Holly Folk is an associate professor of Global Humanities and Religions at Western, and she is a historian who studies 19th and 20th century religion and culture. Her research addresses a variety of social movements that fall outside the “mainstream,” including new religions, communes and utopias, anarchism, and alternative medicine.
Western Today recently sat down with her to chat about some of her more recent fields of study, including new and emerging sects of Christianity and how these “New Christianities” can be viewed by those in established sects.
Western Today: Your work studying these new and merging forms of Christianity – and when we say “new” we mean no older than about 200 years – is fascinating. How did you become interested in the study of religion in general, and these new branches of Christianity in particular?
HF: "I think my interest in religion is something of a function of innateness. Just as some kids are interested in music early on, I have always been intrigued by religion and culture. But I credit a lot of my interest to my mom. When I was nine, my mother started attending college as a continuing-education student. She would bring me to class and I read her textbooks. I was very inspired by one of her teachers, David Bromley, a scholar of new religious movements who now teaches at Virginia Commonwealth University. Reading about the Unification Church lit up my world. I was 14 years old at the time.
It took a while to find an academic pathway for this interest. As an undergraduate, I studied Asian religion (which is helpful now). For graduate school, I did American religion. My first book was on chiropractic, which I looked at in order to study the relation between alternative religion and healing. But serendipitously, in 2016 I visited the headquarters of the Church of Almighty God in Seoul, South Korea. They invited me to participate in online worship meetings, and I eagerly took up for the opportunity to do fieldwork. The project has expanded a lot, so that I am now working on a comparative study of 15 new Christian religions in the United States, East Asia, and Latin America. All the groups in my study have been targeted for holding beliefs that challenge mainstream Christianity."
Western Today: These “New Christianities” can be looked at by others with anything from disinterest to disdain to outright anger and outrage and even worse, and they are very often labeled as “cults.” From the standpoint of your research, what is the difference between a cult and a new religion?
HF: “'Cult' is a perjorative word for a religion (or anything, for that matter) that we don’t like. I don’t see a qualitative difference between 'cults' and 'real religions.' All the things we associate negatively with controversial new religions – such as questions about finances, beliefs, or social control – we can find in mainstream religions, and in secular organizations as well.
And framing 'cults' as a distinctive category is hugely problematic, because it puts the cart before the horse. Any group labeled a 'cult' is assumed to be comprised by 'brainwashed' followers and led by a 'charismatic leader' who pathologically seeks to control them. Combined, these assumptions quickly generate a third – that 'cults' are inherently dangerous. This is a very sloppy way of thinking that lets people demonize religious minorities without actually knowing anything about them.
What makes a religion a 'new religious movement?' Time, mostly. Scholars in my field recognize certain sociological patterns associated with religious formation, like crises in leadership and changes in doctrines. These happen at a higher rate in the first decades of a religion’s existence."
Western Today: Of course this is a matter of perspective, but in your view as a religious scholar, is there such a thing as a “bad religion?”
HF: "'Bad Religion' is a rock band from Los Angeles! Seriously, let me say that religions of all sizes and faith traditions do things all the time that I personally don’t like. But it is important to distinguish between the criminal, the ethical and the aesthetic. In both mainstream and marginal religions, things may happen that are unethical but are not technically illegal. And a religion may have beliefs or practices that I, or you, might personally find distasteful, but to which members have no objection. These are important differentiations in thinking about the behavior of a controversial group.
We also need to distinguish things done by individuals who belong to a religion and acts committed by members at their religion’s direction. This is important for both fairness, and to accurately understand the way violence can occur in religious settings. Statistically, the majority of Americans are either Roman Catholic or Protestant. And so it’s technically accurate to say most murderers in the United States are either Catholic or Protestant. But it would be a stretch to argue that these religions were encouraging members to commit murder.
There have definitely been instances where members of religions have committed violent crimes. Yet in some of the most inflammatory cases, like the Peoples Temple, the Order of the Solar Temple, and Aum Shinrikyo, the majority of lower-ranking members were not aware of the destructiveness perpetrated by an elite hierarchy. I think these instances hold an important insight for your question – it means that in even the most controversial religions, many if not most believers will not be “dangerous.” This definitely needs to shape how we think of religious difference."
Western Today: You have put a lot of work into studying La Luz del Mundo, one of the biggest denominations of these new Christianities in Latin America. Tell us about your work with them in Mexico, and how they fit into the religious landscape of a country still very much dominated by the Catholic church.
HF: "I was on research leave this past fall, and spent two weeks with LDM, at their headquarters in Guadalajara and then in Mexico City. Since 1924, La Iglesia de la Luz del Mundo (LDM) has been led by a succession of leaders who are recognized as modern Apostles, meaning they are appointed by God to lead the church, in the same way that Saint Paul was called in biblical times. Their belief that authentic Christianity has been restored, plus their socially conservative lifestyle, has led to comparisons sometimes being drawn between LDM and the Latter-day Saints (Mormons). I see some similarities in their commitment to community development and mutual aid, but I am even more interested in the cultural substrates that might set these groups apart. Among other things — you guessed it — the Roman Catholic Church is a much stronger foil in Mexico than in the United States, though Catholicism is also the largest religion in the US.
Internationally, LDM may have as many as 5 million members, mostly in Latin America. They represent about 1 % of the Mexican population, and also 1 % of Mexican-Americans. This makes them large enough to draw the ire of mainstream authorities. In Mexico, LDM has protested many instances of religious discrimination. There have been accusations of misconduct launched against past and present leaders of the church. The current apostle is right now being charged in an abuse case in Los Angeles. This is a serious issue. I am not involved in the case, but am aware that in pre-trial negotiations, the defense raised concerns about prosecutorial misconduct.
I lived with families from the church while in Mexico. My hosts are amazingly kind, sincere people. I hope very much that the court case is resolved soon."
Western Today: Similarly, you have been to Asia 11 times researching China’s Church of Almighty God, which has been the target of what you called a complex and concerted disinformation campaign by the Chinese government. Why would the government take this position, and have these attacks on the group made it harder for you to be a neutral researcher and scholar when it comes to them?
HF: "The Church of Almighty God is one of several religions in Asia that I’ve been studying. The religion began in China in the 1990s. They believe that Christ has incarnated for the second time in the form of a Chinese woman, whose revelations have been compiled in a new scripture, The Word Appears in the Flesh. The leaders of the CAG were granted political asylum by the United States in the early 2000s, and they are believed to live in New York. In China, the CAG is listed as a “xiejiao” – a criminal organization that falsely uses religious ideas. This designation makes it illegal to belong to the group, but in my opinion the label is wrong on two fronts.
First, the members of the CAG are sincere believers, with an amazingly intricate theology. They are strongly Calvinist, meaning they believe in Predestination.
Second, while the Chinese government has accused them of a number of violent crimes, I and other researchers have come to believe the CAG has been falsely accused of crimes actually committed by people who had no affiliation to the church, and who often had long histories of mental illness.
It’s nuts to think any government might adopt the strategy of falsely accusing a religious group of murder, but in China one of the official policies in addressing 'evil cults' is to 'destroy their reputations.' It was actually codified 20 years ago in a statute against Falun Gong, and then used against other religious minorities.
Why would any government do this? China maintains it is concerned about social unrest, but over the past three years, all types of religious expression have faced increased restrictions, as the government has taken steps to 'Sinicize' Chinese culture. In the West, we’ve heard about persecution of the Uighurs who are Muslim, and some about Christian persecution. But recently, even state-recognized communities of Buddhists and Taoists have been sanctioned.
Thousands of Almighty God believers have fled China. There are currently about 2000 applications for political asylum filed internationally, including several hundred in the United States. Over the past four years, I have met with CAG members in several countries, some of whom were imprisoned for their religious beliefs, and several who were subjected to torture.
The focus of my research on New Christianities is theological comparison. Academically, my preference is to stay neutral in my scholarship. But few researchers have spent much time with the CAG, and I am one of a very small number of people able to respond to inquiries. I have been consulted by both journalists and government agencies in several countries. The fact that my work has helped people obtain political asylum is one of my highest scholarly achievements. I think of myself as an accidental activist."
Holly Folk has taught at Western since 2007, and obtained her doctorate in Religious Studies from Indiana University in 2006. At WWU she teaches courses in theory and methods, American religious history, and modern world religion.