28 Jun 2008

Why does sex play such a large role for fringe religious sects?

The Kansas City Star - June 27, 2008

By KIMBERLY WINSTON | Religion News Service



What is it with sects and sex?

The Texas probe into allegations of child abuse at a polygamous compound started with an anonymous phone call about underage girls having sex with adult men. Reports circulated of rumpled bed linens inside the sect’s glistening temple.

Its imprisoned leader, Warren Jeffs, reportedly has dozens of wives and would grant and deny wives to his male followers depending on their perceived worthiness. Without multiple wives, he taught, they could never achieve salvation.

Yet Jeffs isn’t the first sect figure to come under legal scrutiny for sexual practices that outsiders might consider unusual, immoral or even abhorrent. Indeed, many new religious movements — NRMs in scholar-speak — are distinguished not only by their unconventional beliefs but also by the sexual proclivities of their male leaders.

All of which raises the question: Why do people join or remain members of a group that practices unusual sexual behaviors? And what’s more, what kind of sexual power do the leaders of NRMs hold over their followers?

“Every group has its own dynamics and diversity,” said Catherine Wessinger, an expert in NRMs at Loyola University in New Orleans. “A leader can use sexual activity to diminish ties between followers and direct their affections and emotions. But the thing to remember is that no one has that charisma unless the people behind him or her believe that he or she has it.”

Often, the leader’s followers believe that God or other divine beings communicate through the leader, something that can endow the leader’s sexual relations with a special holiness or sanctity, Wessinger said.

In the case of the Branch Davidians, sex with prophet David Koresh was seen as normal and desirable, even when it involved girls as young as 14. Similarly, in the Peoples Temple, whose members committed mass suicide in the Guyana jungle in 1978, sex with leader Jim Jones was sometimes a reward for both men and women, married and unmarried.

“You would think that if you stole someone’s wife that would (tick) them off,” said veteran religion writer Don Lattin, who has written several books on NRMs, including Jesus Freaks, about an evangelical sect known as the Family.

“But in these groups the opposite often happens. The husband goes along with it and is controlled by it because it is all linked with his eternal salvation. By sharing his wife he is getting closer to the central power — the guru or prophet.”

In the case of Jeffs’ Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS), his one-man power to arrange (or undo) marriages between young girls and older men lent a sanctity to their union, scholars say.

Yet while groups like Jeffs’ may garner headlines, they’re neither new nor unusual. American history has seen the rise — and often the decline — of NRMs, many with unusual sexual attitudes:

•In the late 1700s, the Shakers established a celibate community in upstate New York. They eventually died out because of a lack of new members.

•The Oneida Community, a utopian commune established in the 1840s in upstate New York, held that sex with someone “spiritually higher” advanced one’s spirituality.

•Joseph Smith, founder of Mormonism, proclaimed polygamy a divinely revealed concept, and it remained so until the mainstream Mormon Church disavowed it in 1890. That initiated the rift that would lead to the founding of the FLDS church.

•David Berg, the charismatic founder of the Family, reinterpreted Jesus’ teachings on love as sanctifying multiple sexual partners, including underage girls and boys. The group renounced sex with minors in 1986.

Wessinger also links “millennial” NRMs — those that focus on a coming end of the world, like the FLDS sect — with unusual sexual attitudes. Such groups, she says, often enact relationships they believe will exist in the afterlife.

That’s what prompted members of Heaven’s Gate, a millennial sect that committed mass suicide in San Diego in 1997, to practice celibacy and male castration — they believed there would be no sexual activity or relationships in their longed-for afterlife.

“I think it is absolutely connected, because in a millennial movement there is a belief that there is going to be an imminent transition to a collective salvation in which relationships will be completely transformed,” Wessinger said. “They are anticipating the way they think relationships will be after their collective salvation.”

Many spiritual experiences involve the body — Pentecostals speaking in tongues, fire-walking Hindus and Buddhists or even the bleeding wounds (stigmata) attributed to some Catholic mystics and saints. It isn’t such a leap, then, for NRMs to marry the sexual with the spiritual.

“Intense religious experiences often involve the body,” Lattin said. “It is a spiritual ecstasy that can be like a sexual ecstasy. You have that physical experience of body which is very real and very integral to religious experience.”

Sarah Pike, a religious studies professor at California State University-Chico, says there may be something distinctly American about NRMs and sex.

“I think it has something to do with the fact that from the very beginning Americans have had this sense that they are in the process of creating a new society and new governance,” Pike said. “It seems there is a willingness to experiment.”

But other scholars disagree, saying unusual sexual activities were once part of many mainstream religions. Early Christians, led by St. Paul, wrote of celibacy as a means to holiness — an outrageous idea to ancient societies that placed high value on procreation. “Paul writes long passages about being celibate, like he is, because in the kingdom of heaven there (will) be no marrying or giving in marriage,” Wessinger said.

Timothy Miller, a professor of religious studies at the University of Kansas, says he sees very little difference between the sexual activity in NRMs and other, more traditional religious groups.

“I think it happens in regular religious movements,” he said, citing the recent sexual abuse scandals in the Hare Krishna movement and the Catholic Church, among others. “You see the same situation — someone with authority and a lot of trust has the same weaknesses and desires as anyone else. These people are human. I think that is the bottom line.”

This article was found at:

http://www.kansascity.com/238/story/681989.html

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