Believers Cult Confessions: Faith and the Limits of Liberalism
“It never occurred to me to consider Oneida in the same category as an apocalyptic Christian cult.”
When I was a kid growing up in the ’80s, our family spent every Christmas with my grandmother in Oneida, New York—home to the American silverware company. She, along with another couple dozen of my father’s aunts and uncles and cousins, lived together in a 93,000 square foot brick-and-ivy mansion across the street from Oneida Ltd. headquarters. The rambling building was magic in winter: mantled in snow, like a gingerbread house, with a soaring fifteen-foot tree in the central lounge, and cookie-and-eggnog parties in the dimly lit library. It was known within the family as the Mansion House (or “the Manse,” for short).
In the theater, where my family held weddings and funerals, a line of dour-looking nineteenth-century faces peered down out of oil portraits hung on the walls. When we asked who they were, the adults rattled off a list of coupled names I could never keep straight: John Humphrey and Harriet Noyes, Mary and George Cragin, Harriet and John Skinner, Charlotte and John Miller. (My mnemonic struggle stemmed, perhaps, from the fact that over half of them were named either Harriet or John.)
They were our great-great-great grandparents, my sister and I were told. In 1848, repulsed by the ruthless, competitive spirit of nascent American capitalism, they had founded a utopia, the Oneida Community, where property was shared, and all lived as equals. They didn’t believe in “owning” people, either—there were no husbands or wives, but all lived united under one roof as a single family. They had built the Mansion House in stages, between 1850 and 1877. After the utopia disbanded in 1880, the remaining family members founded a silverware manufacturing company, and extended their enlightened ideas about economic justice into labor relations. Workers and management were brothers, not adversaries, and shared equally in the industrial profits as Oneida Ltd. vaulted to prominence as America’s favorite silverware brand.
When I imagined my ancestors sitting around being happy and equal, I always thought of Edward Hicks’s 1840 painting, “The Peaceable Kingdom,” that hangs in the Everson Museum in Syracuse. The naïf painting figures the prophet Isaiah’s vision of a world where “the wolf will lie down with the lamb” (Isaiah 11: 6-8): Cherubic, cartoonish babies nestle in with goats and bears, cows and lions under a sheltering tree. In my childish imagination, it appeared to me the very embodiment of utopia, a place where my cat would stop mauling chipmunks.
This account of my heritage squared with what I knew about my own family’s politics. My grandmother was a social activist. She picketed her local Air Force base during the Korean War; started a school for migrant laborer children who came North to pick crops every spring; lobbied for prison reform and held Quaker meetings in some of central New York’s roughest prisons.
My father, a political science professor, wrote his dissertation on the role of the Catholic Church in twentieth-century Latin American politics. He was an avid fan of the “Liberation Theology” percolating in the Church in the 1960s, a mixture of Karl Marx and Jesus in his most communitarian mode. In the summer of 1977 when I was eleven, my family and I traveled to London. There survives a photograph of me, in peach-colored corduroy bell-bottoms, smiling beneath the gargantuan cast-iron head of Karl Marx that sits atop his grave in Highgate Cemetery. All the other American families had gone to see Queen Elizabeth’s Silver Jubilee; we alone had gone to pay tribute to the Father of Communism.
Growing up I learned that the world was an imperfect, fallen place; that personal selfishness was the most serious of character flaws; and that humans had a responsibility to equalize the favors that were so unevenly distributed at birth. We were progressive Enlightenment reformers, with a sprinkle of Christian piety thrown in for good measure.
The first time I had cause to reflect critically on my heritage was in graduate school. Chatting with my German language instructor one day, the topic of Oneida came up by chance; I explained the original Oneida Community’s vision and their attempt to communize property and persons. He raised a quizzical eyebrow: “Wie David Koresh, nein?” (Just like David Koresh, no?) It was 1993 and the Branch Davidian “cult” debacle in Waco, Texas was still fresh in the nation’s consciousness.
The Branch Davidians were a break-off sect of the millennial Christian Seventh-day Adventist movement. Since 1935, they had been living peacefully in a compound at Mount Carmel outside the town of Waco, Texas. Spurred on, in part, by rumors of possible child abuse and statutory rape within the compound, the ATF raided Mount Carmel in search of illegal arms. The raid escalated into a gun battle and a fifty-one-day standoff between the Davidians and federal agents. Negotiations broke down when their leader Koresh, convinced that his prophetic reading of the Book of Revelation precluded the group’s surrender, refused to exit the compound. Eventually, the FBI ordered an assault on the compound, killing seventy-six of the group’s eighty-five members. Forty-six were children.
My jaw dropped. It never occurred to me to consider Oneida in the same category as an apocalyptic Christian cult. My ancestors were enlightened social engineers, not misguided messiahs. “Nein,” I replied huffily, turning on my heel.
Oneida did not go up in flames in a standoff with the federal government à la Waco. Yet many years later, when I began to research my ancestors in more detail as the subject for a book, a very different narrative emerged from the one I’d been handed down from childhood.
In 1834 my great-great-great uncle John Humphrey Noyes had been booted from Yale Theological Seminary for his heretical insistence that humans could live sin-free. He went on a three-week hallucinatory tear around New York City, wrestling with Satan and his emissaries in a proverbial dark night of the soul. He emerged from his trial victorious, and claimed that God had revealed to him the path to eternal life: “The cherubim and the flaming sword are withdrawn at the gate of Paradise,” he announced. “Adam may return, and eating of the tree of life, become immortal.”
Like Koresh, and a slew of millennial prophets both before and after him, Noyes claimed to have been granted a new, inspired reading of the Book of Revelation. Noyes recalculated the traditional Christian timetable to declare that Christ’s Second Coming and the Last Judgment were already underway, and that the resurrection of believers was imminent. He and his followers were going to speed up the process by modeling their lives on the 144,000 saints who had already been raptured in 70 AD, at the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem.
In heaven, Noyes opined, “they neither marry nor are given in marriage,” but subsisted in a state of ecstatic sharing of persons and property. This included sexual sharing, or partner rotation, which Noyes predicted would kick-start a cosmic evolution toward the fusion of earth and heaven.
My forefathers’ millennial aspirations never made it into the family narrative. The generations after the breakup of the original Community were embarrassed by their progenitors’ unconventional sexual practices, to be sure. But even wife-swapping, properly swathed in euphemism, was tolerable. What was truly embarrassing, I discovered, was the original group’s religious fanaticism—so much so that it was simply scrubbed from the record. My father’s discomfort with my project didn’t stem in the least from any sexual information I was digging up. Rather, it was the revelation of our ancestors’ florid religious imagination that really got him blushing.
“Wie David Koresh, nein?” Maybe just a little bit. Except the Branch Davidians had hewn to a much tamer version of the millennial script.
When I shared a first draft of my book with colleagues and friends—liberal secularists, all—the reactions ranged from puzzlement to chuckles to disgust. The usual stereotypes when discussing “cults” were bandied about: Noyes was a horny old charlatan, a “psycho” peddling predatory sexual practices under the mantle of holiness. His followers were brainwashed sad sacks. My own defensive strategy of treating Oneida’s religious beliefs with humor no doubt encouraged such essentially dismissive reactions.
But something in these knee-jerk disavowals—the head shake, the index finger twirled against the temple—irked me. I, as much as anyone, was scandalized by my ancestors’ bizarre religious convictions. Yet I also knew that my own twenty-first century liberal secular beliefs about justice and equity and selflessness were refracted through that original glass of radical Christianity. The more I thought about it, the more I found my posture of moral superiority suspect. I wondered: What if, instead of labeling them a “cult,” I listened to what they actually had to say?
The psychologist Robert Jay Lifton, in a 1981 article published in the Harvard Mental Health Letter , famously warned that cults represented “a worldwide epidemic of ideological totalism.” A cult, according to Lifton, was characterized by three key traits: a charismatic leader in whom followers invest divine authority; a process of indoctrination or “brainwashing” by which members are convinced to carry out actions that are not in their own best interest; and sexual and/or economic exploitation.
Lifton was late to the party, however. The modern cult-buster’s list of grievances was already in place when the right Reverend Hubbard Eastman took up his pen in 1849 to write Noyesism Unveiled: A History of the Sect Self-Styled Perfectionists . John Humphrey Noyes, Eastman fulminates, had masterminded “a deeply-laid scheme of personal aggrandizement” designed to “sunder the social relations—subvert the present order of society—sap the foundations of civil government—and erect upon the ruins of republican institutions and the relics of morality, a petty Monarchy, with a head as dogmatic and merciless as the Papal Throne.” Eastman also predictably exposed sexual exploitation as the real motive behind Noyes’s elaborate theology, accusing him of luring “innocent and unsuspecting females into the vortex of ruin.”
One of the easiest ways to discredit a religious group who so obnoxiously assaults all that the surrounding culture holds sacred—sexual morality, the family, republican institutions, civil law—is to declare believers to be suffering from a mental imbalance. Monomania and megalomania were common psychological diagnoses in the nineteenth century; critics applied both labels to Noyes and his followers. David Koresh was, predictably, referred to as a “psycho” whose “Bible babble” was proof positive of his mental instability. His followers had quite obviously been “brainwashed.”
The instinct to slap a criminal or medical label on unconventional religions is perhaps a natural reflex when we come up against the scandal of faith in a secular age. The alternative is simply too daunting—to recognize the existence of a value system that, often quite lucidly and rationally, refuses to accept the values undergirding liberal democratic culture: individual freedoms; tolerance for dissent; consensual decision-making. This is a conversation that, for obvious reasons, no one really wants to have.
Oneidans were radical communists: They pooled property and persons, and members subjected themselves to continual surveillance, criticism, and censure in order to ensure that the collective spiritual goals of the group were being met. Outsiders roundly and regularly condemned them for trampling on the rights of the individual, declaring their social system to be “the grave of liberty.”
But it was not as if the Oneidans hadn’t given fair warning. On the contrary, the Community took every occasion to explain patiently, in the books and weekly newspaper they published for over thirty-five years, that it was precisely the supreme value bourgeois liberalism accorded the free individual that their religion forbid them to accept. “The grand mystery of the gospel is vital union with Christ—the merging of self in his life,” Noyes once wrote. This unity necessarily entailed “the extinguishment of the pronoun I at the spiritual center” and demanded the surrender “not only of property interests, and conjugal interests, but of life itself, or, if you please, personal identity, to the use of the whole.” The Oneida Community emerged at that precise moment in American history when industrial capitalism was pushing to enshrine the sovereignty of the private self as the sine qua non of a secular liberal society. Oneida was having none of it.
In such cases, where a group’s basic value commitments are diametrically opposed to the values held by the surrounding culture, conversation becomes difficult if not impossible, because each side finds the narrative provided by the opponent “baffling and offensive,” according to conflict studies professor Jayne Docherty in her book Learning Lessons from Waco . It is why, for instance, conflict resolution analysts and practitioners have traditionally recommended that negotiators altogether steer clear of value conflicts, otherwise known as “worldview conflicts.” (They should stick, instead, to the more tractable categories of “interest” and “unmet needs” conflicts.)
Docherty argues that these potentially explosive conflicts can be de-escalated by recognizing that the “gods” of secular liberalism—the rule of law, the protection of individual freedom—are no less gods for being of human origin. In terms of the moral authority that they carry for “believers,” they are functionally equivalent. She suggests reframing these conflicts between secular and religious values as divergent “worldmaking narratives,” each with its own non-negotiable or absolute terms of value, as a path toward making the participants more human to one another. You can judge an opponent using your own set of commitments or “gods,” as Docherty suggests—but you can’t be surprised when that opponent politely (or impolitely, as the case may be) refuses to bow down to your idols.
The American experiment in creating a multi-religious society by divorcing religion from politics was one of the noblest and most successful experiments in pluralism yet attempted. But paradoxically, by banishing religion to the private sphere in order to establish a tolerant society, liberalism finds itself locked into taking a stance of intolerance—marked by scorn and outrage—towards religion when it runs afoul of liberal values, or when its practitioners claim that their commitment can’t be constrained by the public/private divide.
My own experience discussing my book with a largely secular, liberal audience has taught me that liberalism’s tolerance has limits when it comes to extreme religious faith. At a time when religious extremism is on the rise across the globe, figuring out how to have a conversation across this divide has never been more pressing.
The Oneida Community’s belief system was, and remains today, “offensive and baffling.” It was precisely because it was offensive and baffling that my great-grandparents’ generation rubbed out Oneida’s millennial vision, downplayed the sex, and repackaged the whole affair as a progressive (never radical!) enlightenment project to establish a more peaceable kingdom on earth.
They were not alone. Sociologist John Murray Cuddihy argues that the American experiment has always been about tamping down and civilizing European “enthusiasms,” whether religious or political. “Immigrants arrive with their sects, shuls, and churches. America teaches them to be discreet,” Cuddihy observes in his 1978 classic No Offense: Civil Religion and Protestant Taste . The distinctively American religion of generalized niceness and aggressive universalism coaxes the religious to trade in the “uncouth truths of an earlier time” for civic sociability. This they do, but at a cost; Cuddihy’s book traces what he calls the “theological anguish” of the conversion process.
Like the tasteful Protestant, I blushed for my ancestors on many an occasion during the research for my book—for their tastelessness, for their zealotry, for their rigidity. For the downright outlandishness of their beliefs.
But I also found parts of the peaceable kingdom they envisioned quite beautiful. The Oneida Community engaged in a practice they called “mutual criticism,” whereby individual members would routinely pass before a committee to hear a drawn-up list of their faults and all the ways they were falling short of being “good members of Christ’s body.” (The reports occasionally ran to eighteen pages.) One member, a young woman when the Community broke up, recorded afterward that the rigor of these sessions, while difficult, had also been personally transformative. “I wonder if there was not an afflatus, renewed through criticism . . . that made us go beyond ourselves—our natural selves—and took from us the desire for selfish rights,” she observed.
This was just one of many moments reading through my family’s archives that I felt a kinship with their project. I felt a kinship, not for some sanctimonious, lukewarm Enlightenment belief in the possibility of human progress—although God knows we need that, too—but for a transcendent commitment to something larger than the self. Something given, not chosen; a command, not a sentiment. Writing my book, I discovered a pocket of empathy within myself—one I’d never before suspected—for what must be the theological anguish of the uncouth face-to-face with secular modernity.