CESNUR - center for studies on new religions


Stephen Hunt
A paper presented at The 2001 Conference in London

This paper explores the attitude of fundamentalist, evangelical Christians towards modern cults and the New Religious Movements. It suggests that the response is negative in the extreme - a stance which is generated by the nature of fundamentalist Christianity itself, and its attempted negation of the pluralism of contemporary society. These tendencies are illustrated with reference to one particular anti-cultist evangelical ministry especially established to counteract the influence of alternative and new religions. The paper seeks to show how this ministry, on the one hand endeavours to label rival belief systems as false and dangerous, while on the other, attempts to convince the secular world of its own legitimacy and respectability.


As Jim Beckford has effectively shown, anti-cult controversies are, above all, a social phenomenon. They essentially result from complex social processes which involve the interaction between individuals and social groups that generate or potentially generate controversies concerning alternative or "deviant" religious movements be they the so-called New Religious Movements or the longer established "cults". Contentions and debates surrounding these religions are negotiated and constructed within particular social and political contexts. To understand who applies such derogative labels as "cult", "sect", "heresy" or "deviation" therefore, it is necessary to consider the motivation, meanings and vested interests of those individuals or groups who have the power and authority to do so. 2 In this sense, anti-cultist activities are "political" in that the designation of alternative and marginalized religions as "deviant" is contestable and derives from, in Beckford's words, "part of a wider struggle to defend a particular version (or vision) of human reality and to undermine its detractors or opponents".3

To some extent at least, the social construction of "cult controversies" will depend upon the attitude of mainline, more established, and more "respectable" religions towards their more peripheral rivals. Even in the most secularized society they still retain a certain degree of viability in helping to shape and set the agenda of wider social attitudes towards the cults and new forms of religion based upon traditional, if declining authority and a legitimacy derived largely from cultural heritage. In modern western societies this means the orientation of Christian churches and denominations.

The traditional expression of Christianity in the West, irrespective of its different genres, has perennially had to deal with the "problem" of other religions, that is, the "truth" claims of rival faiths. However, in the modern pluralist situation, the degree to which tolerance is extended towards, and a dialogue established with, alternative faiths has varied considerably. Much has been determined by what degree the various strands of Christianity have accepted and accommodated themselves to the pluralist nature of contemporary society. The more mainline, "liberal" churches have at times endorsed ecumenical programmes which, at the very least, have sought common ground or attempted to establish a dialogue with other major faiths. At other times they have frequently endorsed anti-cultist programmes. This has resulted more from perceived public welfare considerations and a surrender to popular stereotypes of alternative religions, than as a campaign derived from any theological dogma and/or the felt need to embark upon an evangelizing mission to members of the cults and NRMs. On the other hand, sectarian forms of Christian fundamentalism have been more active and vociferous in their condemnation of rival religions and take as their touchstone biblical literalism and apocalyptic scenarios.

This Study

This paper is based upon observations resulting from fieldwork research of one of the largest fundamentalist anti-cultist organization in Britain that will be referred to here as the "Omega Trust". Omega is a Christian evangelical ministry, which was established, in the late 1970s with the sole purpose to respond to, and undermine, what it understands to be the growing influence of New Religious Movements and cultist forms of religion. The strategies it has undertaken and the extent to which it has been successful can be understood in terms of the resources it has attempted to mobilize to achieve its aims.

Sociologists such as John Loftland have focused upon the success, or otherwise, of religious movements in the pluralistic situation with reference to theories of resource mobilization. In short, the success or failure of a movement depends largely on the resources available to it. Secondly, the success of the movement depends upon the extent of opposition to its goals within larger society. Hence, Loftland identifies variables such as organizational networks, publicity, evangelizing techniques, financial support, and theological constructs (in terms of ideology) as all resources at the disposal of a group which can enhance membership and bring institutional growth. At the same time there is the need to court a high level of sympathy and credibility in wider society 4.

This paper considers how the Omega Trust has sought to mobilize resources to simultaneously legitimize its own constituency and apply deviant labels to rival, alternative forms of religion. Beside publicity, practical resources, theology, and networks, the variables of legitimacy and respectability must be acknowledged as important "resources" which can be mobilized in relation to wider society and the pluralistic environment and, in turn, to apply derogative labels to rival religious systems. While Omega’s aims have been largely unsuccessful, at least in stigmatizing its rivals, this particular organization offers an opportunity to explore the tactics employed by anti-cultist groups of this ilk and the cognitive processes at work within the fundamentalist constituency.

The following discussion is based upon ongoing research, since 1996, into the tactics used by the Omega organization and how it attempts to mobilize resources both in practical terms and by way of legitimacy in its perceived ‘holy war’ against the cults.

In many respects Omega is typical of anti-cultist organizations in Britain and Europe and, arguably, its North American counterparts- at least those formed by the conservative Christian constituency. The organization is not itself an easy one to penetrate. Hence, while many aspects of the methods used in research were direct and overt, some methodological strategies, notably attendance at specially organized seminars, as well as involvement in protest campaigns coordinated by Omega, did involve more covert research tactics. Besides participant observation of regional meetings, evangelizing outreaches, public campaigns and conferences, it was interviews which constituted a key element of the research methods. This included, firstly, a number of interviews of those in leadership positions at a local level in London and other regional centres. These were primarily orientated to ascertain organization strategies and aims, as well as discerning principal theological orientations and their motivational significance. Secondly, some thirty interviews were conducted of individuals involved in alternative religions who had dealings with Omega as a result of its evangelizing outreaches. The interview sample was constituted through "snowballing" that is, early contact with those who had interfaced with Omega led to subsequent contacts who offered themselves for semi-structured interviews. In addition, a core aspect of the research focused upon a literature survey of the publications produced by the organization, along with an analysis of other media outputs including video and audio tapes.

Fundamentalist Christianity in the Pluralist Context

The origins of the Omega organization can be traced back to at least the late 1960s when small evangelical fundamentalist factions on the conservative Protestant wing of the Christian Church had began to mobilize themselves to counteract what they perceived as the threat of non-Christian forms of religion. The Omega Trust thereafter developed as an umbrella organization for such factions who were initially often divided by a number of not insignificant theological differences. In time, it metamorphosized into a structured independent association in its own right with its circle of leaders and subscribing membership derived from fundamentalist-orientated churches and para-church organizations.

Omega by no means represents the entire fundamentalist constituency in Britain. There are other fundamentalists groupings that have retired into sectarian enclaves, turning their back upon what is beheld as a degenerate world and where evidence of apostasy and the growth of heretical faiths are evidence of the "End Times" and sustains an apocalyptic form of pre-millenarianism. Here, it is understood that the rightful response of God's dwindling elect should be a turning away from a lost world. The great bulk of the fundamentalist constituency in Britain, however, is driven by other theological (largely neo-Pentecostal) frameworks and different orientations to the secular world which allows it to be actively confronted and negated, at the same time a belief system is dynamically acted out. Above all, there is the driving force of the optimistic hope for mass revival before the second advent of Christ which entails the "conquest" of "false" religions and the regeneration of the "true"’ Church.

The leadership and "gate-keepers" of Omega are largely constituted by a number of vociferous activists with a self-styled mission. While their background is difficult to discern, they appear to largely originate from local church leadership positions or dedicated lay people. There is no single charismatic-styled leadership as such. The leaders are in many respects a heterogeneous grouping of Protestant evangelicals derived from a number of denominations, including Anglican, Baptist, as well as several prominent strands of independent evangelical churches.

A battery of core fundamentalist beliefs unifies those who constitute the confederation of leaders. Although by no means necessarily wedded to all the key theological tenets of neo-Pentecostalism, many of those in leadership positions are nonetheless influenced by the wider belief, practices and aims of the Charismatic Renewal movement. Similarly, the more active membership, as well as those individuals who subscribe to the wealth of literature produced by Omega, appear to originate within mainstream charismatic churches or the "New Churches" that tend to dominate the Christian scene in Britain. Far from being a comfortable alliance, those inclined to be charismatically-minded are joined in the organization by a number of more conservative, non-charismatic evangelicals. What unites them all however, is a fundamentalist orientation that displays a rigid biblical literalism and a greater understanding of divine "truth" as it is perceived, as well as a driven by a self-assigned mandate to engage alternative forms of religion. Although difficult to estimate, there are probably a few hundred active members who are operative through regional branches, while subscribers, directly or indirectly to the forms of media produced by Omega are likely to run into several thousand people.

While the Omega Trust is an autonomous organization, it nonetheless enjoys the endorsement of many evangelical missions in Britain with which it keeps open channels of communication and who frequently provide an important reservoir of mobilization at a local level. It also has attempted to forge links with similar organizations in North America and Europe and includes a "Council of Reference" with leading evangelical bodies and churches on an international scale. At the same time, the ministry has established missions into Eastern Europe where it has endeavoured to counteract the new forms of religion which have gained increasing popularity since the collapse of the Communist regime in the early 1990s. To this end, Omega builds connections with parallel proselytizing missions in such countries as Hungary, Poland and Russia which have been set up by local evangelical groups.

The stated aims of Omega, articulated in the form of a mission statement, are given a prominent place in its publications. Such objectives include the declared intent to provide "an international Christian ministry that upholds biblical truth and builds bridges to people in the cults, occult and New Age" and the claim that it seeks to;

"i) examine the life of people in these religious groups in the light of biblical truths

ii) train and equip Christians to explain the gospel in a relevant way to those in

the cults

iii) present the Christian gospel and work with other organizations who attempt

the same."

The Omega Trust's self-assigned role as watch-dog of alternative and emerging religions, originates from two inter-related concerns. Firstly, the attempt to deliberately stigmatize and discredit rival religions, both for the advantage of its own fundamentalist constituency, and in the eyes of wider society. Secondly, as part of a process of boundary maintenance, to deflect any potential deviant label it may itself attract, including a number of internally generated ‘cultist’ tendencies of its own, by courting the legitimacy of public opinion for its anti-cultist activities.

In Britain, the context in which Omega operates is one of religious pluralism, where the rivalry between religious collectives is not just a battle for members in a largely secular society, but also, at the cognitive level, since it involves a clash of world views. The situation of fundamentalism in this milieu, almost by definition, is to encounter and negate the pluralist situation. It confronts the world, to use Peter Berger's phrase, as a "cognitive minority" 5 with its own truth claim which is merely one among many. It follows that it cannot remain neutral in the interaction with that which lies outside of its boundaries and which challenges its legitimacy and attempted monopoly of the "truth".

There is more to consider. Utilizing Berger and Luckmann's notion of "symbolic moral universes" 6 , Goode and Ben-Yehuda have shown how, in the contemporary pluralistic ambience of western societies, competing moral systems, whether religious or secular, will frequently attempt to apply a deviant label on others. This is essentially an element of the power struggle to both legitimize their own worldview for internal consumption and to convince external agencies of their truth claims. 7 It follows that competition, against a background of secularity and religious decline, engenders a spiritual marketplace with the possibility for one cognitive system to develop ways of interpreting the truth claims of rival religious systems as being null and void. For fundamentalist Christian groups this is essential in simultaneously enforcing the unity and certitude of the fundamentalist constituency, while also attempting to convince the outside world of its legitimacy.

At this point the rather bland designation of such sectarian forms of Christianity displayed by the Omega Trust as "fundamentalist" needs to be briefly explored given the wider implications in the negotiation of the fundamentalist constituency with the world beyond its boundaries. Conceptually, Martyn Percy's recently developed phenomenological approach is useful since it interprets fundamentalism as more than a tightly integrated dogmatic system and primarily linked to biblical literalism. 8 Rather, fundamentalism may be understood as an all-embracing interpretive schema using myths and narratives that structure the experiences and understanding of religious constituencies in the world. In short, fundamentalism constitutes a worldview which shapes the experiences of religious collectives providing a complete "world" and magnify their identity and process their "cosmic experience" .9 For Percy, fundamentalism is, above all, an outlook amounting to a "comprehensive interpretive schema" which tends to embrace the claim to an exclusive interpretation of the faith via selected biblical references which establish the absolute authority of a religious collective.

The significance of a phenomenological approach to an analysis of the fundamentalist anti-cultist group falls into clear relief. It is evident that while the application of a deviant label can be particularly efficacious in a contemporary setting where cultist forms of religion are not infrequently ridiculed, the stigmatization of others can itself also effectively sustain and reify a plausibility structure and overcome any actual or potential cognitive dissonance. Certainly, the application of such a label dovetails well with the eschatological scenario embraced by such fundamentalist groups as Omega and which operates as an ultimate ideological reference point.

Ironically then, the existence of rival religions serves to bolster a stringent worldview which tends to embrace dualist and millenarian perceptions. Here, the interrelated themes of "sign watching" and theories of satanic conspiracies have their place. The "signs" are those of the "Last Days" and are essentially, a portent for the fundamentalist community itself. The "signs", which often amount to imaginative interpretations of esoteric passages of the Bible, are extremely varied - often changing and evolving with world events. In recent years various other "signs" have been detected. This includes economic crisis, the spread of AIDs, and the collapse of family life - all of which have served as an indication of the intensification of the spiritual war as the second coming of Christ approaches. Secondly, the significance of "signs" will relate to the experience of the fundamentalist constituency itself so that a reciprocal connection is sustained between experience in the world and what might be termed "a virtual reality Bible" that provides the necessary cognitive reference point.

What underpins all such "signs" is a perceived satanic conspiracy. In turn, the conspiracy frequently concerns itself with some form of "witch-hunt" that generally centres on the belief that satanic forces are surreptitiously marshalling their godless forces through human agencies as part of the final spiritual battle for sovereignty over the earth. Through the decades of the twentieth century the alleged conspiracy has, for fundamentalist Christians, taken various forms. Nonetheless, non-Christian religions, particularly those with a mystical element or those built upon Eastern philosophies, have been increasingly integrated into the conspiracy theory. Their conquest by the "true" Church is therefore, part of the broader strategy of spiritual warfare, and an integral part of the triumphantism of "taking the (spiritual) ground" of Satan's kingdom and prepares for the expected global revival. For fundamentalists, the relationship with other religions is then, symbolically and literally, a Holy War in which victory is a foregone conclusion.

The theme that rival religions are demonic is a popular one for Omega. This teaching is frequently espoused at the ministry's annual conference and training days, and is symbolized by an article entitled Christianity vs the New Age which essentially outlines the New Age as the arch enemy, a demonic deception vital to the climax of the global satanic conspiracy. This literal demonization is a powerful means by which other religions are subject to a deviant designation. In March 1995, an entire "training day" for Omega's members was given over to this theme. It was dedicated to examining Satan's machinations and, according to the literature produced for the occasion to

"take a fresh look at the 'game plan' that the enemy is using and seek to find the biblical answers.......We are encouraged in Scripture not to be ignorant of the enemy's devices...... Be aware the enemy is a liar and a cheat. He will not let go easily....".

Many of these themes are developed within Bible-study "workshops" on such subjects as the Book of Revelation. Here, the topic of "other religions" and their part in the wider eschatological drama are accompanied by biblical references to "Babylon"- a synonym for non-Christian religions and perceived heretical forms of faith. 10

Educating the Christian Constituency Within its own fundamentalist constituency, the Omega Trust attempts the systematic education of like-minded Christians so that they might become aware of the teachings and alleged dangers of other religions, be they new or established forms. As one of the leaders responsible for a regional representation of Omega put it to me

‘We need need to teach our own people about the inherent dangers of other religions every bit as much as we have to tell those involved of the good news of the gospel …………… We have, in this day and age, tell the truth to those in the Church, as well as those outside, that it is wrong to believe that all religions have some truth, and that it doesn’t really matter what religion you follow…………….

In order to educate its own constituency Omega widely advertizes its media products ranging from a selection of cheap books, to tapes and videos. The great bulk of the media resources is produced by the leadership ring, although some publications will originate with former cult members, or constitute reprints from of tracts which had previously been circulated by other evangelical bodies. In this respect Omega functions as a highly organized colportage.

Comprehensive teaching notes can also be obtained from Omega which are orientated to training its own membership by way of instructing other Christians about cults and related subjects. Supporters of the ministry are encouraged to educate churches in their locality to act as bases from which to begin enlightening other Christians. Thus the activities of the Omega Trust extend beyond its own fundamentalist realm into the more liberal mainstream churches.

The so-called "educational media" produced by the Omega organization commonly espouses broad disparaging generalizations on the nature of cults and the new religions and, therefore, has the function of tarring them all with the same brush. This is evident in the books such as those entitled The Main Doctrines of the Cults, as well as audio tapes typified by one entitled The Chaos of the Cults. These productions claim, in the words of the regional representative mentioned above, to "spiritually prepare Christians to talk to cult members". The ultimate aim being to convert them to a particular brand of Christianity. In addition, there is material directed specifically to informing members of the new religions. Hence, there are publications entitled Scientology: The Total Freedom Trap, Inside the New Age Nightmare, and Witchcraft and Satanism Speak For Themselves. Other forms of religion frequently examined in the trust's publications range from Freemasonry, to Eastern mysticism - all of whose teachings are weighed in terms of Christian fundamentalist biblical dogma. Indeed, there is little beyond the scope of the Omega Trust and potentially anything remotely religious can be designated as "cultist". This includes the publication A Look into Martial Arts which highlights the non-Christian roots of many martial arts techniques, while other tracts focus upon the alleged dangers of various forms of alternative medicines and therapies endorsed by competing religious systems. Neither does non-Protestant forms of Christianity escape the attention of Omega as evidenced by such publications as A Christian's Guide to Roman Catholicism. Major non-Christian religions are also catered for with such tracts as Christian Witness to Islam. 11

Particularly conspicuous are the numerous publications available which are directed towards non-Trinitarian forms of Christianity. Arguably, this is not only because of their world-wide growth but because, doctrinally at least, they present fundamentalism with its "nearest neighbours" in that they also seek to vehemently uphold their own truths and lean towards exclusivity. Here, boundary maintenance is imperative. Such faiths as the Unification Church, Mormons, and Jehovah's Witnesses are obvious targets and are the subject of specialist publications. Hence, there is literature entitled Through the Maze of Mormonism, How to Help a Mormon Know Jesus, and Mormonism: A Gold Plated Religion. Most of these tracts are written by former Mormons. In dealing with the Watchtower organization there are the publications Jehovah's Witnesses on Trial and Don't Close the Door which are largely based upon discrediting testimonies by "apostates" from the Watchtower organization (there is even available an exposure of the teachings of Jehovah's Witnesses in Braille). Generally, they will write tracts addressing how the organization has doctrinally erred, and develop their own particular mission to win over individual members. 12

Omega's advertising in the media attracts those in the faith, and church-leaders are particularly encouraged to participate in the ministry's specially organized events. Since 1976, the primary means of involvement has been through Omega's annual convention which usually lasts for three days and constitutes a series of seminars and workshops which will attract several hundred people. Advertised in the mainstream evangelical media, these conferences have come to enjoy a fairly high degree of respectability in conservative Christian circles. Informal interviews with individuals attending these events found them to be representative of most of the major strands of conservative Christianity in Britain with the impression, at least, that charismatic and the independent ‘New’ churches were over-represented. At the same time they also represent important opportunities to network with representative from the mainstream or even liberal churches.

In 1997, the key themes explored at the annual conference included; winning converts from Jehovah's Witnesses, the traditional teachings of Buddhism, and the implication of the opening of a new large Mormon Temple in the north of England. The annual convention in 1998, included the workshop titles of The Effects of the Mormon Temple, New Age, and Truth and Counterfeit. "Training days", which run throughout the year, specialize in subjects including counselling those who have left the cults, "cult techniques" - especially in the areas of "brain-washing" and further claimed coercive activities, and the extensive examination of Eastern philosophies.

Anti-Cultist Strategies

As part of its "spiritual warfare" strategy, the Omega Trust openly engages rival religions through a number of anti-cultist tactics including techniques of propaganda, evangelizing, and even the active "de-programming" of members of alternative religions. In turn, this constitutes a powerful means by which a world view is acted out since rival religions are engaged face to face in a form of "witch-hunt".

In confronting other religions, Omega, like many evangelical ministries, is not afraid to utilize what the modern world has to offer by way of technology and the media. These become the channels for seeking out specific cults, and cult members. Those especially targeted are the disenchanted. This primarily means those individuals still within the cults, or those who have left and have their own stories to tell. Through advertisements, the ministry openly and flagrantly appeals for members, or ex-members of cults, to establish contact with it. A common theme, that is observable in much of the literature produced, is that those involved in the cults have been misled and abused. Recognition is paid to the genuine desire of cult members to seek an earnest spiritual path. They need therefore, to be redirected into the "truth". In this respect, many Omega Trust differentiates between a well-meaning membership on the one hand, and the labelling of unscrupulous and abusing cult leaders on the other. This point was articulated by another interviewee in a leadership position

A principal means by which contact is achieved with members of the cults is through Britain's national Christian radio, Premier Radio. Every Wednesday evening there is a slot entitled "Cult Watch" that is sponsored by the Omega Trust. Once a month this takes the form of a live "phone-in" in which people in the cults are asked to recall their detrimental experiences. Frequently this deteriorates into an unashamed exercise in propaganda with Christian converts merely expressing their experiences during their former allegiances with movements ranging from Jehovah’s Witnesses to the Unification church, and how they were won over to "born-again" Christianity. Accounts by the disenchanted are, more often than not, blown up into "atrocity tales" of abuse, humiliation and "brain-washing". Another means of communicating with cult members is through the pages of the World-Wide Web where the trust purports to expose the dangers of cults, although it has, on occasion entered into a rather incordial dialogue with them. On this web-site can be found what Omega refers to as "the reading room" where information can be gained about specific cults, with Mormons and Jehovah Witnesses again being the prime focus.

There are more direct ways by which Omega engages its enemies. In 1997, the trust organized an evangelical out-reach at the opening of a new Mormon temple. Tracts were distributed to individual Mormons, and on-looking members of the public attending, outlining the theological errors of the Mormon church. On several occasions leafleting has also taken place at the gates of the international Rugby football ground in London - the venue of the annual conference of Jehovah's Witnesses. Glastonbury, the site of pilgrimages for those inspired by the New Age, and neo-pagan conventions such as the popular Mind, Body and Spirit Festival held in London each year, constitute other targets for proselytizing.

Omega also has its own system of cult "de-programming". Frequently, the general profile of perceived candidates for de-programming are those which, for whatever reason, are "apostates" who have become disenchanted with their former allegiances. Precise avenues to Omega vary. Rather infrequently, cult members may initiate the contact, although channels are more likely to be opened by concerned parents in the case of younger members. De-programming will include the stigmatization of the group and a series of bible-studies in which the new converts are introduced to the "truth" and become aware of the errors of their ways. Since such converts were once in the "enemy's camp" it is possible that they might be encouraged to undergo "deliverance" (a form of lesser exorcism) as a result of their alleged exposure to demonic forces when belonging to the cults.

The irony is that the deprogramming process becomes in itself ‘cult-like’. Although the trust does not engage in anything so controversial as the forceful removal of individuals from alternative religions, the deprogramming of younger members, often with the expressed support of parents, can be quite rigorous and constitutes not so much an attempt to return the cult member to mainstream society (although this may be part of the public propaganda), as to an alternative"Christian" world view. The familiar cultist strategy of "love-bombing" and the voluntary removal to some form of "retreat" or safehouse can provide the environment for fairly systematic indoctrination. Although relatively mild compared to the alleged strategies of some cults, and indeed anti-cultist groups, manipulative procedures including isolation, limited interaction and social exchanges for a number of days, as well as persuasive endeavours to remove individuals from their former environment, can be interpreted as a reasonably systematic and coerced attempt at recruitment.

Courting the Secular World For Philip Jenkins, sects, cults and the more unconventional forms of new religions are undoubtedly the paradigmatic targets of moral panics since, in the secular environment, religious minorities are frequently seen as odd, outside of mainstream culture, and more readily perceived as dangerous spectres that haunt the margins of society. 13 The role of so-called "moral entrepreneurs" is obvious and deliberate in the social construction of moral panics related to such groups. Jenkins is aware that moral entrepreneurs with hidden agendas are unlikely to be the sole cause of a moral panic. Rather, the social construction of moral panics originates from complex processes which may have multifarious origins and continuing dynamics, and are more inclined to arise under particular social and political conditions. 14 However, the calculated machinations of moral entrepreneurs might be crucial in their creation. Certainly, it is clearly evident that Christian fundamentalist factions frequently seek to influence public opinion regarding rival religions in a fairly direct and overt way. In short, they act to discredit those groups outside of their own constituency by strategies of stigmatization which might plausibly lead to public moral panics concerning the teachings and activities of religions of which they disapprove. 15

As Berger and Luckmann suggest, in the pluralist context religious institutions face the repeated demand to explain, justify, and to legitimize themselves to external constituencies with discourse becoming the chief tool in the process of the dialogue with the outside world. The endurance and legitimation of religious groups depend upon their ability to change or shore up crumbling plausibility structures upon which members depend. Since traditional religions, in particular, fail to enjoy any real social or cultural enforcement of their power, the primary resource of legitimization lies in the realm of the rhetorical - that is, a religious group must talk its constituency into wider social acceptance. 16 While some fundamentalists groups might retreat into sectarian backwaters and refuse to dialogue or accommodate themselves with the world, others seek acceptability with wider society. In many respects, as Hunter notes, it might be argued that the way in which some evangelizing groups negotiate with the world is further testimony of increasing secularization. This kind of strategy is clear evidence of the accommodation of evangelical fundamentalism to its wider social environment and marks an attempt to ease tensions through a form of cognitive bargaining. 17

Roy Wallis has shown that the key concern of contemporary religious movements in opening a dialogue with the outside world is the pursuit of respectability.18 Congruent with this, the strategies of fundamentalist evangelical groups frequently display a felt need to seek legitimacy and curry favour with the outside world. The fundamentalist faction therefore becomes a pressure group relating to the pluralist context, even if it ultimately sees itself, for theological reasons, as outside and superior to that process. The problem facing Christian fundamentalist groups however, is that the need to retain their fundamentalist credentials means walking a type-rope between rejecting the world and courting its acceptance, between cleaving to biblical fundamentals and endorsing secular strategies and rhetoric. Furthermore, ministries such as the Omega Trust are, to some extent at least, concerned with the image management of the fundamentalist constituency. The deflection of a damaging label of "sect" or "cult" to its own contingent is imperative, as is the need to be distinguished from rival religious groups. Accusations of alleged coercive evangelizing strategies, apparently unorthodox doctrines, or extremism are the basis of possible stigmatization by the secular world.

Certainly, the Omega organization seeks respectability. One tactic is to draw close to those agencies which can put, or potentially put, it in good light. This includes academic institutions and government bureaucracies. A second is to involve itself in public campaigns organized against the activities of alternative religions, or even initiate them. When deconstructed, the tactics of the Omega ministry display a subtle discourse of public duty alongside, and sometimes integrated with, its evangelizing campaigns. For example, in its publications the trust gives advice regarding alternative therapies and complementary medicines. While the approach to alternative medicines focuses upon their alleged spiritual harm, this is accompanied by the utilization of scientific evidence concerning their failure to have a true medical value and in doing so defers to the respectability of orthodox medicine.

Since the general public of secular society is unlikely however to be influenced by theological dogma and definitely not moved by a witch-hunt for heretics, Omega's attempt to win over external support is largely void of evangelizing rhetoric. Hence, much of the ministry's declamation focuses upon claims to be of service to the general public and to see the mobilization of sentiment against alleged dangerous cults as a civic duty. This Omega attempts to do by classifying all cults together as essentially dangerous religious manifestations or, at least, potentially dangerous to public welfare. Indicative of this were numerous media productions aimed at public consumption which trace a rather one-sided account of events concerning the disastrous events at Waco, Texas, involving the Branch Davidians, and the endorsement of the rather dubious strategies of the law enforcement agencies in dealing with David Koresh's group. 19

According to one representative interviewed, the key factors behind the disaster at Waco were "false and heretical beliefs" and "an evil and corrupting leadership". This kind of stigmatization is also embarked upon in Omega’s publications. Frequently a discussion of events at Waco extends to outlining plans of what can be done to help others in the cults, in particular, pointing out the dangers of their loyalties and encouraging them to leave. No distinction is made between religious groups since all are described by the generic term "cult".

The Omega Trust has also become very apt at developing involvement in public campaigns against the cults. For example, the proposal by the Mormons to build their new large temple, or Moslem groups to establish their places of worship, have occasionally been opposed by local communities in Britain. Frequently, the strategy taken by Omega is to appeal to the cause of environmental protection. Hence, the ministry's campaign against the Mormon temple concentrated upon its construction bringing a blight to the local countryside. There are numerous other attempts to motivate public acceptance. One common strategy is to encourage sympathizers to write letters to members of Parliament and local government representatives regarding such issues. Another is connecting signatures for petitions of protest and conducting opinion polls in relation to the activities of specific religious groups. Yet, there are limitations. In campaigning against the building of Moslem mosques, Omega has advanced its own line, that is, "to keep Britain Christian". This constitutes an attempt to win the little religious sentiment, which does exist, in doing so displays more than suggestion of playing up racial bias. Such rhetoric however, has its limitations. The trust is less vehement in its criticisms of the major world religions, such as Islam, which are an integral part of the lives of some of the ethnic minorities in Britain. To be too critical might draw the attention of politicians, minority groups leaders and, therefore, stir up unwanted controversies related to race relations.

Measuring Success

There are various ways in which the attempts of the Omega ministry to achieve its aims might be measured. On several occasions it has enjoyed the privilege of having a number of its representatives appearing on television documentaries and "chat shows" which have focused upon cult controversies. At times they have constituted the representatives of the anti-cult lobby, while their fundamentalist inclinations have rarely been made clear. Although hardly constituting figures of national or international reputation as anti-cultists, the core of the leadership are frequently and mistakenly perceived as respectable experts on the subject of cultist activities. While, as noted above, their organization is often the first port of call for concern parents of young people in the cults, media representatives in search of a "story" will often liaison with Omega as a matter of course.

The continued effort to influence reputable academic forums set up to explore the significance of alternative religions, encourage dialogue and forge constructive channels, has largely failed. The INFORM organization at the London School of Economics (until recently, at least, partly funded by the British state) is a case in point. Nationally and internationally INFORM has often been stigmatized by anti-cult crusaders as too sympathetic to the cause of the alternative religions. For Omega, this forum is perceived as a respectable and influential channel in which to exploit cult controversies and influence academic perceptions of rival faiths. This tactic however, has met with very little success. Similarly, attempts to influence the Home Office, the British internal affairs ministry, by highlighting the alleged plight of cult members, has not seriously added to Omega's credibility.

Another obvious way of estimating the success of Omega is by the number of members of alternative religions that it has contacted and, more importantly, won over to its cause. By its own estimations the ministry claims that, through such media communication as its radio pragrammes, some 71,000 people contacted it in 1997 (an alleged increase of 60 percent over the previous year) - this includes around 12,000 phone calls per annum. However, verifiable numbers in terms of those "rescued" from the cults have not been forthcoming. While a fairly small sample, the thirty members of alternative religions I interviewed were by no means seduced into joining the ranks of "born-again" Christianity (they included those in the Unification Church, Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Church of Christ (frequently assumed to be a cult), and the British-based Jesus Fellowship (also frequently perceived as cultist)). At the time of interviewing, three had committed themselves to fundamentalist-style Christianity (one of which was now active with Omega), six had left their former religious groups and had not joined any other religious group, one had moved from her alternative religion to another, six were considering leaving their religion, while the remainder continued to be loyal to their allegiances. A sample of interview responses indicates that members of alternative religions who had come into contact with Omega saw through its tactics

Interview #1

"What gets me about these guys is their lack of honesty. There are some people in real difficulties out there. I mean personal problems. There are those who want to get out of their situation (cultist membership) but don’t know how to. You can’t tell people that everything they have done over the last twenty years, or whatever, is wrong and then try to win them over to another religion."

Interview #2

"Sure, they (Omega) mean well…… then they start to talk about there own beliefs and all that stuff, and I was out of there. I needed some understanding. I felt that I was leaving the JWs after all these years only to be roped into something similar. I had looked for a while to leave. But, this really doesn’t’ help a great deal, so I’ve gone back."

Interview #3

" They didn’t convince me either way. They (Omega) were nice enough, but they didn’t do much for me in any shape or form. It seems to me that they have their own agenda. I’m sure that what they preach is OK for some, but its not for me. Do you know what I mean?"


In terms of religious tolerance, the activities of such Christian fundamentalist anti-cult groups as Omega might constitute unwanted news. The negative side is that such vociferous and highly organized fundamentalist factions can help manufacture controversies where they do not exist. Indeed, it is in their interests to do so and, as a cognitive minority, to undertake their own "cult wars". Their activities and rhetoric, however, are unlikely to create anything approaching a moral panic in terms of public opinion. Nevertheless, the increasing tendencies of fundamentalist factions in seeking public respectability for their anti-cultist activities must remain of some concern, although there is little sign that Omega will degenerate into the dangerous millenarian sect as typified in the USA by those such as the Concerned Christians which began in a similar form.

In the case of western Europe it is improbable that the fundamentalist constituency can significantly sway public opinion and set an anti-cult agenda that will have a noticeable impact, and will do little more than bolster the worldview of the Christian fundamentalist constituency as a cognitive minority. The success in demonizing the cults seems limited. While Omega has a level of legitimacy and credence within the broader anti-cultist movement, its crusading fundamentalist evangelical stance often weighs against its impact and credibility. It is undoubtedly the case that the bulk of the literature that the ministry produces is consumed largely within its own constituency and conferences are likewise limited to those within the fundamentalist wing of the Christian Church. The fact remains that while the Omega organization has obtained a level of respectability, it is best understood as a marginalized pressure group. Not withstanding some controversy or other that brings them directly into contact with Omega, many of the cults and New Religious Movement are oblivious to its existence and are not significantly damaged by the attempt to apply a deviant label. Moreover, despite the propaganda and the fact that there are undoubtedly ex-members of cults within its ranks, the evidence does not suggest that such individuals are being won over to the fundamentalist Christian cause in any great number. Neither does it appear to be the case, despite earnest attempts to establish stronger working relationships with the similar anti-cultist in the USA and elsewhere, that Omega has succeeded in establishing significant international networks, nor are its services taken significant advantage of by its North American counterparts.

As far as cult controversies are concerned, Britain (and this is the case with most Western European countries) has never experienced anything comparable to the emotional intensity and political ramifications following the so-called "cult-wars" which have periodically arisen in the USA. This may be evidence of a greater degree of secularization, in that issues related to new and alternative religions generally have a relatively low profile. Neither is there anything corresponding to the size of the fundamentalist lobby which is to be found in the USA. At the same time as such commentators as James Beckford 20 and Steve Bruce 21 have pointed out, there are a vast range of political, economic and cultural factors when makes the USA controversies frequently so intense, and the European response noticeably more tepid. Perhaps above all it is the relatively decentralized nature of American and religious life which allows merginalized groups, anti-cultist groups among them, to achieved a greater impact.

On the European side of the Atlantic, new forms of religions and the longer established cults are very much recognized as being on the margins of society. Occasional controversies might arise, largely focusing upon the alleged abduction of members and techniques of "brain-washing". These are however, peripheral issues. Indeed, the activities of Omega and its ilk have to be put in its rightful perspective. The growth of the new and alternative religions in Britain and the rest of Western Europe is not that significant. The key point however, is that they are understood to be a growing threat by Christian fundamentalists and as long as they are perceived as such they will bolster an apocalyptic and essentially subcultural world view.

To put things in perspective it is correct to say that the activities of Omega are not even particularly influential with regard to the wider Christian world. In fact, within the context of the wider Christian community such fundamentalist ministries face their own stigmatization. This possibility is compounded by the rather ambiguous relationship Omega has with the wider Christian scene. Such anti-cult fundamentalist ministries are often on the margins of established Christianity and may be perceived by it as a deviant "cult" themselves. Indeed, as noted above, they may have some observable cultist tendencies themselves. In some respects there is a familiar sectarian dynamic to be observed. In late medieval Europe the Waldensians were declared heretical by the Church despite their initial ambition to be the Church's orthodox champions against the Cathars, whose dualist heresy was engaged at a theological level. For the Church leaders at the time they were simply beyond the pale. Omega's situation might be similar. Although many mainline Christian denominations share its hostility towards the cults and the new religions, the intolerance, "paranoia" and apocalypticism, not withstanding its claim to rigid orthodoxy, enhances the likelihood that it will itself be perceived as a "cult" and not a particularly influential one at that.


1. This is article is derived from a paper originally presented at the CESNUR, International Conference of the Study of New Religious Movements, Turin, 10-12th Sept, 1998.

2. Beckford, J. 1979. Politics and the Anti-cult Movement, Annual Review of the Social Sciences of Religion, 3: 179-99.

3. Beckford, J. 1985. Cult Controversies. The Societal Response to a New Religious Movement, Tavistock Publications: New York.

4. Lofland, J. 1979. White Hot Mobilization. In The Dynamics of SocialMovements.Resource Mobilization, Social Control, and Tactics, eds. M.Zald and J.McCarthy, Cambridge (Mass): Winthrop Publishers, 156-66.

5. Berger, P. 1969. The Social Reality of Religion, London: Faber and Faber, 18-19.

6. Berger, P. and Luckmann, T. 1969. Sociology of Religion and Sociology of Knowledge. In Sociology of Religion, ed. R.Robertson, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 61-73.

7. Goode, E. and Ben-Yehuda, D. 1994. Moral Panics, Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

8. Percy, M. 1995. Fundamentalism. A Problem for Phenomenology? Journal of Contemporary Religion, 10 (1), 83-91.

9. Percy, ibid, 87-9.

10. Of course, there is nothing essentially new in these teachings. For instance, the advent of "alien", non Protestant religions in the USA in the mid-nineteenth century was perceived in terms of satanic activity that signified to fundamentalist Christians the approach of the apocalypse and accompanied the spread of dispensational millenarianism Hence, whatever, the historical and cultural backdrop to the activities of fundamentalist groupings, the appearance of non-Christian religions has a particular function to play in the confirmation and even extension of a plausibility structures in which the eschatological myth has a central part. See Creelan, P. 1985. Watson as Mythmaker: The Millenarian Sources of Watsonian Behaviour, Journal of the Scientific Study of Religion, 24 (2), 194-216.

11. This rather cultural-specific worldview is also extended to particular forms of Christianity originating from the USA. Hence, occasional articles have directed criticisms as the "Health and Prosperity" gospel of the so-called Faith movement.

12. Some of the publications by Jehovah's Witnesses are available on compact discs for scrutiny (even those published by the Watchtower organization which are now out of print) in order to look at the inconsistencies and contradictions in doctrine over a number of years. Omega also produces a quarterly magazine which has features in every issue on specific cults, with those featuring Jehovah's Witnesses and Mormons being the most prominent. A second emphasis in the propaganda espoused by the ministry, is the highlighting of developments and recent controversies which put the cult or alternative religion in a bad light. For instance, issues related to blood transfusion among Jehovah's Witnesses will be discussed at length, as will the controversy related to polygamy among Mormons.

13. Jenkins, P. 1996. Pedophiles and Priests: Anatomy of a Contemporary Crisis. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press.

14. Jenkins, ibid, 5.

15. Thompson, W. 1997. Charismatic Politics: The Social and Political Impact of Renewal. In Charismatic Christianity: Sociological Perspectives, eds. S.Hunt, M.Hamilton, and T.Walter, London: MacMillan Press, 160-183.

16. Berger, P. and Luckmann, T. 1969. Sociology of Religion and Sociology of Knowledge. In Sociology of Religion, ed. R.Robertson, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 61-73.

17. Hunter, J. 1983. American Evangelism: Conservative Religion and the Quandary of Modernity. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

18. Wallis, R. 1981. Societal Reaction to Scientology: A Study in the Sociology of Deviant Religion. In Sectarianism, ed. R.Wallis, London: Routledge, 86-115.

19. See Tabor, J. and Gallagher, E. 1995. Why Waco? Cults and the Battle for Religious Freedom in America, Berkeley: University of California Press.

20. Bruce, S. et al. 1995, The Rapture of Politics. The Christian Right As The United States Approaches the Year 2000, New Brunswick: Transaction.

21. Beckford, ibid, 1985. 


I am a lecturer and researcher in the Sociology Department, University of the West of England, England. I have written numerous articles on contemporary Pentecostalism and Christian fundamentalism. At present I am researching into the "New" Black Pentecostal Churches in Britain.

The Spiritual Supermarket: Religious Pluralism in the 21st Century

April 19-22, 2001

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