here, he ran into a problem. Local governments didn’t want anything to do with him. By 1980, he had even survived an assassination attempt by a Hindu fundamentalist.

    It seemed a good time to move, and America beckoned. He immigrated to the United States with 2,000 of his disciples and settled on a 100-square-mile ranch Oregon. Mixing East and West, he came up with the name Rancho Rajneesh.

    Local authorities in the States, despite the sexually open reputation of America in the 1980s, still complained, however. That’s what brought Rajneesh and his sannyasins to begin work on Rajneeshpuram.

    To say the least, the neighbors disapproved. Local officials tried to shut the place down. Nearby churches didn’t like it much, either. They joined forces to say that the burgeoning community violated Oregon's land-use laws. But Rajneesh emerged victorious in court and continued to expand the commune.

    Now the story takes an especially dark turn. Rajneesh was upset. As is common for people who believe themselves above the law, subject only to God, he retaliated. Accusations of murder, wiretapping, voter fraud, arson, and a mass salmonella poisoning in 1984 that affected more than 700 people brought the situation to a boiling point.

    Several of the commune leaders fled to avoid prosecution for crimes, and in 1985, police arrested Rajneesh, who was himself attempting to flee the United States to escape charges of immigration fraud.

    During his subsequent trial, Rajneesh pleaded guilty of immigration charges, realizing that a plea bargain was the only way he would be allowed to return to India.

    When he finally came home, however, in 1986, he realized his following had dwindled away. It experienced ebbs and flows but never again reached its former heights. He wasn’t exactly strapped for cash, however. Because he was an enlightened being, he chose to be seen in public only in a Rolls Royce. Not just one. He is said to have owned, at one time, ninety-four of them.

    He continued his teaching, changed his name to Osho, and tried to keep going. But his health deteriorated, and he died of heart failure in 1990.

    The remaining followers renamed their commune the Osho Institute and later re-renamed it the Osho International Meditation Resort. It attracts as many as 200,000 visitors a year, and some 750 Osho Meditation Centers have sprung up in more than sixty major cities around the world.

    There’s no doubt about it: sex sells.

    Table of Contents

    About the Author

    Introduction: Crystal Balls and Conspiracies

    Prologue: What Makes a Cult Possible?

    Part I: In the Beginning: Why is America Such a Fertile Field for the Growth of Cults?
    Ch. 1. Lip-Service Religion
    Ch. 2. Rebelliousness
    Ch. 3. Entrepreneurship
    Ch. 4. Religious Freedom
    Ch. 5. Evolving Social Media
    Ch. 6. Infatuation with Conspiracy Theory
    Ch. 7. Living on “The Eve of Destruction”

    Part II. Offshoots: Breaking Away from Traditional Religions
    Ch. 8. Cyrus Teed and the Koreshan Unity
    Ch. 9. Father Divine and the Peace Mission
    Ch. 10. Jim Jones and the People’s Temple Full Gospel Church
    Ch. 11. Jim Baker, the PTL Club, and the Return of Jesus
    Ch. 12. The Evangelical Church, Politics, and the NRA
    Ch. 13. Joshua, Jesus, Mohammad, and the Implications of Jihad
    Ch. 14. David Berg and the Family International
    Ch. 15. The Watchtower Society and Jehovah’s Witnesses
    Ch. 16. Gay Rights, Free Speech, and the Westboro Baptist Church
    Ch. 17. Jane Whaley, the Word of Faith Fellowship, and the Gospel of Prosperity
    Ch. 18. David Koresh and the Branch Davidians

    Part III. Science, Politics, Economics, and Metaphysics: A Codependent Relationship
    Ch. 19. The Cult of Scientism
    Ch. 20. The Dogma of Politics
    Ch. 21. Multi-Level Marketing Cults (MLMs): Pyramids, Ponzis, and Profits
    Ch. 22. The World of Metaphysics: “It Seems to Me …”
    Ch. 23. Sun Myung Moon and the Unification Church
    Ch. 24. Eckankar: Discovering God

    Part IV. The Universe and Beyond: Answers from the Final Frontier
    Ch. 25. The Christian Rapture, Carl Jung, and Flying Saucers
    Ch. 26. The Church of Scientology
    Ch. 27. Raëlians and the Elohim: Intelligent Design for Atheists
    Ch. 28. Into the Universe: Latter-day Saints and the Colonization of the Cosmos
    Ch. 29. Heaven’s Gate: Help from Above?

    Part V. Prophets of the End Times: Telling the Future for Fun and Profit
    Ch. 30. From 666 to the “Seventy Sevens”: What Does the Bible Really Say about THE END?
    Ch. 31. From Nostradamus to Edgar Cayce and Beyond
    Ch. 32. The Doomsday Clock
    Ch. 33. Roch Thériault and the Ant Hill Kids

    Part VI. The Rise of Racial Religion Cults and Social Media: From WASPS to Computers and Beyond
    Ch. 34. From the Ku Klux Klan to White Nationalism
    Ch. 35. The New Militia Movement
    Ch. 36. Nuwaubian Nation: From Black Supremacists to UFOs
    Ch. 37. Social Media and the Rise of Hate Groups
    Ch. 38. Spoofing the Movement: Fun with Cults
    Ch. 39. QAnon: Political Conspiracy and Religious Icons

    Part VII. Sex in the City: The Dark Potency of Cults
    Ch. 40. Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh: Coming to America
    Ch. 41. Keith Raniere and NXIVM: The Case of the Self-Styled Revered One
    Ch. 42. Sullivanians: Sex as a Way of Life

    Part VIII. Conclusions: What’s Ahead for Individual Freedom?

    Epilogue: How Do I Get Out?


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