BOOK REVIEW | "AMERICAN CULT: A GRAPHIC HISTORY OF RELIGIOUS CULTS IN AMERICA FROM THE COLONIAL ERA TO TODAY" EDITED BY ROBYN CHAPMAN
photo & text by nacrowe
there is something distinctly AMERICAN about EXTREME RELIGIOSITY. maybe it comes from our collective unabated allegiance and piety towards MARKET CAPITALISM and the need for all of us as individuals to assume and attest our own INDIVIDUALITY and SUPERIORITY over the herd. i can remember as a PEACE CORPS volunteer in ALBANIA the lengths to which other volunteers consciously separated themselves from those they sought to "assist." they were often CONFUSED why they were not thanked for their SELFLESS efforts by their new neighbors. it is that need for status and lack of EMPATHY that i'd argue makes us SUSCEPTIBLE to FANATICAL CHARLATANS and POWER / MONEY-HUNGRRY HUCKSTERS, both in terms of RELIGIOUS and POLITICAL CULTS (cough, cough, DONALD TRUMP).
in the comprehensive graphic novel AMERICAN CULTS (SILVER SPROCKET, 2021), edited by ROBYN CHAPMAN, there is an EXHAUSTIVE array of testimonials and narratives from over 20 cartoonists surrounding various DOMESTIC RELIGIOUS CULTS ranging from the benign (SUFISM REORIENTED, ONEIDA, THE SOURCE FAMILY, THE SULLIVANIANS) to the infamous (THE MANSON FAMILY, HEAVEN'S GATE, CHILDREN OF GOD, SYNANON, THE BRANCH DAVIDIANS, ORTHODOX JUDAISM, THE PEOPLE'S TEMPLE AGRICULTURAL PROJECT aka "JONESTOWN", CHRISTIAN MOVEMENT FOR LIVE aka "MOVE", THE FUNDAMENTALIST CHURCH OF JESUS CHRIST OF LATTER-DAY SAINTS and NXIVM). seemingly what they all have in common is the need to supplant the individual's need for an independent identity with that of a community ethic modeled on a CHARISMATIC leader, whether that be DAVID KORESH, KEITH RANIERE, JIM JONES, CHARLES MANSON, WARREN JEFFS, DAVID BERG, JOHN NOYES or MARSHALL APPLEWHITE. sometimes this new group ethic espouses COMPATIBLE VALUES with that of AMERICAN society at large, so the group is largely BENIGN. but most of the examples explored in this collection showcase when a new set of RETROGRADE value systems are implemented and the untold DAMAGE such creates, not only on members and their children, but the larger communities they inhabit.
one interesting aspect of how these CULTS flourish is through a LAUNDERING of their reputation, especially initially, with regards to local political and business interests. its pretty interesting to know that HARVEY MILK and ROSALYNN CARTER endorsed JIM JONES at some point, likewise the DALAI LAMA with regards to KEITH RANIERE. the CULPABILITY of the broader community in allowing cultural loopholes whereby these insects burrow and later flourish into caustic colonies that threaten the larger body politic seems to be a narrative as old as the founding of our country, which itself was initiated by CALVINISTS and CHRISTIAN FUNDAMENTALISTS with BACKWARDS views on RACE, GENDER and the ENVIRONMENT.
especially in a post-TRUMP (or perhaps pre-TRUMP's return) world there is an understanding of the DANGERS that come with HUCKSTERISM that plays on our COLLECTIVE FEARS and BASE INSTINCTS. and yet it continues on unabated. having lived overseas for many years i questioned whether it was something about being AMERICAN that made us so VULNERABLE to such. now im convinced our ISOLATION, ARROGANCE and NAIVETE about world affairs leaves us distinctly susceptible to such outright FRAUD and CHARLATANISM.
and we seem to celebrate it.