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COLLECTIONPublished articles
TITLEThe Social Adaptation of Marginal Religious Movements in America
AUTHOR 1Bryan F. Le Beau
TITLE_PARENTSociology of Religion
PUB_THISAssociation for the Sociology of Religion
ABSTRACTProcesses of interaction between Marginal Religious Movements and their social environments; adaptive outcomes of different movements and across time. Passing references to the Bahá'í Faith.
NOTES Mirrored from [].
TAGS- Interfaith dialogue; New religious movements (NRM); Sociology; United States (documents)
This article is about the movement-environment relationships of American marginal religious movements. It adds to the literature about the tensions surrounding contemporary movements by utilizing evidence from a historically broad range of cases, and by more broadly conceptualizing the conflict that surrounds them as existing within a range of social adaptation possibilities. Two temporal patterns of social adaptation for movements in America society are suggested. Within the context of a modified societal reaction framework we suggest characteristics of movements and the varieties of opposition and oppositional coalitions that are likely to result in different positive and negative locations on a social adaptation continuum. The relationship between social adaptation and the longer-term survival and success of marginal religious movements is discussed.

The "cult controversy" has mellowed, but scholarly interest in marginal religious movements (MRMs) continues, with its focus shifting from earlier descriptive studies of MRMs and the social controversy surrounding them to more conceptual and theoretical issues (Shupe, 1988, Hargrove, 1988; Robbins, 1988; Ebaugh, 1990). This article continues these developments by explicating one dimension of movement-environment relations in a broader yet more coherent way than have previous studies. We examine processes of social adaptation of MRMs in America in both the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. We attempt a "joint venture" which is, we hope, responsive to recent calls for closer connection between religious history and the sociology of religion, and for more integration between the study of religious movements and social movements in general (Hackett, 1989:461; Hannigan, 1991).

Three observations inform the focus of our analysis. First is America's extreme fecundity in producing MRMs, as well as their pervasiveness throughout United States history. Ahlstrom (1972:441) identified over 120 such movements in the antebellum nineteenth century, while Melton argues that there are between 500-600 MRMs today (1986:47). These estimates are surely conservative. Thus, rather than being "new," the effervescence of the so-called new religions of the 1970s should be viewed as "the continuation of a venerable tradition" (Ahlstrom, 1978:19), and as indicative of a normal rather than an exceptional state of the American system. We prefer to use the term "marginal" rather than the more conventional "new" in order to emphasize the historicity of the phenomenon.

We are aware that the term MRM is not without its problems or ambiguities (Beckford, 1985:20). "Marginality," as we understand it, has several dimensions. A marginal religious group or movement is one that is small and has deviant doctrines in relationship to established religions. An MRM is peripheral to the "established" core of religious institutions in terms of power and respectability. We argue that marginality has at least four dimensions: (1) numerical, (2) ideological (or doctrinal), (3) legitimacy ("respectability") and (4) political (power). Of these dimensions we will argue that the first is most ambiguous, the second is most invariant, and that the last two are the most significant in understanding the conflicts surrounding MRMs. Our usage of marginal (vs. established) religions is similar to Bellah and Greenspahn's (1987:183-84) distinction between "established" and "emerging" groups, and Ellwood's application of the anthropological conception of "Great" and "Little" traditions to the contemporary situation (1987:244).

A second observation is that the existence of MRMs in America has often been surrounded by intense, rancorous, and highly politicized controversy and conflict. It is not news that during the 1970s a small number of emerging MRMs (e.g., the Unification Church, Hare Krishna, Scientology, The Way, the Divine Light Movement, and the Children of God) became intensely controversial. In the "cult controversy" of the 1970s these MRMs became widely viewed as not only deviant in the sense of being peculiar, but as dangerous and malevolent, and as threatening the well-being of individuals and the social order. Similar controversies surrounded the development of the Shakers, the Mormons, and Roman Catholicism in the nineteenth century.

A third observation, equally true but less often noted, is that many MRMs have been able to exist and thrive while attracting little public attention, conflict, or controversy.

There has been a vast outpouring of scholarly literature about MRMs and the "cult controversy" (see Barker, 1981; Robbins, 1983, 1988a). There have been studies of why they develop, where they develop, how they operate internally and successfully in their environment, and the subsequent societal reactions that such movement provoke (Shupe, 1990b:1). There are analyses of religious movements and tensions surrounding them that continue fruitfully to use theories specific to religion itself, particularly the church-sect-cult topologies (e.g., Stark and Bainbridge, 1985). We do not do so, not only because of the bewildering multidimensionality of these concepts, and their specific connection with the history of Christianity, but more important, because we want to use concepts that enable us to connect the analysis of religious movements with more generic analyses of social movements.

Much of the literature about religious movements "has been less concerned with the relations between religious movements and the broader social environment than with the strategies used by religious movements themselves to mobilize resources" (Wuthnow, 1988:478). Studies that do examine movement-environment relationships have paid far more attention to how such MRMs become controversial than to how they adapt and exist rather uncontentiously in the larger social environment (for instance, Beckford, 1985; Bromley and Shupe, 1981). But some studies have addressed movement accommodation (Snow, 1976, 1979; several chapters in Bromley and Hammond, 1987; Mauss and Bradford, 1988; Shupe, 1990b).

Shupe's (1990b) analysis of movement accommodation (or, "how conflict matures") is framed by the resource mobilization perspective now popular among social movement scholars. This perspective assumes that movements are best understood as systems that must "mobilize" or obtain basic resources from society, such as recruits, money and property, as well as abstract resources such as public reputation and legitimacy (McCarthy and Zald, 1977). Shupe argues that movement-society conflict is produced when the movement's innovative or deviant resource mobilization processes threaten or violate key values in institutional arenas, and that analysts ought to expect accommodative behaviors in precisely those values and institutions (1990b:8). Our analysis of these issues has some similarities and differences from that of Shupe.

Instead of resource mobilization theory, our analysis begins with the central insight of Lemert's interactionist societal reaction theory of deviance, which suggests that deviance, particularly on-going ("career" or "secondary" deviance) is caused and progressively defined by societal reaction itself. But one of the weaknesses of such interactionist and societal reaction approaches is that they fail to specify why certain characteristics or behaviors elicit either negative or positive reactions from social control agents in the first place. So like Shupe's analysis -- and conventional social control perspectives -- our analysis also seeks to identify key factors that may be threatened by the characteristics and behavior of MRMs. Given this, we agree with Lemert that to account for changes in the social adaptation of movements over time requires "full" interactional analysis focusing on all the interactants and "how individual and aggregate responses of deviants (or in our case, MRMs) through resistance, deflection, mitigation and negotiation become influences that shape the societal reaction" (1982:253).

We begin focusing on the outcomes of societal reaction -- on social adaptation, a broad summary concept indicating the quality of a movement's relations with its social environment. Movement social adaptation is defined by a position on a continuum between a positive end point (accommodation) and a negative one (problematization). High accommodation means that an MRM is able to survive in a manner that avoids public controversy and hostility, while high problematization means that an MRM becomes controversial, elicits social hostility, and becomes a recognized "social problem." The clearest empirical indicator of either of these social adaptation states we will take to be the presence (or absence) of sustained conflict between the religious movement and external community agents. These two polar dimensions of social adaptation vary both among movements and across time for the same movement. While social adaptation can be understood as a structural relationship between a movement and its social environment at a given time, across time social adaptation is an emergent and dynamic social interaction process.

Before leaving conceptual matters, we enter two clarifications about the dimensions of social adaptation and related notions. Accommodation does not mean that a movement becomes so indistinguishable from its social environment that it disappears as an entity (assimilation), but only that it is able to survive without generating much controversy. Survival is not the same as growth, dominance, success, or social influence (Stark, 1987; Johnson, 1987). We will argue, in fact, that there is no direct determinant relationship between high problematization or accommodation and viability, growth, success, and social influence. Similarly, deviance is related to but not the same as problematization. Some deviant groups and persons are problematized, others are not. Problematization is mainly a matter of becoming the object of hostility and conflict. A group or person may be viewed as quite deviant (strange, bizarre, different) and yet, as the proverbial village eccentric, may be an accepted and uncontentious part of the social landscape. Perhaps the contemporary Amish provide the best example of an MRM that is undoubtedly "deviant," but not problematized. Most of the MRMs we consider are doctrinally deviant; only some become problematized. Hampshire and Beckford (1983) have drawn a similar distinction between movements that are simply cognitively and doctrinally eccentric and those that are viewed as fundamentally threatening to the social order.

The inclusion of the term "societal" in Lemert's perspective implies that it is not limited in application, as are most interactionist and labeling perspectives, to the analysis of individual deviance and control in small-scale or microsocial contexts (Lemert, 1982; Ellis, 1987:57). We extend the scope of societal reaction theory as a broad perspective useful for understanding the dynamics of movement-society relationships. We will add few new empirical insights that are not known either by scholars of MRMs of the 1970s (the "new religions") or by students of nineteenth-century religious movements. Rather, our goals are to: (1) provide a framework for ordering similar but disparate observations about a broad range of historical and contemporary cases, (2) produce a more adequate theoretical account of factors and processes that shape social adaptation outcomes of American MRMs, and (3) do so in a way that continues to bring the study of religious movements closer to the study of social movements in general.


In previous research we examined in some depth the histories of three nineteenth-century MRMs (the Shakers, Mormons, and Roman Catholics) and four contemporary ones (Scientology, the Unification Church, the Hare Krishna movement, and Nichiren Shoshu Buddhism).(1) In addition, we less systematically examined literature about other modern MRMs: EKANKAR, est, and Bahá'í (Harper and Le Beau, 1990). Because of space limitations, the findings of this investigation are presented here only in summary form, though we have used selected evidence in the following theoretical argument.

Our investigation has convinced us that there are two broad but variable patterns of "social adaptation histories" among diverse American MRMs. While not necessarily most common, the pattern most commonly reported in sociological and historical literature about American MRMs is for a recently established MRM to undergo a period of intense problematization in which it is the object of popular scorn, variously taking the form of angry mobs, a hostile press, the emergence of countergroups, a hostile anti-MRM literature, and perhaps hostile reactions from officials seeking to suppress or neutralize the influence of the MRM. Following intense problematization there is typically a period in which the MRM "learns" to be more adroit about neutralizing, deflecting, and insulating itself from hostile social reaction, and during which it may become proactive in shaping a more benign public definition of itself.

This pattern of stormy, conflict-ridden beginnings and subsequent accommodation so clearly describes Shaker, Mormon, and Roman Catholic experience in America that it would be difficult to write about their adaptation histories in any different way. Indeed, Foster argues that this has been the pattern of religious accommodation across time in America:

Each new group has initially aroused suspicion and hostility, but eventually become at least tolerated as part of the American religious scene. Quakers and Baptists were viewed as dangerous or absurd in colonial days; Mormons and Adventists in the early national period; and Catholics and Jews at the turn of the century (1987:192).

This pattern of intense problematization followed by accommodation has also been documented in the cases of the most well known "cults of the 70s" (the Moonies, Hare Krishnas, Scientologists and others; see Wallis, 1977; Bromley and Shupe, 1981; Shupe, 1985, 1987; Robbins and Anthony, 1982; Harper, 1982, 1988; Beckford, 1985; Bromley and Hammond, 1987).

This is not, however, a uniform pattern of the social adaptation of MRMs in America. There are also cases of MRMs that have exhibited a high degree of accommodation with their social environment throughout their life span. They have all the characteristics of MRMs as we understand them, yet they have never been significantly problematized. They have existed rather quietly in the margins of the American religious system, making few waves and eliciting little controversy and often little recognition from the press, public, or scholars alike. Some have been tiny or experienced declining memberships, while other have exhibited buoyant growth rates.

Among the cases that we examined in depth, the best illustration of this pattern is Nichiren Shoshu Buddhism in America (see Dator, 1969; Snow, 1976, 1987; Snow et al., 1980; Groves, 1988). Even though it has some properties similar to the stigmatized "cults of the 70s" and a remarkable growth rate (claiming about 330,000 in 1983), it has been able to exist and prosper in a state of continuous high accommodation.(2)

Similar cases of continuous high accommodation are not rare. Historically, one could point to the Amish, Mennonites, Swedenborgians, and Theosophists. American Bahá'í, EKANKAR, atheist organizations, witchcraft groups and even the formally organized Church of Satan of Anton LaVey could serve as more contemporary examples. To get some sense of how common these patterns might be we turned to the Encyclopedia of American Religions which has cursory descriptions of 1,588 religious groups, probably the most comprehensive such survey (Melton, 1989). In addition to including descriptions of doctrines and histories, the encyclopedia has information about the existence and nature of external conflicts surrounding the religion. Using the most conservative research strategy, we ruled out the established churches and their smaller sectarian relatives that could be identified as belonging to an established "religious family" (e.g., the Liberty Baptist Fellowship, the Wesleyan Church). We ruled out sectarian relatives of the major denominations because it can be argued that they are not completely marginal -- either in terms of size or doctrinal deviance. We were left with a set of 822 MRMs that were more likely to be unambiguously marginal in terms of all of the dimensions mentioned above (size, doctrinal eccentricity, cultural respectability, and power). Of these, 32 (about 4 percent) are noted to have had any external controversy or conflict (which we take as the most observable index of problematization). Even that small figure is a generous estimate: it includes, for example, those that have been involved in local land or zoning disputes, those whose internal difficulties led to external involvement, and those who may be or have been considered dangerous but have not been charged with any particular crime (e.g., Rastafarians).(3)

While not definitive, we think this evidence means that high accommodation is far more common than high problematization, even among the most exotic MRMs. Like the public, scholars are likely to have more sustained interest in cases involving dramatic public controversies; our suspicion therefore is that others are underrepresented in both historical and sociological scholarly literatures.


What factors shape the positive or negative social adaptation of an MRM within its social environment? How might these factors operate jointly? We address in turn: (1) religious doctrine, (2) movement structural attributes, (3) movement-society interaction processes, and (4) types of opposition and opposition coalitions. We have arranged these sequentially in what we argue to be their increasingly salient and concrete impacts on shaping the social adaptation outcomes of MRMs.

Religious Doctrine

By our definition, MRMs have beliefs that are deviant and unorthodox within their social context. As cases in point, consider the Shakers' belief in the divine incarnation in their leader Anne Lee and their advocacy of celibacy; the Mormon doctrines of continuing revelation, polygamy, and a hierarchy of living Saints; the Moonie belief that a Korean evangelist is the latest messiah sent by God after a long string of failures; the Hare Krishna belief that spiritual ennoblement is to be achieved by chanting praise to a Hindu deity; or the Scientology teaching that one is really a timeless spiritual being trapped within a human body who can be completely freed by an unorthodox therapeutic process. Even Roman Catholic doctrines, such as papal authority, priestly celibacy, and the veneration of Saints, were considered "deviant" in terms of the Protestant theological hegemony in nineteenth-century America.

Certainly religious beliefs are related to the social adaptation of MRMs. They can become powerful vehicles by which social conflicts between MRMs and their social environment are symbolized, but we argue that they do so largely when conflict develops for other reasons. As Moore has said of the Mormons, their behavior "gave importance to practices and beliefs that might with as much reason have been trivialized" (1982:32). The same might be said of the Shakers, Catholics, and "70s cults." The problem is that doctrine itself is relatively constant and does not change much as MRMs move from high problematization to accommodation (though its mode of public presentation does). Furthermore, as the cases of Nichiren Shoshu and contemporary Mormonism suggest, it is possible to maintain both unorthodox beliefs and high social accommodation. Religious belief may be directly related to other important things about MRMs, such as maintaining distinctiveness and mobilizing resources that are important for long-run viability, but as it relates to social adaptation, we concur with Pfeffer that

in every case the tension [between MRMs and society] is a function not of the group's theological beliefs, no matter how alien they might appear to be, but of positions or practices which tread upon strongly held national secular values. When by reason of change either in the group's position or in national secular norms, the threat disappears or becomes manageable, the legitimation of the group and its acceptance by the general community are practically automatic and generally simultaneous (1974:14-15).

Notwithstanding this, some have argued that broad movement typologies based on doctrinal characteristics are related to the social adaptation of MRMs (Beckford, 1985; Wallis, 1984). Thus "refuge" MRMs are viewed as less controversial than "world-transforming / conversionist / revitalization" movements and "manipulationist" movements that "sell" metaphysical techniques to clients. We believe such typologies to be useful, but note that they are more about the implications of religious belief for social relations than about beliefs per se. There are empirical difficulties in applying broad typologies to specific cases. Intense problematization would seem to be found among diverse MRMs, from the Shakers and Hare Krishnas (partly refuge MRMs), to the Moonies and Mormons (conversionist MRMs), and Scientology and the Divine Light Movement (manipulationist MRMs). Furthermore, all types of movements have shown an ability to move into a more accommodative relation with their social environments. Among the large number of highly accommodated MRMs mentioned earlier one could find them also linked to diverse types of beliefs. It is true that religious beliefs do not exist in isolation but are composed of symbols that have implications for social practices and relationships. But the relationship between religious ideas themselves and the implications for social relations is a loose one; social relations are a more likely source of social opposition than the ideas themselves. In the case of problematization, MRMs are more likely to modify the implications of belief for social practice and social relations than the beliefs themselves. We suspect that, except for the opposition of competing religions, a focus on beliefs is largely a convenient and post hoc way of symbolizing opposition to groups that have become controversial.

Movement Structural Attributes

We argue that social practices and relationships of MRMs are more directly related to adaptive outcomes than beliefs. Before discussing those that we find to be most important, let us briefly mention those that are often discussed regarding particular MRMs but seem to be false leads in a general sense.

Considering a broad historical range of cases we do not think that structural characteristics such as size or the age or socioeconomic characteristics of members are very important for social adaptation. Size is particularly ambiguous. It is an aspect of marginality, though perhaps not the crucial one. It seems that both relatively accommodated and problematized groups have come in all sizes, from the tiny Shakers and Krishnas to the large and expanding Catholic and Mormon populations. Movement to higher accommodation can be connected to either continued growth or a decline in size. Similarly MRMs that have never been significantly problematized can be relatively small and stable (e.g., EKANKAR, Bahá'í) or expansionary (e.g., Nichiren Shoshu). Some have argued that the youthfulness of the converts to the "70s cults" was a decisive factor in their problematization (Tipton, 1982), yet such could not have been a cause in the case of Scientology, nor was it for most of the historic problematized MRMs. Some have argued that MRMs become problematized when they begin to recruit successfully among middle class (vs. marginal) populations (Cox, 1978; Harper, 1988; Clark, 1989), but again, this is not consistently so for a broader spectrum of cases. Nichiren Shoshu converts are by and large "middle-class" Catholics were most problematized when their socioeconomic status was lowest, and evidence about the status of Mormon converts is mixed (Arlington and Bitton, 1979:47; Moore, 1986:41). In sum, we do not deny the relevance of these factors in particular cases, but they seem not to have a general impact.

Problematization is more likely if MRMs have associated with them forms of individual behavior or structural arrangements that are not conventional or normative; in a word, if they appear to be deviant in an American context. This can take the form of deviant sexuality or family arrangements (as in the celibacy and communalism of the Shakers, convents of nuns and celibacy of Catholic clergy, polygamy among Mormons, or widely publicized "arranged" mass marriages among Moonies). It can take the form of the mere appearance of people (as in the case of the "weird" attire, shaven heads, and public chanting of the Krishnas, or the perceived foreignness of early Catholic immigrants). It can take the form of unconventional economic communalism (as among the Shakers), "extreme" asceticism (as with the Krishnas), or centralized and authoritarian organizational arrangements (as with practically all of the movements we have surveyed). It can take the form of an "ethnic" or extranational connection (as in the cases of the Shakers, Moonies, Catholics, Krishnas, and Nichiren Shoshu). In varying degrees, all of these social attributes have the potential of calling into question the legitimacy of established values about, for example, "normal" heterosexual behavior and the nuclear family, individualism, capitalism, democracy, patriotism, and materialism.

Perhaps more significant than unorthodox values and behavior, however, is the unorthodox "bundling" of religious practice, economics, and politics, producing a "hallowed universe" in which a number of major institutional tasks are fulfilled in a distinctively religious way (Beckford, 1985:87-88). Problematization is likely to result from any attempt to redraw the conventional "American" line between the "sacred" and "secular." Thus a MRM that also operates farms, restaurants, clinics, publishing houses, schools, and colleges run special risks. In this regard one could mention the fusion of religion and therapy in Scientology, the business and media enterprises of the Mormons, Moonies, and Krishnas, as well as the schools of Catholics, Krishnas, and the Amish. Other investigators have noted the vulnerabilities that come with such creative fusions of religious and other activities (Grafstein, 1984; Moore, 1980; Robbins 1985, and Beckford, 1981).

These creative "fusions" provide an additional liability, we argue, for two reasons: First, MRMs that conduct a myriad of activities and enterprises must not only "manage" popular prejudices about deviant beliefs and behavior, but also risk a high probability of "turf" encroachments on the territory of powerful established agencies and interest groups. This explains why one study of MRMs in a concrete community setting found them to be particularly disliked by many established mental health practitioners, some businesses, church leaders, counseling agencies, and college campus ministry organizations (Harper, 1982). Second, in such "protected empires" MRMs are likely to be perceived as substantially more outside government supervision and scrutiny than would be the case if they were not conducted under religious auspices (Ofshe, 1982). In contrast, similar operations conducted by established churches are more likely to be perceived as under the scope of societal regulation (Robbins, 1988a:166-67). Robbins suggests that in the contemporary situation such conflicts with the state result from the collisions between expanding "multifunctional" religious movements and the expanding regulatory powers of the agencies of the welfare state (1984:48-49). While this is helpful in understanding the current situation, we note that conflicts between MRMs and agents of the state antedate the emergence of the welfare state in the United States and elsewhere.

Political deviance and intrusiveness is even more hazardous than ecological encroachments on the "turf" of economic, professional, and established religious agencies. MRMs have raised questions about their political loyalty by seeking special "exemptions" and denials of "civic" obligations (as in the pacifism of Shakers, Quakers, and Witnesses). Some have attempted to create a state within a state (e.g., the Mormons) and threatened the creation of a separate political party (as did Catholic Bishop Hughes in the New York legislature in 1841 [Ellis, 1969:67]). Some have lobbied and conducted crusades in service of particular ends (e.g., the "Save Nixon" and "anti-communist" crusades of the Moonies, and the Scientology schemes to monopolize nuclear weapons technology and "reform" mental health practices [Miller, 1988]). Robbins (1979-1980) has also emphasized the "sinister cultic state-within-a state" pattern as a source of difficulty for MRMs.

Significantly, the MRM among our cases that avoided problematization did not link the promotion of a highly unorthodox set of religious doctrines with deviant behavior, values, sexuality, or family arrangements. Nichiren Shoshu assiduously drew a "conventional" line between religious and secular affairs. Furthermore, members were not only to conform to social rules, but to be "winners" in the domains of social life, whether in jobs, school, or creating a harmonious household (Snow, 1979:32-35). Partisan controversy is avoided while Nichiren Shoshu portrays itself as a patriotic American movement, seeking to celebrate and revitalize liberty, achievement, and the American Dream.

As they moved toward accommodation, all highly problematized MRMs worked to modify the social practices and structural properties at the root of the controversy. Shakers, for example, willingly paid taxes (when they could have claimed religious exemption) and fees in lieu of military service, and they willingly modified "convenant agreements" concerning property with apostates, rather than be drawn into civil courts (Andrews, 1963:205; Desroche, 1971:183, 198). After the nineteenth century, the Mormons disclaimed not only polygamy, but formally gave up theocracy, anticapitalist economic experiments, and participation in politics as a church. In short, Mormonism became more conventionally a religion and less a hybrid mixture of religion, economics, politics, and a family system (Mauss and Bradford, 1988:46-51). Fears of deviance and suspicion of disloyalty among Catholics were undercut by the increasing cultural assimilation of immigrants during the twentieth century. In the same period Catholic political behavior rarely challenged the conventional system or interests but instead became an important component of that polity. Similar changes have been noted regarding the 1970s cults. Most of the Unification Church's maturing members (young families with children) no longer live in communal centers, and it has created a "home church" category of membership for those wishing to lead conventional lives and participate only in worship services. The Unification Church claims to have given up high pressure and deceptive recruiting and has largely abandoned the public fundraising that made them so notorious in the 1970s. Finally, the Hare Krishnas have undertaken similar changes, shifting from street solicitation to their own economic enterprises, dressing in a conventional manner when appropriate, and establishing levels of membership to accommodate those unwilling to tolerate the ascetic regimen of their religious center (Rochford, 1987).

In sum, we argue that in the United States the degree of social deviance has been more directly related to social adaptation outcomes than deviant doctrines, and that -- as a general proposition -- the greater the number of "deviant" properties and the higher the ecological intrusiveness, the more likely an MRM is to become problematized. Yet we also believe that, with the possible exception of threats to the sovereignty of the state, adroit movements can manage to "finesse" a number of these characteristics and avoid extreme problematization. We view them, in other words, as more powerful determinants than religious belief, yet still broader than the nature of interactional transactions between the MRM and powerful social agents.

Interactional Processes

Particular modes of interaction between an MRM and its social environment are more specifically related to adaptive outcomes than structural attributes. Indeed some of the potentially hazardous deviant and ecological attributes may be simply ignored when the quality of the interaction between the movement and powerful community agents is sufficiently positive and nonprovocative. On the other hand, when the interaction between the MRM and powerful agents in the social environment is negative, abrasive and provocative, the significance of characteristics that would otherwise be less important become amplified. Thus, similar to religious doctrines, the structural attributes of MRMs becomes more salient pretexts for their harassment following a history of rancorous and "ill-tempered" engagements between the movement and community agents.

By interaction processes we mean the myriad ways by which an MRM interacts with agents in its social environment, including collective "impression-management" or "face-work" strategies (Goffman, 1959, 1967) by which they attempt publicly to portray the movement and neutralize or deflect criticism. Such operating strategies and styles can be abrasive, conflictive, and seemingly paranoid. Deliberately or unwittingly, they can threaten or offend powerful community actors and agencies, as in the case of the nineteenth-century Mormons, the torturous confrontations between Scientology and government, or the occasional intemperate outbursts by Catholic clergy. In 1850, for example, Archbishop Hughes of New York City preached a widely circulated sermon in which he described Protestantism as "effete, powerless, and dying" in the face of "Catholic truth," and explained that "everybody should know that our mission is to convert the world, including the inhabitants of the United States" (Ellis, 1969:67). As an even more dramatic example, in response to being denied the use of the Douay Bible in the public schools, Catholics in 1842 publicly burned a collection of King James Bibles (Dolan, in Bellah and Greenspahn, 1987). In these instances the movement itself may amplify its claims to religious exclusivity and graphically underline or display those very structural attributes (mention above) that have the potential to make them controversial. Such "abrasive behavior" may involve intermittent and unwitting bungling of things (as, we would argue, with the Moonies), but it may also take on a more systematic character, utilizing a "rhetoric of deviance" and a deliberately cultivated atmosphere of exclusion and oppression as strategies to legitimize charisma and build commitment to movement. Such seems to be the case with the organizational styles promulgated by the Mormons and Scientology.

On the other hand, a movement can cultivate a style of "accommodative flexibility," to use Snow's term (1976), not only by abandoning those structural properties conducive to problematization (as in the case of the Mormons), but also by striving to "finesse" its structural liabilities through deliberately contrived "public relations," as well as more informal communicative "face work." It can seek to accumulate "idiosyncrasy credits" (as in the cases of twentieth-century Mormons, Catholicism or Nichiren Shoshu), portraying itself as "ultraconventional" in some respects while maintaining heterodoxy in others. It can seek to construct alliances with powerful established groups and agencies and to receive endorsements from notables, thereby gaining protection and some measure of social legitimacy. The Shakers, for example, utilized this strategy in the nineteenth century by inviting visits from notables such as Presidents Jackson and Monroe, Charles Dickens, James Fenimore Cooper, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Horace Greeley. They reported that the Shakers were being governed by admirable values (thrift, honesty, simplicity) and, at worst, were more archaic, quaint, or harmlessly peculiar than threatening (Morse, 1980:x).

Mormon leaders, in their shift to higher accommodation in the twentieth century usually sided with the American majority on the issues of the day (e.g., support for the Spanish American War, Progressive Era feminism, prohibition, both World Wars, and postwar anticommunism). On the few issues in which this was not the case (repeal of prohibition), the Church issued a simple statement of objection, being reluctant to lobby and raise the specter of theocratic intrusion into politics (Mauss and Bradford, 1988:46-51).

In spite of the contentious behavior of some Catholic leaders, most spokesmen worked hard to soothe popular passion. Given the increasing "Americanization" of the Catholic population, they gradually learned to "finesse" the strictures of both Vatican policy and popular prejudices to create a less problematic role for Catholicism in America. Similarly, Hare Krishna leaders in the 1980s have cultivated a significant supportive relationship with the Hindu immigrant community from India. They have aimed at shifting the movement more in line with the dominant culture and sought to portray it as a legitimate religious movement, rather than as a deviant group exploiting the American public (Rochford, 1987).

Finally, an MRM can seek to avoid controversy by developing procedures to deal with or "appease" apostates, potential apostates, and those representing their interests (as in the case of the late nineteenth-century Shakers and the Unification Church's organizations for parents of members). This is particularly important because it is angry apostates and those representing their interests who usually provide the "atrocity tales" critical for mobilizing a popular base of countermovements such as nativism and the anticult movement of the 1970s. It is in this regard that we find Grove's account of the programmatic changes in Nichiren Shoshu to accommodate its "reluctant converts" theoretically interesting (1988).

We have thus far emphasized the operating styles of MRMs, but in highly centralized movements the evidence compels us to emphasize the somewhat independent impact of the behavior and personality of particular MRM leaders. With the exception of American Catholicism, most were powerfully shaped by the personalities and predilections of their founders. Of the cases we examined, only Prabhupada of the Hare Krishnas seems not to have exacerbated the social tensions surrounding his movement by his own personal behavior. Indeed, we argue that for the rest it is impossible to account adequately for their adaptation histories without giving a prominent role to the aggressive, intolerant, abrasive, and often deliberately obnoxious behavior of Ann Lee, Joseph Smith, the Rev. Moon, or L. Ron Hubbard. Furthermore, we note that, with the exception of the Rev. Moon who still lives, moves toward real social accommodation became possible only after these powerful personalities were no longer on the scene.

In a hypothetical case we would argue in support of the thesis that if, for instance, Joseph Smith had been running the Oneida community (which was similar to the Shakers in its economic communism and perhaps more deviant in its sexual program), it would have become a shambles in short order. Instead -- and in contrast to Shakerism -- it enjoyed an almost fifty-year history of secure but not absolutely uncontentious existence under the leadership of the more politically astute Noyes. In the 1970s, the more accommodative social adaptation of est was significant, and its former Scientologist founder, Werner Erhard,

apparently . . . [learning] from the embattled position of Scientology in feuding with the psychiatric profession, and more recently with the FBI . . . was careful not to antagonize powerful interests. Thus est despite its being lumped in the public eye with other so-called "cults," has avoided major regulatory battles or lawsuits with the media which depleted the resources of groups like Scientology, Synanon, or the Unification Church (Stone, 1982:169).

It is perhaps true that the media always overemphasize the nefariousness of leaders, while portraying converts as only misled dupes. Still, because they are chief articulators and "impression-managers" in highly centralized structures, the independent impact of leaders' behavior cannot be ignored. If the outrageous behavior of leaders cannot be ignored in problematized movements, neither can the role of adroit leadership behavior in social accommodation (such as that of the successors of Ann Lee, or of George Williams in Nichiren Shoshu). Such skillful leadership is unlikely to figure so prominently in media accounts and scholarly attention.

In sum, for both historic and contemporary MRMs, those that were most "at risk" for becoming problematized were those that exhibited unconventional life-styles or structural properties and ecological intrusiveness, and in particular those that fused marital, economic, and political programs with religious doctrine. Furthermore, the likelihood of becoming problematized is heightened if there are negative, threatening, and provocative interaction styles between the MRM and powerful community actors and agencies, which may include conflict-amplifying behavior on the part of identifiable movement leaders.

Conversely, accommodation is facilitated by having few deviant social characteristics and a low degree of ecological intrusiveness. Typically this involves "untraconventionality" in some aspects that offset abilities of deviance in others. Narrowly "religious" rather than economic or political aspects are publicly emphasized, and to the extent consistent with maintaining its religious distinctiveness, the MRM takes on the social coloration of its environment. Furthermore, the interaction with powerful community actors and agencies is characterized by skill, adroitness, and "accommodative flexibility," including the ability to "finesse" volatile situations and the potentially provocative structural properties of the movement. The role of religious doctrine in the process of problematization seems to be as a set of convenient symbols to attack groups that become objects of contention for other reasons.

Movement Opposition and Oppositional Coalitions

Thus far we have focused on the characteristics of MRMs themselves that made them more or less "at risk" for problematization. But as a form of societal reaction, the process of problematization depends not only on the characteristics of the stigmatized groups but also on the nature and power of opposition, combinations, and coalitions mobilized against them. It is to this issue that we now turn. In doing so we will discuss the nature of such oppositional coalitions from the least to the most powerful, suggesting a crude sort of "metric" of positive and negative social adaptation outcomes.

High Accommodation. Many MRMs maintain high accommodation simply by low visibility. Sometimes this is carefully contrived low visibility in terms of the strategies of collective face work discussed above, but it also may be because they have simply not come to the attention of the media, politicians, scholars or other agents capable of shaping a public reality-construction regarding the nature of the movement. There is simply no opposition and no public definition of any kind. Indeed, this is the case for a large number of MRMs: of the 822 catalogued by Melton (1989), only a small handful are generally familiar, and many are not, even to religious scholars. This is true not only for tiny groups, but also for some with more substantial followings (e.g., contemporary Spiritualism, Nichiren Shoshu, ECKANKAR, Bahá'í, and the contemporary Satanist churches).

Accommodation (MRM defined as "peculiar"). In this reaction the MRM is widely, though perhaps vaguely, known to the public. Public criticism, if any, originates largely from representatives of established religious denominations. But these objections are likely to be discounted in public arenas as "special pleadings" over doctrinal issues. Most significant is the absence of opposition by powerful secular actors, such as professional groups, patriotic organizations, community neighbors and opinion leaders. The state may have an interest in regulating specific practices of the MRM (such as compulsory education regarding the Amish or the pacifism of the Jehovah's Witnesses), but such interest is not a surrogate for more generalized official opposition or oppression.

Such conflicts are typically mediated to satisfactory informal or judicial resolutions. Complaints of angry apostates are ineffective and attract little attention. Media portrayals and scholarly attention are either positive in character, or present the MRM as being "kooky" but benign. Emergent public definition views it as doctrinally deviant, but harmless. In spite of its unorthodox character, it may be viewed as representing some admirable values and perhaps as functional or adaptive for its adherents. This was the case for both the Moonies in the early 1970s, and for the Shakers in the late nineteenth century (Shupe, 1987:208; Morse, 1980:85).

MRMs in this situation may neutralize potential opposition or shape public definition. Important ways of doing this include seeking alliances with respected groups, celebrity endorsements, modification of the most objectionable social practices, and a proactive campaign to produce a more positive public definition. Some MRMs in this state have extensive positive "connections" with established groups and agencies. Examples of such a "benign" accommodation include the Amish, Shakers after the 1840s, contemporary Jehovah's Witnesses, the Moonies and Transcendental Meditation before the mid-1970s, and the contemporary Mormons (if still understood as a MRM).

Problematization (popular opposition). The emergence of opposition by powerful secular interest groups (such as those mentioned above) is the most important foundation of problematization. Moral entrepreneurs and publicists emerge that help to mobilize popular opposition, define the MRM as threatening, and articulate grievances against it. An aggrieved category of apostates emerges that provides the basis for the manufacture of "atrocity tales." There emerges out of this a significant body of "anti-MRM" literature that intellectually articulates and justifies allegations against the group. These coalitions may oppose particular MRMs, or congeal into a more generalized countermovement that opposes many marginal groups (such as the nineteenth-century nativist movement and the anticult movement of the 1970s).

In this degree of problematization that we term popular opposition, MRMs face a powerful coalition of secular interest groups, religious opposition, media and scholarly hostility, and an active crusade against them led by apostates and those representing their interests. Emerging public definition constructs the MRM as not merely peculiar but as evil, malevolent, and threatening. The right to exist, taken for granted in the case of peculiar groups, becomes an issue. Officials are inevitably drawn into the controversy, but reluctantly and inconsistently so, sometimes siding with the opponents of the movement and sometimes protecting the movement from popular opposition. At this stage the overriding official interest is in managing the intensity of public conflict. MRMs can exist indefinitely in this state, though the costs of resource expenditure and lack of access to legitimacy may be quite high. Consequently at this stage there are adaptive maneuvers to neutralize such opposition; the most important of these were mentioned above. Examples of MRMs in a state of intense popular opposition include mid- and late nineteenth-century Catholicism, early nineteenth-century Shakers, and after the mid-1970s, the controversial "cults."

High Problemization (popular and official opposition). In this state the movement must contend with both the popular opposition coalition described above and general official opposition. Problematized MRMs in the nineteenth century provoked vigilantes, often because officials were unable or unwilling to protect them from mobs, or because existing law prevented officials from carrying out the "will of the people" against MRMs. Nevertheless, evidence suggests that there were frequent hostile statements made in public by elected officials as well as repressive legislation (in the Mormon case). Hostile political responses today take the form of punitive "investigations" and action by government regulatory agencies under the "cover" of official disinterest in religious matters (Beckford, 1985:282-86; Robbins, 1984:48-49).

Officials may act on behalf of popular opponents whom they represent, but state regulatory agencies have a whole host of interests of their own that they seek to protect, such as control of taxation, licensing, and legal compliance in general. Thus, in addition to FBI investigations and FDA "raids" on Scientology, there was an unsuccessful, decade-long effort by the IRS to deny religious tax-exempt status to the organization. The Rev. Moon was convicted for tax fraud, the State of California put the Worldwide Church of God into receivership upon being denied access to audit its books, and there was an attempt to apply the Fair Labor Standards Act to the Alamo Foundation (Robbins, 1985b:40).

Agents of the state may harass MRMs by maintaining covert surveillance, conducting hostile raids and inquiries, and selectively applying regulations to their activities. On rare occasions the state has proposed and passed legislation intended to change or control the behavior of particular groups. We emphasize that an occasional conflict between the state and an MRM is not particularly noteworthy. But the combination of powerful popular opposition and systematic state hostility produces the highest levels of problematization. The costs of fighting both popular opponents and a hostile state are quite high, particularly for movements that are marginal anyway. It is so expensive of a movement's resources and corrosive of its fragile legitimacy that this position cannot be maintained indefinitely without accommodative gestures by the MRM. Cases of MRMs in this position are, in our judgment, fairly rare, including nineteenth-century Mormonism, Scientology in the 1970s and 1980s, and to a lesser extent, the Unification Church and the Rajneesh movement.


We have focused only on surviving MRMs. A more thorough historical accounting would show many more to have failed in the long term rather than survived, but not, we argue, primarily because of being problematized. From the cases we examined and from the 822 groups described in Melton's encyclopedia (1989), we were unable to find many instances (2 of the 32 problematized groups) where there was credible evidence that a MRM failed primarily because of oppressive societal reaction. Mormons, probably the most intensely problematized MRM in American history, still survive, as does the Rajneesh movement after its denouement in Oregon.

Social adaptation seems not to be related to MRM success or survival in an immediate and obvious way. High problematization may make growth and survival more difficult by exacerbating the struggle of the MRM for legitimacy, resources, and converts. Yet such effects are ambiguous, since some of the most problematized religious groups survive robustly (Mormons, Roman Catholics, and Jews), while the powerful nineteenth century, nativist movement that opposed them exists only as remnants. Indeed, periods of high problematization and accommodation can be found in the histories of robustly growing and expansionaly movements, ones that seem small but stable over time as MRMs, and among those that dwindle into historical relics of once better times -- having little social impact and highly doubtful long term prospects.(4)

All this leads us to think critically about an accepted generalization, namely that there is a curvilinear relationship between social tensions and movement viability. Or, stated another way, that movements succeed to the extent that they "maintain a medium level of tension with their surrounding environment; they are deviant, but not too deviant" (Stark, 1987:13; see also Gerlach and Hine, 1970). The generalization may be true, but we think that the evidence about the relationship between social adaptation and movement viability is simply too complex to accept it without much qualification.

What are some things that might qualify the relationship between movement viability and social adaptation (or alternately, might simply be more important)? Though we cannot treat them here in any depth, several things come to mind. We have argued that religious doctrine or ideology in and of itself is not directly consequential in shaping social adaptation outcomes. We think it is more directly related to long-term movement viability if it maintains distinctiveness in a competitive religious environment, does not create barriers to membership, and provides personal incentives for collective action (see Johnson, 1987:252-55; Snow, 1979:39, 1987:168-69; Lofland, 1987:91). The work of Snow and his colleagues about ideological "frame alignment" processes and on-going movement mobilization seems particularly important in this regard (1986:464-81). Put simply, in a voluntaristic environment, the characteristics of religious doctrine are important determinants of whether or not MRMs have a membership sufficient to operate and mobilize for survival or growth.

Besides doctrine and ideology, the ability to manage problems of internal organizational coherence and stability has long been recognized in the social movement literature as related to long-term viability. The ability of a movement to engineer an orderly transfer of authority between generations of leaders (or as Weber would have it, to "routinize charisma") and the ability to manage and enclose divisive schisms seem particularly relevant to movement survival and success. In sum, we argue that in the long run MRMs in America die more for their doctrinal characteristics or their inability to resolve organizational problems than for their external social adaptation, which by itself provides few clear clues about the long-term viability of movements.


We have provided a theoretical framework for ordering a wide range of observations about an important dimension of the interaction between MRMs and their social environments. In doing so we have extended the scope of societal reaction theory -- conventionally applied to deviant behavior in small scale social settings -- to understand the dynamics of social adaptation processes of MRMs. Our goal has been a theoretically coherent account of the factors and processes, arranged in increasing causal salience, that shape the adaptive outcomes of different movements and the same movements across time. Beyond this, we make two empirical contributions for understanding MRMs. First, MRM accommodation is historically far more common than contentious problematization. Second, movement social adaptation per se -- either positive or negative -- is of limited value for predicting the long range survival of MRMs.

As usual with theoretical explorations of broad topics, there are dangling questions and fertile ideas for future study. The most obvious of these is suggested above: to disentangle the complicated long-term temporal relationships between social adaptation and the causes of movement survival. Second, we would like to examine evidence from a broader range of cases than we have been able to consider (e.g., Jews, Quakers, Pentecostals). Third, our perspective has potential utility for exploring conflicts among religious groups closer to the doctrinal mainstream (e.g., the controversies surrounding historic or contemporary evangelicalism) or among marginal political movements (e.g., the Socialist Workers Party or Lyndon LaRouche's movement).

Finally, we are acutely aware that most of what we have said may be true only in a North American context. Some beginnings have been made in cross-national surveys of religious movements, mainly in West Europe and French Canada (see Filoramo, 1986; Focart, 1982; Beckford, 1981; Beckford and Levasseur, 1986). Related to our concerns with social adaptation we find the research of Wallis (1988) most interesting, which finds differences in the societal reaction to MRMs between the United States and the United Kingdom related to differences in the sociolegal culture of the two nations (i.e., British official reaction is earlier and swifter and defuses the intensity of popular problematization). But the whole basket of questions and specifications about differential social adaptation of MRMs in various nations is an important agenda for future research.

1 That we include Catholics in a list of MRMs may seem odd, but this is a case in point that illustrates the notion of marginality as we understand it. Like the notion of "minority group" the concept of social marginality cannot be understood by numbers alone. Notwithstanding its expansionary growth, American Catholicism was indeed marginal in relation to the established core of Protestant denominations during the nineteenth and much of the twentieth centuries -- especially in terms of access to legitimacy and power. Indeed, while we would term both Catholics and Mormons marginal in the nineteenth century, we would argue that certainly Catholicism and probably Mormonism are not MRMs today in terms of any of the criteria of marginality outlined above. Both have become important parts of the religious establishment.

2 It merited not even a mention in the voluminous anticult literature of the 1970s, which had -- to say the least -- an expansive definition of "dangerous cults."

3 Of the problematized groups, some have had multiple problems (Mormons, Scientology, Rajneesh, Unificationists); five have been charged with fraud (broadly defined); five had tax difficulties; five have run afoul of the law in matters of drug use; four have had internal quarrels that extend into the public arena, leading to arrests for murder, law suits, and the like; three were once charged with sedition (during the 1940s); two had medical practices that were challenged by the law (e.g., Christian Scientists); and two have been involved in substantial controversy with their neighbors. The six others faced a variety of charges.

4 Although surely they will have diverse trajectories, most analysts of the "70s cults" suggest this second mode as their most probable future (e.g., sources in Bromley and Hammond, 1987).


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