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Sex, Violence, and Religion - Roy Wallis

Sex and Violence

Among the plethora of new religious movements which grew to prominence in the ‘60s and ‘70s, one could have expected some bizarre extremes to appear on statistical grounds alone. But statistical distribution does not take us far in our understanding of the behavior of Charles Manson, Jim Jones, Chuck Dederich, and Moses David Berg, nor of their respective followers. But I must not presume that those names resonate for everyone as they do for me. For some of my students, Charles Manson is already »Early Modern History.«

Viewed by some of his followers at least as Christ returned, Manson instigated a series of savage murders in California, including that of Sharon Tate in 1969. Jim Jones, founder of the People’s Temple, led 900 of his flock into cyanide suicide in the jungles of Guyana in 1978. Chuck Dederich, once-reformed alcoholic and founder of the Synanon Religion, egged his followers to attack neighboring farmers and attempt to murder critics and opponents, one of whom was bitten by an enraged rattlesnake whose rattle was removed to give no hint of its lethal presence in the critic’s mailbox.

Violence was an element common to each of those movements, but they were extraordinary too in respect to their sexual practices. Manson initiated virtually all female members into the sexual lifestyle of his following, often first making love to them while both were on acid and instructing the girl to imagine he was her father. Thereafter, the Family women were expected to be available for sexual contact at all times and with whomsoever Manson indicated. Jim Jones boasted to his congregation of sexual liaisons he engaged in with many of his followers, both male and female and regardless of their marital status. More conventional in that respect, Chuck Dederich only took another wife after the death of his first wife, but he instructed all loyal followers to divorce their present spouses and remarry partners who were sometimes suggested by friends and often of a different race. Male followers were enormously pressured to secure vasectomies and pregnant women to obtain abortions.

Although violence has not been encouraged in the Children of God (sometimes known as the Family of Love), its sexual practices have become notorious. »Moses« David Berg, the movement’s now elderly founder, cast off his first wife for a new young follower early in the group’s history, but he also entered into a multiplicity of sexual liaisons with other female followers. He encouraged his followers to abandon sexual monogamy and to enhance bonds of solidarity by frequent sexual »sharing« between male and female members. In extremus, lesbianism is countenanced, although Moses David evinces a powerful distaste for male homosexuality and, after some ambiguity on the subject, has effectively forbidden it among his followers.

Perhaps most extraordinary is the Family of Love’s use of sexuality as a means of recruitment. Female followers especially were encouraged to »fish« for converts to Jesus and the movement (hence »flirty fishing« as the name for the enterprise) using sexual allure, and if necessary sexual intercourse, as a means of displaying their love and God’s love for the potential convert. Flirty fishing soon came to be seen as a means of raising income when it was found that men could often be persuaded to part readily with »gifts for the work« in return for the »gifts of love« they had received. In due time even the pretence that they were not offering sex for money was largely dropped, as the girls were encouraged to »make it pay,« to secure jobs in escort agencies, or to set themselves up as call girls.

The Family of Love is not alone in using sex as an aid to recruitment nor as a source of income, however. Sexual access was denied to contacts of Manson’s Family who were not committing themselves sufficiently. At one time the girls were offered as topless go-go dancers to an entrepreneur, performed for pornographic movies for which they may have been rewarded, and were willing to go streetwalking to raise bail for one of their companions. Like so much else in Manson’s group, however, those activities were probably less systematically developed than their analogues in the Family of Love.

Volatility and Unpredictability

Nevertheless, the proclivity for sex and violence (although I would stress again that I know of no evidence that violence is encouraged in the Family of Love) are not isolated features of those movements. Rather, they represent the extremity of unconventional behavior which characterizes them generally. Their histories are curiously volatile and erratic in terms of the diversity of their innovations and the abruptness and unpredictability with which those innovations are introduced.

Manson’s group initially differed little from numerous vagabond tribes of communal, drug-taking hippies drifting around California and elsewhere in late-’60s America. They might never have received any significant attention but for their growing readiness to secure what they wanted by crime: direct theft and credit-card forgery both being a frequent recourse. But the most important innovation appears to have been an apocalyptic vision of coming confusion, of black revolt and destruction of the whites--»Helter Skelter.« That in turn promoted a growing paranoia, an expectation of black attack, which in turn generated an atmosphere of violence. Mass suicide was the last of a series of major changes in the People’s Temple. Jones had shifted its belief system away from a fairly conventional interpretation of the Christian message to a more explicitly secular socialist radicalism, throwing down his Bible in one sermon to chastise the congregation for having their eyes too much upon it and not enough upon him. He introduced the notion of an imminent nuclear holocaust and shifted his following from Indiana to Ukiah, California, later to San Francisco, and then to Guyana. He introduced dramatic manifestations of his power both through healing services in which »cancers« were removed or followers were »struck dead« and raised again and revelations of mysteriously acquired knowledge of members’ lives (culled from dustbins and other devices by his aides). Physical punishments were introduced; fear of renewed racist hostility was encouraged; and trial runs of the final suicide were undertaken in which followers were asked to drink wine and then told that it was poisoned. Such were among the major instances of erratic and unpredictable changes in belief and practice.

Synanon also exemplifies that pattern. Beginning as a breakaway group from Alcoholics Anonymous, it admitted drug addicts, then excluded alcoholics altogether. Originally aspiring to rehabilitate the addicted and return them to society, it became committed to a conception of itself as an alternative society. Non-addicts were admitted and then favored over the addicts. The Synanon Game was elaborated into a plethora of forms, from the ritualistic »Trip« to the never-ending »Stew« with its rotating membership. In rapid succession Chuck Dederich required: the abandonment of smoking and of white flour and sugar; the wearing of close-cropped hair by female members and of shaved heads by men; the performance of daily aerobics by all members; separation of children from their parents; adoption of craft hobbies; »elegant dining« to take two hours an evening; the »Cubic Day and Week« which involved long periods of work followed by long periods of rest and recreation; and physical punishment of delinquent younger members. Dederich was a fount of innovations and experiments which often appeared to have only the most arbitrary relationship to the prevailing system of belief and practice.

The Children of God are a paradigm case of that pattern of arbitrary and unpredictable change. Founded in 1968 near Los Angeles, the movement was originally similar to other Jesus People groups then emerging. Its followers lived communally and abandoned drugs and sex for a fundamentalistically informed life of evangelism and moral restraint. They saw themselves as a latter-day tribe of Israel, modeling themselves to some extent on the kibbutz and planning to embark en masse to establish themselves in Israel and convert the Jews, thereby initiating the Last Days before Christ’s return. Plans changed, however, after leader and founder Moses David visited Israel and found it far too similar to America for his liking. The movement thereafter went through a succession of changes in belief and practice as a result of Moses David’s revelations. In rapid succession members were directed to leave America for Europe and later Asia, Africa, and Latin America; were subsequently sent off to new places or back to their homelands; and were encouraged to settle and then to adopt a mobile, nomadic lifestyle.

The Children of God were warned to have nothing to do with other Christian groups, then encouraged to work with them; to separate themselves, then to join the churches; and so on in a bewildering. fashion. Street witnessing gave way to literature distribution, which gave way in turn to flirty fishing. Not working for the evil worldly system was superceded by encouragement to do so in order to support oneself or others in the field. The leader’s »spirit helpers« were introduced into his messages which also took on an increasingly explicit sexual character. Alcohol, at first generally forbidden, came to be acceptable (particularly for Moses David who at one stage developed something of a drinking problem).

Effective leadership would be appointed and then cast down, only to be restored to power later. Structures of administration would be established only to be overturned. The organization of life was progressively transformed from large communes to small groups, often little more than nuclear families meeting each other only at intervals. As Moses David wrote in one of his constant flood of letters to his disciples:

Yesterday, today, forever, Jesus is the same! All things change, but Jesus never, Glory to His name!...There must be this continual change, otherwise there would be stagnation.1

Still later he wrote,

If you are going by last year’s instructions, then you are way behind, because we are getting new things all the time and ever changing.2

»Madness« and »Brainwashing« as Explanations

Having established that a pattern of arbitrary and unpredictable change appears in a number of new religious movements, the issue arises of how it can be accounted for. If such changes are arbitrary and unpredictable, then perhaps it is perverse to regard them as possessing a pattern at all, since that term suggests precisely non-arbitrariness and predictability. Moreover, the arbitrary and unpredictable seem, on the face of things, scarcely amenable to explanation as the expectable outcomes of some set of contingent characteristics.

The usual explanation, of course, is the madness of the leader. But the evidence for that is rarely based upon an adequate clinical examination. In addition, such an explanation is less than altogether satisfactory--even in an apparently incontrovertible case such as that of Jim Jones toward the end--when part of the problem to be accounted for is why those particular »madmen« are able to lead other people to behave in such extraordinary ways. The solution to that problem is usually said to lie in the fact that the followers are brainwashed and that they are, therefore, willing to undertake any course of action no matter how insane its advocate. The brainwashing hypothesis, however, is one of the least intellectually compelling yet advanced to explain the behavior of new religious believers, for reasons far too numerous to be elaborated here beyond saying that the »victims« are volunteers; they are not incarcerated; many do leave at various points; and the routine efficacy of any particular set of brainwashing practices has not been demonstrated even in coercive settings. Anyway, brainwashing never was anything more than a Cold War metaphor for conversion, attractive to those wishing to justify behavior subsequently regretted.

I propose that when one shifts one’s attention from trying to find a pattern in the changes taking place and in their overall direction to seeing the pattern as lying in the very fact of arbitrary and unpredictable change, the problem can be resolved. That is not to say that the particular changes introduced at any given point are not seen as important, nor that the direction in which they lead is not generally desired at that particular time by the leader concerned, but that change is also seen as vital regardless of its direction and that, moreover, movements of this type have suffered the attenuation of those mechanisms which elsewhere constrain the fluctuation of, or at least the implementation of, the leader’s passing whims.

World Rejection and Charisma

What distinguishes the movements in question? They all display a character that I describe as world rejecting. They have all, either initially or subsequently, distanced themselves sharply from the surrounding society, rejecting it as evil and corrupt, as doomed to decay and destruction. They saw themselves as islands of sanity or righteousness in a hostile and degenerate world. Even in their perverse fashion, Manson’s Family saw themselves as living the ideal life compared to the »piggies« of the conventional world.

So great a break with the prevailing society can only be justified by the authority of someone perceived to be truly extraordinary. Thus, such extremes of world rejection are normally founded or fostered by a charismatic leader. Weber’s characterization of the charismatic leader is well known, applied to a leader whose authority rests upon his followers’ recognition of his »supernatural, superhuman, or at least specifically exceptional powers or qualities...regarded as of divine. origin or as exemplary...«3 Such authority is inevitably precarious, requiring the continuous generation of belief in the extraordinary provenance of the leader’s right to command, a belief only too liable to dissipate unless reinforced by signs of the miraculous.

But charismatic authority is not only precarious in terms of the liability of belief in its possession but also in terms of the constant threat of institutionalization, the tendency for its transformation in a more rationalistic or traditionalistic direction. Charisma tends to give way to a less spontaneous and more predictable style of leadership and the emergence of a stable institutional structure which constrains not only the followers but the leader as well.

Typically, charismatic leaders acquiesce to or are displaced from leadership by that process, but a few foresee the threat to their own free and untrammeled authority and take steps to forestall it. The principal means of doing so is the introduction of unpredictable changes and demands. Those may take various forms. For example,
Frequent change of environment, removing ties to stable external sources of support.
Undermining stable ties between pairs and groups within the movement, as in breaking down exclusive sexual ties between members.
Undermining relationships of authority--other than those directly with the charismatic leader--which might compete for the loyalty of followers.
Introduction of new beliefs and practices which provide an opportunity for followers to display their commitment or lack of it to whatever issues from the leader’s mouth, rather than any particular message or ritual.

Such changes not only enhance the leader’s authority by removing competition, they also remove those whose commitment is declining and who would, therefore, like to settle into a quiet and predictable pattern of activity providing other benefits of lifestyle, status, or income. The »half-hearted« can be provoked into declaring themselves by constantly imposing new demands that lead them to either protest (and be excluded for disloyalty) or defect. Such periodic disruptions of routine produce among the members who survive the change a sense of liberation, of new freedom, of excitement, of renewed enthusiasm and zeal, and, most important, of enhanced commitment to the leader.

Thus, I suggest that the degree of change characteristic of movements such as those described above is attributable to the successful efforts of their leaders to prevent the emergence of institutional structures or routines of thought and behavior which would endanger or inhibit their charisma. But change is also thereby indirectly encouraged, because by implementing such changes, the leader eliminates the sources of inhibition upon his translation of every new whim or inspiration into practice. Moses David’s family was, in the movement’s early years, a check upon his more exotic fancies, a counsel of caution. Successive changes were to distance him from them and reduce their influence, thereby removing the restraint upon the indulgence of his impulses.

The process thus tends to become self-reinforcing, leading towards and opening up ever darker recesses of the leader’s id, releasing ever deeper primal desires as the constraints upon their indulgence are removed. Undermining institutional structures and patterns not only constitutes change and eliminates the constraints upon further change, it also creates ambiguities and conflicts of policy and practice which leave the members without clear guidelines for action. Only by constantly watching the leader, subordinating themselves totally to his inspiration of the moment, and being willing to humble themselves for their failure to follow that inspiration closely enough, can they remain among the favored. As one member of the Children of God put it:

We’re beginning to understand that we’re not always going to understand or even need to as we follow the Lord. The only real requirement is obedience.4

The same sentiments are reported for Manson’s followers.

They became empty vessels for whatever he poured in. As Susan Atkins said bleakly: »I never questioned what Charlie said, I just did it.«5

At that point, of course, obedience may lead into the abyss.

In »forsaking all,« the Children of God were willing to prostitute themselves for Mo and Jesus. In Manson’s Family, the willingness to kill others was an indicator of the death of their own ego, the final subordination of individualism to charismatic commitment. In the People’s Temple, the willingness to kill themselves signified the end of self and complete trust in Jim Jones.


In this paper I have sought to answer the question of why certain new religious movements display such an extraordinary liability that issues in extremes of deviance or disaster. I have argued that the usual explanation--that it is a result of the leader’s madness--is not adequately supported and that the explanation is situational rather than psycho-pathological. I have argued that:
Such movements are world rejecting, founded by charismatic leaders resisting the institutionalization of their movement since that threatens their conception of themselves as extraordinary beings.
Resistance involves promoting changes as a way (a) to expose and extrude the compromising so as to maximize the population of fully deployable agents and (b) to undermine alternative sources of commitment and security. Thereby, followers are rendered exclusively dependent upon the leader who remains the sole source of certainty.
Those tactics have the consequence not only of creating change but also of eliminating the constraints or inhibitions upon the leader’s whims and thus permit further or more rapid change, sometimes in the direction of the more atavistic and antisocial impulses of the leader’s hitherto relatively controlled subconscious.
Movements which sharply reject the world around them tend to provoke a reciprocal hostility which in turn creates anxiety, fear, and paranoia and, thus, heightens the potential for violence as well as sex to be aspects of the leader’s id which come to the fore.
Dr. Roy Wallis is professor of sociology at The Queen’s University of Belfast. He is the author of The Road to Total Freedom: A Sociological Analysis of Scientology (Heinemann and Columbia University Press), Salvation and Protest (Frances Pinter and St. Martin’s Press), and a general study of the new religions to be published by Routledge and Kegan Paul titled The Elementary Forms of the New Religious Life. His writings on new religious movements can also be found in two books he edited, namely, Sectarianism (Peter Owen and Halsted Press) and the recent Millennialism and Charisma (The Queen’s University of Belfast).

Moses David, »All Things Change, But Jesus Never!,« MO Letter, 25 October 1970, paragraphs 1 and 2.
Moses David, »Grace vs. Law,« MO Letter, 8 November 1977, paragraph 11.
Max Weber, The Theory of Social and Economic Organization (New York, NY: Free Press, 1947), pp. 358-359.
Family News, no. 27 (August 1980), p. 29.
Steven V. Roberts, »Charles Manson: One Man’s Family,« New York Times, 4 January 1970, p. 32.

Bibliographical References

Doyle, Paul Johnson. »Dilemmas of Charismatic Leadership: The Case of the People’s Temple.« Sociological Analysis, 40:4(1979), 315-323.

Hiller, Harry. »A Reconceptualization of the Dynamics of Social Movement Development.« Pacific Sociological Review, 18:3(1975), 342-359.

Ofshe, Richard. »The Social Development of the Synanon Cult: The Managerial Strategy of Organizational Transformation.« Sociological Analysis, 41:2(1980), 109-127.

Roberts, Steven V. »Charles Manson: One Man’s Family.« New York Times, 4 January 1970, pp. 10-11, 29-35.

Wallis, Roy. »Charisma, Commitment and Control in a New Religious Movement.« In Millennialism and Charisma, Ed. Roy Wahls, Belfast: The Queen’s University, 1982.


A shorter version of this paper was published as »Charisma and Machismo« in the Times Higher Education Supplement, 17 June 1983.