Making the American Religious Fringe: Exotics, Subversives, and Journalists, 1955-1993

Making the American Religious Fringe: Exotics, Subversives, and Journalists, 1955-1993

Making the American Religious Fringe: Exotics, Subversives, and Journalists, 1955-1993

Making the American Religious Fringe: Exotics, Subversives, and Journalists, 1955-1993


In an examination of religion coverage in Time, Newsweek, Life, The Saturday Evening Post, Ebony, Christianity Today, National Review, and other news and special interest magazines, Sean McCloud combines religious history and social theory to analyze how and why mass-market magazines depicted religions as "mainstream" or "fringe" in the post-World War II United States. McCloud argues that in assuming an American mainstream that was white, middle class, and religiously liberal, journalists in the largest magazines, under the guise of objective reporting, offered a spiritual apologetics for the dominant social order.

McCloud analyzes articles on a wide range of religious movements from the 1950s through the early 1990s, including Pentecostalism, the Nation of Islam, California cults, the Jesus movement, South Asian gurus, and occult spirituality. He shows that, in portraying certain beliefs as "fringe," magazines evoked long-standing debates in American religious history about emotional versus rational religion, exotic versus familiar spirituality, and normal versus abnormal levels of piety. He also traces the shifting line between mainstream and fringe, showing how such boundary shifts coincided with larger changes in society, culture, and the magazine industry. McCloud's astute analysis helps us understand both broad conceptions of religion in the United States and the role of mass media in American society.


Cults and fringe groups are everywhere—at least in the mass media. In a 1998 episode of The Simpsons, Homer, that animated working-class everyman, is brainwashed into joining a group called the “movementarians.” His wife, Marge, escapes the cult’s heavily guarded compound and arranges for Homer’s kidnapping and successful deprogramming—he renounces his new faith for a glass of beer. In the same year an episode of Justice Files on the Discovery Channel featured “criminal cults.” In Maclean’s you can read about “killer cults.” Or if you prefer cyberspace, you can visit an unrelated internet website with the same name. For those more geographically inclined, one edition of Newsweek in the late 1990s offered a map of the United States marked with groups “Living on the Religious Fringe.” The New Yorker in April 1997 contained a back-page humor piece titled “This Just In from Our Cult Desk.” Written by Christopher Buckley, it consists of seven fictitious news stories, including the following two:

INAGADDADAVIDA, Calif.—Over half the forty-eight members
of the 2000 Club millennial cult who committed suicide last
week by eating live gila monsters and washing them down
with peach schnapps had already had their brains surgically re
moved, according to the Belvedere County Medical Examiner.

“It’s a fairly rare procedure,” he said, “but these folks seemed
to know what they were doing.”

WAWAII, Hawaii—The religious cult leader who urged his
eighty-four followers to leap into an active volcano told authori
ties that he had been planning to jump in himself but remem
bered at the last minute that he had forgotten to pick up his dry

Frederick Lugoff, sixty-four, known as Frodo to members of
his New Vesuvians cult, was apprehended by park rangers who

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