Call for Papers: "From “New Religions” to the Blurry Edges of Spirituality: Where do “Cults” Fit in the American Religious Landscape?" Panel at the Annual Conference of the French Association for American Studies
Call for Papers for the panel "From “New Religions” to the Blurry Edges of Spirituality: Where do “Cults” Fit in the American Religious Landscape?" held at the Annual Conference of the French Association for American Studies, Angers 22nd-26th 2012.
French and American journalists adopted a variety of approaches on September 3, 2012, when the death of Sun Myung Moon, the founder of the Church of Unification, made worldwide headlines. While the French press unanimously dubbed Moon’s creation a “secte”—which is a very pejorative word best translated into English by the word “cult”—the American press had some dissenting voices. Indeed, even though most American articles covered the numerous controversies surrounding the Church of Unification, newspapers such as the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times used the word “cult,” while others, such as the Washington Times did not. In fact, after careful examination, it appeared that the American media also used a variety of terms such as “Church,” “new religion” or “new religious movements” that were nowhere to be found in most French newspapers. This discrepancy is not only symptomatic of a difference of vocabulary—it is, in fact, very much emblematic of a cultural divide on the matter of classifying and assessing self-proclaimed religious groups. Thus, it seems worthwhile to devote a workshop to “cults” in America in order to establish what they are and what they are perceived to be in the United States nowadays.
“Sectes”, or “cults” were defined by Max Weber as voluntary groupings of individuals who wanted to separate themselves from traditional religious institutions and societies. The American experiment, however, makes up for a specific setting that renders their status particularly complex and interesting. First and foremost, religious tolerance and pluralism, at the core of the foundation of the United States, have created a fertile environment for religious revivals to break out and new religious movements to prosper—so much so, in fact, that Françoise Champion spoke of “tailor made” religions. Indeed, during the 1970s and the 1980s, a great number of alternative religious movements such as the Ehard Seminars Training, Heaven’s Gate or Jews for Jesus, to name only a few, were founded. Secondly, the First Amendment to the American Constitution states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” thus granting liberty of conscience to Americans and prohibiting the government from unreasonable entanglement with religious or self-proclaimed religious groups. Thus, contrary to a number of European governments, both the American judiciary and the IRS deem the Church of Scientology to be a “church”—and not a “cult”—protected by the “free exercise clause” of the First Amendment just like any other older denomination. At the beginning of the 2000s, the cult problem even triggered a diplomatic disagreement between Paris and Washington, when the Department of State and several Congressmen publicly condemned France´s “authoritarian” attitude towards some religious groups, including the Jehovah´s Witnesses, “arbitrarily” placed on a list of “cultish movements to monitor” by the French government.
Even though cults seem to benefit from general social and political benevolence in the United States, they have also been, as in many other Western democracies, a major public issue for at least the past decade. The attempts made at “deprogramming” followers, the FBI intervention against the Davidians of Waco, TX, in 1993, which resulted in the death of 76 people, the frequent controversies stirred up by the church of Scientology as well as the concerns raised over Mitt Romney´s polygamous, Mormon great-grandparents, are revealing of the problematic reality of groups considered to be religions, but also extremely marginal and not very well-known in contemporary American society.
This workshop aims to reflect upon the existence, the status and the perceptions of cults in the United States in an interdisciplinary manner. Using various theoretical and methodological approaches, participants will seek to better identify the blurry and ambiguous boundaries that separate “cults” and “new religious movements” in the American context. Diverse perspectives are welcome: 1/historical: to understand, for instance, how the “cult” label was imposed on some groups in order to discredit and further marginalize them, or, on the contrary, how religious movements considered “cultish” at first eventually managed to improve their image and fit better within American society; 2/juridical: papers could explore how an individual´s belonging to a marginal religious group is sometimes used against them in divorce or child custody cases; how the government tries to fight against abusive and dangerous religious movements without encroaching on the First Amendment; 3/sociological: presentations could focus on specific cults and on their connections with the broader American society, analyze their representations in popular culture (TV, movies, literature, etc), or even focus on the anti-cult movement.
Paper proposals should be sent by December 15, 2012 to firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.
Elizabeth Levy, University Paris-Diderot
Amandine Barb, Sciences Po Paris
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