Last 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. Berg’s spiritual step-son, Ricky Rodriguez, was raised to be the group’s leader — Berg prophesied that Rodriguez would eventually sacrifice his life for the salvation of fellow sect members at the end of time.

In 2005, Ricky did lose his life — he shot himself in the head on a desert road after having stabbed to death one of the many adults who sexually molested him as a child. In the video he made (image left, from before the murder and suicide, Ricky spoke about how hard it was for him to cope with his past as an adult out in the real world, and how he constantly thought about suicide. But the idea that the group’s leaders, including his own mother, who encouraged and allowed the on-going sexual abuse of Ricky and his siblings, were never punished for their actions weighed on Ricky. “Suicide is the quitter’s way out,” he said to the camera. “I’m trying to do something lasting.”

Today ReligionWriter continues the conversation about Ricky and The Family with Lattin, author of the new book Jesus Freaks: A True Story of Murder and Madness on the Evangelical Edge.

RW: These days many journalists, academics and religious leaders are hesitant to use the word “cult,” preferring instead the more neutral term “new religious movements.” But when it comes to The Family, where leader David Berg did apparently control and sexually abuse the group’s children, is it actually helpful to use the word “cult?”

Lattin: There’s a difference of opinion among religion writers if you should ever use the word in newspaper stories, unless you use it in a quote. The Children of God [as The Family was formerly known] was a sect, in the dictionary-definition sense that a sect splits off from something else. The Family was an evangelical sect, part of the Jesus Movement. I know people will take issue with my book title, but I think it’s a good argument that this group came out of the evangelical movement. Cults tends to be a group based around the charism of one leader in an authoritarian or extreme way; we can definitely see The Family was like that.

RW: What sense do you make of The Family — that Berg translated Jesus’ “love of neighbor” to mean free love and ultimately child sexual abuse?

Lattin: It is a cautionary tale of what happens when a self-defined religious prophet goes over the edge. It was not just sexual abuse, but a whole messianic complex that preachers like Berg get caught up in. They exploit people financially, using apocalyptic prophecies to scare people into giving their money away — You can abuse people with Christianity, there’s no doubt about it. Of course I’m not saying all Christians are like that – Berg’s movement was neither a healthy nor a typical expression of Christianity. But if you look at the incredible success of the Left Behind books and movies, you can still see the appeal of apocalyptic teachings. Berg started out, before his “Law of Love” and other sexual teachings, as your standard The-End-Is-Near prophet. Berg said Ricky and mom [Karen Zerby] were going to be the two witnesses of the end-times — that’s right out of the Book of Revelations.

RW: In your book you describe the academic work of sociologists studying the group, who downplayed the adult-child sexual contact and relativized it by pointing to other cultures where children are married in their early teens. Some of this sympathy towards The Family is still visible today. Do you find it alarming?

Lattin: It is alarming, because I think some academics were really compromised by The Family. Some were compromised in nefarious ways [i.e. paid for their research,] but most were compromised because they were more interested in studying The Family and keeping good relations with The Family than they were in blowing the whistle. They didn’t see it as their job to blow the whistle.

What I see in writing about new religious movements are two distinct camps of “experts:” There are the alarmists, who think everything is the next Jonestown, and there are the apologists, who never see anything wrong. A lot of academics, especially sociologists of religion, give groups leeway; it is true that in a lot of culture, kids do marry young, and adults practice polygamy. People who are so horrified by The Family’s child abuse tend to forget that the world is a big place, with a lot of moral questions about what age is proper [for sex] and how many wives are proper. But the fact is we do live in a society where certain taboos and values apply, and these religious groups are part of that society.

RW: Why haven’t children born into The Family, who suffered sexual or other abuses, been successful in prosecuting cases against The Family or individual leaders and members?

Lattin: Second-generation defectors who claim abuse have tried to get lawyers and start investigations, but they never went anywhere. It’s not like no one knew about this stuff; people had accused The Family of child abuse for years. But it mostly happened in ’70s and ’80s, so the statute of limitations had expired, and it mostly happened outside U.S., so it’s difficult to bring a suit, and of course Family members were constantly changing their names, so a lot of kids have no idea who abused them. It’s too bad the second-generation defectors didn’t take advantage recently when California lifted its statute of limitations on civil suits for child molestation. It was just a window of time, and they didn’t get it together. In any case, the abuse itself happened outside of California.

RW: After reading your book and watching Ricky’s video, it’s hard not to see him as something of a tragic hero. How do you see him?

Lattin: I wouldn’t say he was a hero. I would say he was a misbegotten martyr. It’s so touching and tragic because here’s a guy who was raised to be a martyr for the forces of righteousness in the battles of the End Times — righteousness in that case meant David Berg and Zerby and The Family. Ricky was able to free himself from The Family as a young adult, but he turned that crusade against The Family rather than against “the System,” or the outside world, as he was supposed to. Berg was a horrid master at self-fulfilling prophecy. So Ricky never really escaped his destiny, even when he went against the group. That’s one of the things that’s so compelling about his story.

RW: What is The Family like today? It seems from all their mission work abroad, it must be very international.

Lattin: There are thousands of converts worldwide, but it’s hard to say how many; The Family’s membership figures are notoriously unreliable. But it’s safe to say there probably are between 5,000 and 10,000 active members. They are spread all around the world, in small seemingly independent missionary groups in Africa, Asia, everywhere. According to Family records, 13,000 children were born into The Family between 1971 and 2001, and I think that’s a valid number. A few thousand of that second generation have stayed in — members had such huge families, it was not uncommon to have 5 or ten kids, so if even just two stay in, that adds up.

RW: In the book, you talk with current Family members, even members of the second generation, who claim to have had completely positive experiences in the Family and to have never been abused. How do you make sense of these conflicting testimonies?

Lattin: It’s not that hard to make sense of it. First, hardly anyone in The Family ever met or even saw David Berg. It wasn’t like they had an up-close and personal look at David Berg as Ricky and others in that inner circle, or “The Unit,” did.  You have to differentiate between this “Unit” around Berg and Zerby with their aberrant, bizarre sexual practices, and what filtered out into the wider group.  But the real horrible abuse, in terms of sexual abuse, just happened for a certain period of time. It’s not hard to find someone who was born later, say in the late 1980s or early 1990s, who didn’t have that experience. The Family did try to clean up their act, the farther away you got from Berg, the better off you were.

As far as hearing stories from those who leave the group: When you leave the group, you tend to redefine everything. Leaving a new religious movement is sort of like leaving a marriage. Someone who was once your lover and spouse is now someone you can’t stand, and yet they are the same person. As someone reporting on this, you get used to  hearing wildly differing descriptions of the same movement, and, in some sense, both are true. Most of the parents in The Family were not child molesters, just misguided idealistic young people who thought they were doing something helpful for their children in freeing them from the sexual repression that Berg grew up with. So it’s not simple; it’s not black and white.

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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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