"The Reign of the Religious Fanatic"

January 6, 1979

Government officials have acknowledged that they knew members of the Peoples' Temple had been fraudulently exploited and were even in some personal danger. But the officials said they were helpless to intervene in view of the religious nature of the organization and the protection afforded it under the First Amendment.

Thus is revealed once again the curious paralysis of American society when confronted with any knave or fanatic who wraps himself in the mantle of religion. Almost anyone can form a sect, prey on its members, collect money, use the cash for his own purposes, and apply for and receive tax-exempt status and benefits. Misrepresentation, deceit, chicanery, falsification of records, and even theft can be disguised as religious undertakings and carried out with immunity and impunity. All this becomes possible because of the mindless assumption in American society that anything calling itself a religion is deserving of special respect and privilege. We apply the term religious tolerance indiscriminately and promiscuously, laying ourselves wide open for any charlatan who uses the mumbo-jumbo of "religion" to accomplish his fraudulent and anti-social design.

If a burglar broke into your home and made off with your valuables, police would spring into action and an alert would be sent out to track him down; but if a religious fanatic inveigles you into parting with your property or half your weekly salary, the law offers no protection and shrugs at your loss. If your child were kidnapped, federal, state and city officials would run over one another in the attempt to get at the kidnapper; but if a religious racketeer brainwashes your child and causes him or her to leave your home and turn against you, the authorities say they are without means to help you. If someone were to imprison you in a private jail or concentration camp, the government would come to your aid; but if your jailors call their prison a religious commune, there is no clear way the government can help you because your captors can invoke the religious clause of the First Amendment.

Where did the notion originate that religious movements should be beyond the law? Certainly not with the American Founding Fathers. When they spoke about freedom of religion they had something in mind quite different from the position attributed to them today. The founders of this nation came here to get out of the clutches of state-sponsored religions that perpetrated all sorts of injustices and outrages against which the citizenry had no recourse under the law. When the Founding Fathers spoke about freedom of religion, they were thinking of the need to separate religion from political authority. Freedom of religion was intended to protect the individual in his right to believe or not to believe, to affiliate or not to affiliate, to worship in a church or to worship in his own home, or not to worship at all. Freedom of choice was what the First Amendment was all about. The Founding Fathers never intended that religious organizations or their representatives should enjoy exemption from the laws. They saw fanaticism as a denial, not an assertion, of spiritual belief. The notion that they would have tolerated the kind of venal exploitation and predatory assaults that, under the guise of religion, have disfigured this nation in recent years is poor history and even poorer policy.

In a way, the mass murder at Jonestown was inevitable. Sooner or later the freedom of half-crazed and evil men to mesmerize and manipulate people in the name of religion, brotherhood, togetherness, common sacrifice, and community was bound to lead to a collective and hideous tragedy. "Fanatics have their dreams," wrote Keats, "wherewith they weave a paradise for a sect." But fanaticism also converts paradise into private prisons. It is irresponsible to think that society's indifference to or toleration of corruption and violence by fanatics, however heavily robed, will not reach a hideous culmination. Our reaction of shock and outrage over the mass murder at Jonestown will be a terrible waste of human emotion if we do not accept our own share of the responsibility for that monstrous event. By providing special dispensations to religious despots and demons, we set a stage on which they can play out their macabre plots.

And all the sorrow over the 900 men, women, and children whose corpses were so entangled that they could hardly be counted will be meaningless unless we recognize that there is more than one Jonestown. The same dangerous nonsense is being peddled today by a dozen or more religious cults. The same opportunity offered by society and seized by Jim Jones is being effectively exploited right now by those who know how easy it is to get people to reach for a better life on earth and in heaven; who can readily turn to their own advantage the inherent desire of people to come together in the name of a common humanity; and who are quick to recognize the absence of spiritual fulfillment in the lives of so many Americans, especially the young.

It is not enough, therefore, to lament the mass tragedy in Guyana. So long as we are prepared to provide unlimited hospitality and give status and tax benefits to imposters and spurious organizations who call themselves religious, we must be prepared to deal with the horrors that are their spiritual progeny.