As you probably realize if you read this blog with any regularity, I’m fascinated by religious and secular cults, groups of people who give themselves over to an idea, a hoped-for utopia, outside the mainstream, often threatening the mainstream. These offshoots can bring about death or disappointment, and sometimes they’re driven by genuine madness, though occasionally the mistrust is misplaced. I suppose what makes me so interested in them is that I’m a really individualistic person who can’t even fathom trusting so wholly in a culture, let alone a subculture. I’d like to know how that process works. What’s the trigger?
In his just-published New Yorker piece about The Journey to Waco, a sect member’s memoir that revisits the FBI’s disastrous 1993 siege of the compound, Malcolm Gladwell points out that negotiating with the devoted is different than making deals with those devoted solely to profit. A passage that compares Branch Davidians with early Mormons:
“The Mormons were vilified in those years in large part because Joseph Smith believed in polygamy. But the Cornell historian R. Laurence Moore, in his classic book Religious Outsiders and the Making of Americans, points out that the moral hysteria over the Mormons was misplaced. The Mormons were quintessential Americans. ‘Like the Puritans before them, the Mormons linked disciplined labor with religious duty,’ Moore writes. ‘Mormon culture promoted all the virtues usually associated with the formation of middle-class consciousness—thrift, the denial of immediate gratification, and strict control over one’s passions.’ Polygamy, the practice that so excited popular passions, was of little importance to the Church: ‘First, the vast majority of nineteenth century Mormons did not practice polygamy, and many of them found it distasteful, at least as a way of conducting their own lives. Second, those who did practice plural marriage scarcely exhibited the lascivious behavior made familiar in anti-Mormon literature. Plural wives were commonly the widowed or unmarried sisters of the original wife.’
So why were nineteenth-century Americans so upset with the Mormons? Moore’s answer is that Americans thought the Mormons were different from them because the Mormons themselves ‘said they were different and because their claims, frequently advanced in the most obnoxious way possible, prompted others to agree and to treat them as such.’ In order to give his followers a sense of identity and resilience, Joseph Smith ‘required them to maintain certain fictions of cultural apartness.’ Moore describes this as a very American pattern. Countless religious innovators over the years have played the game of establishing an identity for themselves by accentuating their otherness. Koresh faced the same problem, and he, too, made his claims, at least in the eyes of the outside world, ‘in the most obnoxious way possible.’
The risks of such a strategy are obvious. Mainstream American society finds it easiest to be tolerant when the outsider chooses to minimize the differences that separate him from the majority. The country club opens its doors to Jews. The university welcomes African-Americans. Heterosexuals extend the privilege of marriage to the gay community. Whenever these liberal feats are accomplished, we congratulate ourselves. But it is not exactly a major moral accomplishment for Waspy golfers to accept Jews who have decided that they, too, wish to play golf. It is a much harder form of tolerance to accept an outsider group that chooses to maximize its differences from the broader culture.”
“Was there no plan?”