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Andrea Useem, creator and publisher of ReligionWriter.com, is a freelance journalist and editor based in Northern Virginia who specializes in writing about religion. Andrea holds a Masters of Theological Studies from Harvard Divinity School, as well as a Bachelors degree in religion from Dartmouth College. Previously, Andrea worked as a freelance journalist in Eastern Africa for four years; she has also lived in Muscat, Oman. She is married and has three sons.

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The Making of a Twisted Sexual Theology: Q+A on “Jesus Freaks”

The bizarre, tragic nature of his life began with his conception: Ricky Rodriguez was born as a result of “flirty fishing,” a practice of proselytizing through sex advocated by David Berg, the Jesus-quoting founder of the religious sect now known as The Family International (formerly The Children of God.)

Berg, the son of a well-known Pentecostal evangelist, brought a gospel of Jesus, free love and end-time prophecy to hippies of the 1960s and 70s. Berg’s polygamous wife Karen Zerby conceived Ricky with a potential convert in the Canary Islands; Berg became Ricky’s spiritual father, raising him to become the movement’s prophet-prince who would usher in Jesus’ Second Coming.

But something went badly awry with Berg’s religious fantasy. Ricky, raised in seclusion in Berg’s household, was subject to sexual abuse from his first year onward, often at the hands of his several nannies. In Berg’s view, God created children to enjoy sex, and adults were best suited to please them. Ricky, along with other rebellious teens in the movement, were later sent to harsh re-indoctrination camps.

Although many of the children born to Family members left the group, and some channeled their energies into trying to bring the group down through the media or the courts, the group continues today. In January, 2005, a 29-year-old Ricky — depressed, unable to adapt to live outside of the group, and, in his words, weighed down with a “need” for revenge — stabbed to death one of the former nannies who had abused him before taking his own life.

In his new book, Jesus Freaks: A True Story of Murder and Madness on the Evangelical Edge, veteran religion reporter Don Lattin tells Ricky’s poignant story while tracing the evolution of a sex-addicted leader who saw himself as God’s prophet.

ReligionWriter spoke with Lattin this week about his new book. The first half of the conversation appears today, in which Lattin describes why he was drawn to the story, and how Berg developed a sexual theology with such terrible consequences for the children around him. The second half the conversation will appear next week.

RW: This story seems so dark – why were you compelled to write it?

Lattin: The fact is, I didn’t know just how dark it was going to be before I started. Obviously, I knew about some of the disturbing aspects of The Family — I reported on them for an article I wrote in 2001, “Children of a Lesser God,” about children who had grown up in four alternative religions of the 1960s: The Family, the Church of Scientology, the Hare Krishnas and the Unification Church, or the Moonies.

Having come of age as a journalist during the cult wars of the 1970s, I have always been interested in new religious movements. The intensity of the conversion and belief and devotion makes for a compelling story, whether for good or evil. There’s an interesting question there: When does a new religious movement make the leap from being a cult or sect to a religion? The second generation gives you a window into that process, because the question is whether they will keep the faith or not. So I didn’t go looking for horror stories; I was interested in what happened to the children born into The Family.

I wrote that story in 2001 around the time Ricky was just leaving The Family. In 2005, when he snapped and went on his crusade, I was able to basically break the story. The 45-minute video tape he made the night he committed the murder and then killed himself was so chilling and inexplicable. How could someone who was raised in a group that claims to be inspired by Christian love and compassion — someone who was raised to be the leader of that group — come out being so angry and vengeful? I knew the stories of what had gone on during “flirty fishing” years, and I had heard about the re-indoctrination camps for teens, but when I saw that video, I decided I had to get to the bottom of this and find out his story.

RW: Let’s talk about the group’s leader, David Berg, who abused Ricky and many others in pursuit of sex and power. You suggest that Berg was sexually molested as a child; do you think that explains his behavior as an adult? What made him act in such an evil way?

Lattin: That’s the $64,000 question. I wouldn’t say he was sexually abused as a child, but he describes his mother as incredibly repressive. As a boy, he would masturbate or play with himself, and she went to extremes to stop him. One time, Berg said, she threatened to cut off his penis, and even brought out a razor and bowl, in front of his entire family and his friends. That is a kind of sexual abuse, though it’s the flip side. (Below left, David Berg, 1919-1994)

So he struggled to control his sexual feelings as a child, and today we would probably call David Berg a sex addict. But Berg was also very involved with his mother. Out of the three children in his family, he was the only one who stuck with the evangelical faith of his parents. As his mother and father became estranged, he basically became mother’s new husband, though they weren’t having sex; he filled the role his father had played, being the PR man and chauffeur for his mother, the famous evangelist.

Right when his own religious message was taking off in the late 60s, his mother died. He was surrounded by the sexual revolution in California, and suddenly he was free as a bird. As he gained power — well, of course power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. We know now from his children and grandchildren that he abused them going way back.

RW: Can you explain Berg’s “Law of Love,” and whether that is still practiced by the group today?

Lattin: They have tried to crack down on adult-child sexual relations, but they openly acknowledge practicing the law of love, which means sexual “sharing” with people in the group who are not your spouse. I don’t think they’re doing flirty fishing like they used to, though it might happen on an ad hoc basis when they proselytize. They have calmed down, but not completely.

In some ways, Berg’s critique of the piety and hypocrisy of the mainstream American evangelical movement, or Christianity in general, was right on — there is that suspicion of the body, the idea that the spirit is good and the flesh is evil. Some of what he was writing then is what sex-positive theologians or gay theologians are writing today. He was way ahead of his time — he just went overboard with it.

Berg claimed to have a theological grounding; Jesus said love is the greatest commandment, and Berg took than to an extreme. At his famous sex-sharing parties with his inner circle, he was known for taking off his clothes, walking around with a bottle of wine and quoting the scripture: “To the pure, all things are pure.” As I mention in my book, of course, he left out the rest of that quotation, which reads: “but to the corrupt and unbelieving, nothing is pure.” (Titus 1:15.)

I didn’t discuss this in the book, but Berg followed a sort of antinomianism, which is the Christian idea that because you’re already saved through Christ Jesus, then you can’t sin. He wasn’t the first person to think that way.

But converts to The Family were not religiously literate — they didn’t have a grounding in the Bible, or a Christian education, so it was easy for Berg to shape his theology as he wanted it. He didn’t let the Jesus revolution get in the way of the sexual revolution.

RW: Other religious founders gave themselves special sexual status. Joseph Smith, for example, asked his closest followers to let him marry their wives. The Prophet Muhammad had more wives than the four allowed for the average believer. Do you see a pattern here? Does sexual power go hand-in-hand with religious power?

Lattin: In writing about new religious movements for the past 20-25 years, I’ve found that three things bring the leaders down: sex, money and power. Berg was not so interested in money — he lived comfortably — but he was very interested in the power and control, and also sex.

There are some parallels with Joseph Smith, who he said was one of his role models. Smith and Berg both took the wives of their top disciples, and I’ve seen this in other religious movements. You also hear about it among primates. You’d think, of course, that if you take someone’s wife, he’d get angry, and punch you in the face and leave. But what happens is, it strengthens people’s commitment, and if you promise some kind of salvation from this sexual sharing, as Berg did, then it’s a mechanism of control as well.

Coming next week: Don Lattin talks with ReligionWriter about academics who have been sympathetic to The Family; whether or not Ricky Rodriguez was a hero; and why The Family leaders have never been brought to justice.

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  1. [...] week, Don Lattin spoke with ReligionWriter about the evangelical influences behind the sexual theology of The Family International, a religious sect founded by leader David Berg in the late 1960s. [...]

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