A Sociologist Explains the Cult Behavior in this N.Y. Murder Church
Two parents and other church goers were arrested for killing their teenage son. Sociologist Dr. Bernadette Barton explains how cult practices produce violence.
Flickr user Rachel Elaine
The World of Life is blackened by death. A teenage boy was admitted to an Upstate New York hospital last Monday with fatal injuries. Physicians initially believed them to be gunshot wounds. But Lucas, 19, wasn't shot. He was beaten to death by the congregation of his church. His brother Christopher, 17, suffered similar assault and survived.
Their mother and father, Deborah and Bruce Leonard, were among six members of the World of Life cult who were arrested for the attacks. According to CNN, the brothers wanted to leave the faith, potentially motivating the ritualized assault. After his arrest, Bruce Leonard tried to justify beating his child to death with a claim that the boys were suspected by church leadership to have molested children, but police say the claim is "unfounded."
Dr. Bernadette Barton is the Professor of Sociology and Women's Studies at Morehead State University (MSU). She explained that, "what makes this story particularly unique, is that they're so isolated." According to Dr. Barton, this isolation enables abuse. The World of Life is sequestered within an old high school building, where members live, worship, and raise children who are hidden from the surrounding community.
The more isolated a group is, the more likely violence can emerge.
"When a group is isolated," she said, "they're not beholden to a larger organization. If they're part of a hierarchy, they'll answer to other folks, so there are more likely to be other eyes on abuse and interventions into it. The more isolated a group is, the more likely violence can emerge."
Dr. Barton has witnessed the devastating effects of these dogmatic subcultures in her work. In 2012 she published a book, Pray the Gay Away, the product of her half decade long research into religious-based homophobia in the Bible Belt. She works in Morehead, where anti-gay-marriage villain Kim Davis is stationed, and this coming Monday, the sinister cult Westboro Baptist Church is coming to picket her university. Though Morehead University is ranked as one of the top educational institutions in the country, WBC is opposed to their liberal curriculum. "I believe they called our president a 'fag-enabler.'" Dr. Barton said. "They likely would never have considered picketing Morehead State were it not for all the Kim Davis drama."
"We say phooey on your ranking!" WBC writes on their site's poorly designed picket schedule which, in addition to MSU, includes a visit at the end of the month to "sin teacher" Janet Jackson on the Kansas City leg of her world tour.
Though the Westboro Baptist and World of Life cults are extreme examples, Dr. Barton says that these kinds of conservative religious organizations are all over the southern United States. "There are little tiny churches all over the south that practice pretty extreme dogma, that are isolated and control their members through fear."
According to Dr. Barton the phenomenon of turning one's individual power over to a higher governance is common in these communities. "Many would say that the fundamental world is a world unto itself with it's own rules, and it's own morés, what is of the material, secular world is not important."
Those alternate morés might include overtly violent practices, as in the fatal beating of Lucas Leonard, but even passive attitudes and beliefs can be violent. "I call it physical, psychological and spiritual violence," Dr. Barton explained. She describes what she calls the "sin/fall" paradigm, a religious system of belief and control in which practitioners are threatened with eternal damnation unless they conform to the group's strict ideology. These systems of belief, she added, are hierarchical, branded as the one right path for all people, and are inherently violent. "It excludes people, creates a climate of fear, scares participants, makes people monitor their own and other's behaviors and thoughts, enables physical and sexual abuse, while absolving all individuals of wrong-doing since all of this is done (presumably) by divine order."
Dr. Barton does not believe that all individuals within these sin/fall congregations are necessarily violent, but she says that the "theology and the culture encourage and enable violence both overtly and by non-action. In my opinion, simply living with the threat of hell—no matter how gentle all other elements of one's worship—is psychological, emotional and especially spiritual violence."