Gender roles in New Religions

One key issue in the study of NRM was gender role.  Historically, most religions were established by male founders with female followers that participated in worship services.  These gender roles have been long upheld, but the emerging NRMs have succeeded in
breaking this tradition.  (Pike p. 215)

The traditional perspective of gender role in religion has been male domination over females.  This view is found excessively in established religions as well as newly emerging faiths.  “Women have accounted for the majority of participants in American religious
groups…NRM are not consistent in their perceptions or treatment of women, but
in this they are no different from mainstream religions.”  (D&A p. 5)

There are two approaches to the study of gender in NRMs.  The first was a “negative evaluation of NRMs as abusive to women” and the second approach “suggests that relations in new religions are complex and rarely reducible to the simplistic image of male gurus and passive female followers. “  (Pike p.212)  Examples of each approach can be found in the course materials.

In a religion based on a “master-disciple relationship” the male often takes the fatherly role, especially over the female disciples.  Abuse is frequent when women followers must obey without question.  Many high profile religions emerged in the 1960’s and 1970’s following the traditional pattern of a divine male figure.  These charismatic males were
able to create their own religions that became labeled as cults.  (Pike p.216)

Controlling charismatic male leaders have caused a negative view on emerging religions.  In 1950, James Jones, an unadorned pastor became the charismatic leader of Sommerset Southside Church.  His service there was short as his zealousness was too much for the congregation.  After several false starts, Jones founded the People’s Temple in 1956.  His charismatic appeal won him favor in the eyes of many established churches and he eventually became an ordained minister.  Jones visions of the future and preaching style enabled him to convince his congregation to move to Guyana after a magazine released horrifying reports of abuse and financial misdealing.  Jones was able to brainwash
his congregation into a mass suicide in 1978.  Information gathered after the suicide shed light on the cult Jones had actually created.  (Smith p.108-109)

David Koresh was another example of a male charismatic leader that was assertive in having control over his female followers.  The Branch Davidians were an established group and Vernon Howell, later known as David Koresh, became the leader.  Koresh believed under his guidance as a loving father figure, the congregation he referred to as his
family would establish heaven on Earth.  Under this charismatic mans leadership, the women, their daughters and even the men were forced to submit to Koresh as sexual objects.    In 1993 Koresh’s congregation perished during a siege by the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.  (Pike p.216, D&A p.262-263)

While men were typically the founders of alternative religions, there are groups that emerged under the leadership of women.  Studies found when
females establish a group and function as leaders, the women disciples are seen
as spiritually superior.  Neo-pagans base their religion on a “woman-centered theology” established by female spiritualist, Starhawk.  Also elevating female leadership is the New Age movement.  Both Neo-pagan and New Agers attempted to balance gender equality and avoid “absolute devotion to charismatic leaders.”  (Pike p. 216-217)  Sexual freedom
is important to these groups and sexuality is viewed as an expression of one’s self, separate from their religious identity.  (Pike p. 221)

Christian Science, Spiritualism and the Shakers were established by female mediums and all three groups have male and female leadership roles.  The lack of a single, male charismatic leader appears to enable these groups to avoid the abuse that often develops in male established religions.  (Pike p. 215)  Other religions based on extraterrestrial and
androgynous races, attempt to view their divine as genderless, removing the
importance of a deity having a gender.

The key issue of gender within NRMs is sensitive.  The abuse of
women by charismatic male leaders is a fact in NRMs.  On the other hand, there are established NRMs and ones that are still emerging that give equality to and even celebrate the females within their group.  In either case, gender will always remain a key issue in religious movements.

Tragedy at Waco 1993

     David Koresh, leader of the Branch Davidians in Waco, TX, was an expert at making conventional Christian doctrine and ideology support himself as the second Christ.  Using the Bible, particularly the Books of Daniel, Psalms, Isaiah and Revelation, he preached to his followers about the impending apocalypse and his own involvement in causing its start.

     Koresh’s Biblical apocalypticism was based on sacred text, (The Bible) an inspired interpreter, (Koresh) and the fluid context which an interpreter finds himself in.  (The government controlled the context ie: hostage rescue)  Koresh and his followers were deeply devoted to studying Biblical text.  Drawing from the Book of Revelation Koresh’s message was “highly systematic, rigidly consistent, and internally logical.”  According to his interpretation, Babylon, found in the Book of Revelation was the “evil government” and the federal agents sent on the purposed rescue mission were representing the 5th Seal.  To Koresh and his followers, surrendering to anyone but God was out of the question unless Koresh received word from God to do so. 

     This delay caused by Koresh waiting to receive God’s instructions irked those in charge.  The FBI was frustrated at the stand-off and showed little interest in hearing what Koresh had to say.  To them his words were senseless and those of a man with psychological problems.  The letters Koresh had written to explain his ideologies were passed off as babble and very little attention was given to understanding Koresh’s true intentions. 

     Sadly, the FBI promoted the persecution of Koresh and charged that he was a cult leader, child abuser, and rapist.  During the stand-off no proof was ever found to back these vicious statements.  As with Early Christians, persecution of new ideas was common.  Koresh expected to be persecuted just as Jesus Christ himself had been.  The Early Christians were prisoners to Roman Authority and now in 1993, Koresh who declared himself the second Christ based on Psalms and Isaiah mentioning the second Christ by the name Koresh, was under the same threat.   He believed and convinced his followers that they were being taken prisoners under governmental authority. 

      The whole scenario of this hostage rescue situation has an apocalyptic theme.  Preaching of the immanent return of Christ has taken place ever since his death.  It is a violent, fiery prediction based on the Book of Revelations.  In Koresh’s eyes, the attack of his fortress could only be viewed as the start of apocalyptic times.  There was no other way for this group of devoted Christians to view it as anything but the end.  The only statement Koresh gave to the FBI was they would leave the compound when God told him it was time.

     During the stand-off Koresh spent the majority of his time reading The Bible and trying to understand for himself what was taking place.  The letters he wrote and gave to his lawyer were passed on for examination to a college professor with no religious background,.  His determination that a peaceful end to the stand-off was not possible led to the FBI’s use of a gas attack on the compound.  The attack was tragic as the compound caught fire, trapping the innocent people inside and taking their lives. 

     There are many ways this stand-off could have gone differently.  Had the FBI made sincere attempts and sent agents with religious backgrounds to handle the negotiations or even brought in an outsider with knowledge of The Bible, perhaps this could have ended peacefully.  I don’t believe Koresh was purposely trying to cause the 5th Seal to be broken thus leading the government to attack.  Based on the reading, Koresh appeared to be forth-coming with his beliefs and reasoning for the accumulation of weapons.  The FBI was angered by Koresh’s absolute refusal to surrender to them and chose to take matters into their own hands.

     The entire rescue mission, based on false information of abuse ended the lives of 130 men, women and children.  Clearly these were unnecessary deaths at the hands of government intent on forcing a man to follow their commands.  Had someone in charge had the sense to send in people open to understanding a new religious ideology, this tragedy could have been avoided.  This incident left a black mark on our government’s historical record of backing religious freedom and ended the careers of many high level figures of the U.S. government.


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