December 22, 2021

In this episode of It’s Useful to Know, Dr. Judith Weisenfeld talks about how the term “cult” describes power relations in a given social context – the ability to define religious insiders, to construct dangerous outsiders, and enforce social norms – that has often been racialized in U.S. history. Instead, in her own work, she uses the term “religio-racial” to describe movements in the early 20th century such as Father Divine’s Peace Mission and the Nation of Islam, which she explores in her award-winning book New World A-Coming: Black Religion and Racial Identity during the Great Migration (2017). 

About the Expert

Judith Weisenfeld is the Agate Brown and George L. Collord Professor of Religion at Princeton University. In addition to New World A-Coming, she is the author of Hollywood Be Thy Name: African American Religion in American Film, 1929-1949 and African American Women and Christian Activism: New York’s Black YWCA, 1905-1945. Her current research examines the intersections of psychiatry, race, and African American religion in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. She is also the Co-Director of The Crossroads Project: Black Religious Histories, Cultures, and Communities, which is funded by the Henry Luce Foundation.

Start a Conversation

  1. Think about other instances in which you or someone else has used the word “cult” to describe a group. What religious and racial characteristics did that group have? How politically or economically powerful were they as compared to those calling them a cult?  Who benefited from this group being labeled a cult?
  2. According to Dr. Weisenfeld, why does it matter if a group is called a cult? What consequences does it have for them legally or politically speaking? The articles by Daniel Burke, Matthew Schmalz, and Benjamin Zeller in the additional resources include a variety of stories as examples for you to think about.
  3. Instead of calling a group a cult, what questions could you ask to better understand the experiences of its members and why they participate? How could you critique it or draw attention to harm without using the word cult? Would your questions and critiques also be relevant in studying a group that is usually called a “religion”?

Additional Resources

Keeping It 101 Podcast. “Episode 207: EXTRA CREDIT with Judith Weisenfeld.”

Ammerman, Nancy T. “Waco, Federal Law Enforcement, and Religion Scholars.” In Armageddon in Waco, edited by Stuart A. Wright. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005.

Burke, Daniel. “After Romney Meeting, Billy Graham Website Scrubs Mormon ‘Cult’ Reference.” Religion News Service. October 16, 2012.

Schmalz, Matthew. “Why the Label ‘Cult’ Gets in the Way of Understanding New Religions.” Religion News Service. April 10, 2018. 

Zeller, Benjamin E. “The Cult of Trump? What ‘Cult Rhetoric’ Actually Reveals.” Religion & Politics. October 29, 2019.