From Scientology to FLDS, expert claims governments are raiding nontraditional religious groups like never before

Most readers have probably heard of Scientology, the Branch Davidians and the FLDS Church, but what about the Apostles of Infinite Love in Canada, the Pinnacle Rastafari in Jamaica and Hikari no Wa in Japan? These are among more than 30 new and nontraditional religious communities that governments have raided in the Americas, Western Europe, Australia and Japan over the past 70 years, according to new research by Stuart Wright.

Wright is professor of sociology at Lamar University in Beaumont, Texas, and co-author of the forthcoming book Storming Zion: A Comparative Study of Government Raids on Religious Communities due to be published in mid-2014. This interview was edited for length and clarity.

Brian Pellot: You say you’ve documented more than 80 raids on new and nontraditional religious movements (NRMs) since 1944. How do you define a raid?

Stuart Wright: Raids are usually used when states think they might encounter armed resistance or want to achieve an element of surprise. They’re high-risk operations. These raids have become more militarized and more aggressive. It’s not a couple of police officers walking up to the front door with search warrant asking to speak to someone. These are raid teams operating on basically the same protocol you’d see with counterterrorism units going after terrorists or a drug cartel. They expect to encounter an armed group, but most of the time there’s no real evidence that these groups present any harm. They’re overwhelmingly benign. Raiding inflates or exaggerates the alleged threat of these groups, usually for partisan reasons or ulterior motives.

BP: Talk me through some of the most famous or noteworthy government-sponsored raids you’ve come across in your research.

SW: My co-author Susan Palmer and I have identified case studies that are especially spectacular in terms of size, scope and intensity. We have chapters on the Branch Davidians, the FLDS Church, Scientology, Twelve Tribes and the Nuwaubians. These are groups that have been subject to overreaching raids where the evidence was flimsy or weak and charges were sometimes trumped up to justify a raid.

I’m not saying there’s nothing illegal going on in these communities, but often the charges or allegations reach way beyond what the real violations might be, with allegations of brainwashing, mass suicide, armed encampments with stockpiles of weapons, underground tunnels, enslavement, forced labor. Oftentimes authorities won’t act on a single charge, so claimsmakers or accusers up the ante to get official responses or to create moral panic.

BP: Why do you focus on raids against new and nontraditional religious movements (NRMs) specifically?

SW: That’s the niche I’ve been fascinated by since the 1960s and even before that. I’m much more interested in first-generation NRMs when the prophet is still alive. It’s like a lab, a social experiment going on. A lot of NRMs do not survive after the founder, prophet or guru dies. They just don’t have what it takes to move forward. It’s a lot like small businesses. They fail at high rates if they’re not the best religious entrepreneurs in the spiritual marketplace.

BP: What’s the general argument in your forthcoming book?

SW: I’d done a number of case studies on raided groups. After the 2008 FLDS raid in Texas, I started thinking that maybe we should look for patterns in these individual raids. It seemed to me the number of raids had been increasing. I started documenting them and realized that most had occurred since 1990. I realized that we had this white-hot mobilization of countermovements against NRMs at the time, which helps to explain what was going on there.

The 1990s was also the last decade before the turn of the millennium. That probably contributed to some of the anxiety or apprehension officials had about NRMs, that maybe they would turn violent or act as a catalyst to the apocalypse. But even after the turn of the millennium, apocalypticism and the idea that Christ will return has persisted. I would have expected that sentiment to decline after Y2K, but it doesn’t seem to have done that.

We also had a series of violent episodes in the 1990s with the Branch Davidian Waco siege in 1993, the Aum Shinrikyo sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway in 1995, the Heaven’s Gate mass suicide in 1997. I think those incidents gave the anti-cult movement even more ammunition to do what it was already doing, to paint all these groups as violent and to bring some kind of action against them.

I thought we’d find the U.S. to be an epicenter of government raids on NRMs because this is where the anti-cult movement originated with Free the Children of God (FREECOG) and other anti-cult groups. But over time, that movement became transnational. They started sending out missionaries, if you will, to European countries. France incorporated third-party anti-cult organizations into the state infrastructure, and they became an arm of the state with real powers. It’s not surprising we started to see France become the epicenter of these raids.

BP: You’ve mentioned that a lot of raids don’t get much media attention. Why do some, like those against the Branch Davidians and the FLDS Church, get more coverage than others?

SW: In France, a lot of raids are on relatively small groups in remote areas most people have never heard of. They’re flying so far under the radar that even if they get raided it’s not a big story. In the case of the 2008 raid on the FLDS Church, more than 400 kids were put into state custody. With the Branch Davidians, there was a shoot-out in 1993 and people died. These were huge stories for months.

Scientology has gotten a reputation for being controversial, so when raids on Scientology happen, that gets picked up in the news. They’ve also got a global presence and get a lot of trouble in Germany and France.

BP: What do these raids mean for religious freedom?

SW: One of the main arguments is that NRMs don’t get the same kind of treatment that established or mainstream religious institutions get. There have been more than 11,000 complaints filed against the Catholic Church for sex abuse by priests but very few raids for these pretty serious crimes. Yet a single allegation of sex abuse against these NRMs is cause to send out 100 armed SWAT team members. The principle of religious equality, that all should be equal under the law and that states shouldn’t single religions out, isn’t being applied. I definitely think this is a religious liberty issue.

One-third of all the raids we’ve identified have been in France. Constitutionally, there is separation of church and state there, but in practice, there is not. The Catholic Church has enormous influence. Catholic Church officials are heavily involved in the anti-cult movement in France and have become part of the animosity that’s built up in the cultural climate against NRMs.

BP: When would you say a raid on a religious community is appropriate, if ever, and how should law enforcement officials make this call?

SW: When is a raid appropriate? When good police investigative work reveals there’s some real substance to charges being made. Many raids have been predicated on bogus allegations. In 2008, Texas organized a raid with 100 agents and five different state agencies against the FLDS based on a bogus series of phone calls. It was lousy police work. Make sure your sources are reliable and don’t have a partisan agenda. Ex-members of a group with an axe to grind are probably not your most reliable sources.

BP: You focus on NRMs, but do you have any thoughts on recent debates around trying to put a number on global Christian persecution?

SW: When Christians are a minority in a host country, like Copts in Egypt or other Christians in Iran, India or Pakistan, then you could see some parallels between discrimination against Christians and NRMs. In one sense, we’re looking at minority religions in both cases. Where Christians have hegemony, I don’t think you can talk about persecution. You hear that rhetoric, but it doesn’t really have legs.