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News Watch

by Joe Maxwell

from the Christian Research Journal, Fall 1993, page 5. The Editor-in-Chief of the Christian Research Journal is Elliot Miller.

Children of God Revamp Image, Face Renewed Opposition

What are those allegedly sex-crazed, forsake-all Children of God (COG) up to these days? Riding out the end times hidden in a commune somewhere? Furiously catching the drippings of wisdom from the once-prolific pen of their aging founder, "Moses David" Berg? Try singing at the White House!

That's right. A group of perfectly dressed, white-teethed Children of God, most appearing to be in their teens or early twenties, opened the 1992 Christmas season at the White House with a smiling, doting Barbara Bush at their side.

"The Family" (a name which the Children of God have used since 1978) was founded during the beginnings of the Jesus movement in 1968 by Berg and his family in Huntington Beach, California. Government probes and bad publicity -- along with missionary zeal -- have driven the sect from one country to another. But COG members have recently been strategically returning to the United States, which they say is now ripe for another harvest.

Family spokesman John Francis says that some 250 missionary families (about 750 people, two-thirds children) are now returning from foreign fields and settling largely in urban areas in the U.S. and Canada, including Washington, D.C.; Houston; Dallas; New York; Chicago; Detroit; Toronto; Los Angeles; and Boston. He claims that the group is concentrating on reaching out to the frustrated and outcast urban underclass.

Says Francis, "In the U.S.A., you have another generation of teenagers and people who heard nothing about the former Children of God or know nothing about the Jesus revolution, but you are finding quite a desperation amongst the youth today who are quite frustrated by all that they are faced with in their early years."

The Family is now much more press savvy and potentially litigious than the group that left the states en masse during the mid and late 1970s amid a storm of controversy. Their notoriety stemmed partly from reports that group members shared sexual partners among themselves and their proselytes (the latter practice called "flirty fishing," or FFing). More than any other group, the COG and its excesses gave rise to the secular anticult movement and to the practice of "deprogramming" cult members out of their beliefs.

Former member and Family researcher Ruth Gordon says, "Part of their plan is to lay a fresh groundwork as if [past practices of child sexual abuse and sexual deviancy] never occurred. It's no different from a brand name company changing its label but not its content."

group gain access to the president's home at Christmas time?

Hurricane Andrew seems to be to blame.

A polished P.R. video recently obtained from John Francis tells the story. Just hours after the hurricane blasted through Homestead, Florida, members of a local Family group were there to give aid. A local police officer, Tony Aquino, told Family members, "When disaster struck, you were there at the heart of the problem literally moments after it occurred, and you did the best thing -- that is, help people."

A Family group also traveled to various relief sites and sang for the victims. So when President George Bush arrived to visit Homestead Middle School, the now-popular group sang for him. Upon a later visit, a Family member gave Bush a Family video. The president drove away smiling and displaying the video through his car window.

"With their ministry of singing to others in need having borne such wonderful fruit in the lives of so many," says the Family P.R. video, "the Miami Family Teens were invited to open the 1992 Christmas season at the White House," which they did sporting matching slacks, skirts, and Christmas sweaters.

The Family's New Face. Gordon says the White House scenario illustrates the group's mastery at adapting to its environs and fitting in, whether it be in the United States, Thailand, Brazil, Russia, or any of the 60 or so countries where an estimated 25,000 full-time Family members are active.

Francis says they are now intentionally seeking to be press-friendly and to advance their case in the media, although a recent release said that "while some [recent stories] have been generally fair-minded, and presented our beliefs and practices relatively accurately, others have not."

The June 3, 1993 edition of the syndicated television news program Hard Copy featured a segment on The Family, which cooperated with its production. And Francis says he was pleased with a front-page story that appeared June 2 of this year in the Washington Post. The writer, who visited the group's La Habra, California commune, quoted critics and reported on portions of the group's history. He also said the members were "polite" and admired Billy Graham. "They're a clean-cut bunch, friendly and courteous," the writer said.

In fact, Francis invited this writer to visit the same commune earlier this year, offering to pay for the plane fare from the southeast United States to La Habra. And since initially contacting the group late last year, this writer has received numerous polished, professional press releases on Family activities worldwide.

Eric Pement, cult researcher for Cornerstone magazine, a publication of the Jesus People U.S.A. in Chicago, says he recently received information from the group after it learned of Cornerstone Press's intentions to reissue the hard-hitting 1984 book, The Children of God: The Inside Story (Zondervan), by Deborah Davis, a former COG leader and Berg's own daughter. Pement testifies to the increase in professionalism within The Family. "The level of apologetic which they were far above anything that Moses David Berg is capable of producing."

The Family's New Fight. Pement's exchange with The Family demonstrates more than the fact that the group has organized a well-oiled public relations machine, apparently based out of La Habra. When The Family wrote Pement upon hearing of his plans to republish Davis's book, they challenged Davis's credibility and issued a warning to Pement about publishing the book.

"They're still trying to dissuade us," Pement said.

Moreover, the group has recently begun legally challenging its more avid opponents. For instance, in recent months The Family has pursued charges of theft and kidnapping against former members Edward Priebe and Daniel Welsh, who infiltrated a Family commune in Manila in 1992. The two reportedly carried away large quantities of Family literature, audiocassettes, and videotapes (some of a sexually explicit nature), which they initially planned to use to expose the group.

"After [being robbed of] more than 3-million dollars' worth of audio-visual materials from Family archives in the Philippines last September," says one recent Family press release, "...The Family has...filed official complaints and reports with the FBI, the Immigration and Naturalization Service and the US Attorney's [sic] Office of Los Angeles," while considering libel and slander suits.

The release further states that "although in the past the Family has not been known to take such legal action, due to the growing climate of religious bigotry being fostered by such individuals, the Family has begun to make more full use of the law and exercise their legal rights as American citizens."

Still, The Family's many critics doubt that the sect would actually take anyone to court, since it might open their own organization up to scrutiny as well.

The Family has also seized on the Waco, Texas Branch Davidian incident, seeking to make a case against Cult Awareness Network (CAN). The Family claims that CAN has damaged its work through unfair accusations.

A two-page letter sent out to several U.S. senators, whom Francis would not name, asks: "Waco: Who's responsible? -- Cult Awareness Network?" The letter says that "this organization of so-called 'cult experts' injected prejudice, distrust, and fear into what should have been an objective, unemotional investigation of the Branch Davidians....We, the Family, have also been targets of CAN's 'dirty tricks department' via media smear campaigns and deprogramming attacks." The letter urges the senators to investigate CAN and "its influence on decisions made in Waco," and to launch a broad public educational campaign about "New Religious Movements" (NRMs).

Francis says The Family is pleased with the response they received from Washington, D.C., though he would not provide details.

Priscilla Coates, former CAN president and current chair of CAN's Los Angeles chapter, says that while she was not aware of The Family's communications with members of Congress, she is not surprised at the new tenor of the group's efforts, which she says lack substance.

Says Coates, "They have joined forces...and formed a corporation in Switzerland with Scientology, the Raelians, the Occidental Wiccans," as well as the Jehovah's Witnesses, Moonies, and Baha'is. The group is called the International Federation of Religious and Philosophical Minorities (known by its French acronym, FIREPHIM) and is devoted to defending the cause of NRMs.

Coates says that FIREPHIM's members apparently share information concerning their detractors. In fact, in March 1993 Linda Simmons Hight, media coordinator for the Church of Scientology, told Religious News Service that Scientology "informs [The Family] of trends that are going on in religious freedom issues."

Troubles Abroad. Such P.R. and information-sharing efforts are likely, in part, an attempt to deflect rising incidents worldwide by local, state, and municipal governments to investigate and bring charges against local Family groups. In the past three years, government agencies in Argentina; Melbourne and Sidney, Australia; and Barcelona, Spain have taken children from the groups' communes under suspicion of child abuse. Cases in Argentina, Australia, and Spain have been settled, with The Family claiming victory.

On June 9 nine children were taken from Family communes in Lyon and Marseille, France, again under suspicion of child abuse and child prostitution. Those cases were still unresolved at press time.

In early September, authorities in Argentina and Paraguay raided Family communal homes amid allegations of child sexual abuse and a host of other offenses. An immediate, worldwide firestorm of negative publicity followed, and Family members and spokesmen held press conferences, vigils, and street demonstrations on several continents in a desperate attempt to control the damage.

Whatever the outcome of the latest controversies, it is clear that The Family of old has undergone some revisions. Berg is out of sight. (Francis claims he remains secluded in order to devote more time to prayer and thought, though on September 14 Argentine officials asked Interpol to assist in his apprehension.) It is reported that Berg's second wife, Maria, and her top lieutenants are now largely in charge.

Despite its highly aberrant and unorthodox sexual practices, The Family's latest successes in the United States demonstrate that smiling, committed, and apparently caring young people can still make an impact -- not only on denizens of the urban jungle, but even on the White House.

Baptist Battle over Freemasonry Erupts Anew

For centuries, Christians convinced of the pagan and universalist assertions of Freemasonry have sought to counter its influence worldwide.

In the second half of the last century, Jonathan Blanchard, first president of the evangelical Wheaton College and a former Mason himself, debated Masonic thinkers. And as recently as 1985, Christian Research Institute founder Walter Martin debated Bill Mankin, a 32 degree Mason and professing Christian, extracting seeming inconsistencies between Mankin's Christian and Masonic beliefs.

Perhaps no debate over the matter has garnered such attention nationwide, however, as the recent fire set under the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) by a medical doctor and layman from Beaumont, Texas. Last year, James "Larry" Holly requested at the Indianapolis SBC annual meeting that the convention conduct a formal study of the compatibility -- or, as he asserted, the lack thereof -- between Freemasonry and biblical Christianity.

The result was a whirlwind of controversy and media attention which did not begin to abate until June of 1993, when the SBC met for its annual convention in Houston, Texas. By an estimated 80 percent margin the denomination approved a study stating that Freemasonry's ideals and activities are, in part, compatible and elsewhere incompatible with Christianity.

The convention messengers went so far as to say, among other things, that Freemasonry's use of solemn oaths; its recommendation of "readings" of "undeniably pagan and/or occultic...writings"; its implication "that salvation may be attained by one's good works"; and the permeation through Masonic writings of "the heresy of universalism," are not compatible with Christianity or Southern Baptist doctrine.

To the astonishment of many, however, the six-page statement from the SBC Home Mission Board concludes by saying that Freemasonry membership should be "a matter of personal conscience," "consistent with our denomination's deep convictions regarding the priesthood of the believer and the autonomy of the local church."

All in all, the SBC's action was very "naive," said Holly. While affirming that he has been faithful to the Lord and will not challenge the matter further, others have told him that they will. "There is absolutely no question that what the convention did was short of what they should have done and was, in fact, compromise. The problem is the convention is always looking over their shoulder."

Ironically, in one fell swoop, what started as a well-intentioned attempt to weed out the effects of Freemasonry within the denomination has seemingly resulted instead in a strengthening of allegiance among American Masons. Indeed, Masons have heralded the SBC statement as ultimately a "positive" affirmation of their movement.

"The final report vindicates Freemasonry from the charge of being a religion or of being anti-Christian," said Fred Kleinknecht, Grand Commander of the Southern Jurisdiction of Freemasonry, in the June issue of the Masonic monthly Scottish Rite Journal. "In fact, the report advocates Masonic membership by Christians as an opportunity to witness in the Lodge for Christ by their example of Christian living."

During the controversy, many closet Masons pulled out their pins and proudly displayed them upon their lapels during services in local Southern Baptist churches.

At Parkway Baptist Church in St. Louis, 12-year pastor Stoney Shaw resigned and the church was thrown into turmoil after conducting its own investigation of Masonry. Shaw became convicted of Masonry's "cultic and anti-Christian" stance, but church members who were Masons rose up and strongly opposed him.

Holly believes that even though Masons are claiming an immediate boost from the SBC's outcome, it will not be sustained. "That kind of emotional response will not sustain the Lodge for long. Much of what they have published themselves has, in fact, proved the reality and truth of what we have said."

Masonry's Influence. The truth is that Freemasonry's membership -- estimated by Scottish Rite representatives at 2.5 million in the United States and six million worldwide -- has been dropping by two to three percent annually in recent years. The average age of a Mason is 63, according to the organization's own estimates.

Still, Holly estimates there are between 500,000 and 1.3 million Southern Baptist Freemasons alone, with 14 percent of SBC pastors and 18 percent of deacons being Masons. Masons have claimed the allegiance of scores of well-known members, which the Scottish Rite Journal paraded through its pages in the issues preceding the SBC vote.

One writer in the Scottish Rite Journal said that calling Masonry satanic is folly, asserting that "if Dr. James Holly of Beaumont is right, George Washington, the father of our country, was a devil worshiper." The writer goes on to mention the names of 13 U.S. presidents who were Masons, including Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry Truman, and most recently, Gerald Ford. He also notes the Masonic membership of Irving Berlin and John Wayne.

Moreover, journal articles were written defending the "gentle craft" by members Jesse Helms, Dr. Norman Vincent Peale, and the presidents of both Baylor and Furman universities. Every president of the Southern Baptist-run Baylor since its founding has been a Mason.

Abner McCall, president emeritus of Baylor, asserted in his article that "membership and work in the Masonic Lodge and the Baptist Church have supplemented and supported each other and in no way supplanted nor subverted each other. They conflict only in the mind of a person who subscribes to a perverted version of Freemasonry, the church, or both."

But if McCall's assertion is true, he has just condemned a great many of the denominations in the United States and Europe with whom one might think he would share an affinity. For while the Southern Baptists balked at taking a strong stand against Masonry, a large number of other denominations have not hesitated to make plain their opposition.

Based on information gathered by a Roman Catholic physician who prefers to remain anonymous (and printed in a recent book by Holly), the following denominations are publicly opposed to Freemasonry: the Roman Catholic Church; the Methodist Church of England; the Wesleyan Methodist Church; the Russian Orthodox Church; the Lutheran Church -- Missouri Synod; the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod; the Synod Anglican Church of England; the Assemblies of God; the Church of the Nazarene; the Orthodox Presbyterian Church; the Reformed Presbyterian Church; the Presbyterian Church in America; the Christian Reformed Church in America; the Evangelical Mennonite Church; the Church of Scotland; the Free Church of Scotland; and the Baptist Union of Scotland.

In statement after statement, the same concerns are listed by denominations opposed to Freemasonry, virtually all of which are also found in researchers John Weldon and John Ankerberg's book Bowing at Strange Altars: The Masonic Lodge and the Christian Conscience:

The Bottom Line. Since the writings of Freemasonry and its rituals are difficult to defend as Christian, Masons in recent months have mostly asserted that, on the contrary, Masonry is not a religion at all.

The debate has, by the players' admissions, turned into a game of semantics, with critics quoting the likes of highly touted Mason writer Albert Pike in his definitive book, Morals and Dogma, where he says, "Every Masonic Lodge is a temple of religion," and, moreover, " the universal, eternal, immutable religion."

Masons have protested that Pike -- who also said somewhere in the same book, "Masonry is not a religion" -- has never been considered the sole and definitive defender and creator of Masonic teaching, nor has anyone else. Ankerberg and Weldon note, however, that Grand Commander Fred Kleinknecht said himself in 1988 that Pike's Morals and Dogma is "the most complete exposition of Scottish Rite philosophy," calling Pike "the master builder of the Scottish Rite."

Whatever the case, the evidence presented by Masonry's critics raises the question: How could a Bible-believing denomination such as the Southern Baptist Convention confirm such findings in its own 6-page report and yet stop short of thoroughly dissociating itself with such an organization? According to some critics, the answer can be traced to the ongoing battle within the SBC between absolutist inerrantists and more liberal moderates.

End of document, CRJ0162A.TXT (original CRI file name),
"News Watch"
release A, August 31, 1994
R. Poll, CRI

A special note of thanks to Bob and Pat Hunter for their help in the preparation of this ASCII file for BBS circulation.)

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