Marketing Psychology and American Cults: Examining the Retention Practices of Scientology, Mormonism, and the Watch Tower

Religious Marketing in a Land of Opportunity

Before British journalist Christopher Hitchens would ever become known as one of the “Four Horseman”[1] of the New Atheism movement, he was an award-winning, widely-read, globe-trotting journalist.  In a 1997 interview with The Progressive, the well-traveled Hitchens was asked why he chose to make his home in the United States.  He answered, “The first thing I can remember I ever wanted was to go to the United States. And for reasons that are as conventional as you can imagine: I wanted to know if it was really true that it was the land of opportunity, of democracy, and individual liberty. My conclusion was that, at least as compared to the ancien regime under which I had been brought up, it was.”[2]  Hitchens eventually became an American citizen and exercised the individual liberty afforded to him by his new country (along with its free market) to author and promote his best-selling[3] book God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything.  Hitchens, a vociferous and virulent critic of religion, promoted his book by touring the United States from coast to coast seeking to debate religious leaders about the soundness of his atheistic argument that religion “poisons everything”.  He did not lack willing debate opponents anywhere he went.[sg_popup id=”1″ event=”onload”][/sg_popup]

Nearly 80% of Americans identify as adherents of a certain religion.[4]   Almost all of these religions were imported from the Old World.  However, some of them are uniquely American.  The free exercise of religion guaranteed by the United States Constitution has, since 1789, allowed ample opportunity for not only the practice of religion but the invention and promotion of it as well.  The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (commonly known as the Mormon sect) was founded in the United States in 1830 by New York native Joseph Smith.[5]  The Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of Pennsylvania (commonly known as the Jehovah’s Witness sect) was founded in 1870 by Charles Taze Russell.[6]  US Navy veteran L. Ron Hubbard founded the Church of Scientology in 1953.[7]   In totalitarian societies, such as those from which the very first non-native settlers of the American continent fled, these three sects would have likely been banned by law and quashed shortly after their founding.  However, in the land of opportunity, they have been allowed to thrive.

The convergence of the free market with freedom of religion has made it easy for religious organizations to grow on the American continent.  As religious organizations seek growth, they take part in what sociologist George Ritzer has termed “The McDonaldization of Society” which he defined as “the process by which the principles of the fast-food restaurant are coming home to dominate more and more sectors of American society and the rest of the world.”[8] “Churches unintentionally pick up on the ideas of McDonaldization through leadership magazines, conferences, and books that teach how churches can engage more of the American culture through certain structural, communications, and ministry models.”[9]  One of these models is brand marketing and, often times, it is picked up on quite purposefully.  Marketing strategy has come to be taught in seminary courses.  One seminary course text[10], Pastor’s Handbook, advises church leaders to emulate the practices of McDonald’s, Starbucks, and Disney World.[11]  The successful execution of church marketing is perhaps why religious activity has turned into one of the largest sectors of the American economy.

According to the authors of a study entitled “The Socio-economic Contribution of Religion to American Society: An Empirical Analysis” and published in the Interdisciplinary Journal of Research, their most conservative estimate of the revenue of faith based-organizations is “$378 billion annually – or more than a third of a trillion dollars…more than the global annual revenues of tech giants Apple and Microsoft combined.”[12]  Their least conservative estimate places “the value of faith to U.S. society at $4.8 trillion annually, or the equivalent of nearly a third of America’s gross domestic product.”[13]  These figures are staggering, especially when it is considered that religious activity is an unregulated sector of the economy.  The American economy, though fairly considered “free,” is not without regulation.  Massive corporations such as Apple and Microsoft as well as smaller, less influential businesses are regulated by powerful federal, state, and local government agencies which are tasked with protecting American consumers and investors.  Examples of such agencies, which regulate diverse sectors of the American economy, include the Federal Trade Commission, the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Food and Drug Administration, The Public Company Accounting Oversight Board, and the United States Department of Agriculture.  Additionally various medical licensing boards protect patients from being taken advantage of by abusive or incompetent doctors and therapists. The missions of these various organizations fall in line with a biblical understanding of civil government.[14]  They are “avengers who bring wrath on the one who practices evil.”[15]

The Mission of the Federal Trade Commission and similar agencies can be summed up very simply: they exist to prevent and eliminate “unfair or deceptive acts or practices” [16] committed by nefarious and unscrupulous actors looking to turn a profit in the marketplace.  If a business becomes monopolistic or colludes with major competitors to corner the market, it is broken up by government “trust-busters”.[17]  If a business engages in an unfair marketing practice, such as a “bait-and-switch”, it subject to reprisal from a government authority.  However, if a religious organization becomes monopolistic[18] or engages in such a psychological marketing trick (as long as it’s not selling a guaranteed material good), it is insulated from prosecution.  Religious organizations can, quite frankly, lie to and psychologically manipulate their patrons in order perpetuate themselves numerically and financially.  Ironically, the very same religious and personal liberty that allowed Christopher Hitches to publish and promote a book about how religion “poisons everything” allows certain religious organizations to poison everything.

Of course, Hitchens and the rest of his New Atheist cohorts are incorrect to assert that “religion” poisons everything.  As atheists, they are committed to the idea that all religions are false.  If it is the case that all religions are false then the leaders and adherents of religions are either under delusion or, even worse, knowingly manipulating people to into believing lifestyle-effecting lies, often in the course of supporting themselves financially or procuring for themselves some degree of cultural influence.  However, it is not the case that all religions are false.  God exists and, furthermore, He has revealed how religious activities should be carried out in the pages of the Bible, which He inspired.[19]  According to God’s word, true and acceptable religion is “to visit orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.”[20]  The antithesis of true religion is, in the course of seeking after the things of the world, taking advantage of the poor and ignorant, especially while making a tidy profit.[21]  Thus, in the absence of government regulation of religious practice (which historically, has been shown to be ill-advised and disastrous), it is up to God’s true church to expose the unfruitful deeds of darkness[22] perpetrated by the proprietors of false religion.

American society is full of religious organizations that defy God’s definition of true religion and blaspheme Him by disseminating unbiblical teachings about His natureHisJhhh hgg.  In an economy where taking unfair advantage of people is strictly prohibited in every sector but one, nefarious and unscrupulous actors looking to turn a profit are most likely to drift to that particular sector.  In America, that sector is religion.  While it may be true that the leaders of seeker-sensitive, market-driven Christian churches are in some way motivated by profit, the orthodox Trinitarian Christian theology which they hold to and promote may insulate their parishioners from eternal damnation.  In other words, someone (though he may be sorely lacking in discipleship) might actually come to saving faith through the gospel as presented by a McDonaldized Willow Creek, Purpose-Driven, or Andy Stanley church. Though neither is regulated in the American society, there is a difference between a huckster with the biblical gospel and a huckster with a false one.[23]  Examples of the latter type of huckster arguably include Joseph Smith, Charles Taze Russell, and L. Ron Hubbard.  Though they died long ago, these men founded cults that are today still operating successfully and drawing new converts.  Using psychological manipulation techniques and marketing tactics that profited-motivated businesses are prevented from unfairly implementing, these cults and other like them, control the minds and lives of millions of Americans.

By properly applying scripture, Christians can expose and critique the unbiblical and eternally damnable beliefs perpetrated by these cults.  Since men inherently lack the divine ability to see into the hearts and minds of others, there is no guaranteed way to determine which cult leaders and members are hucksters who know they are perpetrating a lie and which cult leaders are genuinely deceived (or even demon-possessed).  The Bible provides revelation from God which can be trusted to expose the false teachings of cults, regardless of the unknown internal motivations and mindsets of cultic false teachers.  Unfortunately, cult-members are often so brainwashed and conditioned by their cults that they are unable to see the way that their religious leaders have twisted and misapplied religious texts, especially the Bible, to gain control over their lives.  They may refuse to listen to biblical correction altogether.  Thus, another method of exposing damaging cult practices to deceived cult members may be useful: exposing the psychological tactics of cults.  No one likes to be ripped off or manipulated to their own disadvantage, even a cult member.  Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Scientologists can appreciate the type of work done by the Federal Trade Commission and consumer watchdog groups as much as atheists and Christians can.  Thus, Christians have the opportunity to identify the psychological tricks used by cults and inform cult members of the various ways of which they are being taken advantage.  Cult members, especially those who are savvy businessmen, having their eyes opened to the manipulative nature of their cults, will be empowered to abandon them.  The religious vacuum created in their lives can then be filled by a biblical Christian witness.  There are many examples of psychological manipulation being implemented by American cults.  By examining some of these examples, Christians can be prepared to engage in the practice of cult-busting as a part of the overall process of proclaiming the biblical gospel.

Escalation of Commitment – The Sunk Costs of Life in a Cult

Scientologists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Mormons, because of the way their cults operate, are prone to engage in the practice of Escalation of Commitment.  Escalation of Commitment is defined as the “’persistence in a losing course of action by a decision-maker’.  It is marked by the continuing investment of resources (e.g. time, money) despite negative feedback about a previous decision.”[24]  For a decision to be considered Escalation of Commitment it must involve “(1) a previous loss; (2) the option to either continue or withdraw from the decision situation; and (3) uncertain consequences of making the decision to continue or withdraw.”[25]  Perhaps the simplest and most relatable example of Escalation of Commitment is a moviegoer who buys a ticket to a really bad two-hour movie.  After one hour of not enjoying the movie, rather than walking out, the moviegoer stays in his seat and finishes watching the film.  Leaving at the halfway point would force the moviegoer to admit that he wasted his ticket money.  Instead of leaving and preserving for alternate use the remaining hour of his day, he holds out hope that the movie might get better.  It doesn’t and he wastes another hour watching the movie until its end.  With each passing second of the bad movie, the commitment of the moviegoer to a doomed endeavor (watching a bad movie when his intention was to enjoy a good movie) escalates.  Wasted time and money on a movie ticket does not amount to much in the course of one’s life.  However, the cost of a single movie ticket pales in comparison to much larger losses than can be incurred by the same flawed thinking.  Consider the case of an investor who purchases a block of stock for $10,000.  After a period of months the value of his investment plummets to $5,000.  Market analysis indicates that the company in which he owns stock is likely to go out of business.  Rather than admit his error, sell the stock, and recoup $5,000 of his investment for alternative use, the investor keeps his stock until it is worthless.  Such irrational behavior is not limited to individuals.  Large organizations and their managers also engage in Escalation of Commitment when they refuse to abandon large-scale multi-million dollar projects that show little indication of future success.  According a 1987 article in Harvard Business Review entitled “Knowing When to Pull the Plug”, “…all managers will make some mistakes and stick with some decisions longer than they ought to. Recent research has shown, however, that the tendency to pursue a failing course of action is not a random thing. Indeed, at times some managers, and even entire organizations, seem almost programmed to follow a dying cause.” [26]  No one makes the choice to enter into a course of action, whether it is a relatively unimportant or life-changing one, unless he thinks he is making the right decision.  Yet even highly-compensated business executives are hesitant to admit failure when it becomes apparent.  “Research has also shown…that executives fail to recognize when a project is beyond hope. People have an almost uncanny ability to see only what accords with their beliefs. Much like sports fans who concentrate on their own team’s great plays and the other team’s fouls, managers tend to see only what confirms their preferences. For example, an executive who is convinced that a project will be profitable will probably slant estimates of sales and costs to support the view. If the facts challenge this opinion, the manager may work hard to find reasons to discredit the source of information or the quality of the data. And if the data are ambiguous, the manager may seize on just those facts that support the opinion. Thus information biasing can be a major roadblock to sensible withdrawal from losing courses of action…In addition to the effects of rewards and biased information, (an additional)  psychological mechanism may be at work. Sometimes even when managers recognize that they have suffered losses, they may choose to invest further resources in a project rather than accept failure. What may be fostering escalation in these cases is a need for self-justification.”[27]  In the process of commitment escalation, decision makers demonstrate undue attachment to “sunk costs,” which are defined as “costs that have already been incurred and thus cannot be recovered.”[28]  Because of their desire for self-justification they do not wish to admit that the sunk costs which they have occurred have been wasted.  The type of thinking present in Escalation of Commitment, which causes individuals to continue with bad consumer choices and businesses to continue with doomed investments projects, is the same type of thinking that helps cults retain members.  Where cult members begin to doubt their religious choices, Escalation of Commitment keeps them from leaving their cult.

The religious practice of The Church of Scientology provides what is perhaps the best example of Escalation of Commitment in religious life.  According to the doctrine of scientology, “every person has two minds – the analytical mind and the reactive mind.”[29]  The reactive mind is the “single source of human aberrations and psychosomatic ills.”[30]  The purpose of practicing Scientology is to rid one’s self of the reactive mind, thus entering in to a superior state of consciousness, known in Scientology as “going clear”.  The reactive mind is removed though the process of auditing.  Auditing sessions are offered by the Church of Scientology for a fee.  As a Scientologist progresses in his religious practice, paying for auditing session after auditing session, he learns more and more about the very secretive religious beliefs of Scientology.  A practitioner of scientology begins with the status of “preclear.”  After a Scientologist has “gone clear” through the auditing process he can receive the status of “Operating Thetan”.  However, his potential for progression does not end at that point; there are different levels of Operating Thetan status which can be achieved, up to level eight.  To achieve these various levels one must continue paying for auditing sessions.  At Operating Thetan Level Three, the Scientologist is entrusted with the secretive story of how the reactive mind came to wreak havoc on the human psyche.  According to the doctrine of scientology, millions of years ago an intergalactic overlord named Xenu was dealing with overpopulation in his empire.  To solve his problem, he transported a multitude of frozen people to earth in space planes. Once there, the frozen people were dumped into volcanoes and obliterated by atomic bombs.  As their souls floated up into the atmosphere, they were caught by soul-catching devices that Xenu had placed there in anticipation.  These souls were then brainwashed by Xenu and trapped on earth.  As humankind evolved from early primates, these souls or “thetans” inhabited their minds.  Even today, when a child is born, one or more thetans leap into his body, essentially becoming his soul.  The reactive mind is a result of the bad experiences of these thetans in their past lives.  Once a human “goes clear” as a sufficiently leveled Operating Thetan, he can control matter, energy space, and time. [31]  The cost of the auditing sessions necessary to obtain this plainly ludicrous explanation of humanity’s problems[32] is estimated to be between $200,000 and $400,000.[33]  The amount of money and time spent to obtain Operating Thetan Level Three is perhaps the ultimate religious sunk cost.  Admitting the colossal mistake that one has progressively wasted hundreds of thousands of dollars and worked thousands of man-hours to obtain a “clear state” in a religion that is plainly as made up as a bad science fiction novel takes a Herculean psychological effort.  Furthermore, the discrediting of critical sources is a key tactic of Scientology’s leadership.  Critics of Scientology deemed “suppressive persons” by the church are essentially shunned by church members.  Furthermore, suppressive persons can be maligned under Scientology’s “fair game” doctrine.[34]  The maligning of the character of former Scientologists is easily enabled by the auditing practice, as church members often admit embarrassing facts about themselves in order to facilitate the process of going clear.  The Scientologist who considers leaving his religion faces losing friends, family, reputation, and any perceived progress in attaining a higher state of consciousness.[35]

The structure of the Jehovah’s Witness religion also leaves its members susceptible to Escalation of Commitment.  Unlike Scientology, this religion is not a “pay to play” faith where adherents are expected to pay their church for spiritual services.  However, like Scientology, this religion teaches a form of works righteousness (or self-justification), requires a significant investment of personal time, and exhorts enormous influence over personal, professional, home, and family life.  Jehovah’s Witnesses are well-known for their house-to-house proselytizing.  Each Jehovah’s Witnesses is considered a “publisher” [36]  by the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society.[37] Publishers are required to turn in a periodic “time report” to the elders of their local congregation which detail their witnessing activities.  “This report is put on their file. There are secret files kept on all Jehovah’s Witnesses which are only viewed by the elders. If a Jehovah’s Witness refuses to turn in a time report, they are disciplined and put on list called ‘irregular publisher.’ The individual will be on this black list until they again turn in regular reports.”[38]  A convert to the Jehovah’s Witness faith “eagerly attends five meetings a week and spends at least ten hours a month knocking on doors and witnessing to people….if the JW is male and has not dropped out (of publishing) he has the opportunity to progress through the ranks publisher, servant, and perhaps even elder (a member of the congregation’s governing board).”[39]  If a Jehovah’s Witness spends seventy hours a month in preaching work, he attains the level of “Pioneer”.  One can become a “Special Pioneer” by devoting one hundred thirty hours or more to ministry each month. [40]  In a way similar to how Scientology confers “Operating Thetan” levels to practitioners who have earned them, the Watch Tower confers prestigious levels of achievement on its dedicated members.  Any member who begins to doubt the teaching of the Watch Tower or consider the troubling the nature of its well-documented doctrinal flip flops, is faced with Escalation of Commitment; admitting that the Jehovah’s Witness faith is a false one also means admitting that he has wasted countless hours pounding the pavement sharing the faith, all his kingdom work has been for naught, and his earned status in the organization is meaningless.  Further complicating matters is that Jehovah’s Witnesses are discouraged from reading “apostate” literature (i.e. literature that is critical of the Watch Tower).  So a Jehovah’s Witness is already conditioned to trust the Watch Tower and doubt its detractors.  Former Jehovah’s Witnesses are considered apostates.  “Apostates are the most despicable people on the face of the earth, Jehovah’s Witnesses are taught, with the result that a Witness would much rather encounter someone expelled from the sect for theft or adultery than find himself face-to-face with an apostate. The Watchtower tells them that they ‘must hate’ apostates and that they must not be ‘curious about apostate ideas.’ Therefore, any information that may come from an apostate source can be dismissed without even listening to it.”[41]  The Watch Tower, though Escalation of Commitment, sets its members up for failure.  They are conditioned to doubt negative information about the Watch Tower, trust their own biased information, and fear losing their personal investment in self-justification.

The Mormon faith is also set up to capitalize on Escalation of Commitment.  “Mormonism’s leaders believe that their organization, which was founded by Joseph Smith in 1830, has God’s complete authority, unlike any other institution on the face of the earth.”[42]  “This authority comes through the LDS priesthood. There are two divisions of the priesthood: the Aaronic and Melchizedek priesthoods, both of which are held only by males. The Aaronic priesthood is known as the ‘lesser’ priesthood and is made up of deacons (12 years old), teachers (14 years old), priests (16 years old), and bishops (the leader of local bodies of LDS believers). Meanwhile, the Melchizedek priesthood is named after the priest mentioned in Genesis 14…The offices in this (priesthood) branch are elders, high priests, patriarchs, seventies, and apostles.”[43]  Faithful Mormon males between the ages of 18 and 25 are expected to participate in a two-year long mission trip[44] as a part of their priesthood duty.[45]  Upon entering the Mormon mission field, the title of “elder” is conferred upon a young man.  As is the case with Scientology and the Watch Tower, the Mormon Church confers exclusive and prestigious titles upon its members.  In the case of Mormonism, these titles are conferred upon men who are still in their formative years. Mormons must earn the right to enter their religious temples through clean living.  Only those Mormons who support church leadership, are morally clean, pay a full tithe, live in harmony with the church, and do not sympathize with apostate groups earn a temple recommendation.[46]  Inside of the temple is where Mormon marriage ceremonies are performed; only those church members with a temple recommendation can attend these ceremonies.  Husbands and wives who are sealed in a Mormon temple marriage are taught that they have the opportunity to become gods and goddesses of their own planet.  Without a celestial marriage, a Mormon cannot become a god and continue his family into eternity.[47]  Furthermore, if a Mormon’s spouse leaves the Mormon faith, he cannot stay married to her and still become a god.[48]  As is the case with the priesthood, Mormon marriage commitments are typically foisted upon relatively young people.[49]  As Mormons mature and learn more about their religion, there is good reason that they should doubt what they have been taught.  The Mormon creation myth is every bit as fantastical and intergalactic as that of Scientology.  The Book or Mormon is not supported by any extant archaeological evidence.  The character of Joseph Smith was dubious at best.  As with L. Ron Hubbard, the historical record outside of his own cult paints him as a cad.  Maturing Mormons who are tempted to leave their faith face admitting that their priesthood titles and celestial marriage commitments are fanciful fabrications and that the work they performed for the salvation of themselves and others will not pay off.  Adults who decide to leave the faith must admit that they wasted two years of their life on a Mormon mission.  As it the case with the Jehovah’s Witness and Scientology cults, members of the LDS church are conditioned to look at their own biases with rose-colored glasses while dismissing detractors as apostates.  Escalation of Commitment exerts heavy pressure on Mormons to remain Mormon in the face of ample evidence that their religion and its founding prophet are counterfeit; their sunk costs are heavy.

 

The Consistency Trap – Mandated Testimony of Falsehoods

From small American beginnings, the Mormon and Jehovah’s Witness religions have spread all over the world.  The Mormon Church estimates its worldwide membership at 15,634,199.[50]  Jehovah’s Witnesses estimate their worldwide number to be 8,220,105.[51]  These numbers are impressive, considering that neither religion is yet two hundred years old and that both began with only a handful of adherents.  However, these numbers are not surprising.  Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses are known as the some of the most prolific proselytizers of any faith.  Every Jehovah’s Witness is expected to be a “publisher” who turns in witnessing reports.  The mandate of the Mormon Church is “every member is a missionary.”[52]  Because proselytizing is formally required by these cults (not just expected as in other religions), its members are susceptible to falling into what is known as a “consistency trap”.  (Ironically, they may try to use such a trap themselves in order to make converts).  G. Richard Sell, a professor of Business Ethics at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton College of Business, explains the use of consistency traps as follows: “Skilled negotiators know about the human need to appear consistent and try to use it as often as they can.  Truly manipulative people go beyond identifying their counterparts’ standard for positioning purposes and try to trick their opponents by using what I call consistency traps.  The goal of a consistency trap is to precommit you to a seemingly innocent standard and then confront you with the logical implications of the standard in a particular case – implications that actually turn out to run against your interests.  This is a form of intellectual coercion.”[53]  The consistency trap can be a marketer’s best friend.  They can also be useful for cults.

Testimonial write-in contests, which are typical of consumer product marketers, provide an excellent example of a constancy trap in action.  A typical contest resembles the following: The producers of Parkay Butter offer $5,000 to the consumer who writes in the best testimonial explaining why she “only uses Parkay Butter on her table.”  Not only will the winner receive the cash prize; her testimonial will be printed on Parkay’s butter packages.  Thousands of submissions are sent to Parkay.  For the cost of $5,000 to one winner, Parkay gains the business of every contest participant (to whom they paid nothing).  Each losing contestant submitted a testimony saying that she would “only use Parkay Butter on her table.”  Her own words, even though no one outside of Parkay will ever see them, will convict her in her own mind every time she is on the dairy aisle of the grocery store and thinks of reaching for a different brand of butter.  At the same time, almost no one is expected to begin buying Parkay butter because of the testimony of some stranger that is written on the package.  The purpose of the contest all along was to seal the participants in a consistency trap, not reach new customers.[54]  The proselytizing of Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses provides the same benefit to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society, respectively.

Mormon Missionaries and Jehovah’s Witness publishers fail to gain a new convert much more often than they successfully win one.  Each time a Mormon Missionary or Jehovah’s Witness intentionally shares the teaching of his cult, he reaffirms that teaching and his dedication to his church in his own mind.  It is the practice of Mormons to share their testimonies[55] before their church.  Without doing so, a Mormon cannot participate in temple ceremonies.  “A Mormon testimony consists of being able to say, unequivocally, ‘I know the LDS Church is true and that Joseph Smith is a true prophet of God.’”[56]  In order to reject Mormonism, a Mormon must admit that he dedicated two years of his life on a mission trying to convince other people that a lie was the truth.  A generational Mormon must admit that he passed this lie on to his own children and encouraged them to go on missions of their own.  He must admit that every time he said “The Holy Spirit revealed to me that the Book of Mormon is true,” that he was deceived.[57]  He must admit that he gave a false testimony to his church about what he said he “knew”.  Similarly, in order to reject the Watch Tower, a Jehovah’s Witnesses must admit that he spent countless hours going to countless houses, knocking on countless doors, and trying to convince countless people to believe a false gospel.[58]  The Mormon and Watchtower cults, like marketers selling butter with a testimonial contest, condition their members to stay consistent with their doctrine through mandated and repeated personal testimonies.  In order to admit that Joseph Smith was a liar, the Mormon has to admit that he is a liar himself.  In order to admit that the Watch Tower is a false prophet, the Jehovah’s Witness must admit that he is a false prophet himself.  These cults have set up a systematic consistency trap.  Their leaders arguably understand the old axiom of business: “It is usually far cheaper to retain existing customers than it is to find new ones.”[59]

Bait and Switch – What the Cultist at the Door Doesn’t Share

Without any documentation from cult leadership to confirm, it’s impossible to definitively claim that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and the Watchtower Bible or Tract Society intentionally use consistency traps to retain members.  However, there is a psychological manipulation tactic that Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses certainly use to gain converts; the bait-and-switch.  “The term bait-and-switch is most commonly used to refer to an advertising practice that is both unethical and illegal…It typically involves an advertiser luring customers into the store by advertising a product at an unrealistically low price (the bait).  The customer is then told that the advertised goods are (1) not available or (2) of inferior quality and/or not suitable for the customer’s needs.  The goal is to “switch” the customer to another, more expensive product or one that has a higher profit margin.  What sets bait-and-switch apart from other advertising practices is that the store does not intend to sell the advertised product – the advertised product is intended to attract customers, who are then persuaded to buy another product.”[60]

When Jehovah’s Witnesses knock on a door, they are often not entirely honest about the full requirements of their religion to the person who answers it.  “Dangerous cults don’t reveal all of their strange doctrines when they try to recruit new members.  For a Jehovah’s Witness to start his recruitment effort by saying, ‘Join us; if your child ever needs a blood transfusion you have to let him die’ or ‘Join us; our kids will have to give up sports and Christmas’ would be a deal-breaker.  Usually the Jehovah’s Witnesses approach people with more orthodox teachings – beliefs that are shared with other religious groups….As the prospect becomes more interested and more committed to the cult, the leaders gradually introduce the more bizarre doctrines.  The initiate is not allowed to know the inner secrets until he is fully indoctrinated.”[61]  Jehovah’s Witnesses (themselves a sub-Christian cult) typically operate within culturally Christian communities; they “bait” prospects with generically orthodox Christian teachings as they initiate regular Bible-study with them.  Then, once the commitment of a prospect has escalated, Jehovah’s Witnesses “switch” to teaching the heretical, controversial tenets of their cult.  Mormons do this as well.  Like Jehovah’s Witnesses, they are a sub-Christian cult that typically operates in culturally Christian areas.  Mormon missionaries approach prospects with generic Christian language.  They refer to Jesus as “savior” and to “the Godhead”.  However, the Jesus to which they refer is not the Jesus of orthodox Christianity but a created spirit-being from Kolob.  The Godhead to which they refer is not the Triune God of orthodox Christianity but “Three gods— God the Father, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Ghost— who, while distinct in being, are one in purpose.”[62]  Like Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons hide the heretical, controversial tenets of their cult.  Mormon missionaries are not supposed to tell prospects and new converts about “deep doctrine” because it often scares off new members.  Such “deep doctrine” includes the notions that there is a heavenly mother, that Mormons can become gods, and that those Mormons who don’t pay their tithes could die in by falling fire.[63]  Deep doctrines come later, after commitment has escalated.  Scientologists arguably participate in bait-and-switch tactics as well.  Prospective scientologists are enticed with the idea that L. Ron Hubbard’s “Dianetics” methodology can improve their psychological state.  It is only at Operating Thetan Level Thee that they are informed of Scientology’s space opera creation myth.

Christians and Consumer Advocacy

At the most basic level, lost is lost.  Whether someone is an atheist, a non-religious theist, or a cult member, his biggest problem is that he doesn’t know Jesus and his biggest need is the gospel.  The gospel, that Christ died for humanity’s sins and was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures,[64] is the same for every person no matter his background.  Still special care can be taken to approach non-Christians in accordance with their backgrounds and personal situations.  Cultists, like all nonbelievers, are separated from God by their sin.  However, they are additionally insulated from and prejudiced toward biblical truth by the doctrinal perversion and mind control perpetrated by their cult.  This is a wall that needs to be broken down.  If a Christian attempts to break that wall by showing the cultist that he has been, as it were, sold a bill of goods, the Christian needs to ensure that the cultist knows that he isn’t just trying to sell him Christianity as a replacement product.

The Christian needs to present himself as someone who is there to help the cultist in the same way consumer advocates and government agencies are there to help consumers who have been ripped off.  In today’s Christian culture, this can be a difficult thing to do.  Perry Noble, the former pastor the largest Southern Baptist Church in the World[65] was removed from his office in July of 2016 for the abuse of alcohol.  His ministry comeback endeavor is church growth consulting.  In advertising his services, Noble stated, “Some may argue the church is not a business – I would disagree.  After all, at one point in serving as the Senior Pastor of NewSpring Church I was responsible for 425 employees and a $63,000,000 budget – which takes way more than a prayer meeting to manage!”[66]  Christianity is not a transactional religion and Christ’s church is not a storefront.  Methodological success and millions of dollars in revenue do not make a religious organization successful before the Lord.  Cultists who have spent their lives in works-based, self-justifying religions must be able to see that Christian salvation comes by God’s grace alone.  Cultists who have been trying to work their way to God need to be told, “It’s not by doing good deeds. You can’t work your way in. You do not have the ability to produce the things that only God can do in your life…. You can’t, and God never said you could. But He can, and He always said He would.”[67]  The Christian life is not for sale; salvation is free a gift of God.  Success in the Christian life comes by the sanctification of the Holy Spirit.  No gimmicks and manipulations are needed.

The Christian should be wary when exposing the psychological tactics cults use to cult members.  His audience might not be a deceived, ignorant, and innocent victim but a willing perpetrator of psychological manipulation and business-like marketing.  An iconic 1997 edition of Time Magazine featured the phrase “Mormons Inc” superimposed over a picture of the Salt Lake City Mormon Temple.  An article inside of the magazine revealed that the Latter Day Saints were some of the world’s savviest businesspeople.  Its writer reported, “…the Latter-day Saints employ vast amounts of money in investments that TIME estimates to be at least $6 billion strong. Even more unusual, most of this money is not in bonds or stock in other peoples’ companies but is invested directly in church-owned, for-profit concerns, the largest of which are in agribusiness, media, insurance, travel and real estate. Deseret Management Corp., the company through which the church holds almost all its commercial assets, is one of the largest owners of farm and ranchland in the country, including 49 for-profit parcels in addition to the Deseret Ranch. Besides the Bonneville International chain and Beneficial Life, the church owns a 52% holding in ZCMI, Utah’s largest department-store chain.  All told, TIME estimates that the Latter-day Saints farmland and financial investments total some $11 billion, and that the church’s nontithe income from its investments exceeds $600 million.”[68]  The Mormons are not novices when it comes to growing businesses or religions.  Neither or Scientologists; their religion counts among its adherents some of the film industry’s most influential power brokers.  Their mindsets should be juxtaposed against that of Jesus.  L. Ron Hubbard, a writer of pulp fiction before he founded his religion, is famously credited with saying, “You don’t get rich writing science fiction. If you want to get rich, you start a religion.”[69]  Jesus Christ, who died the death or a poor man and didn’t so much as have a place to lay his head[70] said, “I will build my church.”[71]  He did just that, without marketing, manipulation, or mind control.  The same cannot be said of the American cults.

*Please note that the preceding is my personal opinion. It is not necessarily the opinion of any entity by which I am employed, any church at which I am a member, any church which I attend, or the educational institution at which I am enrolled. Any copyrighted material displayed or referenced is done under the doctrine of fair use.

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Barber, Wayne. “Ephesians 1:18-20 by Wayne Barber.” PreceptAustin.Org. August 01, 2016. http://www.preceptaustin.org/ephesians_118-20_by_wayne_barber (accessed November 28, 2016).

Barker, Jason. “Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society.” Watchman Fellowship. 2011. http://www.watchman.org/profiles/pdf/watchtowerprofile.pdf (accessed November 16, 2016).

Bisagno, John. Pastor’s Handbook. B&H Publishing Group, 2011.

Branch, Craig. “Church of Scientology: A Religious Mafia?” Watchman Fellowship. http://www.watchman.org/articles/scientology/church-of-scientology-a-religious-mafia/ (accessed November 27, 2016).

Branch, Rich. “Church of Scientolgy .” Watchman Fellowship. 1994. http://www.watchman.org/profiles/pdf/scientologyprofile.pdf (accessed November 16, 2106).

Dunn, Seth. “A Doctrinal Overview of the Watch Tower.” Seth Dunn – A Chrisitan Worldview. November 09, 2016. https://gsethdunn.wordpress.com/2016/11/09/a-doctrinal-overview-of-the-watch-tower/ (accessed November 28, 2016).

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Hewitt, Joe B. Rescuing Slaves of the Watchtower. Garland, TX: Hannibal Books, 2011.

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Intellectual Reserve, Inc. “Missionary Program.” Newsroom. 2016. https://www.lds.org/callings/missionary/faqs?lang=eng#4 (accessed November 28, 2016).

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Naylor, Carma. A Mormon’s Unexpected Journey: Finding the Grace I Never Knew. Vol. 1. Enumclaw, MA: Winpress Publishing, 2006.

Noble, Perry. “My Next Step.” PerryNoble.com. November 28, 2016. https://perrynoble.com/blog/my-next-step (accessed November 28, 2016).

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Stack, Peggy Fletcher. “Mormon guys delay marriage in paralyzing hunt for perfect wife.” USA Today. April 21, 2011. http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/news/religion/2011-04-22-mormon_dating_21_ST_N.htm (accessed November 28, 2016).

Staw, Barry M and Jerry Ross. “Knowing When to Pull the Plug.” Harvard Business Review, 1987.

Trapped in the Closet. Directed by Trey Parker. Produced by Braniff. Performed by Matt Stone, John ‘Nancy’ Hansen Trey Parker. 2005.

Van Biema, David. “Kingdom Come – Salt Lake City Was Just for Starters – The Mormons’ True Great Trek Has Been to Social Acceptance And a $30 Billion Church Empire.” Time Magazine, August 4, 1997.

Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of Pennsylvania. “How Many of Jehovah’s Witnesses Are There Worldwide?” JW.ORG. 2016. https://www.jw.org/en/jehovahs-witnesses/faq/how-many-jw-members/ (accessed November 2016, 2016).

—. “What Is a Pioneer?” JW.ORG. 2016. https://www.jw.org/en/publications/books/jehovahs-will/jw-pioneer/ (accessed November 28, 2016).

White, Thomas and John Yeats. Franchising McChurch: Feeding American’s Obsession with Easy Christianity. David C Cook, 2009.

Wikiquote contributors. “L. Ron Hubbard.” Wikiquote. March 16, 2016. https://en.wikiquote.org/w/index.php?title=L._Ron_Hubbard&oldid=2100019 (accessed March 28, 2016).

[1] Evangelical Philosophical Society. “Interview with Paul Copan: Is Yahweh a Moral Monster?” Evangelical Philosophical Society. April 7, 2008. http://blog.epsociety.org/2008/04/interview-with-paul-copan-is-yahweh.asp (accessed November 13, 2016).

[2] Abramsky, Sasha. “Christopher Hitchens Interview.” The Progressive. December 16, 1997. http://www.progressive.org/christopher_hitchens_1997_progressive_interview.html (accessed November 13, 2016).

[3] Hitchens, Christopher. “God Bless Me, It’s a Best-Seller!” Vanity Fair. September 2007. http://www.vanityfair.com/news/2007/09/hitchens200709 (accessed November 16, 2016).

[4] Pew Research Center. “Religious Landscape Study.” Pew Research Center. 2016. http://www.pewforum.org/religious-landscape-study/ (accessed November 11, 2016).

[5] McKeever, Bill and Eric Johnson. Mormonism 101: Examining the Religion of the Latter-day Saints. Revised and Expanded ed. Baker Books, 2015. p 20.

[6] Barker, Jason. “Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society.” Watchman Fellowship. 2011. http://www.watchman.org/profiles/pdf/watchtowerprofile.pdf (accessed November 16, 2016).

[7] Branch, Rich. “Church of Scientolgy .” Watchman Fellowship. 1994. http://www.watchman.org/profiles/pdf/scientologyprofile.pdf (accessed November 16, 2106).

[8] White, Thomas and John Yeats. Franchising McChurch: Feeding American’s Obsession with Easy Christianity. David C Cook, 2009. p 13

[9] ibid

[10] This text has been used in the course Church Leadership and Administration at the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary and is published by a Southern Baptist publishing company.

[11] On pages 318, 384, and 386 of Pastor’s Handbook, Pastor John Bisagno encourages readers to adopt some of the business practices of these secular hospitality companies in order to attract and retain church attendees.

[12] Grim, Brian J and Melissa E. Grim. “The Socio-economic Contribution of Religion to American Society: An Empirical Analysis.” Interdisciplinary Journal of Research on Religion, 2016. p 2

[13] ibid

[14] Their size, scope, competence, and compliance with a Christian view of justice are debatable.  However, that debate is outside of the scope of this paper.

[15]Romans 13:1-7

[16] Federal Trade Commission . “The Antitrust Laws.” Federal Trade Commission. https://www.ftc.gov/tips-advice/competition-guidance/guide-antitrust-laws/antitrust-laws (accessed November 19, 2016).

[17] “Trust-busting” is a term that referred to President Theodore Roosevelt’s policy of prosecuting monopolies, or “trusts,” that violated federal antitrust law.  See http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/trust-busting for further explanation.

[18] It may seem strange to refer to religious organizations as “monopolistic,” however, one of the marks of a cult is that, like a monopoly, it corners the market on something desirable.  In the case of a cult, it purports to have the market cornered on truth.  According to the Christian Apologetics Research Ministry, one of the tendencies of a cult is that it “often considers traditional religious systems to be apostate and it alone possesses the complete truth.”  For more information see https://carm.org/cults-outline-analysis.

[19] 2 Timothy 3:16, 2 Peter 1:21

[20] James 1:12

[21] Luke 20:47, Ezekiel 16:49, Amos 5:12, Titus 1:11, 1 Peter 5:2

[22] Ephesians 5:11

[23] Philippians 1:15

[24] Horn, Marianna L. “The downside of persistence: The effects of mood on an escalation of commitment paradigm.” A thesis submitted to the Graduate Faculty of Auburn University in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the Degree of Master of Science, 2012.

[25] ibid

[26] Staw, Barry M and Jerry Ross. “Knowing When to Pull the Plug.” Harvard Business Review, 1987.

[27] ibid

[28] Investopedia. “Sunk Cost.” Investopedia. http://www.investopedia.com/terms/s/sunkcost.asp?lgl=no-infinite (accessed November 27, 2016).

[29] Branch, Rich. “Church of Scientolgy .” Watchman Fellowship. 1994. http://www.watchman.org/profiles/pdf/scientologyprofile.pdf (accessed November 16, 2106).

[30] ibid

[31] This information was a closely guarded secret for decades.  In recent years, media producers and former scientologists have begun to disseminate this information on the internet, in books, in documentary film, and even in an episode of South Park.

[32] It must be noted here that L. Ron Hubbard was a writer of science fiction stories before he founded Scientology.

[33] Branch, Craig. “Church of Scientology: A Religious Mafia?” Watchman Fellowship. http://www.watchman.org/articles/scientology/church-of-scientology-a-religious-mafia/ (accessed November 27, 2016).

[34] Breaking critics through litigation is a key strategy in fair game doctrine.  Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard once remarked, “The purpose of the suit is to harass and discourage rather than to win. The law can be used very easily to harass, and enough harassment on somebody who is simply on the thin edge anyway, well knowing that he is not authorized, will generally be sufficient to cause his professional decease. If possible, of course, ruin him utterly.”  For more information see https://gsethdunn.wordpress.com/2014/02/01/fair-game-scientology-ergun-caner-lawsuits-and-the-georgia-baptist-convention/.

[35] It is worth noting that the United States government (specifically the IRS) did challenge the religious status of the Church of Scientology.  The church was the subject of a massive FBI investigation that included raids on church property.  A number of church operatives went to jail as a result of these investigations.  Eventually, through the use of litigation, The Church of Scientology obtained recognition as a “religion” by the IRS.  For more information see Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief.

[36] Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of Pennsylvania. “What Is a Pioneer?” JW.ORG. 2016. https://www.jw.org/en/publications/books/jehovahs-will/jw-pioneer/ (accessed November 28, 2016).

[37] “The Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of Pennsylvania is a nonprofit corporation formed in 1884 under the laws of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, U.S.A.  It is under the structure of this corporation, as well as a number of affiliated legal entities, that the religious group known as “Jehovah’s Witnesses” carries out its worldwide work.  For more information see https://gsethdunn.wordpress.com/2016/11/09/a-doctrinal-overview-of-the-watch-tower/.

[38] http://www.watchthetower.net/. “Tools of the Trade.” http://www.watchthetower.net/. http://www.watchthetower.net/tools1 (accessed November 28, 2016).  The proprietors of Watchthetower.net are Paul and Pat Blizzard.  The Blizzards are former high-level Jehovah’s Witnesses who are well-known detractors of the Watch Tower.  For more information on the Blizzards see http://www.watchthetower.net/bio.html.

[39] Hewitt, Joe B. Rescuing Slaves of the Watchtower. Garland, TX: Hannibal Books, 2011. p 11

[40] Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of Pennsylvania. “What Is a Pioneer?” JW.ORG. 2016. https://www.jw.org/en/publications/books/jehovahs-will/jw-pioneer/ (accessed November 28, 2016).

[41] Reed, David. Answering Jehovah’s Witnesses: Subject by Subject. Kindle Edition. Baker Books, 2011. p 18

[42] McKeever, Bill and Eric Johnson. Mormonism 101: Examining the Religion of the Latter-day Saints. Revised and Expanded ed. Baker Books, 2015. p 303

[43] ibid p 12-13

[44] Intellectual Reserve, Inc. “Missionary Program.” Newsroom. 2016. https://www.lds.org/callings/missionary/faqs?lang=eng#4 (accessed November 28, 2016).

[45] Intellectual Reserve, Inc. “Preparing to Serve.” www.lds.org. March 18, 2016. https://www.lds.org/callings/missionary/faqs?lang=eng#4 (accessed November 28, 2016).

[46] McKeever, Bill and Eric Johnson. Mormonism 101: Examining the Religion of the Latter-day Saints. Revised and Expanded ed. Baker Books, 2015. p 244

[47] ibid p 143

[48] Naylor, Carma. A Mormon’s Unexpected Journey: Finding the Grace I Never Knew. Vol. 1. Enumclaw, MA: Winpress Publishing, 2006. p 214

[49] The median age for a first marriage in the U.S. has climbed to 25.8 for women and 27.4 for men. In heavily Mormon Utah, the median age for first-time brides has jumped from 20 in 1970 to 22 in 2008, and from 22 to 24 for men. For more information see http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/news/religion/2011-04-22-mormon_dating_21_ST_N.htm.

[50] Intellectual Reserve, Inc. “Facts and Statistics.” Newsroom. September 01, 2016. http://www.mormonnewsroom.org/facts-and-statistics (accessed September 18, 2016).

[51] Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of Pennsylvania. “How Many of Jehovah’s Witnesses Are There Worldwide?” JW.ORG. 2016. https://www.jw.org/en/jehovahs-witnesses/faq/how-many-jw-members/ (accessed November 2016, 2016).

[52] Naylor, Carma. A Mormon’s Unexpected Journey: Finding the Grace I Never Knew. Vol. 1. Enumclaw, MA: Winpress Publishing, 2006. p 158

[53] Shell, G. Richard. Bargaining for Advantage: Negotiation Strategies for Reasonable People. Penguin Books, 2006. p 46

[54] This contest scenario is not of my own invention.  It was presented by the professor to my Psychology 101 class at Georgia Southern University in the year 2000.  It’s been sixteen years since I took that course.  His Parkay butter example sticks with me but I do not recall the professor’s name.  He was a Buddhist who proscribed spanking children so I didn’t put a lot of stock into some of the other things he said.

[55] A Mormon testimony includes affirming the knowledge that one preexisted with God on Kolob before being born on planet Earth.  Mormons believe that they preexisted as God’s spirit children on another planet before coming to Earth as humans.  Similarly, Scientologists believe that their thetan souls preexisted as extraterrestrials before their human hosts were born on Earth.

[56] Naylor, Carma. A Mormon’s Unexpected Journey: Finding the Grace I Never Knew. Vol. 1. Enumclaw, MA: Winpress Publishing, 2006. p 7

[57] Mormon testimony almost typically includes the claim that the Mormon received a “burning in the bosom” from the Holy Spirit that testified to the truth of the Book of Mormon.

[58] I use the term “countless” hyperbolically here since Jehovah’s Witnesses literally keep count of their witnessing encounters and turn in reports documenting their counts to their church’s leadership.

[59] Hayes, Jenny and Frances Dredge. Managing Customer Service. Gower Publishing Limited, 1998. p 4

[60] Fisher, Josie. Bait-And-Switch Practices. Vol. 1, in Encyclopedia of Business Ethics and Society, edited by Robert W. Kolb. Sage Publications, 2008. p 139

[61] Hewitt, Joe B. Rescuing Slaves of the Watchtower. Garland, TX: Hannibal Books, 2011. p 43-44.

[62] McKeever, Bill and Eric Johnson. Mormonism 101: Examining the Religion of the Latter-day Saints. Revised and Expanded ed. Baker Books, 2015. p 31

[63] Dunn, Seth. “An Interview with a Former Mormon.” Seth Dunn – A Christian Worldview. November 25, 2016. https://gsethdunn.wordpress.com/2016/11/25/an-interview-with-a-former-mormon/ (accessed November 28, 2016).

[64] 1 Corinthians 15:3-8

[65] That church is NewSpring Community Church in Anderson, SC.  For more information see http://thomrainer.com/sbc500/.

[66] Noble, Perry. “My Next Step.” PerryNoble.com. November 28, 2016. https://perrynoble.com/blog/my-next-step (accessed November 28, 2016)

[67] Barber, Wayne. “Ephesians 1:18-20 by Wayne Barber.” PreceptAustin.Org. August 01, 2016. http://www.preceptaustin.org/ephesians_118-20_by_wayne_barber (accessed November 28, 2016).

[68] Van Biema, David. “Kingdom Come – Salt Lake City Was Just for Starters – The Mormons’ True Great Trek Has Been to Social Acceptance And a $30 Billion Church Empire.” Time Magazine, August 4, 1997.

[69] Wikiquote contributors. “L. Ron Hubbard.” Wikiquote. March 16, 2016. https://en.wikiquote.org/w/index.php?title=L._Ron_Hubbard&oldid=2100019 (accessed March 28, 2016).

[70] Matthew 8:20

[71] Matthew 16:18

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Seth Dunn

Editor at Pulpit & Pen
Host of the Christian Commute Podcast
Member, Evangelical Theological Society
@gsethdunn

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