The phone call from a pastor colleague changed my life. Would I, he asked, see a parishioner whose daughter had joined some strange Bible group? When the mother arrived, she exploded with emotion—hurt, fear, anger, embarrassment. She asked for the name of a deprogrammer. Her daughter had joined one of the “new religions,” and the shock of this unexpected turn in her daughter’s life had been intensified by the discovery that her daughter was soliciting family friends for funds to underwrite her attendance at the group’s Bible college.

I spent almost a year with this mother as she struggled with her feelings and situation. I helped her create a plan of action, and eventually her daughter (who was then in her mid-20s) left the group.

I had spent all of my adult life researching nonconventional religions, but this incident had pushed me where I did not want to go—into the midst of the “cult wars,” that violent conflict between the high-demand, first-generation religions and a new militant anticult movement. This mother forced me to deal with the pain of a parent whose daughter had joined such a group and who had lived in the fear and in the worry of the possible negative consequences.

I had found little identification with the cults. But anticultism presented an equal, if not greater, source of concern. Deprogramming ran counter to all the freedoms for which we evangelicals had fought when we were society’s “cults.” The popular anticult text. Snapping, identified all born-again Christians as culticly diseased and in need of coercive deconversion, and I broke completely with anticultism.

Rejection of anticultism left me without a framework within which to understand the cult phenomenon. Cults were significant and far from merely ...

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