Q-Anon and Other Famously American Cults

Last night’s PBS News Hour included a segment on the family carnage that has been wrought by Q-Anon, specifically in the way some family members feel they can no longer speak to each other because one of them has swallowed the Q-Anon Kool-Aid. That last reference to an otherwise harmless soft drink arose from another cult, The People’s Temple, whose practitioners chose to end their lives during the Jonestown Massacre.

During my lifetime, the following cults have made front page headlines because of their success in attracting average, middle-class citizens to become members and then proceed to engage in extreme, illegal, and/or immoral behavior:

  • In 1978, Jim Jones, leader of The People’s Temple described above, persuaded 918 otherwise normal human beings to drink Kool-Aid laced with cyanide. The phrase “they’re drunk the Kool-Aid” is now used to refer to anyone who chooses to ignore facts in order to swallow a set of unsupported dogmas.
  • In 1992, David Koresh persuaded at least 85 otherwise normal human beings to lock themselves into a compound in Waco, Texas under the belief that the Biblical apocalypse was about to begin. Then, in February of 1993, after a standoff with the ATF, FBI, and state officials, 76 people died in the resulting firestorm. Apocalypse indeed.
  • In 1997, university professor Marshall Applewhite persuaded 39 believers, known as the “Heaven’s Gate,” that they were boarding a spaceship to the Hale-Bopp comet. All wore black suits with matching armbands and sneakers. All drank a cocktail of vodka and pineapple juice laced with cyanide. Their website stated that they were graduating from the “human evolutionary level.”

One could argue that the history of the colonization of the United States by Europeans was driven, in large part, by the passion of religious sects. These ranged from from Puritan to Moravian, Amish to Mormon, Quaker to Huguenot, and dozens more, all seeking freedom from persecution for their beliefs. In fact, we probably owe the Freedom of Religion clauses in the U. S. Constitution to the political pressure brought by these sects and their fear that a heavy-handed central government might require every citizen to become a member of, and pay taxes to, a single established church.

There is a far cry, however, between a “sect” and a “cult.” The former refers to a group of people having a shared set of religious beliefs. The latter refers to particularly extreme form of sect: one that takes the additional step of encouraging its members to engage in unlawful behavior.

According to a recent poll published by PRRI (see https://www.prri.org/research/qanon-conspiracy-american-politics-report/ ) approximately 15% of Americans now agree with the Q-Anon claim that “the government, media, and financial worlds in the U.S. are controlled by a group of Satan-worshipping pedophiles who run a global child sex trafficking operation.” If that poll is correct, then approximately 15% of Americans are now in danger of becoming members of a dangerous cult. Belief in this type of nonsense led, in no small part, to the illegal behavior we all witnessed on January 6th, aimed at preventing Congress from counting our nation’s electoral votes.

Hopefully, the storming of the capitol represented the high-water mark of the largest cult in U. S. history, not the beginning of something far worse.