Here’s a Cult

Brought to you by the son of Moon.

Source: Screencap of Instagram page

An ongoing topic of conversation here at OTB is about what is a cult or what isn’t. I am not aiming to settle that issue here, but if one is looking for a clear example of a cult, I give you, via Vice News, the Gun Church That Worships With AR-15s Bought a 40-Acre Compound in Texas for Its ‘Patriots’.

A religious sect known for worshipping with AR-15s and its MAGA politics has purchased a sprawling, 40-acre compound in central Texas, which it hopes will offer a safe-haven for “patriots” from what they believe is an imminent war brought by the “deep state,” VICE News has learned.

[…]

The younger Moon, who set up shop in 2017 in Newfoundland, Pennsylvania, follows the doctrine of his late father—with a twist. Moon says he was inspired by a biblical passage in the Book of Revelation that talked about Jesus using a “rod of iron” to protect himself and others. He concluded this was a reference to AR-15s, and integrated high-powered firearms into regular church services, including wedding ceremonies. He founded the church with the support of his brother, Kook-jin “Justin” Moon, the CEO of Kahr Arms, a gun manufacturing company headquartered nearby. 

My first thought is that gun-loving religious sects setting up compounds in Texas have a really bad history. My second, perhaps impolitic, thought is that it is a bit on the nose for one of the founders to have “Kook” as part of his first name. A third thought is that a weird cult worshiping weapons of destruction is a major part of the plot of Beneath the Planet of the Apes (and that didn’t end well, either).

Having made my flippant comments, I would state the obvious: this is a disturbing set of behaviors.

From its beginning, the church wholeheartedly embraced former President Donald Trump and incorporated Trumpian culture war and conspiracies into its rhetoric. Moon told VICE News in late 2019 that he believed God was working through Trump to rid the world of “political satanism” (for example, the “deep state” and “the swamp”) and restore Eden. Through his gun-centric, MAGA-friendly outlook, Moon has been able to establish some fringe political alliances. Former Trump adviser Steve Bannon spoke at a recent event hosted by the church. Pennsylvania state senator and “Stop the Steal” organizer Doug Mastriano was also recently billed as a special guest at another church event. 

The group appears fully hooked into QAnon and its members were definitely at the Stop the Steal rally and were at least outside the Capitol on 1/6 (as photos on their Instagram account confirm).

Their compound acquisition is reminiscent of the behavior of the militia movement in the 1990s:

“It’s a dangerous time, and this is a place of refuge and retreat if our community needs it,” Moon said in one of his recent sermons, titled “The King’s Report,” which he typically delivers wearing a crown made of bullets and a golden AR-15 displayed before him. “Of course, in worst-case scenarios.” 

And this is just weird:

He’s also adopted a new biker-gang aesthetic, swapping out his camouflage blazers for biker jackets emblazoned with patches showing a crown and “Rod of Iron Ministries,” as well as the words “Black Robed Regiment” above an image of an AR-15. 

Nothing says “Jesus of Nazareth” quite like a skull mask.

I guess when trying to follow in a cult leader father’s footsteps, one has to find one’s own spin on things.

Here is a Vice News feature on the group and a recent event:

More, very telling, photos on their Instagram feed.

FILED UNDER: Religion, US Politics
Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is a Professor of Political Science and a College of Arts and Sciences Dean. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter

Comments

  1. Joe says:

    A religious sect known for worshipping with AR-15s and its MAGA politics has purchased a sprawling, 40-acre compound in central Texas, which it hopes will offer a safe-haven for “patriots”. . . .

    Talk about a strategic blunder. Why bring all your followers to one 40 acre tract when they otherwise would have blended into the entire State of Texas. Now the Deep State can just drop a single bomb and be done with them. And Moon calls this leadership?

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  2. CSK says:

    I too was amused by the notion someone named Kook starting a cult, though doubtless, as I pointed out at the time, it’s a fine Korean name.

    I do think that many of Trump’s more fanatical admirers exhibit cult-like behavior.

    3
  3. MarkedMan says:

    Steven, don’t you think it is a little… off that you are showing what a REAL cult looks like, in contrast to the so-called Trump cult, and the article contains the following 😉

    From its beginning, the church wholeheartedly embraced former President Donald Trump and incorporated Trumpian culture war and conspiracies into its rhetoric. Moon told VICE News in late 2019 that he believed God was working through Trump to rid the world of “political satanism” (for example, the “deep state” and “the swamp”) and restore Eden. Through his gun-centric, MAGA-friendly outlook, Moon has been able to establish some fringe political alliances. Former Trump adviser Steve Bannon spoke at a recent event hosted by the church. Pennsylvania state senator and “Stop the Steal” organizer Doug Mastriano was also recently billed as a special guest at another church event.

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  4. @MarkedMan: Flesh out your point.

    1
  5. I would note, too, that they adopt and utilize a lot of mainline Christianity (as did Papa Moon).

    A can use parts of B without A=B

    Think Venn diagrams.

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  6. Michael Reynolds says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    A can use parts of B without A=B

    Indeed. Much as the Trump cult of personality can use elements of the moribund Republican Party while remaining a cult of personality.

    1
  7. Jay L Gischer says:

    I can’t help it. All I can think of reading this is “Are we the baddies?” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hn1VxaMEjRU

    2
  8. Jay L Gischer says:

    So, I wouldn’t put Steve Bannon as a cult guy, either leader or follower. But from what you cite, he’s certainly cult-friendly. Maybe just friendly enough to take their money?

    2
  9. @Michael Reynolds: This may be the closest we have come to agreeing on this topic. Much depends on the definitions of terms, however.

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  10. @Jay L Gischer: Grifters gonna grift.

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  11. Jay L Gischer says:

    If it were Trump in Jonestown instead of Jim Jones, he might have given a speech where he said, “Some are saying that it might be better if we just took the trip to Heaven right now. Someone could just drink the koolaid and be free of the cares of this world and on to the next one.”

    “I want you to go back to your rooms and ponder what you can do to show your devotion to the Lord and to our cause and do whatever you can to show everyone what you are made of.”

    No, Jim Jones didn’t say that. He gave direct orders. He posted guards. Really, it was a mass murder. This is why I don’t classify Trump as a cult leader, even though the QAnon people, for instance, have many other characteristics of a cult. It’s quite a fascinating phenomenon, if it weren’t so dangerous.

    2
  12. drj says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    Looking at this latest Moon group, I see a combination of:

    1) Charismatic leadership (as defined by Max Weber).

    2) Performative expressions of irrational* beliefs.

    That’s not so different from today’s GOP, I would say.

    What more would be needed to meet your definition of “cult?”

    * By contrast, mainline Christianity, having been built on somewhat more solid philosophical underpinnings, tends to be arational rather than clearly irrational.

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  13. CSK says:

    @Jay L Gischer:
    Bannon is first and foremost a crook. But I also think hr enjoys creating trouble on the grandest possible scale he can.

    2
  14. Stormy Dragon says:

    @drj:

    * By contrast, mainline Christianity, having been built on somewhat more solid philosophical underpinnings, tends to be arational rather than clearly irrational.

    If we go with the BITE model, the difference isn’t the philosophical underpinnings, but how the organization maintains control over the followers (Behavioral Control, Information Control, Thought Control, Emotional Control). Mainline Christian churches don’t really try to control how members interact with non-members or outside information sources at all, and general have very little control over their behavior or thought.

    1
  15. Jay L Gischer says:

    @Stormy Dragon: I just looked up the BITE model and it’s pretty good. I have some quibbles, but it seems pretty solid as a framework.

    1
  16. drj says:

    @Stormy Dragon:

    Mainline Christian churches don’t really try to control how members interact with non-members or outside information sources at all

    They used to, though. But despite all its faults, I wouldn’t characterize the 19th-century Roman Catholic Chuch as a cult.

    Still, I think the evident irrationality of cults matters. It’s perhaps a bit like a gang initiation rite: once you cross that bridge, it’s not so easy to go back to “normal” society.

    1
  17. Jay L Gischer says:

    The Jesuits in particular, and Catholicism generally is not irrational – “opposed to reason” – so much as arational – “considering things that cannot be reached by reason”. I feel it’s an important distinction.

    And of course, the Protestant Reformation was all about rejecting the authority of the Church and letting people think for themselves.

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  18. Stormy Dragon says:

    @drj:

    If I understand correctly, the BITE model is a spectrum, not an all or nothing thing. I think “the 19th Century Catholic church behaved in a more cultish manner than the 21st Century Catholic church does” is a very defensible statement.

  19. Scott O says:

    I think it’s authoritarianism, a desire for a dictator who will fix everything, rather than a cult of personality that explains how we got Trump. Tucker Carlson could easily be the next messiah.

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  20. The guys in question are my brothers in law. I am married to their sister.

    Labeling this a cult is getting off topic. We start thinking that this is a small, out-of-bounce, strange thing that has nothing to do with “us”. Until it does. Nazi Germany grew out of a “cult”, so did the communist party in the Soviet, China, Vietnam and so forth.

    Do not make the same mistake. This guys are not “out there”, they are not the strange and the outkast. If you start thinking like that, what happens next is that you put it off, you put it away, you label it is “not for me” and before you know it, they have power and they come after you.

    Take it very very seriously. They speak from a place that resonates with a lot of people today. You need to know what they are saying and you need to think long, deep and hard about how to meet it.

    Unfortunately the media love these guys, love them so much that, like Trump, they make them important, make them heard, make them actual and real. In so doing they become the new “other”, the new punk, the new hip, the new dangerous, the new counter culture. Media helped create this. Now we have to live with that, and now we have to engage, we have to fight, we have to take on the burden of knowing and arguing. You are now the new conservative. (Sit with that.) These guys are the new radicals. So they have an upper hand. They come off fresh, new, daring, in your face.

    All this has to be understood. You cannot simply write this this one off as something like an SNL joke, like a fringe group, like something strange. These guys are your neighbor, your friend, your relative. before you know it, you are Mary Trump, this happened in your family.

    These guys are my family. I love them. I STRONGLY disagree with them. But I have something they do not. In my world there is also room for them.

    “Love is the answer. And you know that. For sure.” – John Lennon

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  21. de stijl says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:
    @Michael Reynolds:

    Reynolds asserts Cult of Personality.

    Taylor dissents.

    Both have valid points.

    I’m leaning Reynolds, slightly. R’s are Trumpian over previous R convictions. New boss is not the same as old boss and idiots are thusly polishing their resume.

    I am underselling Taylor here.

    Taylor is wicked smart. Reynolds is wicked savvy, mostly.

    Myself, I reckon that both are correct partially.

    1
  22. @de stijl: FWIW: I have never denied that there is a cult of personality around Trump, but that is different than calling the Republican Party a cult.

    (There are many devils in the details of how one defines the terms, of course).

    I have disputed a) the exact scale of this cult of personality, as well as b) the degree to which it is useful as some unified theory of the Trump Era/the best way to understand where we are now, politically, in the US.

    I have also noted that one can identify cults of personality around previous presidents, including some obvious ones: FDR, JFK, Reagan, and Obama.

  23. I also know that people think that parties and partisans have more consistent ideologies than they do, and so take shifts are more meaningful than they are.

    I also know that human beings are awfully good at motivated reasoning, as well as rationalizing how they can vote for whomever it is that they vote for.

    Plus, team is powerful–more than I lot of folks are willing to accept.

  24. @de stijl:

    Myself, I reckon that both are correct partially.

    Yes and no. It depends on what the given path means.

    Again, I have agreed on multiple occasions that rally-goers and definitely QAnon types exhibit behavior cult-like behavior. (But they also, especially the rally-goers, act not much different than sports fans).

    To me the core of this debate has been the true applicability of the concept of “cult” beyond the colloquial as a general principle, but more importantly the degree to which the cult frame is a truly useful explanation for the current state of Republican politics.

    Plus, to illustrate (but to risk bringing MR directly into the conversation), I find his assertion that Covid-denial or vaccine denial as being the same thing as suicide-pacts in actual cults to be absurd.

    The people at Jonestown knew they were going to die (which is why some of them had to be forced at gunpoint to drink). The Hale-Bop (sp?)/Heaven’s Gate Cult thought they were going to meet the aliens by killing themselves (or some version thereof). Those are radically different that denialism about a virus or the vaccine since the odds of dying is pretty small (but, yes, real). While I think the behavior is stupid and risky, it is hardly agreeing to suicide.

    (I would note, too, many proponents of the cult theory also want to argue that the Reps have really always been like this–so which is it? Is Trump a cult leader or isn’t he?).

  25. drj says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    I would note, too, many proponents of the cult theory also want to argue that the Reps have really always been like this–so which is it? Is Trump a cult leader or isn’t he?

    This is untrue, I think.

    Most of the comments on this topic that I saw – and definitely the ones I wrote – pointed at recent changes in how the GOP presents itself. Specifically:

    * Trump’s style of leadership
    * Gaslighting and a blatant denial of reality
    * Loyalty tests
    * Conspiracy thinking
    * Etc.

    Admittedly, some of this stuff has discernable roots that go back a while, but that certainly doesn’t mean that the GOP was always as cult-adjacent as it is now.

    To me the core of this debate has been the true applicability of the concept of “cult” beyond the colloquial as a general principle, but more importantly the degree to which the cult frame is a truly useful explanation for the current state of Republican politics.

    That’s the point, isn’t it?

    To me, it seems that the behavior of an increasing share of the Republican electorate (and part of its elected officials as well) does no longer fit the “politics as usual” framework (which means that we need another framework – including language that is distinguishable from the language that we used previously). Moreover, it is not hard to see that there has been, in fact, a degree of change.

    The only real question is to what extent the quality of partisanship on the GOP side has changed and how pervasive this change has become.

    I don’t have any hard data to back up my position. But neither do you.

  26. @drj:

    That’s the point, isn’t it?

    No, the point (to me at least) is that the cult frame is devoid of much of a theoretical basis. It is, ultimately, some combination of vituperation mixed with a sense that the situation just ain’t right.

    the quality of partisanship on the GOP side has changed and how pervasive this change has become.

    I am not being obtuse when I ask: what does this mean?

    I don’t have any hard data to back up my position. But neither do you.

    I know I am not answering this charge in exactly the way intended, but:

    There is a vast literature on the role of partisanship which is consistent with a good deal of what we are seeing.

    There is a literature on the role of elite signaling and how cues affect mass opinion (see, e.g., the work of Philip Converse, but there is also a whole literature on that).

    Brendan Nyhan’s work is relevant to this notion as well.

    The polling that I have often used in these discussions shows a substantial amount of stability over time.

    I would note that the phrase “the paranoid style in American politics” (which can be linked to gaslighting issue you note) dates back to a 1964 Hofstadter article.

    The John Birch Society behaved in many ways like a lot of current Trump supporters.

    I have also written extensively on the way the parties have evolved and how the structural conditions of our politics directly influence the outcomes we have seen.

    So, while I may not have persuaded you (and others), I find the notion that I have not provided evidence to be incorrect.

    the “politics as usual” framework

    By the same token, I don’t think I have ever said that, either. I do think that most of the dynamics we are seeing are continuations of existing patterns. But I also think that Trump is an especially problematic leader who has done fresh and new kinds of harm plus exacerbated existing problems.

    Contra the cult thesis (such as it is, because I do not think it much more than a surface-level assessment), I think we need to come to grips with how the actual, existing structure of our political order gives us a Trump.

    I think this has sparked a post, so I will leave off here and say “to be continued.”

  27. drj says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    The John Birch Society behaved in many ways like a lot of current Trump supporters.

    Well, we’re in agreement here.

    But the fact that Welch and his followers were, ultimately, marginalized before they could take over the conservative movement shows that we are in uncharted territory. Thus, new language may be necessary.

    I am not being obtuse when I ask: what does this mean?

    and

    The polling that I have often used in these discussions shows a substantial amount of stability over time.

    Polling is, usually, a quantitative measurement. Especially in a two-party system, quantitative stability does not necessarily mean qualitative stability. Concretely, if during two consecutive elections 1,000 people vote for the same party, but during the second election the candidate in question no longer feels the necessity to run on a program that has a somewhat credible connection to reality, then something meaningful has, in fact, changed.

    That’s why I think that the “cult” framework could, potentially, be useful: to distinguish the quality of contemporary Republican partisanship from the quality of previous iterations of Republican partisanship.

    I mean, I’m pretty sure that you once argued that Marjorie Taylor Greene was only elected because she had an “R” behind her name.

    Right now, however, other Republican representatives and candidates are copying her style.

    There is a literature on the role of elite signaling and how cues affect mass opinion

    Exactly.

  28. @drj: I think a lot hinges on the word “cult” which is never defined well in these conversations.

    I find the notion that the term “cult” helps us make distinctions of quality of partisanship to be, well, a peculiar one.

    For example,

    I mean, I’m pretty sure that you once argued that Marjorie Taylor Greene was only elected because she had an “R” behind her name.

    You are correct. At least insofar as once she was nominated, she was going to win.

    See, to me that mitigates against a cult interpretation and is a story about partisanship and institutional structures.

    If the cult frame made sense, the explanation would be that she somehow hypnotized her districts into being a bunch of Q types by force of personality.

    I mean, my explanation of MTG winning is that the threshold for nomination is low due to weak parties. So she is able to capture the R mostly by spending more money than her opponent during an open seat year. Since she then ran in a noncompetitive, single-seat district her odds of winning, especially in a presidential year (because of increased turn-out).

    Where do cults help explain any of that?

  29. @drj:

    But the fact that Welch and his followers were, ultimately, marginalized before they could take over the conservative movement shows that we are in uncharted territory. Thus, new language may be necessary.

    This does not follow for me. Because a faction was thwarted at one moment in time and a different faction succeeded at a different point in time means we need new language? And we specifically need language with religious connotations?

    This does not follow. It assumes not only a new language but a wholly different analytical frame.

    Beyond that: when the John Birch Society was thriving it would have been impossible to capture either party the way Trump did because the modern nomination process (using primaries and caucuses to select delegates) did not come into existence until the 1970s.

    Institutional changes made Trump possible.

  30. drj says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    See, to me that mitigates against a cult interpretation and is a story about partisanship and institutional structures.

    Which would work if we would only be looking at her initial election. “Crazy lady with the right label gets elected by uninformed electorate.” Sure, I would buy that.

    But then, crazy lady’s madness gets lapped up like there’s no tomorrow. It’s no longer the case that MTG is going to win her next primary in spite of her batshit insanity, but because of her batshit insanity.

    “Partisanship” used to mean “low taxes and small government,” now it’s “deep state massive election fraud.”

    That’s a major difference.

    I’m not convinced that it is helpful to use a single term (“partisanship”) to denote adherence to both sets of ideas,

    Because a faction was thwarted at one moment in time and a different faction succeeded at a different point in time means we need new language?

    Would you still call it partisanship to believe that Johnson’s decision to escalate the Vietnam War was part of communist plot to take over America? Because that’s what Welch and the JBS were saying during the sixties.

    I mean, one could call it partisanship, but then you would have one word to describe an (IMO) too wide range of activities and beliefs. Wanting lower taxes: partisanship! Advocating for a withdrawal from Vietnam: partisanship! Supporting civil rights: partisanship! Believing that Johnson is executing a communist plot: partisanship!

    I like my definitions narrow and meaningful. And I think there should be a distinction between supporting plausible aims and getting unmoored from reality. (Because there is such a thing as reality, as well as tried and tested ways to get at least somewhat of a grasp on it.)

    And we specifically need language with religious connotations?

    Not necessarily. I’m open to other suggestions. But if (at least to some extent) the shoe fits…

    But I think I’ve made these points before.

  31. @drj: Partisanship is not defined by the content of the message. Partisanship is defined by the degree to which co-partisans recognize and cohere around a shared set of views.

    Partisanship can be sane and it can be crazy.

    You appear to want “partisanship” to mean “fairy normal policy goals” and cultish to mean “batshit crazy ideas.”