With the American popular culture fascination for "cults" increasing throughout the past few decades, Holy Cross associate professor of religious studies Mathew Schmalz has been a sought-after expert on new religious movements, providing expert commentary in outlets ranging from The Washington Post to Newsweek.
Most recently, Schmalz was a featured in an episode of "The Believers," a documentary on VICE investigating how faith leaders build and maintain their followings. This episode focused on a new religion led by Sean Moon called World Peace and Unification Sanctuary, an offshoot of the Unification Church, led by his father Sun Myung Moon.
Schmalz was also called upon by subscription-based channel A&E to be featured in the TV show "Leah Remini: Scientology and the Aftermath." In this special two-hour episode focused on the Jehovah's Witnesses, Schmalz was an expert on a panel that also included former members of the religion, who shared their personal stories of growing up in this secretive organization.
In both instances, Schmalz went on to explain the central beliefs of the religions and cautioned against describing them as cults. In his view, labeling new religions as cults brings negative connotations, since that label is used to describe authoritarian groups that induce beliefs or actions through mind control or “brainwashing.” Schmaltz argues that using such labels hurts our ability to actually understand those movements and points of views that might be different from our own.
According to Schmalz, who will be teaching a course titled "Modern Religious Movements" next semester, there are two things he tells his students: "You need to treat these religions with the seriousness that their devotees do, and context is everything."
To watch Schmalz' interview on VICE's "The Believers," please click below.
- VICE.com, November 12: The Believers - Guns for God: The Church of the AR-15 (video)
- A&E, November 13: Leah Remini: Scientology and the Aftermath, November 13 - The Jehovah’s Witnesses (video) (The episode is available on the A&E website with cable subscription, as well as Hulu and Amazon Prime)