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A cult is a system of devotion directed towards a particular figure in religion, politics, the military, or even in business. Religious and political cults are certainly not new—they appeared in ancient history and will continue to develop in the future. Two international researchers whose work is particularly important for understanding the history, psychology, and social structure of political cults are Dennis Tourish in the UK and Emilio Gentile in Italy.


Dennis Tourish is currently Professor of Leadership and Organisation Studies at Sussex University. He is also an ex-member of the left-wing political cult in Ireland, Committee for a Workers International, and is therefore an expert on the recruitment and indoctrination methods used by cults and the psychology of their members. Tourish has studied both left-wing and right-wing political cults. But Tourish advises not to oversimplify the nature of cults: Not all organizations meet the research criteria for being cults; however, many do possess a “cultic mindset.”  Therefore, cults are best viewed on a political continuum.


Cults are highly effective at censoring information, and many cult members disregard opinions that are not in line with their leadership. This echo chamber leads to excessive distancing between family members and other outside influences—one of the fundamental signs that someone should recognize in order to avoid becoming a victim. A major strategy used by cults to indoctrinate members is social isolation.  Tourish explains in an interview, “No one should be separated from their family and friends.”  Therefore, in the U.S., we must identify political cults earlier, get a better understanding of them, and prevent harm to families and to the functioning of society. 


In a 2001 article by Tourish and Tim Wohlforth, a particularly disturbing trend, both in the United States and Australia, indicates that the politics of hate among white supremacist cults is currently a “major growth industry.” Many white supremacist organizations in the U.S. are based on a Christian Identity cultic theology—an absolutist belief system that is concerned with stereotyping, prejudice formation, and demonization of all non-white and non-Christian groups. 


Prejudicial attitudes, however, are not limited to members of hate groups, in fact implicit racism appears throughout society. And, Tourish warns that if much of right-wing activism is a result of stereotyping and prejudice, the propaganda of far-right groups could get a wider audience. Even if the support of far-right prejudice is not in the majority, or even just temporary, “it could still be sufficient to inflict significant damage on the political process.”  The skyrocketing support for the white supremacist party, One Nation, in Australia is a very real alarm for this possibility.


Emilio Gentile (Professor in the Faculty of Political Science, University of La Sapienza, Rome) conducts a parallel line of research on the ideology and culture of totalitarian movements.  Gentile has written extensively on political religion or the “sacralization” of politics—the formation of a religious dimension in politics that is separate from the traditional religions.  Prof. Gentile is a world-renowned historian of Fascism and has clearly outlined the warning signs of cultic behavior in the rise of autocratic states, including:


  • the concentration of power in a single party and a charismatic leader or politician;


  • demagoguery through constant propaganda, the mobilization of enthusiasm, and the celebration of the cult of the party and the leader;


  • the introduction of rituals, festivals or rallies to transform crowds into the masses of the political cult;


  • and discrimination against outsiders or undesirables through measures that range from exile from public life to the physical elimination of human beings because of their ideas, social conditions, or ethnic background.


Can a political cult develop in the U.S.?


Emilio Gentile has thoroughly documented how totalitarian regimes in the 20th century arose from the demagoguery of charismatic politicians. Typical tactics include the use of parades, grand events, and rallies to mobilize and transform enthusiastic crowds and to celebrate the political cult, the party, and the leader. These political cults provide easy answers to complex problems, demonstrate a lack of toleration, and always find someone to blame to the point that, given the right conditions, a democratic society can give way to an authoritarian form of government. Gentile also documented not only the rise of discrimination (based on political ideas, social circumstances, ethnic identification, or religious affiliation) in political cults and authoritarian regimes—but also the extension of discrimination to genocide.


In 2001, Dennis Tourish published some sobering statistics that there were 537 hate groups in the U.S., based on data from the Southern Poverty Law Center. As of November 2019, the number of hate groups in the U.S. has almost doubled in number to 1,020 in less than 20 years. Tourish has expressed concern that political cults and far-right white supremacist groups can easily gain political power that is disproportionate to their numbers. He reminds us that the Ku Klux Klan was able to secure the election of governors in Alabama, California, Georgia, Indiana, and Oregon in the 1920s.  


Lessons from a Political Cult in Ancient Rome


In addition to identifying the warning signs and strategies of demagogues and political cults today, it might also be useful to go back even further in history to see how a political cult begins and better understand what may be happening today.


As the Roman Empire spread eastward to Greece, Turkey, and the Middle East, new ideas filtered into Roman life, such as religious cults inspired by deities like Isis of Egypt, Dionysus of Greece, Mithras of Persia. Honoring a human being (like a king, emperor, or hero) as a god was another concept that originated from the eastern part of the Roman Empire, where it was a common practice throughout most of ancient history. However, creating a religious cult around an earthly leader was actually a repugnant idea to Roman politicians during the Republic (509-27 BC/BCE). Nevertheless, the political crises in Rome during the first century BC/BCE provided the opportunity for a dictator and demagogue like Julius Caesar to rise to power, and the religious worship of autocratic emperors—a political cult—began with Caesar.


During his lifetime, Caesar received religious honors: Statues of Caesar were erected in Rome, such as the Circus Maximus (placed among the statues of other gods), sometimes with the title “demi-god” and “unconquered god.” This was flattery, mostly recognizing his military and political victories, and not taken too seriously—at first. However, this extravagant homage irritated Caesar’s enemies and was doubtless one of the influences that led to his assassination.  But after his brutal stabbing by senators, and their abandonment of his body, Caesar’s death resulted in religious adoration from the common people. It was actually the general public who raised Caesar to the rank of a god.


But Octavian, the grand-nephew and adoptive son of Julius Caesar, felt destined to succeed Caesar and therefore promptly identified himself with this popular sentiment. The Senate then formally gave Caesar, post-mortem, the title of Divus (the deified) and ordered a temple to be built for his worship. When Octavian defeated his rivals for power, he received the title “Augustus” (the venerable) from the Senate, which marked him as more than man. But Augustus was careful to give the appearance of restoring the Republic (which never happened). He refused to accept religious honors at Rome—he allowed no temple to be built to him inside the city. Yet for political reasons, he encouraged the worship of himself in the provinces and even permitted the provincials to build temples in his honor. However, the template for the worship of all subsequent emperors—which became an imperial cult—had now been established, and practiced both in Rome and throughout the empire for many centuries. 


Because the Roman Empire stretched across three continents (Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East in western Asia), the emperor’s identity had to be made known in the provinces.  Therefore, the portrayal of the emperor in art and architecture served enormous propaganda purposes. Without the benefit of modern communications, such as TV or newspapers, the Roman empire constructed temples and civic buildings (often embellished with the emperors’ carved portraits, names, or honorific slogans) and distributed statues of the emperor. The government also minted millions of coins (with living emperors’ faces, names, and/or slogans) to maintain the empire’s trade economy, pay the salaries of the Roman legions, and put an image of the emperor in the hands of all people.


Also critical to integrating many peoples, the Romans regularly forged religious “affiliations” with many ethnic groups. In temples throughout the provinces, statues of the Roman emperor (as a god) were set up alongside statues of gods who were worshipped by local populations.  Sacrifices or offerings of wine or incense, on behalf of (not to) the emperor, were part of the practice of the imperial cult everywhere. These rituals were used to prove submission to and acceptance of Rome by political and military leaders both in Rome and in the provinces. More insidiously, the rituals and sacrifices of the imperial cult became a standard “loyalty test” to discover if anyone living in the Roman Empire (especially Christians) was an enemy of the state.  The imperial cult was also part of everyday life in the Roman army. Every legionary camp had a sanctuary, with eagles and military standards as well as statues for veneration of the emperor. The legions had calendars for strict adherence to the required worship of official gods.


A Senate in Disarray


However, the establishment of a political cult to worship the Roman emperors could not have developed in a vacuum—and here is the historical lesson for us today. During the first century BC/BCE, no fewer than three civil wars broke out in Rome: The first was a power struggle between two Roman generals, Marius and Sulla in 88 BC/BCE.  In 48 BC/BCE, a power struggle between Julius Caesar and Pompey the Great resulted in a second civil war, after which Caesar declared himself dictator for life. Caesar’s assassination in 44 BC/BCE then sparked a third civil war when a power struggle erupted between Caesar’s adopted son Octavian (the future emperor Augustus) and the general Marc Antony. Antony and Cleopatra lost their naval battle against Octavian, who subsequently ordered Caesar’s biological son (with Cleopatra) murdered, leaving him as the sole heir to Caesar’s political legacy.


During the civil wars, the Roman Senate witnessed a growing polarization among the senators into two ideological factions (but not organized political parties in today’s sense): the Optimates (best ones) vs. the Populares (favoring the people). The Optimates consisted of conservative senators who favored traditional Roman legal customs and the supremacy of the oligarchic Senate over the elected assemblies of the people. They also rejected expansion of citizenship and land ownership, which would diminish their power. The Populares supported the causes of the Plebeians (common people), such as land reform, debt relief, food supply, and extending citizenship to people outside Rome. In all of these civil wars, senators from both factions took sides in the power struggles of politicians and generals. Fifty years of three civil wars, a Senate divided by political factionalism, a government unable to govern or even fix infrastructure, and general lawlessness resulted in the total loss of Rome’s Republic—500 years of a representative form of government—in favor of an autocratic emperor who promised simply to restore law and order and to protect the empire’s borders from foreigners and barbarian invasions.  Does anything sound familiar?


Additional sources consulted:


Gentile, E. and Mallett, R. (2000) The Sacralisation of politics: Definitions, interpretations and reflections on the question of secular religion and totalitarianism. Totalitarian Movements and Political Religions 1(1): 18-55.


Millar, F., Cotton, H. M., and Rogers, G. M. (2004) Rome, the Greek World, and the East: Vol. 2: Government, Society, and Culture in the Roman Empire. University of North Carolina Press.


Nieporte, V. B. (1935) A Study of the Caesar Cult with Reference to the Political Aims of Augustus. Master’s Thesis, Loyola University Chicago.


Tourish, D. and Wohlforth, T. (2000) On the Edge: Political Cults Right and Left. Routledge.