Even if you don’t know that much about cults, you’ve probably heard about the famous mind-control of brainwashing. It’s the process whereby new members have their identity broken down and cult values and a cult personality implemented instead. It sounds like a sensational process, requiring torture and weird machines.
The truth is, it’s not. If it were that obvious, people would be much less likely to join a cult. Brainwashing is a simple process of manipulation that is so subtle that new members don’t notice the destruction of their sense of self.
I know how the process works, intimately. Recruitment is an essential part of most cults (outside of the handful that stopped recruiting in order to kill themselves off), and the IFB is no different. However, I’m finding a disconnection between some of the scholarly understandings of recruitment and my own experience.
It’s not that the breakdown is wrong, per se. The mechanics are all there—targeting emotionally vulnerable people, bombing them with love, and offering them hope. All of that is entirely true.
So where’s the problem?
It always sounds so sinister. In Cults in our Midst, Margaret Thaler Singer describes the process as “deliberate,” and to some extent it is deliberate, but it’s not intentional-deliberate (“I’m going to brainwash someone”) or malicious-deliberate (“I want to ruin her life”).
In the IFB, we absolutely targeted emotionally vulnerable people (children, military, grieving family and friends, the lonely, etc.). We had any number of programs to reach out to those in difficult places in their lives, those less fortunate, or those simply confused and dissatisfied with where their life was going. We promised them answers and meaning and showered them with love. We had both subtle and blatant ways of worming into their minds and planting the idea that their misery and trials were due to their sin. We were trained on how to approach people, how to gauge their receptiveness to the message, and how to gently push them into accepting our beliefs.
I think I still have a bookmark in my old Bible with my script cues written on it!
But we did it thinking we were doing the right thing. We would have never called it “recruitment,” “brainwashing,” “mind control,” or any of the other clinical terms.
We called it witnessing, sharing our faith, spreading the good news, and sharing the love of God. We saw ourselves as missionaries of good. People were dying and going to hell because of their sins, and we had the cure. It was our duty to offer them a chance for salvation.
“The most sobering reality in the world today,” Bob Jones III would often prompt in chapel.
“Is that people are dying and going to hell today,” the students would chant back to him.
I would have never admitted it because it was horribly taboo, but I never liked witnessing. I hated approaching a complete stranger and trying to find a way to trick them into talking about God. I hated asserting that they were sinful and needed to be saved or else they would go to hell. I even hated knocking on apartment doors and asking parents if I could take their kids to my Bible club when I was at BJU, often wondering what kind of parent would let a complete stranger take a child away simply by claiming to want to tell them about Jesus?
Every time I witnessed, I felt like a pompous jerk.
But I did it because I was led to believe that I was responsible for the lost souls of those I failed to witness to. Choosing not to try to recruit someone was tantamount to murdering that person. How could I possibly bear the guilt of watching them burn in hell for all eternity simply because I was too embarrassed to approach them?
Today, when I watch documentaries like “Jesus Camp,” I shudder to see the brainwashing tactics in play. When I hear about how Missions to Military (which has connections to the IFB, for the record) waits until soldiers are at their most broken point in boot camp before approaching them to witness, I get sick to my stomach to see vulnerable people being targeted.
But not for a single second would I ever think that the people doing the recruiting had bad intentions at heart. They believe in what they are doing 100%. That’s why they’re so seductive. Cults are insidious and destructive because victims believe in them. Brainwashing doesn’t end when you join—it’s just beginning. You can lay out a map of behavior for cult members to look at and point out exactly how they fit into that map, and they still won’t think they’re a cult because they’re convinced they’re doing the loving thing, the right thing, the only thing they can do.
Why am I writing about this?
Because it’s not good enough to just identify the behavior of cults and how they are destructive or even how that behavior is used in the grand scheme of control.
Cults are monsters, and the people in them can be monsters. But if you’re looking for a monster under your bed or hiding in the shadows, you’re not going to find it. All you’re going to find is a smiling face and a human being who desperately believes they are doing the right thing.
If researchers are truly going to expose cults and protect people from them, they need to be able to recognize that the most important part of the recruitment process isn’t the part where they break down the recruit’s identity—it comes long before that, when they lull the recruit into letting his/her guard down. The claws and fangs are there, hiding under the mask, but no one will see them until they try to leave.
Recruitment is a golden road to a physical hell paved with someone else’s good intentions.