Tuesday, 5 July 2016

The ‘Brethren Cult Controversy’


The ‘Brethren Cult Controversy’

Review of a paper by Bernard Doherty of Macquarie University.

The title of the paper is The ‘Brethren Cult Controversy’: Dissecting a Contemporary Australian ‘Social Problem’ and it is published in the peer-reviewed journal Alternative Spirituality and Religion Review, Volume 4, Issue 1 (2013) pages 25-48.

I think the value of this paper lies mainly in its meticulous record of the publicity surrounding the various controversial actions and practices of the Taylor/Symington/Hales sect. The author describes in great detail how the sect within 10 years (presumably he means from about 2003 to 2013) went from being a relatively obscure, if sporadically controversial, religious group to being seen as political lepers. He argues that the change occurred not because the sect changed very much, but mainly because of an increase in social visibility and media effectiveness. Towards the end of the paper he predicts that the publicity will make it politically easier for the Australian government to exercise closer scrutiny of controversial religious groups, but he emphasises that this must be done in a scrupulously objective manner. 

The controversial actions and practices or alleged actions and practices that he mentions, along with details of the media responses to them include the following.

Shutting up.
Separation from non-members.
Heckling Andrew Wilkie, candidate for the Australian Green Party in 2004, about the open homosexuality of his Party leader.
Vexatious litigation.
Special government treatment and exemptions from voting, union membership, military service and jury duty.
Child abuse.
Intimidating journalists.
‘Brethren Invasion’ of rural and semi-rural areas across Australia.
Aggressive legal strategies in the Family Court.
School funding .
Broken families.
Rigorist control.
Financial support for the 1993 electoral campaign of Liberal prime-ministerial hopeful John Hewson.
Support for John Howard in his 2004 campaign.
Involvement in the 2005 General Election in New Zealand.
The anti-Greens campaign in the 2006 Tasmanian state election, using pamphlets that criticized the Greens’ policies on same-sex marriage, adoption, illegal drugs, the economy, health, and contained a strong anti-LGBT message.
Charitable status.
Harrowing personal accounts of mistreatment of members and ex-members.
Sexual assaults.
The Aberdeen scandal.
Large payments made by members to leaders.
Subjugation of women.

The author does not perceptibly take sides in any of the disputes and controversies that he describes. He is more concerned to understand what happened and why. 

The paper runs to 24 pages and includes quite a bit about methodology and other topics of interest only to specialists, but here are some excerpts of bits that happened to catch my eye, bits that may be of interest to readers of WikiPeebia.

[The article aims] to outline and analyse the transformation that the small Christian sect popularly known as the Exclusive Brethren has undergone in Australia over the past decade from being a relatively obscure, if sporadically controversial, religious group to being touted by prime-time television current affairs programmes like Channel Seven’s Today Tonight as “Australia’s biggest cult.” This article argues that, far from representing a growing or immediate threat, the level of the Brethren’s “sectarian tension” with the surrounding society has, in some aspects, softened since a change in leadership in 2002, but that this has led to a higher social visibility. This, in turn, has led to a heightened awareness in the surrounding society of the Brethren’s ‘otherness’, which has tested what Gary Bouma has called Australia’s traditional “live-and-let live” tolerance, and resulted in a series of public controversies surrounding the group and the construction of the ‘Brethren Cult Controversy’.

First is a brief overview of the Exclusive Brethren; their history and their key beliefs. Second, there is a short narrative description of the setting and course of the Brethren Cult Controversy. Third, the social context in which this controversy originally erupted is examined, focusing in particular on the social and political context of John Howard’s tenure as Prime Minister of Australia from 1996 to 2007. Fourth, the key claims-makers and interest groups involved in the Brethren Cult Controversy are identified. The article concludes with a brief discussion of the outcomes of the controversy to date.

In order to understand how the Brethren have achieved their current notoriety in Australia we must briefly look at a series of events which begun in 2004. On a quiet evening in 2004, Andrew Wilkie, then an Australian intelligence officer turned whistle-blower over the Iraq War, addressed an audience at the Returned and Services League club in the Sydney suburb of Gladesville. Wilkie’s aim, as a candidate for the Australian Greens as he was at the time, was to challenge incumbent Prime Minister John Howard in his electorate of Bennelong, which the latter had held for the Liberal Party since 1974. That night a series of audience members heckled Wilkie with questions about his personal values and attitude towards Greens leader Senator Bob Brown’s open homosexuality. 

Unknown at the time, but later revealed across various Australian media over the 2005-2007 period, was that these hecklers were not just any group of Liberal Party supporters but leading members of the Exclusive Brethren, and included both a brother and a son of current world leader Bruce D. Hales. Hitherto a relatively unknown group, it would be fair to say that in many ways the Exclusive Brethren crossed a line that night which instigated their belated entry into what scholars sometimes call the ‘cult wars’and which since has made them ‘good copy’ in the Australian media.

The Brethren have all but lost any special exemptions they previously received with regard to industrial relations policy, and their allegedly aggressive legal strategies in the Family Court continue to be carefully scrutinized.

Despite earlier public concerns from across the Tasman Sea surrounding the 2005 New Zealand general election, and Greens party members in Bennelong and others long-knowing of Brethren involvement in the 2004 Howard campaign, the Brethren Cult Controversy only really took off in Australia in 2006. The instigating factor was the discovery of a series of anti-Greens political pamphlets with slogans like: “Are you aware of the policies hidden behind the environmental veneer?” Such pamphlets slammed a series of Greens policies regarding same-sex marriage and adoption, illegal drugs, the economy, health, and contained a strong anti-LGBT message.

While the pamphlets purported to be from “a group of concerned Tasmanian families” it was very quickly discovered that two northern Tasmanian farmers were responsible and that they (like a number on Tasmania’s so-called ‘Northern Bible-Belt’) were members of the Exclusive Brethren.

. . . over the course of Howard’s final term, numerous social commentators of various ideological persuasions mused over the propriety of the increasingly public Christian influence and rhetoric in Australian politics. 

For many fairly ineffectual Christian political parties like the FFP and the public espousals of faith by various members of the major parties were tolerable affronts, but the clandestine political involvement of the Exclusive Brethren, a Christian sect who refused to vote, was anathema. 

Whether or not one agrees entirely with Maddox’s portrait of the situation, her book 
God Under Howard (2005) and related books like Amanda Lohrey’s Voting for Jesus
(2006) proved popular and thought-provoking and put issues of religion and politics firmly on the public agenda.

Coupled with earlier controversies over John Howard’s appointment of Peter Hollingworth, an Anglican Archbishop, as Governor-General, his staunch defence and support of private religious schools, and the Liberal Party’s courting of groups like Hillsong and the ACL, many Australians became concerned about the relationship between Church and State and whether the Howard government was allowing Christian groups to dictate policy decisions.

The linking of Howard and many of his outspoken Christian colleagues directly with the Exclusive Brethren did not just provide one more link in this chain, but became the example of allegedly anti-democratic religious intrigue par excellencewhich could be frequently cited by opponents of all shades to attack the Howard government or question the involvement of other controversial religious groups in Australian politics.

The Brethren’s campaigning, however, was not all in the form of pragmatic pro-Howard pamphleteering and it must be noted that it also contained a more sinister and controversial aspect. Most notable here were the aforementioned anti-Greens pamphlets that appeared in the 2006 Tasmanian state election.
. . .
What exacerbated the effect were the actions which accompanied them, with Brethren members allegedly cruising the streets of Hobart on election day towing anti-greens slogans and wearing sinister pig masks.

What was new here was the level of Brethren involvement, which ran directly counter to the group’s traditionally apolitical approach, which dates back to the teachings of J. N. Darby (1800-1882). The reasons for this shift are complex and in need of further study, however, it suffices to say here that the increasing concentration of Brethren money into independent small-business and the internalized flow of capital utilized to fund their schools and other community projects have certainly made the Brethren more susceptible to the vicissitudes of the market-orientated ‘world’,
though it should be noted that direct partisan involvement seems to have been confined to a small contingent of ‘leading brothers’ rather than spread across the entire movement.

The Brethren’s status as the quintessential example of what Bryan Wilson labelled an “introversionist sect,” their controversial history, the consistent rolling out of often shocking experiences of ex-members and their financial support of Howard did, however, work to turn this small group into political lepers.

The most emphatic outcome of the Brethren Cult Controversy has been the impact on public opinion. While before 2005 few Australians knew who the Brethren were, they have since become a household name and a powerful example of what Stanley Cohen called “folk devils” on Australian television current affairs, a group whose very presence serves as “visible reminders of what we should not be.”

This article has argued that the Brethren Cult Controversy is far better understood as less of an objectively different situation than has existed since the 1960s, but rather as an increase in visibility and media effectiveness . . .

In terms of the near future it seems unlikely that media attention will abate given the Brethren’s proven ratings potential and popularity of the ever-controversial image of ‘cults’. As things stand at the time of writing, the Brethren are appealing the cancelling of their charity status by the United Kingdom Charities Commission, a case which is almost certain to bring further scrutiny in Australia and in such a situation the strong shift in public opinion facilitated by the Brethren Cult Controversy may indeed work to shift the political stalemate which has hitherto prevented the Australian federal government from closer scrutiny of unpopular minority religions.

It is likely that, if reportage of this denomination is not scrupulous and unbiased, the Brethren will continue to attract labels like ‘Australia’s biggest cult’ regardless of any efforts on their behalf to improve public perceptions.

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