Alternative Religions And Their Academic Supporters
When Scholars Know Sin - Continued
Alternative Religions and Their Academic Supporters
by Stephen A. Kent and Theresa Krebs
Start of article Previous page Credits and Copyright Bibliography Rebuttals and Rejoinder
At the same time that Lewis intervened in Kent's publication process in early March, 1993, he and various academics associated with his organization, the Association for World Academics for Religious Education (AWARE) were engaged in producing a publication to help The Family cultivate a positive public image. In January, 1993, Family representatives had contacted Lewis (as the Executive Director of AWARE) and another unnamed academic "seeking advice on how to combat the negative publicity and other attacks they felt certain would result from the group's bold new public stature" in the United States (Lewis and Melton, 1994b, vi). Already in other countries around the world, The Family had been trying to distance itself from its controversial sexual practices such as "flirty fishing" (religious prostitution), sexual sharing among members, and sexual abuse of children (Ward, 1995). The resultant collection of essays published by Lewis and J. Gordon Melton, entitled Sex, Slander, and Salvation, became a volume that The Family touted as proof of its legitimacy and the group has distributed copies to media in an attempt to gain favorable press. At least one academic, however, who reviewed the book saw it otherwise. Robert Balch's book review identified this publication as an opportunity to raise the vital issue of bias among social scientists who publish similarly skewed portrayals of other groups (Balch, 1996, 72). Most importantly, Balch recognized the study's disregard for "[Erving] Goffman's (1959) work on impression management, which describes how group members engage in 'teamwork' to prevent 'leakage' of potentially discrediting information to outsiders (including, presumably, social scientists)" (Balch, 1996, 72). Former members of The Family, as well as some of The Family's own publications, provide important insights into the group's "backstage" arrangements that went on prior to contact that AWARE researchers had with it. The Family invited academics and other "Systemites" to what it called "Media Homes" (Kent, 1996c, 68). A former member who was familiar with these homes described such a place as "basically a nice, squeaky clean, polished-up home [which was] about as polished as you could get" (Kent, 1996b, 157-158). Another former member reported that part of making "everything look as perfect as possible" at the Media Homes required "mega-preparation" such as moving out crowded children, removing bunkbeds from overcrowded bedrooms, and placing single mothers elsewhere (Kent, 1996a, 39-40). The same former member claimed that The Family "only kept the best PR people there...the people who were, you know, prepared to talk and, you know, knew how to talk and wouldn't, you know, slip up or whatever" (Kent, 1996a, 39). In order to avoid revealing sensitive information, Family spokespersons underwent intensive rehearsals of "questions and answers -- what to say about this, what to say about that" (Kent, 1996b, 155). The Family even produced several booklets of anticipated questions along with appropriate answers and maintained strict security regarding which among its publications members could provide to "Systemites" for perusal (Family Services, 1989, 1992a, 1992b; Berg, 1983, 432-468). Another way that The Family controlled information that researchers acquired was by destroying controversial sexual material involving children. In 1991 The Family's World Services department issued a directive entitled "The Pubs Purge," which ordered an "extensive purge of [particular] publications" by burning or blocking out portions "with ink or white-out as well as the specific pages that should be removed from within the remaining books" (World Services, 1991). The documents purge was not motivated by the organization's denunciation of Berg's teachings, but rather by the realization that these publications provided the group's critics with evidence that child/adult sex had been allowed. Consequently, the directive never acknowledged any harm from the sexual practices, but blamed the need for the purge on "them that [sic] are defiled & and unbelieving" (World Services, 1991, 2). Not surprisingly, therefore, when AWARE researchers and others conducted their study of media homes and examined the group's publications in other Family facilities, they found nothing amiss. One researcher contributing to the AWARE study, for example, stated that: "[a] study of a cupboardful of COG to Family literature was undertaken with the assistance of a YA [Young Adult] who pointed out important passages in the Mo Letters, the Book of Remembrance and the children's comic, Life With Grandpa" (Palmer, 1994, 9). Other academics wrote general letters of endorsement for The Family (Palmer, 1993; Shepherd, 1993; World Services [1994b?]; [1994c?]) and spoke favorably about it on a video that the group used as another form of legitimation (The Family, 1994). Some of this questionable research is being incorporated, uncritically, into the wider academic literature on The Family's effects on its youth (Bainbridge, 1997, 224, 237). During the early days of July, 1993, an AWARE-sponsored team, under the direction of Lewis and Melton, conducted a study of another controversial group, Church Universal and Triumphant. CUT needed some positive press, since the armaments that the Branch Davidians used against federal agents drew attention once more to the arsenal that CUT had amassed and on which the press had reported (Wiley, 1990; Washington Post, 1994, A4). Indeed, during the middle of AWARE's CUT study, local Montana newspapers carried articles that outlined the federal government's allegations of "[h]igh-ranking Church Universal and Triumphant staff members involved in stockpiling, moving and guarding weapons since 1973 in violation of its tax exempt status" (Billings Gazette, 1993; Ronnow, 1993b; 1993c). Moreover, the IRS was investigating various financial dealings ([USA] and Philipson v. [CUT] and Francis, 1991, 2). The AWARE scholars, therefore, avowedly approached the study prepared "to believe many of the worst charges leveled against Elizabeth Clare Prophet's Church Universal and Triumphant in the mass media" (Lewis and Melton, 1994a, viii). Like The Family study, however, the AWARE team produced and published a book of essays that was as much an apology as a social scientific product. In an analysis of the study, sociologist Robert Balch and student Stephan Langdon recorded in detailed notes their observations of fellow researchers collecting and discussing data. Balch and Langdon reported that the AWARE "study design virtually assured that if malfeasance existed within the Church, it would not be discovered" (1998, 192). Based upon their observations, they concluded that, for the most part, the study "failed to dig into the issues that made [CUT] so controversial in the first place" (1998, 198). The study failed to address such critical issues as the organization's allegedly excessive commercialism, the use of Church funds to pay off a civil penalty against Mrs. Prophet, and IRS charges against the group for arms violations (1998, 198-199; Billings Gazette, 1993, 1, 13A; McMillion, 1994, 9; Ronnow, 1993a, 1). Worth nothing is that less than two weeks after the AWARE study concluded, a CUT lawyer said "in a letter to [the] Justice Department [that] 'the church wants to accept responsibility for weapons through the [IRS] settlement process'" (McMillion, 1995, 10).