Encyclopedia of Religion
and Society

William H. Swatos, Jr. Editor

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Countermovements opposing new or growing churches and religious movements have a long history in American society. In the nineteenth century, movements opposing Mormonism and Catholicism were particularly well organized and influential. During the 1970s, a new countermovement, the anti-cult movement (ACM), emerged to target the increased numbers of new religious movements (NRMs) that gained adherents in the wake of the declining 1960s counterculture.

The ACM consists of a loosely linked network of countermovement organizations with both religious and secular components. The ACM's religious wing is made up primarily of conservative Christian organizations that oppose NRMs on theological grounds through church networks and printed literature. The first organization in the activist, secular wing of the ACM was Free the Children of God (FREECOG), which was established in 1971 in response to the recruitment of young adults by the Children of God (a group later renamed "The Family"). Dozens of local and regional ACM groups subsequently formed; these coalesced in 1974 into the first national umbrella organization, Citizens Freedom Foundation (CFF), which in 1985 became the Cult Awareness Network (CAN). In 1979, a second national organization, the American Family Foundation (AFF), was established. CAN functioned as the public relations/activist arm and AFF as the intellectual arm of the ACM.

Alongside these two organizations exist several other ACM components: (1) a small but highly visible group of deprogrammers/exit counselors, who most often act as entrepreneurial agents for families of NRM members with the objective of achieving renunciation of NRM membership, (2) a network of mental health professionals who offer counseling/rehabilitation services to exiting NRM members, and (3) small, usually short-lived voluntary associations of former NRM members that serve as transition support groups. The common element linking these ACM components are varying versions of a coercive mind control ideology that interprets NRM membership as the product of manipulative practices that undermine individual capacity for voluntarism, autonomy, and rationality. The central issue that has divided scholars studying NRMs and ACM activists has been the debate over coercive persuasion (or "brainwashing").

The secular ACM began as a grassroots, activist network composed principally of NRM family members and former NRM members. Over time, the ACM added a coterie of mental health and legal professionals to its ranks, generated greater financial stability, and expanded its definitional umbrella to include a broader range of religious groups as "cults." ACM strategy has shifted away from (but has not entirely abandoned) entrepreneurial coercive deprogramming toward more institutionally compatible legal and mental health-based measures. Primary organizational effort has been directed toward achieving informal regulatory agency status. Failure to achieve this status can be attributed to the ACM's inability to forge an alliance with religious-based opposition to NRMs, a failure to gain a basis for invoking state sanctions against NRMs, and, most significantly, rejection of its brainwashing ideology by most members of the scholarly and legal communities. The ACM thus remains an active but relatively marginalized countermovement. In fact, CAN—the most active of secular ACM groups—was successfully sued into bankruptcy in 1995 by a Pentecostal adult through a CAN referral. Its name and logo, ironically, were purchased by its archnemesis, the Church of Scientology.

See also Brainwashing, New Religious Movements

Anson Shupe and David G. Bromley


R. Billington, The Protestant Crusade (Gloucester, Mass.: Smith, 1961)

D. G. Bromley and J. T. Richardson (eds.), The Brainwashing/Deprogramming Controversy (Lewiston, N.Y.: Mellen, 1984)

D. G. Bromley and A. Shupe, "New Religions and Countermovements," in Handbook on Cults and Sects in America , ed. D. G. Bromley and J. K. Hadden (Greenwich, Conn.: JAI, 1993): 177-198

D. B. Davis, "Some Themes of Counter-Subversion," Mississippi Valley Historical Review 67(1960):205-224

A. Shupe and D. G. Bromley, The New Vigilantes (Beverly Hills, Calif.: Sage, 1980)

A. Shupe and D. G. Bromley, The Anti-Cult Movement in America (New York: Garland, 1984)

A. Shupe and D. G. Bromley (eds.), Anti-Cult Movements in Cross Cultural Perspective (New York: Garland,1994)

M. Singer and J. Lalich, Cults in Our Midst (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1995).

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