Totalitarianism and the Churches of God

Eric Sell

Ignorance is Strength

The fact that the term “dissident literature”, a term we are familiar with from the world of Armstrongism, was originated in communist Russia is far more relevant than it might first appear. The defining aspect of totalitarianism is the control of all areas of life—public and private; the easiest way to control people is to control what they think, and the best way to control what they think is to control information. Thus the stricture to avoid “dissident literature”.

Wait a minute, wait a minute, wait a minute. I can’t be serious, can I? How can I compare the Armstrongist churches of God to a totalitarian dictatorship? The church doesn’t have enough power to control what info the laity have access to! Almost all the members live in the countries of the Western industrialized world! Democracy! Freedom of speech! Freedom of the press! The internet! Nobody except, maybe, China or North Korea can control all that! Oh really? Actually, its easier than you might think.

Let’s take a look at the kinds of people who join, well…to put it bluntly, cults. No one type of person joins, nor would it be easy to say, from the results of a survey for example, that X% of this or that demographic are likely to join. But one thing all who join have in common is crisis (and an inclination toward belief/faith). Some people have told of feeling a nagging “emptiness” inside them they felt the group, or the message, filled. Some have been lapsed former church members who have had near death experiences and feel God is trying to get their attention. Et cetera, etc. In the end, all who join a group like the CoGs (and in this article I am speaking of, most specifically, the old original WCG, PCG, RCG, and loosely any other CoG that you might know of that operates as they do. The more “liberal” CoGs don’t operate this way as much) does so of their own free will. They have read and accepted the teachings, and have faith that God is either speaking through the leader, or is at least strongly influencing the leadership and thus guiding the church organization as a whole. And wouldn’t you know it, some of the main teachings involve letting go of the “stiff necked” and “prideful” self and surrendering to God. And once you “surrender to God”, then you follow “God’s man on earth”. So in the end, the church needn’t take control, for control is freely given.

So that’s how the CoGs, or at least the more conservative ones, gain their power over people. But just because they have theoretical power doesn’t mean they will act like totalitarian dictatorships. However, they do. Remember the example of dissident literature? Now if the Armstrongist churches really had the Truth of God® could anyone who was exposed to it and came to understand that it was truth ever really be deceived away from it? Is anyone deceived away from the truth of gravity? Is anyone deceived away from the germ theory of disease (as opposed to the theory “some random sickness came out of thin air and can have no other explanation than the Wrath of God made manifest in our flesh”)? If truths of that nature were as open to interpretation as the Bible (and even Armstrongism itself—since there are over 400 splinters from the original WCG), then anyone could claim that people who flew were either beloved of God or witches, and people wouldn’t be any more or less likely to become ill from drinking dirty water or eating a three day old fish—if God loved them they would never get sick.

So the fact that the church limits your access to information (or at least attempts to by saying “if you read dissident literature you’re opening yourself up to Satan”) shows they know something they’re not telling the rest of us. The prohibition against the writings of others (who are usually split offs from other Armstrongist groups who also claim to have the real Truth of God) is just the start.

Most recently the PCG has felt bold enough to dare ban Facebook among its members—and especially the students at Armstrong College. Some of the ministers actually maintain access to FB in order to make sure everyone is toeing the line. It was actually said in the sermon announcing this new ruling that if a minister found you on FB within six months (or about that…I don’t remember how many exactly) of the sermon you would be warned. After that grace period, you would be suspended. If you went back to FB after returning from suspension…well, let’s just say you don’t want to do that if you value escaping the Tribulation and being a King Priest in the Kingdom of God.

As usual, the judgment was said to be done out of love as too many members in good standing were keeping contact with suspended and disfellowshipped members. After all, the sheep must be protected from those who are out due to government and/or attitude problems. And those that are out must be shown the error of their ways by cutting them off from all their friends and family until they fold under the psychological pressure of loneliness.

Of course, I remember a time when the church taught that salvation was between you and God and that the ministers were helpers of your salvation—not a priesthood standing between you and God as in the old days. I guess the corrupting influence of the pitiful amount of worldly power they wield is a little too tempting. This is a clear example of using scripture to make sure their own well being is looked after—their cushy jobs telling people how to live, what to wear, what music to listen to, whom to associate with, how long to pray and study, what materials not to study, whether or not they can move, what jobs to take, what sexual positions are of Satan, who or even if you are allowed to marry, etc, etc, etc. If that isn’t totalitarianism I don’t know what is.

Oh yes, I hear the protest of “it isn’t the ministers telling us what to do—it’s God through them”. Again, if what they taught was really the Truth of God they would have no need for these strong arm tactics! They could casually say, “this is very clearly what the Bible teaches. These are the blessings for obedience, and these are the curses for disobedience. The choice is yours. Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling (before the Lord).” Then, we would be free to do so or not.

As it is, the sheeple are guilted and threatened into doing what the ministry say. And why do I harp on what the ministry say? Because if you read the same scriptures they do and come to a different conclusion as to their ultimate meaning, they kick you out and say, “don’t come back until you see things our way.”

One of the writers of this blog (not me) encountered such a reaction. He wrote a letter to Flurry asking about some bit of doctrine he disagreed with. He asked for clarification and to be shown where he was wrong (if he was). I’ve read the letter. Well, call me biased, but I felt it to be very clear and non-threatening. There was nothing about “and I’m going to tell everyone where you’re going wrong if you don’t address this immediately” or anything of that sort. What was the response? The regional director was sent out to suspend him until he retracted his letter and said sorry. The specifics of the letter—the topic the letter was about—were not discussed. They dismissed the argument by saying he had a government/attitude problem. If they were preaching the very Plain Truth of God then I’m pretty sure they would have helped him understand his error, or God forbid, actually consider that they might have been wrong on that one point. But their reflex to immediately silence the voice of any sheep that might begin to think for itself instead of mindlessly accept everything that comes from the pulpit is a sign that they are in it for the personal power.

The fact they feel it necessary to run the organization through totalitarian means is proof they aren’t in the religion business simply to do God’s Work. They’re in the business of gaining followers and the money and power followers provide; just as the Berlin Wall wasn’t really to keep people from flooding into the “worker’s paradise”, but to keep people flooding out of a brutal totalitarian state.

So, OK, what if they are as bad as I say? People can leave. People leave all the time. Sure, but it’s what happens to them before they leave that’s the problem. The psychological damage the church inflicts is exactly why they need such an invasive government system. Yes, people leave, but just like a woman leaving an abusive relationship, the pain doesn’t stop there. And just like an abusive relationship, some people don’t leave who should. Some stay in the abusive relationship because of the way the church has messed with their heads.

The word “cult” has many different meanings. Mormonism and Jehovah’s Witnesses both started out as “cults”, or simply “a system or community of religious worship and ritual generally considered extremist or bogus” according to the dictionary. Or more simply, any group that claims Christianity but doesn’t follow the mainstream teachings. Many PCG members know of this definition and are proud of it—the small flock with God’s revealed truth that nobody else understands. So of course the world will look at their unusual doctrines as being cultic. But there is another definition of the word cult used by sociologists and psychologists that is more to the point I’m trying to make:

a group or movement with excessive devotion of a person, idea, or thing, using unethical manipulative techniques of persuasion and control to advance the goals of the group leader to the possible detriment of members, their families or the community. Unethical manipulative techniques include but are not limited to isolation from former friends and family, special methods to increase suggestibility and subservience, group pressure, information management, suspension of critical judgment, promoting total dependency on the leader or group, fear of leaving it, etc.

So, what does this definition of a “worldly cult” have to do with organizations like the former WCG, the PCG/RCG, etc? Well, like the Pope, HWA/Flurry are “God’s Man” and are the only ones in the whole wide world with a direct Cold War Era-esque Red Phone to God’s private office. So that covers some of the “excessive devotion of a person, idea, or thing”. Though to be fair, there are other more sinister groups where it is all a cult of personality and any thing the person says is scripture. The CoGs aren’t quite that bad yet.

What about the “unethical manipulative techniques of persuasion and control”? Well, considering that these “include but are not limited to isolation from former friends and family, special methods to increase suggestibility and subservience, group pressure, information management, suspension of critical judgment, promoting total dependency on the leader or group, fear of leaving it, etc.”, then I would say there is a long list.

Isolation from friends and family? The recent (or not so recent anymore) PCG “no contact rule” is the most blatant use of this manipulation strategy. Your family isn’t your family—only the church is your family. If any of your friends or family say aught against the Church, then they are agents of Satan. Of course, even under Armstrong they told you to limit your contact with old friends lest they drag you out of the church. Now that the church has an elementary and high “school” in Edmond, to go along with their unaccredited “college”, none of the many children growing up in that area will ever have to be exposed to the evils of the world. How…nice? Or, is that just the epitome of the manipulative tactic of isolation?

When the only “truth” is whatever the group tells you then you never have a chance to make up your own mind. And if a “choice” is given later as you grow up, well what kind of choice is it? It’s just like a child growing up in, let’s say, Catholic schools—the only choice they have is obey or go to hell. In this case it’s obey or go through the Tribulation (just a temporary hell). But how many grown ups have come to disagree with the church as a whole, but are more or less stuck because all their friends and family are in the church? As soon as they leave they will be cut off from all they know and love. That policy is just plain evil. Period.

Now, what would count as “special methods to increase suggestibility or subservience”? Though there are many, one of the prime and probably most successful methods is an appeal to authority. If some random slag of a man comes up and says, “God says I have a special message for you and if you don’t listen he’ll strike you down”, you would be well within your right to call the people in the padded wagon. But if the same man is able to clean himself up, write a couple papers or booklets about how he fulfills the office of an end-time prophet of some type…well, you just might go for it. But just about when that starts growing old, or just before he wants to ask for more money or a bigger car, he suddenly has “revealed” to him that he fulfills yet another prophetic office, or is now a full-blown Prophet, or Apostle, etc., then it’s harder and harder to say that his increasingly crazy statements, rulings (like No Contact, No Facebook), or requests are really that crazy. I mean, maybe you just don’t have as much spiritual understanding as he does and it only seems crazy because you’re unenlightened.

Group pressure is pretty self explanatory. But what about “information management”? It has been touched on earlier, but again, if this is The Truth (just like gravity is the truth), then how can one be deceived away? The fact all these splinters have similar injunctions against the reading of dissident literature, and all claim to have the only correct interpretation of the Word of God and the Word of Armstrong, shows something is screwy, since they all obviously disagree. Then cutting people off from FB is just simply the act of a paranoid leadership implementing tighter controls to keep their ignorant flock continually ignorant of those who have awoken to find that there is “something rotten in the state of Denmark” (so to speak), and to prevent any kind of ad hoc “comparative religion studies”.

Another interesting aspect of information management is the church’s publications. In George Orwell’s 1984, the Party made much of their power of information management. “He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past.” Those presently in control worked very hard to make sure all past documents—books, newspapers, photographs, posters, you name it—were in line with what they wanted you to believe today. So, if Country A was the current enemy, then every written and audio record available would testify to Country A having always been the enemy (even if this wasn’t true—or especially if this wasn’t true). So it is with the church. In this respect they bank on the considerable power derived from the combination of faith/credulity and laziness (since they lack the power to actually go back and alter every record).

As we have written before in this online mag, prophecy after prophecy made by HWA, and now trumpeted by, well, the Trumpet (etc) has failed. But the PCG in He Was Right went on and on about how they have been fulfilled or are in process of fulfillment. It turns out that it was an easy job for me to look up an online HWA library, read the old Plain Truths, and ascertain that the PCG was simply lying. But people trust the writers, and the quote mining in the booklet was quite convincing. Why should the people look anything up? (The real question is, “Why don’t they?”) So, by controlling the past (through misrepresenting what was said/written in the past) they attempt to control the future of the member’s belief and money flow.

A third example of the innocuous sounding “information management” was the end of the tape libraries. Remember those? I’m pretty sure they were considered a useful teaching tool—just like any library. But by ’05 they were gone. What happened? What are they hiding? Did someone maybe notice one of their changes in doctrine, find the old tape in the library that confirmed it, and then brought it to the minister’s attention? Sounds exactly like what you’d expect if the dictatorial government in the church were merely an advent of men concerned with keeping people under their thumbs and their hands in the people’s wallets. Are they really just so concerned for the spiritual welfare of any outside the church who may hear a copy of one of the sermon tapes, thus being exposed to the “dangerous knowledge” and suddenly held accountable by God? Not likely.

So, how does the church encourage a “suspension of critical judgment”? Aren’t they always encouraging the people to educate themselves? I have heard that said a few times, but then I’ve also heard “don’t trust your human reasoning” rather a bit more often. Wasn’t it Lucifer’s “evil reasoning” that led him to become Satan? I’ve also heard Flurry say “study to prove that it (whatever booklet or “truth” he’s talking about at the moment) is true”. Interesting choice of words, eh? Study to prove that it is true, not whether or not it is true. You see, the book of Acts talks about a group of people from Berea who were more noble than those in the neighboring city because these Bereans “searched the scriptures daily, whether those things were so.” And as I’ve shown earlier, those who study and find that any of those things are not so, well, they get the boot. Of course, suspension of critical judgment goes hand in hand with information management. If all you have to read is what the church produces—and then only the newer stuff (as opposed to the old original stuff from HWA or even the original PCG writings), then there’s no way you can really prove whether or not anything is true. When all you have is one source of information then of course it’s all going to look “true.”

Finally we come to fear of leaving. Besides the mental anguish of losing your friends and family (if you’ve been a good little believer and truly limited your “worldly” contacts), we come to the one-two punch of guilt and fear. Even if you feel fairly certain that you have proven the church wrong intellectually, there is still (for some) the lingering guilt over “abandoning God for the pleasures of this world” and abandoning “the Work”. Plus there’s the fairly mundane existence of a fear wall (mundane on account of its ubiquity in all religion): if you’re wrong you will end up in the Tribulation and be thrown in the Lake of Fire.

But let’s say you’ve cleared these hurdles—then there’s one more mental landmine. There’s one more psychological blow they get in so that even if you leave, it takes a while to actually be free (besides the mental anguish of all your friends and family pretending you no longer exist). They tell you that if you leave and life goes poorly for you—lots of problems and trials, etc.–it is because of the consequences of sin. It is God’s judgment upon you. However, if you leave and things go well and you get the promotion or house or spouse or whatever then it is because Satan is happy you’re out and is making your life peachy so you will want to remain out. So in the end, they have all exits blocked.

These are the psychological entrapments and abuses that can only occur in a totalitarian government structure. HWA and Flurry claim that without God’s government you can’t have God’s revelation. Well, in a sense that’s true. If it wasn’t for the psychologically abusive totalitarianism of the CoGs you could not have organizations led by these men, whose every prophetic pronouncement has failed, and whose doctrines change with “greater understanding” (read personal convenience, like in the case of Divorce & Remarriage) that stand any sort of test of time. Nobody would stick around! It’s not that a totalitarian government structure is evil in itself (which pretty much anybody would argue to be true), it’s what can then be done within that structure—anything. As long as they have total control over you, and as long as they use the magic words “its not from me, its from GOD” then they can rationalize (and make you rationalize) any technique that “advances the goals of the group leader to the possible (and in most cases all too real) detriment of members, their families or the community”.

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9 thoughts on “Totalitarianism and the Churches of God

  1. Physics always seems to trump cult belief systems, but sometimes it takes awhile: It took centuries for the Catholic Church to admit the earth was not the center of the Universe.

    But what’s good for the goose is probably good for the gander: My approach these days is that if someone still has the temerity to tell me that I’m suffering or going to suffer because I don’t particularly believe in their nonsensical ideas, I’ll probably respond that by their own judgment, they will end up in the Lake of Fire based on the fact they follow a false prophet [not that I believe that, but that’s the logic they are trying to push on me]. I’d tell them that because they believe that judgment is not executed speedily, it may take awhile before they begin suffering for their misdeeds, but Karma is a real bitch.

    The real truth here is that these despots are nothing more than Ponzi Scheme bullies whose victims would do well to visit:

    http://www.bullyonline.org/

  2. Many organizations/constructs could be described as a cult or totalitarian. The military, employment, school, the family, social clubs, notions of normative sexuality, etc. This is a form of human organization that is so pervasive, I’m not sure its presence in xCG groups makes them remarkable. Now, the total lack of charisma in Flurry, and the fact that people still follow him, says something remarkable about Armstrong. Armstrong had a presence and authenticity about him that could command people’s attention. Flurry is a joke, riding the coattails of a greater man, who’s dead at that.

    I think the more interesting question has to do with the sociological role Armstrongism plays as a countercultural movement, placing itself in opposition to mainstream Christianity and competitive capitalist values. Fundamentally change those values (a way of living), which are encoded as parables in doctrine, and people will abandon the leadership. So there is something more to the appeal of Armstrongism than just becoming trapped by a totalitarian leader. I wish someone would write about that.

    You mention that people who join do so because of a crisis. WCG was formed during the Great Depression. WCG imagery is full of nuclear bombs and war, famine, but also utopia, the progressive aspects of technology, and through its doctrines a blueprint on how to socially construct a peaceful, caring society. I posit the crisis isn’t isolated to the individual, and cults like WCG are normal consequences of living in a period of adversarial nations and competitive market economies that have no choice but to exploit human labor power. World integration and automation, and transcending transactional, alienating ways of relating, will provide the kind of spiritual resolution people who join WCG or similar groups are seeking.

    • “So there is something more to the appeal of Armstrongism than just becoming trapped by a totalitarian leader. I wish someone would write about that.”

      Someone did. His name is Eric Hoffer and the book is The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements. His thesis pretty much covers the gamut of reasons why confused and frustrated people lose themselves in collective delusions (including secular ones such as the Marxism you seem to be advocating in your final paragraph).

  3. I don’t find Hoffer’s argument compelling. It doesn’t speak to the very real grievances that lead to social movements. Of course it would be dissatisfied people who make up social movements. But that is a tautology.

    I frequently hear people quote from “The True Believer” on this topic. It’s ironic that Hoffer would have a following of people dissatisfied with and confused about social movements.

  4. I think there is a difference between the cultish social movements (and just plain cults) that Hoffer is talking about, and something more along the lines of, say, a Revolution. Now, real grievances can lead to the formation of a revolution (or revolt of some type) that has few, if any, of the characteristics of a cult-like “mass movement”. There was a huge difference, I believe it can be safely said, between the American Revolution and the marxist Russian Revolution.

    One thing that is right out the window, though, is the idea that those who support the ideas Hoffer put forth in his book are joining any kind of “Hofferian Movement”. That’s just as horribly inaccurate as those who see the logic in evolution being called Darwinists, or those who support and often quote the ideas pertaining to relativity being “Einsteinists”. These people are quoted for their ideas–not because people are choosing to follow their every word as law (like in an actual mass movement).

  5. “Of course, I remember a time when the church taught that salvation was between you and God and that the ministers were helpers of your salvation—not a priesthood standing between you and God as in the old days.”

    Yep, I remember that, too. Pity, isn’t it, that since the apostasy, it seems almost everyone has forgotten that….

  6. Pingback: My God My God « Sing Songs of Praise to Him

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