A Piece of the Piety -  Cults & The Bush Faith - Based Charity Plan
Cover Story by Glenn Weiser
Metroland, Feb 12, 2001

Written when the Bush Administration first proposed the faith-based charity initiative - GW


A few years back R., a computer science major at University of Pennsylvania whom I had known for a long time, got involved with the Ananda Church of Self-Realization, based in Palo Alto, Calif., a meditation group following the teachings of the Indian guru Paramahansa Yogananda (his picture can be seen in the collage on the cover of the Beatles’ Sargent Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band, just below and to the left of Bob Dylan), author of the famous Autobiography of a Yogi.

From the University of Pennsylvania, R. went on to tackle a master’s degree at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. A relative with a thriving software business had a job paying in the six figures waiting for him upon his graduation. He appeared headed for a highly successful career.

Then R. announced to his family that after graduating from MIT, he was moving to California to teach in a private school run by Ananda. He would work for the first year as a volunteer, after which he would be paid $7 an hour. He had abandoned all plans to pursue a job in his field. There had to be something wrong.

Soon afterwards I learned that the group and its leader, Donald Walters, a.k.a. Swami Kriyananda, had been convicted in a $1.4 million lawsuit by a female follower who claimed that she had been sexually exploited by Walters and another leader of the group. At the trial, the Ananda Church was described by the plaintiff’s expert witnesses as a mind-control cult that systematically recruits, brainwashes, and exploits its followers.

It was difficult to avoid the conclusion that R. had indeed been shanghaied by cult. His family was thrown into an uproar over it.

The federal government is now poised to launch a new initiative which could have the unintended consequence of subsidizing groups like Scientology, The Nation of Islam, the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification U.S.A. (formerly known as the Unification Church), and the Ananda Church of Self-Realization on a large scale. Under this program, pseudo-religious cults and hate groups could in theory apply for government funding for “faith-based” social services. But instead, the money could wind up filling their coffers and enabling them to attract new members. If this happens stories like R.’s could become a lot more common.

On Jan. 29, George W. Bush announced the establishment by executive order of a new federal office designed to involve religious groups in government-financed social programs. The new White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives would allow these organizations to compete with federal agencies for funding to provide vital assistance to the poor. Under the new program, they could be allowed to run soup kitchens, homeless shelters, after-school programs, prison-counseling services, drug-treatment programs, and other social programs with taxpayer dollars.

The idea has been controversial from the start. The immediate reaction to the plan has been centered on constitutional questions of church and state, with the group Americans United for the Separation of Church and State (www.au.org) being among the most vocal critics. But only passing mention has been made in the media of the possibility of destructive mind-control cults masquerading as legitimate religious organizations becoming eligible to receive millions of dollars in federal money. For this reason Bush’s charitable-choice plan should raise red flags. A closer look suggests how this seemingly well-intentioned effort could backfire.

Religious organizations have been receiving taxpayer money to do relief work for years. But in the past, they were required to form secular, nonprofit 501(c)(3) corporations to be eligible for public funding. Evangelizing and discrimination in job hiring were forbidden under the regulations. The arrangement allowed churches, mosques and synagogues to preach their faiths without hindrance from the government, and the taxpayers could rest assured that federal money was not being spent to propagate those faiths. The 501(c)(3) charities also were never intended to be a replacement for existing social services.

That changed with the proposed charitable-choice plan, which has its origins in a provision of the 1996 Welfare Reform Act authored by religious conservative Attorney General John Ashcroft, then a Republican senator from Missouri. Ashcroft altered the existing law to allow a few religious groups circumvent the 501(c)(3) requirement and receive the money directly for providing these services, something that had never been done before. While governor of Texas, Bush soon became an advocate of charitable choice, and in 1996 made that state the first to implement Ashcroft’s change in the law. One of Texas’s state prisons, for example, is now run by volunteers from a church ministry.

The plan had its critics even in Texas. Bush’s Web site (www.georgewbush.com) touts the fact that he “thwarted an attempt by state bureaucrats to shut down various faith-based drug treatment centers, including Teen Challenge in San Antonio, and subsequently established alternative licensing procedures that exempt non-medical faith-based programs.” In others words, people who were not qualified to help recovering addicts were fine as long as they were evangelical Christians.

Other programs in Texas are being contested. According to the New York Times, The Jobs Partnership in Washington County, a state funded faith-based group, is being sued for making participants read the Bible and teaching them “to find employment through a relationship with Jesus Christ.”

During the Presidential campaign, Bush cited the Dream Center, a drug rehabilitation facility in downtown Los Angeles run by Pentecostals as the kind of program he would like to support. There, patients study the Scriptures intensively as they go through cold turkey.

In its new incarnation at the national level, Bush’s charitable-choice plan would be a sweeping revision of the way the government provides social services. University of Pennsylvania professor John DiIulio Jr. will head the office, and Steven Goldsmith, a former mayor of Indianapolis, will chair a sister advisory board, which will work with the office. They have been directed to see first of all how government regulations preventing money from going to religious groups can be bypassed. If the strictures can be surmounted--and Bush is determined to remove them--the administration wants to spend $8 billion on charitable-choice groups in the initiative’s first year. Faith-based groups that already have social programs in place would then be eligible to apply for funding. The government would then evaluate those programs, and upon a favorable review, award them either money or contracts. Groups involved in the initiative would also get a tax cut under the plan.

Bush has said that groups involved in his federally funded faith-based initiative would not be allowed to proselytize, and a secular alternative would be available to any service provided by a faith-based group. As an alternative to the traditional training requirements--a degree in social work or other conventional training for dealing with people with acute social problems--the administration proposes “faith-based training” be accepted. But under questioning from journalists on Face the Nation on Feb. 4, Steven Goldsmith, was forced to admit that there are no studies indicating that charitable choice, with it’s relaxation of training requirements, works any better than existing social programs.

Another aspect of Bush’s faith-based initiative that has drawn fire is that a part of the Civil Rights Act exempts religious groups from having to comply with federal civil-rights laws. This means, as Goldsmith stated on Face the Nation, that they could legally hire only their own adherents. Then the federal government would, in essence, be subsidizing job discrimination. "We're very worried," commented Laura Murphy, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Washington office, according to CNN.

Few details are known yet of the eligibility requirements for funding, and critics have already raised questions about whether groups such as Scientology, which runs a drug-rehabilitation program, or the Nation of Islam, which has operated a prison-outreach program for years, could be eligible for taxpayer dollars from Bush’s faith-based charities program.

Judging from the history of charitable choice in Texas, the federal program seems intended primarily to benefit Christian-evangelical organizations. During his campaign, Bush mentioned the Dream Center in downtown Los Angeles, a drug rehabilitation facility run by Pentecostals where patients are required to engage in intensive Scripture study as they go through cold turkey as the kind of program he would want to support. But any sect that meets the broad constitutional definition of a religion that operates a charity could conceivably apply for, and receive, federal money.

And this is where the problem of destructive mind-control cults comes in. The more you know about how cults entrap and exploit people, the scarier Bush’s proposal looks because of how it could empower these organizations. After I found Ananda mentioned on the Web site of the Cult Observer (www.csj.org/pubs_co/co_home.htm) a monthly newsletter that tracks the activities of cults, I read up on mind-control to get a better understanding of what had happened to R. Here’s what I learned:

Although the ones you hear of most are mass suicides like David Koresh’s Branch Davidians or the Heaven’s Gate flying saucer cult, not all cults are religious--or even really harmful. But many other groups pose as above-board spiritual organizations and are efficiently run for years by authoritarian and sometimes psychopathic leaders, enslaving their followers with brainwashing techniques first developed in China in the 1950s. Scientology and the Unification Church are considered prime examples by experts like Steven Hassan (www.freedomofmind.com), a former Moonie turned psychologist, who has authored a number of books on the subject. Scientology, for example, was granted tax-exempt status as a religion in 1993.

According to the 1978 Fraser report to Congress, there are an estimated 3,000 destructive cults in the United States with a total of 3 million adherents.

Once such a cult has been granted tax-exempt status, there is no legal distinction between it and a conventional, organized religion. But they operate much differently than the world’s major faiths. According to Hassan, these groups usually live communally or near each other, demand unquestioning commitment to a living leader and his teachings, and emphasize recruiting new members and making money. Followers are exploited financially and often sexually, and their ties with family and friends are either cut or carefully monitored. They are often deceived by the leader about the true nature of the cult, and in turn deceive outsiders. Unethical practices, such as collecting money for bogus charities or maliciously suing those who publicly criticize the group are also common.

The hallmark of destructive cults is mind-control, which is the systematic dismantling of the recruit’s individuality and ability to think independently of the group. Hassan writes in his book Combating Cult Mind Control that this is achieved first by regulating the behavior and activities of the new member while tightly controlling information from the outside world. Then his thoughts and emotions are manipulated in a variety of ways until he does what he is told and believes what the leaders want him to without question. The cult becomes a prison without walls, and the process of recruitment and enslavement a sort of vampirism. If a member leaves or is ejected, recovery can take years.

But when R. joined the Ananda group I didn’t know all this. Paramahansa Yogananda, whose teachings Ananda supposedly followed, was a respectable swami who founded the Self Realization Fellowship in California in the 1930s and began teaching a popular home-study meditation course based on breath control (Elvis was interested in it at one point). He also made headlines in 1952 when he died and his body showed no signs of decomposition during the twenty days before his burial (according to Roman Catholic tradition, this also happened to the body of 16th century Spanish mystic St. Teresa of Avila. The Church terms such remains “incorrupt”). Donald Walters was a former disciple of Yogananda and claimed to be his spiritual successor.

Then I learned about the lawsuit in which Donald Walters and Ananda had been sued by a former follower, Anne-Marie Bertolucci, and were convicted of fraud and Walters’ abusing his position as a clergyman by sexually exploiting her. As I later found out, run-ins with the law are a classic sign of a cult leader-the Rev. Moon, for example, served eighteen months in prison for conspiracy to commit tax evasion.

I called R., who told me he had been concerned too, but that he had read the court transcripts, and he felt there was nothing of substance in the allegations. It was purely an attempt to defame the guru. Not to worry, he said; these events had simply never occurred.

Shortly afterwards I got the URL of the Ananda Awareness Network’s Web site (www.jps.net/aanetwork), which had been created by disaffected former followers of Walters’. A wealth of damning information had been assembled against Ananda, including press reports on the case, court transcripts and motions, and expert witness testimony.

The truth was that Walters, having denied the charges in pretrial motions, had confessed on the witness stand to having had sex with two female followers. The plaintiff was awarded $1.4 million, later reduced to $330,000 on appeal. Walters had officially resigned from organization and was living luxuriously in Italy, where he was still firmly in control of the group. Back in California, his followers were working to pay off the judgement. The Web site also stated that Walters had been forced out of the Self-Realization Fellowship in 1962 for the same kind of behavior with women there, before starting Ananda in 1968.

Testifying for the plaintiff, Janja Lalich, an expert witness, listed eight criteria by which a group is judged a cult. She provided examples of Ananda’s teachings and practices to show how the group met every one of these standards.

Having seen how Ananda fit the pattern of a mind-control cult, I attempted without success to persuade R. to leave the group. Today, he is still with Ananda, and has interested his younger brother in it. As Michael Flynn, the attorney for Ms. Bertolucci, said in his closing argument, “When this group sucks you in, you get sucked in well.”

How easy would it be for organizations like cults or hate groups to obtain federal money and exploit charitable choice to their advantage? And where would the government try to draw the line between a cult and congregation, if it were even possible? Waffling by Bush and his aides on the plan hints at the potential difficulties.

At first the President said all groups would be eligible for government funds. In a 1999 speech in Indianapolis, he stated that "We will keep a commitment to pluralism [and] not discriminate for or against Methodist or Mormons or Muslims or good people with no faith at all."

But then, in March 2000, he was asked if the Nation of Islam would be able to receive federal money. "I don't see how we can allow public dollars to fund programs where spite and hate is the core of the message," Bush said. "Louis Farrakhan preaches hate."

The administration backpedaled again on Jan. 29th of this year, insisting that all groups could receive funding. There will be no favoritism,” an official was quoted as saying in. the New York Times, “Groups will be judged on their performance, not on their faith.”

The next day, John DiIulio discussed the faith-based groups initiative at the Washington Press Club in a forum hosted by the Pew Charitable Trust. Asked what would happen if groups like the Branch Davidians, Wiccans, or the Nation of Islam applied for funding, he said, “…you may have some organizations, no one can say this couldn't happen, whatever their nastiness, or whether their theology of nastiness or whatever might be, that are going to find their way to qualify. No one can say that's not going to happen. But I suggest to you that it really is going to be the exception where it does happen that proves the rule.”

Steven Goldsmith, confronted with the same questions about Scientology and the Nation of Islam on “Face the Nation,” attempted to buttress this position by saying that groups would “not be discriminated against based on their faith, but that they would be discriminated against based on their purpose.”

In a recent telephone converstaion, Susan Taylor, Scientology’s Director for Public Relations in Washington, DC termed Bush’s proposal “a bright idea,” and emailed me a public statement by Scientology on the issue, which begins, "The Church of Scientology is interested in participating in the President's initiative because it shows compassion for people, which adds a much-needed balance to often hyper-technical and emotionless legal discussions about church/state separation.”

According to an article in the March 1st, 1998 edition of the Boston Herald (www.bostonherald.com/scientology/sci31a98.html), L. Ron Hubbard, the former science fiction writer who founded Scientology, is said to have boasted, "We know more about psychiatry than psychiatrists. We can brainwash faster than the Russians."

Reached by email about the possibility of cults who have been rejected for funding going to court and demanding a piece of the piety, Rob Boston, a spokesman for Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, replied, “The way I see it, there would be nothing to prevent controversial groups from applying for this aid. This is not to say that the government would give it to them. Bush has already said he will not fund the Nation of Islam because that group ‘preaches hate.’ To me, this will inevitably lead to lawsuits as the groups that are shut out claim unequal treatment. They would probably have a pretty good legal argument.”

A phone call to the White House Media Affairs Office asking if Scientology would be able to receive funding under the program was not returned. But a cover story in the February 20th edition of The New York Times quoted Bush as saying during the campaign, “I have a problem with Scientology being viewed on the same par Judaism or Christianity. That just happens to be a personal point of view. But I am inter4ested in results. I am not focused on the process.” Although the Times article also reported that Rev. Moon’s organization, the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification U.S.A., was preparing a proposal for an abstinence program for schools, no mention was made of the evils of cult mind-control.

Inquiries to the press offices of Senators Edward Kennedy and Charles Schumer over the question of cults getting public money also met with little response. Kennedy’s press office said there were “too many other issues on the agenda” to comment on it, leading one to wonder if Congressional Democrats had even seriously considered if cult leaders were already rubbing their palms together and grinning thinking about what they could do with federal funds.

To establish eligibility, groups such as Ananda that have been granted tax-exempt status could launch programs with their own resources if they didn’t have them already, apply for funding as soon as the guidelines allowed, sue if denied, and stand an excellent chance of winning.

Because the civil rights loophole permits religious organizations the right to hire only adherents of their own faith, cults could do the same in the staffing of their charities. With federal money, their programs could then be expanded. Being involved with charitable choice would also confer the illusion of respectability on these groups, and many unsuspecting people could get lured in.

How the government would keep faith-based groups, let alone cults, honest without an army of auditors? Steven Goldsmith has already admitted that detecting swindling would not be easy. On January 30th, the New York Times quoted him as saying, “Is it possible to move money on the other side of the line? Of course.”

The Bush administration has also flip-flopped on the issue of proselytizing. At first, officials said there would be no evangelizing, adding that a secular alternative for every faith based charity would be available. "If you are homeless and you don't want to be mixed up with a religious organization, you should have an option. Government should never force you through the front door of a religious organization," Goldsmith said on “Face the Nation.” But then he added, "If, however, you have a choice of a faith-based organization and you, the individual, choose to go there and you have to pray before your lunch meal, you should be required to pray." 

And what if you are a needy person the secular facility is further away, Goldsmith was asked. It’s still your choice, he replied.

Although cults participating in the initiative wouldn’t need to recruit within the walls of their charities or embezzle funds in order to grow, policies like these could make it easier for them to do so.

The ultimate cult horror was the 1978 People’s Temple mass suicide at Jonestown, Guyana. It began when the followers of Jim Jones killed Leo J. Ryan, a U.S. congressman who had flown there to help some members leave the camp and return to the US. The next day, seven hundred people lined up on Jones’ command and drank Kool-Aid laced with cyanide. According to Steven Hassan, Jones was a legally ordained minister who had helped the poor for many years.

Could Jim Jones become eligible for federal funding if he were alive today?

Cult mind-control is theft of identity in the fullest sense, but freedom of religion makes it impossible to criminalize it. Charitable choice is therefore a Pandora’s Box, and George W. Bush is reaching for the lid. Congress, the courts, and an informed public need to nail it shut.

List of Metroland Stories by Glenn Weiser                          ©2001 by Glenn Weiser. All rights reserved.  

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