Religion and Violence:
The Consequence of Bad Leadership

by Helen Gerety

(Helen Gerety’s article about writing this paper is here.)

Religion is one of the most powerful forces in the world. In the United States, over ninety percent of Americans believe in God and fifty percent of Americans pray on a daily basis. These high percentages are not only limited to the United States. For example, ninety-nine percent of Egyptians believe that morality and belief in God are inseparable.[1] However, the connection between morality and religion is not always present. Although most religions offer faith, security, and hope for the future to their followers, some religions believe that violence is an integral part of their faith. This relationship is not an ideological one, but instead a consequence of bad leadership and bad followership. In order to understand this relationship, this thesis will analyze two violent religious leaders and their followers. First, I will examine Peoples Temple Church of Jonestown, Guyana and the leadership of Jim Jones. I will then analyze the history of the Aum Shinrikyo movement in Japan and its leader Asahara Shoko. The analysis of these two movements will address the leadership techniques and the followers in order to identify why groups of people that are often made up of moral individuals surrender themselves to evil leaders and commit unethical acts. This investigation will demonstrate how essential the relationship between leader and follower is in the development of evil leadership.

Literature Review

First, before either movement is discussed, it is important that the primary sources used throughout this thesis are examined and the major concepts are defined. This discussion will provide the necessary context to examine each movement. To fully evaluate each leader’s style, it is vital to study both leadership texts and books chronicling the religious movements. Therefore, this thesis will primarily use Robert B. Cialdini’s Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, Barbara Kellerman’s Bad Leadership: What It Is, How It Happens, Why It Matters and Followership: How Followers Are Creating Change and Changing Leaders, David Chidester’s Salvation and Suicide: Jim Jones, The Peoples Temple and Jonestown, and Ian Reader’s Religious Violence in Contemporary Japan: The Case of Aum Shinrikyo to identify the leadership styles employed by both religious leaders.

First, it is important to clearly define religious and charismatic leadership. These definitions will highlight the differences between charismatic and religious leadership and traditional forms of leadership. These differences also provide context for examining religious leaders. The Encyclopedia of Leadership supplies definitions of both charismatic and religious leadership. First, it defines charisma as “the special quality some people possess that allows them to relate to and inspire others at a deep emotional level.”[2] Individuals who are charismatic are emotionally expressive, enthusiastic, driven, eloquent, visionary, self-confident, and responsive to others. Leaders who possess these traits have the ability to influence their followers. Followers often idolize their charismatic leaders, similarly to how a child idolizes his or her parent. Furthermore, charismatic leaders have the ability to attract attention, to communicate effectively, and to affect their followers at an emotional level. This ability to attract attention and to communicate effectively produces followers who are unquestioningly devoted and loyal.[3]

The Encyclopedia of Leadership also provides the definition of religious leadership. It states:

[Religious leaders] appeal to supernatural forces for unsurpassable legitimization. [Furthermore,] religious leaders draw legitimacy from diverse resources, including direct interaction with what they identify and others acknowledge as the sacred, possession and interpretation of authoritative collections of traditions in either oral or written form, specific ritual competencies, formation and interpretation of religious law, and communication of moral insight.[4]

Religious leadership possesses distinctive techniques, such as the direct interaction with the sacred, specific ritual rules, and communication of moral insight, that can be identified in the historical accounts of the religious movements examined in this thesis.

In Influence, Robert B. Cialdini outlines six principles of influence that are vital to the examination of leaders. The principles are: reciprocation, commitment and consistency, social proof, liking, authority, and scarcity. Reciprocation is the most evident principle in human society. Reciprocation is when a person does a favor for someone else, who then feels a need to return that favor. Although this may seem only fair, the principle of reciprocation can often favor one individual over the other. The second principle of influence that is significant to the study of religious leadership is social proof. Cialdini writes, “The tendency to see an action as more appropriate when others are doing it normally works quite well. [Individuals assume that] when a lot of people are doing something, it is the right thing to do.”[5] This group mentality, or groupthink, occurs in situations when individuals are unsure of themselves. Ciadlini states, “When the situation is unclear or ambiguous, when uncertainty reigns, we are most likely to look to and accept the actions of others as correct.”[6]

Although Cialdini’s principles of influence provide an insightful framework in which to evaluate leadership, Barbara Kellerman’s Bad Leadership and Followership helps to further explain these methods of influence used by both leaders and followers. First, Kellerman’s Bad Leadership defines the role of a leader. She states that, “Leaders hold groups and organizations together as they develop. Leaders enable groups and organizations to distinguish themselves from the other. And leaders at the top symbolize the whole.”[7] Given that leaders can be both good and bad, Kellerman creates and evaluates seven types of bad leadership: incompetent, rigid, intemperate, callous, corrupt, insular, and evil. Each type provides a detailed list of personality traits and leadership techniques that can be used to evaluate leaders. The most important type of bad leadership in this thesis is evil leadership. Kellerman defines evil leadership: “The leader and at least some followers commit atrocities. They use pain as an instrument of power. The harm done to men, women, and children is severe rather than slight. The harm can be physical, psychological, or both.”[8] This definition is important for truly understanding the power that leaders have other their followers.[9]

Cialdini and Kellerman provide an excellent framework to evaluate leaders and their tactics, but it is also essential to understand how and why leaders attract such strong followings. This question is best answered through the study of the leaders’ followers. Kellerman’s Followership discusses the interconnectivity of leaders and followers. She argues that followers follow for two main reasons: individual benefit and group benefit. Individuals will follow a leader because “the great majority of people have a strong need for authority which they can admire, to which they can submit, and which dominates and sometimes even ill-treats them … It is the longing for the father that lives in each of us from his childhood days.”[10] The opportunity to better oneself or increase one’s authority is a powerful recruitment tool.

Although Cialdini and Kellerman offer insightful theories for analyzing religious leadership, it is important to also examine the history of the leaders and the movements. Salvation and Suicide by David Chidester andIan Reader’s Religious Violence in Contemporary Japan provide important context for the analysis of religious leadership.

One of the best studies of Jim Jones and Peoples Temple is Chidester’s Salvation and Suicide. Chidester’s examination of Jones, and those who faithfully followed him into the jungle of Guyana, is detailed and revealing. He investigates Jones’ childhood, and his early work as a pastor and founder of Peoples Temple.[11]

Although Jones’ biography is significant to his development as a leader, Chidester’s discussion of movement and the religious, cultural, and social implications of Jones’ ideology is the most essential for studying Jones’ leadership. He demonstrates the relationship between the leadership of a religious movement and the willingness of its followers to commit acts of violence. Chidester introduces multiple perspectives on Jones and Jonestown, which allow for a comprehensive study. Chidester also examines Jones’ manipulation of his followers. He argues that Jones’ classification of human beings provides a clear example of his successful use of the manipulation. Chidester explains, “[T]he classification system of the Peoples Temple created a symbolic universe within which superhuman resources could be located that could elevate victims of a subhumanizing social system into a fully human identity.”[12] Chidester also examines the deadly Jonestown event and its impact on the definition of religion in the United States, Guyana, and the world. Jones’ charisma and its effect on his followers is also discussed. Chidester concludes his analysis of Peoples Temple by examining Jones’ power over his community. In short, Chidester provides an all-inclusive view of the events leading up to the mass suicide at Jonestown and a psychological analysis of Jones.

To adequately study Asahara Shoko it is vital that a text chronicling the movement is examined. Ian Reader’s Religious Violence in Contemporary Japan: The Case of Aum Shinrikyo is an excellent analysis of the Aum movement and its leader, Asahara Shoko. Reader analyzes the “Aum Affair” and its context of religious violence, and the doctrines and themes prevalent in the Aum Shinrikyo worldview. He also provides a detailed account of the Aum movement’s leader: “the source of inspiration in Aum and the focus of its faith. It was Asahara who formed and taught its doctrines and practices, and who instigated and oversaw its activities and crimes.”[13] Reader also examines the motivations and practices of the Aum followers. “Religious movements and charismatic leaders,” according to Reader, “can only attract followers who help implement their goals through offering devotion and support.”[14] This evaluation of Asahara’s followers is insightful and provides evidence of why the Aum movement was so appealing. Reader draws from first hand accounts of the Aum movement by renounced, current, junior and senior members.[15]

Reader also highlights Asahara’s development as an omnipotent and omniscient leader. He discusses the tactics Asahara used to gain a significant leadership role within the movement and his control over his followers. This level of control created the ideal environment for the development of the Aum movement into an alienated group that preached an imminent apocalyptic war. The alienation, felt by many of the members, fostered an elitist view of Japan and the world, which is evident in their belief that individuals outside of the movement were unworthy of salvation. Reader concludes his examination of the Aum movement by discussing its use of chemical weapons and how it came in conflict with its neighboring communities. In all, Reader’s examination illustrates both the importance that religion plays in the Aum movement’s success in Japan and the implications of religion’s use as a justification for violence.

Now that the important sources and concepts for this thesis have been identified, both movements can be analyzed. The first leader and movement this thesis will examine is Jim Jones and Peoples Temple, which will begin with a brief history of Jones and the movement, followed by an analysis of Jones’ leadership and the role of his followers using the concepts introduced by Kellerman and Cialdini. Next, Aum Shinrikyo and its leader Asahara Shoko will be investigated. Similarly to Jim Jones, this investigation will begin with a brief history of the movement and its leadership, followed by an analysis of the Aum movement’s followers.

History of Jim Jones and Peoples Temple

To better analyze Jim Jones as a leader it is important to first discuss both his personal history and the history of the movement, which will allow this thesis to examine Jones’ leadership in the proper context. Jones was born on May 13, 1931 to Lynetta and James Thurman Jones in Lynn, Indiana. Lynn was a small Midwestern town racially segregated and permeated with Christian fundamentalism. Jones’ mother worked in a factory. Due to illness, his father was unemployed. As a small child, Jones menaced his neighbors; he often greeted them by shouting, “Good morning, you son of a bitch.”[16] Despite such behavior, Jones did have a natural affinity for animals. He adopted stray dogs and cats and they served as his first religious audience. He set up a makeshift church in his parents’ barn where he preached to his adopted animals and occasionally to neighborhood children. His preaching style mimicked that of the Pentecostal churches he attended. Although he later claimed that Peoples Temple was a non-denominational church, it closely resembled the Pentecostal churches of his childhood. The church also provided Jones, a self-proclaimed alienated child, with a sense of community and belonging. Peoples Temple offered its members emotional and colorful services that featured faith healings and spiritual manifestations of the Holy Spirit.[17]

In 1945, Jones’ world was shattered. At the age of fifteen, his parents divorced. His mother moved him to Richmond, Indiana. Jones viewed the divorce and his father’s absence as an act of abandonment. Four years later, on June 12, 1949, Jones married Marceline Baldwin. The couple moved to Indianapolis where Jones attended Butler University and Marceline worked as a nurse. Indianapolis was the national headquarters for the Ku Klux Klan, and racial tensions were extremely high. This environment fostered two beliefs for Jones that would possess him for the remainder of his life: socialism and racial integration.[18]

In 1952, Jones was hired as the student pastor at Somerset Methodist Church in Indianapolis. His time there helped him recognize the potential of the Pentecostal style of preaching. This style attracted crowds through its faith healing services and successfully raised money, which gave Jones the prefect opportunity to racially integrate Indianapolis. However, Jones’ mission of integration was not successful. The churches that Jones worked with wanted to increase their congregation size, but were unwilling to welcome blacks as official members into their congregations. This racism led Jones to create his own church, a church where all were welcome. In 1955, Jones officially founded Peoples Temple. Over the next few years, the church opened a soup kitchen, collected clothes for the homeless, found employment for ex-addicts and felons, and publically campaigned for desegregation.[19]

Throughout the next few years Peoples Temple church became increasingly popular. His faith healings and promises of equality attracted hundreds of members. At the same time, Jones became increasingly preoccupied with the threat of a nuclear attack. In 1964, after a vision of a nuclear holocaust, Jones decided to relocate his entire congregation to northern California, one of Esquire Magazine’s “Nine Places in the World to Hide in the Event of a Nuclear War.”[20] Along with his family and approximately 140 members of Peoples Temple’s congregation, Jones relocated to the small farming community of Ukiah in the Redwood Valley. Jones described the valley as a “racist area that he felt should have been called ‘Whitewood Valley,’ … but the Peoples Temple was … ‘the only Garden of Eden in America.”’[21]

Jones’ fears about the state of America and the world seemed justified. The Vietnam War had sparked dangerous protests, which divided the country. Jones, and more importantly his followers, believed that his visions were coming true: the apocalypse was upon them. Meanwhile, Peoples Temple prospered. By 1968, the congregation had grown to several hundred members. That same year marked the arrival of Timothy Stoen, one of Peoples Temple’s most influential members. Stoen was a Stanford Law graduate who could have pursued a successful career as a corporate attorney. However, he felt the urge to serve his country and upon graduation went to work for the federal antipoverty program in Mendocino County. This position provided him an outlet to serve his country and an opportunity to become involved in politics. Stoen’s membership and friendship with Jones allowed Peoples Temple to expand rapidly and sparked Jones’ interest in local politics.[22]

In 1971, with the help of Stoen, Peoples Temple membership increased to 2,000 members. Jones felt it was time to increase his presence in predominately poor urban black neighborhoods in Los Angeles and San Francisco, and purchased property in oth places. Both facilities offered members a free clinic, legal aid, food services, and drug rehabilitation programs. Members were provided services previously unavailable to them. Jones became his congregation’s provider and their protector.[23] With continuous expansion, Peoples Temple also began to receive negative press. Reverend Lester Kinsolving wrote a series of articles for the San Francisco Examiner that criticized Jones’ messianic sermons and his claim that he had raised over forty people from the dead. Due to the Peoples Temple community’s protests, the Examiner decided to cancel the last four of the eight articles in the series about the church. These articles likely increased Jones’ paranoia, but probably less than the defection of eight young church members who accused the Temple leadership of being racist in its hierarchy.[24] The defection also triggered more apocalyptic sermons, which instilled fear into his followers. This fear allowed Jones to implement suicide drills. Jones instructed members of Peoples Temple to come forward during services and drink “poisoned” wine. Jones preached that suicide was the only escape from the political and social corruption of America.[25] The fear also motivated Jones’ negotiation for a 99-year lease with Guyanese officials in 1974, which allowed the Temple to begin construction on their 3,843 acre plot of land.[26] The majority of the Peoples Temple population, however, would not relocate to Guyana until August 1977, a few weeks after an article in New West Magazine accused Jim Jones of the very thing he warned his followers of: political corruption.

After the relocation to Guyana, Jones became increasingly paranoid. This paranoia likely contributed to his violent reaction to the visit of U.S. Congressman Leo Ryan on November 17, 1978. Ryan went to Guyana at the request of concerned families of Peoples Temple members. Although he received a warm welcome, his visit soon turned cold. While conducting interviews with members, Ryan was passed multiple notes from members pleading for Ryan to help them escape Jonestown. The next day, Ryan returned to escort any member who wished to leave. Ryan and the defecting members drove to a nearby airstrip, but upon arrival armed Peoples Temple members ambushed them. Congressman Ryan, along with three journalists and one defector, were killed. Immediately after murdering Ryan, the gunmen returned to the compound and were greeted by Jones and the remaining members gathered in the pavilion. A few hours later, all 909 Jonestown residents, including the children, were dead. They committed what Jones called “revolutionary suicide” by drinking a fruit-flavored punch poisoned with Valium, chloral hydrate, and cyanide.

Jim Jones’ Leadership

This story is one of tragedy, but also one that provides invaluable information about the relationship between religion and violence. To better understand why this relationship exists and why it developed within the Peoples Temple movement, Jones’ leadership and his followers must be examined. In Bad Leadership, Kellerman labels Jim Jones an evil leader and as such, she claims, he must be examined using two criteria: the consciousness of the crime and the scale of the crime. In Followership, she asserts, “Followership implies a relationship between subordinates and superiors, and a response of the former to the latter” and that, “followers are more important than ever. And leaders everywhere are more vulnerable to forces beyond their control, including those from the bottom up.”[27] Using Kellerman’s criteria for evil leadership and her definition of followership, I will analyze three aspects of the Peoples Temple movement: the evil leader, the role of his followers, and his use of manipulation.

Before one can properly discuss Jones’ actions, beliefs, and relationships, it is vital that his childhood is examined to identify his goals and missions for Peoples Temple. As mentioned, Jones had little to no relationship with his father or the children in his neighborhood. Jones recalled his childhood identity as an outcast and how this led him to religion. In one of his sermons he said, “Thus I acted out against the conformities in the community. First way, because I was never accepted, or didn’t feel accepted, I joined a Pentecostal Church, the most extreme Pentecostal Church, the Oneness, because they were the most despised. They were the rejects of the community.” In this community, Jones remarks, “I found immediate acceptance, and I must say, in all honesty, about as much love as I could interpret love.”[28] Religion provided the love that he had never truly experienced before and a safe home.

Jones’ isolated and difficult childhood may have led to his later cruelty towards his own community. Kellerman claims that Jones was a tyrant, a man who used cruel and inhuman punishments to control his followers and describes Jones’ punishment techniques to support this claim. She writes, “Jones generally disciplined in public, on the stage of his church. A three-foot long paddle was used for beatings; some lasted a half hour.”[29] These acts of violence clearly illustrate Jones’ cruelty; however, he did have a softer and kinder side, a side that truly believed in the principle of equality. The cruel punishments that Jones inflicted on his followers clearly illustrate Jones’ evilness, but his kindness and dream of equality indicate that he was not always an evil leader.

When most think about Jim Jones and Peoples Temple, they remember Jonestown, Guyana. However, it is important to understand that those deaths and the violence that occurred did not reflect Jones’ original mission and goals. Rebecca Moore, a leading Peoples Temple academic and relative of two Jonestown victims, provides a historically supported perspective on Jones and his initial motivations. She explains how Jones’ childhood is what sparked his interest in religion. It created a way for him to escape poverty and his status as an outcast in his community. It was also Jones’ childhood that allowed him to become so successful. He truly understood what it was like to be a second-class citizen and genuinely believed in the social gospel. He believed that anyone, regardless of his or her sex or ethnicity, could achieve religious salvation on earth, and he wanted to see change come about in America. Jones sincerely wanted all human beings to be equal, regardless of his or her class, sex, or ethnicity. Unfortunately, he became distracted by the obedience of his followers, became addicted to the power that his followers gave him, and began to place power above belief and change.[30]

This presents two interesting questions: What role did Jim Jones’ followers play in the violence and did they contribute to the development of Jones as an evil leader? However, before these questions can be fully answered, it is crucial that Jones’ followers are identified. This will allow their motivations for joining Peoples Temple to be identified. It was the mid 1950’s and early 1960’s. Conventional families and traditional values were essential in American society, and anyone who did not fit into this mold felt ostracized from their communities. This exclusion is what first led Jim Jones to join the Pentecostal churches of his youth and for his followers to join Peoples Temple. Peoples Temple created a community for the disenfranchised and underprivileged to escape the “sense of loneliness, alienation or planetary insignificance.”[31] Jones and his followers shared a similar history. They were poor, uneducated, minorities and often homeless, and Jones and Peoples Temple offered them salvation, a family, and a home. It was this promise of a family-like community that drew members in by the thousands. Jones identified a significant need and was able to meet it. Early in his ministry, he once remarked upon the importance of community. He said, “I represent divine principle, total equality, a society where people own all things in common. Where there is no rich or poor. Where there are no races. Wherever there are people struggling for justice and righteousness, there I am. And there I am involved.”[32]

Now that Jones’ followers have been properly identified, it is possible to analyze their role in the movement. In “An Interpretation of Peoples Temple and Jonestown: Implications for the Black Church,” Archie Smith introduces the concept of audience corruption. He argues that as a leader corrupts his or her audience, the audience simultaneously corrupts the leader by assenting to everything that the leader says. Many argue that followers do not have power when there is a corrupt or evil leader, but they, in fact, choose to give that power to the leader.[33] Rebecca Moore writes, “[Audience corruption occurs when] followers learn to give the responses the leader wants them to learn; they feed it back to the leader on cue. He in turn believes even more in the power of the righteousness of his leadership.”[34]

Audience corruption is similar to the concept of social proof or groupthink presented by Cialdini in Influence. According to Cialdini, groupthink occurs when people are uncertain and let the actions of others determine their own actions.[35] This behavior creates an environment where members try to minimize conflict and reach consensus without critically testing, analyzing and evaluating the leader’s idea. Both audience corruption and groupthink occurred throughout the Peoples Temple movement because of how much Jones’ followers relied on him. He was their savior, and they would do anything for him.[36]

One example of audience corruption and groupthink took place in the final moments at Jonestown. Upon Jones’ call for mass suicide, Christine Miller, one of the residents of Jonestown, questioned Jones. She said, “When we destroy ourselves, we’re defeated. We let them, the enemies, defeat us.” [37] Jones calmly replied, “We will win, we will win when we go down.”[38] For the next ten minutes, Jones and Miller appeared to have a relatively causal conversation about his call for suicide. Not once did Jones silence Miller. Instead, other Peoples Temple members intervened. Jim McElvane, a Peoples Temple member, questioned Miller’s concerns. He said, “Christine, you’re only standing here because he [Jones] was here in the first place. So I don’t know what you’re talking about … Your life has been extended to the day that you’re standing there, because of him.”[39] Lue Ester Lewis, another member added, “You must be prepared to die.”[40] Other members demonstrated their loyalty by thanking Jones before they drank the poisoned fruit drink. One woman shouted, “I appreciate you [Jones] for everything. You are the only – You are the only – You are the only. And I appreciate you.”[41] This declaration of love and appreciation was greeted by massive applause from the crowd. Other members thanked Jones, whom they lovingly referred to as Dad, for the freedom that Jonestown provided them. This recording of the last hour in Jonestown unfortunately does not prove whether the deaths at Jonestown were suicide or murder, but it does illustrate how much Jones’ followers loved and believed in him. It also indicates that in this particular situation the victims were also the perpetrators. It was other members who silenced Christine Miller and supported Jones’ call for mass suicide. It is clear that in this situation people did something that in other circumstances they would never do. Jones’ followers were whole heartedy devoted to him.[42]

Audience corruption and groupthink help to further the understanding of why Jones’ followers acted the way they did. However, Jones’ manipulation of his followers is what cemented such a strong and faithful following. The definition of manipulation is to “negotiate, control, or influence [someone] cleverly, skillfully, or deviously.”[43] Jones clearly manipulated his followers. One of the most significant ways Jones manipulated his followers was through faith healings. As a child, he saw the power of Pentecostal style preaching, which encourages its followers to develop a personal connection with God through the baptism in the Holy Spirit. He recognized how effective it was at recruiting new members. Therefore, he decided to use similar tactics to increase his own following. Incarnations of the Holy Spirit, such as faith healings and speaking in tongues, are popular and serve to establish the leader’s authority. In religious leadership, leaders often appeal to supernatural forces, such as the direct interaction with what they identify as sacred and the leader’s communication of moral insight. Jones legitimized his power by appealing to supernatural forces in the form of faith healings. In the PBS’ documentary Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple, Neva Sly Hargrave, a member, describes the most incredible faith healing she ever witnessed. She said, “There was this little old lady and she was in a wheelchair. Jim said, ‘Darling, you know, today is your day. … You’re going to get healed today. … We’re going to heal those legs of yours. You’re going to walk again.’ And the whole auditorium went totally crazy.”[44] Jones staged this faith healing. The woman, whom he supposedly cured, was actually a secretary working for Jones made up to look crippled and blind. This was not an isolated incident. Throughout the twenty years of Jim Jones ministry, he often conducted faith healing services and even advertized his unbelievable abilities. A flyer distributed throughout Los Angeles remarked on the “Pastor Jim Jones: The most unique PROPHETIC HEALING SERVICE you’ve ever witnessed! Behold the Word made Incarnate in your midst! … Before your eyes, THE CRIPPLED WALK, THE BLIND SEE! … CHRIST IS MADE REAL through the most precise revelations and the miraculous healing … of HIS servant, JIM JONES.” [45] These services reinforced Jones’ authority and religious superiority.

It is necessary to analyze Jones’ methods of influence to better understand Jones and his relationship with his followers. Jones was an amazingly convincing individual; he convinced many of his followers to relocate multiple times, relinquish their financial and physical property to the church, and to ultimately commit suicide. This method of influence, according to Cialdini, is reciprocation. Reciprocation is the rule stating that one should repay, in kind, what another person has provided him or her.[46] This method was quite successful for Peoples Temple, because of how much it offered its members. For example, in the summer of 1976, Jim Jones and Peoples Temple set off on a cross-country mission to spread the social gospel. In every city, Jones convinced someone to join the movement and leave his or her life of trouble and inequality behind. One person was Odell Rhodes, a Vietnam veteran who, due to post-traumatic stress, became addicted to cocaine and was forced to live on the streets. Rhodes found his salvation in Jones and Peoples Temple. Jones welcomed him and provided him with drug rehabilitation, room, and board. From that point forward, Rhodes would be one of Jones’ most faithful followers. Many of Jones’ followers had similar backgrounds and saw Peoples Temple as their salvation. [47] Given Jones’ charity, the members felt obligated to remain supportive regardless of how ludicrous his plans became. This desire to constantly repay Jones for his generosity cost many members their lives.

Jones was not always an evil leader. He began Peoples Temple with the hope that he would better society, but due to his followership, Jones developed a thirst for power and control. This desire for power led to paranoia, which ultimately led Jones to become an evil leader.

The History of Asahara Shoko

Asahara Shoko and the Aum Shinrikyo movement provide another interesting case study for analyzing the relationship between religion, violence, and leadership. A history of the movement offers essential context for the analysis of Asahara, his followers, and his leadership. Without such context, it is easy to dismiss Asahara as an unsound religious extremist and forget the significant implications of apocalyptic religious movements.

Asahara Shoko was born in 1955 as Matsumoto Chizuo. He was the fourth son in the family of seven children. Similar to Jim Jones, Asahara’s family was extremely poor. His father was inadequately educated and worked as a tatami, or a floor maker. Asahara was born with no vision in his left eye and only thirty percent in his right. Given how poor the family was, Asahara’s father took advantage of his disability and sent him to a government-run boarding school for the blind. At school, he was a bully and troublemaker. The fact that Asahara was able to see gave him an advantage over his peers. Daniel A. Metraux explains Asahara’s bullying in Aum Shinrikyo and Japanese Youth. “[Asahara] would do favors for them in exchange for small sums of money and their unswerving allegiance.”[48] When his cohorts disobeyed, Asahara reacted violently. Many of the students were afraid of his outbursts and punishments. However, there were also times when he was genuinely kind and helpful.[49]

In high school, Asahara showed great promise and expressed a desire to attend medical school; however, due to his disabilities, this was impossible. Therefore, he decided to practice acupuncture and moxibustion, and went to work in Kumamoto. In 1977, Asahara moved to Tokyo to prepare for the Tokyo University entrance exam. Unfortunately, he failed the exam and gave up his dream of a university education. That same year, Asahara met Ishii Tomoko and in 1978 they married. Soon after, the couple opened an acupuncture clinic. The clinic and Asahara’s interactions with his patients inspired him to explore religion. He became depressed when he was unable to cure his patients using contemporary Japanese methods and thus became interested in spiritual cleansings. For example, he studied a traditional form of Chinese divination known as sendo. Asahara believed that these practices, because of their success, gave him supernatural powers. To further his studies of spiritual cures, Asahara read the writings of Takahashi Shinji, the founder of GLA, the God Light Association, a religious group with New Age tendencies. Asahara also worked with Nakamura Hajime and Masutani Fumio, two contemporary Japanese Buddhist scholars. He became especially interested in the early forms of Buddhism in India and admired how the early Buddhists had left their homes and their old ways of life in favor of a more rigorous life aimed at achieving Nirvana, or enlightenment.[50]

In 1981, after a few short years of study, Asahara believed that he achieved a Kundalini awakening, which is an “an arousal of sexual energy, which is said to transform the body, mind and emotions and lead to spiritual development.”[51] In 1984, soon after his enlightenment, Asahara started his own yoga-training center in Tokyo. He initially only gained a few followers. However, after he claimed that his yoga practices had allowed him to levitate and visit the Hindu god Shiva, his popularity increased significantly. Shiva, according to Asahara, commissioned him to create the perfect world. The alleged levitation even provided Asahara the opportunity to visit the Dalai Lama, whom he claimed appointed him the Buddhist leader of Japan. This claim was never confirmed.[52]

In 1987, following his visit with the Dalai Lama, Asahara officially founded Aum Shinrikyo. Two years later, Aum Shinrikyo was granted religious corporation status by the Japanese government. As the Aum movement developed and grew, Asahara became increasingly paranoid. The movement, which had begun with small gathering of followers with optimistic worldviews, became hostile. Many of the members, due to the leadership of Asahara, feared an inevitable apocalyptic war. Asahara became convinced that “since the salvation of society as a whole was hopeless, everything must be done to preserve Aum even at the expense of society.”[53] To protect himself and his followers, Asahara provided bomb shelters, air filtration devices, clothing that protected the wearer of electromagnetic radiation, and food and supplies to allow them to survive the impending doom of society. To further protect the members, Asahara believed that Aum must prepare for battle, not only to protect itself, but also to wage war against those who threatened Aum. Aum built a chemical plant which was capable of producing substantial amounts of sarin gas, and purchased weapons from the United States and Russia.[54]

This violent worldview translated into violent practices. During the late 1980’s and the early 1990’s, Aum committed more than two dozen murders and kidnappings. The most famous of the murders was committed in 1989, when top Aum officials murdered the family of Sakamoto Tsutsumi, a lawyer who worked with concerned families of members of the Aum movement. That same year, Aum was accused of murdering a young member as he tried to escape the Aum compound outside of Tokyo. It is clear that both of these attacks were motivated by Asahara and top officials’ fear of being investigated by the Japanese government. This fear is also what motivated Aum’s most notorious attack: the sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subways. In 1995, Aum feared a raid on its major facilities and hoped to distract the police by bombing the subway system. This, however, was not a successful distraction, and just days after the attack the police raided Aum’s facilities and arrested Asahara and his top followers.[55]

Asahara Shoko’s Leadership

With this context, it is possible to analyze Asahara’s leadership. He was a charismatic leader. He was capable of both immense kindness and religious insight. However, he also was often angry and cruel. Given this, his followers loved and feared him. They were constantly trying to win his favor so that they would not be subjected to his cruel punishments. This dichotomy makes it is difficult to label Asahara an evil leader. He committed horrific crimes and fulfilled the role of protector and sympathizer for his followers. The dichotomy of Asahara’s leadership style as both protector and violent enforcer demonstrates that he was not wholly evil. Similar to Jones, Asahara founded Aum genuinely believing that it could change society for the better. Unfortunately, power and paranoia created an evil leader.

In Religious Violence in Contemporary Japan: The Case of Aum Shinrikyo, Ian Reader illustrates this transformation. He argues that Asahara’s transformation from a young, athletic-looking ascetic in the mid-1980’s to an overweight man with a lined and bloated face in the early 1990’s mimics the decline in Aum’s values. Asahara was once an ascetic leader who truly believed he had achieved enlightenment. He preached the optimistic mission of world salvation. He believed that if an individual followed in his footsteps and practiced his strictly outlined yoga routine, he or she could also reach awakening. Unfortunately, the movement and its leader transformed. Aum became a movement of great despair and pessimism, where mass murder became the only means of achieving true freedom and salvation.[56]

To successfully illustrate the religion’s popularity, it is necessary to explore Asahara’s recruitment tactics, the role of his followers within the movement and the subsequent violent acts. Providing an insightful perspective of the Aum followers, Reader explains that Aum was appealing to individuals who were of a zealous nature. Aum claimed to able to advance participants to spiritual masters, which appealed to young, ambitious, and highly motivated people. These individuals had already gained great success in their fields of education at top universities and wanted an opportunity for further advancement. The movement’s teachings against materialism also appealed to idealistic young people who grew up in a society where material possessions were regarded more highly than one’s spirituality, and Asahara was able to capitalize on this disconnect. He claimed that he could levitate and visit with the Hindu god Shiva. These claims significantly increased his following. They also provide an excellent example of leadership tactics employed by religious leaders. Asahara’s claim that he personally interacted with Shiva, a figure that his followers recognized as sacred, significantly grew his movement and deepened the devotion of his followers. People were willing to do anything to develop their spirituality, and they believed that close interaction with Asahara would aid in the development. The movement also appeared to offer these young educated idealists an antidote to the heavily rationalized system and worldview that dominated the education systems in Japan. These individuals had achieved success, but at the cost of a spiritual comfort, and sought Aum to fill this void. Similar to Jones, Asahara was his followers’ savior. However, instead of saving them from poverty and inequality, he saved them from spiritual damnation.[57]

Metraux discusses in greater detail Aum’s appeal to young Japanese. He examines the rebelliousness of the Japanese youth and Asahara’s ability to capitalize on it. “Asahara, shrewdly sensing young people’s needs, responded to their desire for self-improvement in a way that was clearly visible and easy to understand. He created a hierarchy that enabled members to rise in rank in accordance with their level of practice, … the amount of money they donated.”[58] Aum was also appealing to young Japanese because of the popular culture of the 1980’s and early 1990’s. It was the time of subcultures. “New Age” magazines published stories about UFOs, folk religion, and divination, and students wanted to get involved. Apocalyptic themes also became increasingly popular, both in Hollywood and throughout popular culture, creating for the first time an apocalyptic subculture. To escape, people sought religion, and luckily for the Aum movement it was there to ease these individuals’ fears.[59]

Unlike Peoples Temple, Aum had a strict hierarchy. This hierarchy elevated senior disciples to higher levels of authority, and thus worked to inspire and motivate new disciples. This hierarchy also allowed Asahara to develop and plan all violent acts, but not participate in them. Top officials became deeply involved in all the acts of violence and even helped develop or encourage the teaching that justified Aum’s use of violence. The top officials even carried out these acts, doing so with great zeal. They felt empowered by being asked to commit such deeds. It showed them, in their own minds, that they had attained high levels of spiritual power and could thus kill without taking on bad karma.[60]

Given the followers and the hierarchy they helped to create, Asahara became addicted to power. Throughout the movement, he began to realize that his followers were willing to risk their lives to execute his orders. “As he grew in status and received total obedience from his followers, he increasingly began to lose touch with reality; his behavior became stranger … and he became obsessed with ideas of conspiracies, with being poisoned and surrounded by spies.”[61] It is clear that Archie Smith’s concept of audience corruption and Cialdini’s concept of groupthink apply. As Asahara became more popular, and his followers willingly yielded their power to him, he lost sight of Aum’s original mission, and his followers were unable to question his behavior.

The followers’ inability to question Asahara’s behavior caused Aum to descend deeper into violence. In the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, more than two dozen individuals were kidnapped and murdered by Aum. The majority of the murders were of defected members and were committed because Asahara was afraid that his practices would be revealed to the Japanese public. He reestablished his authority within Aum by murdering the defected members. Asahara Shoko’s actions indicate that he was an evil leader, but similarly to Jones, his relationship with his followers aided in his development as evil.

The analysis above illustrates how similar Peoples Temple and Aum Shinrikyo movements are. It also provides a valuable study of charismatic leadership and its implications. One of the most striking similarities between the two movements is their charismatic leadership. Charisma has many consequences within religious movements. For example, charismatic leaders respond to perceived threats to their authority in a violent manner. When a charismatic leader’s authority is threatened, he or she will react in ways that “embellish [their] authority and extrapolate it in increasingly authoritarian and absolutist direction.”[62] For example, Jim Jones made growing demands of his followers in order to test their faith and commitment to his authority. These tests heightened the receptivity of his followers to strange orders. Therefore, when Jones called for them to commit suicide, the majority obeyed without question. Furthermore, in both Aum Shinrikyo and Peoples Temple, as the leaders become increasingly paranoid and unstable; their followers accepted the changes and even supported, encouraged and reinforced them. In the case of Aum Shinrikyo, the senior hierarchy actively complied, not only in carrying out the violent acts, but also developing the teachings that supported the acts.[63]

Given the relationship between leader and follower discussed above, it is clear that both movements’ followers greatly contributed to the development of the leaders as bad and more specifically evil. Given this, it is clear that there is not just a relationship between bad leadership and religious violence, but also one between bad followership and religious violence. This conclusion raises the interesting question of whether or not this relationship between leaders, followers, and unethical behavior exists outside religious movements. Furthermore it begs the question: what should the relationship between followers and leaders consist of? Although it would convenient to dismiss Jones and Asahara as extremists and the outcomes of their movements as merely situational, the ramifications and implications of Peoples Temple and the Aum affair are not limited to the study of religion.[64] Throughout history there are many examples of unethical leaders whose followers refused to protest or even question their leaders’ actions. Enron and WorldCom provide two examples where a culture of dishonesty was created, and the followers, who were moral individuals, refused to question their leaders’ unethical behavior. Given these examples, it is clear that followers must understand the significance of their role within their movement or organization. Additionally, followers must acknowledge their involvement in the unethical behavior that takes place, and understand that “Without [them] nothing happens, including bad leadership.”[65] In Bad Leadership Kellerman suggests that followers must empower themselves, remain loyal to their whole community rather than to just one individual, be skeptical, take a stand, and pay attention.[66] If followers are able to employ these behaviors, a community will be created where unethical behavior cannot occur.

Given the discussion above, it is clear that followers play a significant role in the allowance for and prevention of bad leadership. However, leaders also share this responsibility. Leaders have the ability to avoid bad leadership and unethical behavior by sharing the power, staying grounded, compensating for their weaknesses, remembering their mission and original goals, controlling their appetites, and continuously reflecting.[67] In addition to the responsibilities listed, leaders must ensure that a culture of openness is created so that their followers have opportunities to voice their opinions about the direction of the organization and the leader’s performance. If leaders and followers are able to adequately fulfill their designated roles outlined above, unethical behavior and bad leadership will be prevented.

Works Cited

Alternate Considerations of Jonestown. “Tape Number: Q042.” http://jonestown.sdsu.edu/ (accessed November 25, 2010).

Chidester, David. Salvation and Suicide: Jim Jones, The Peoples Temple and Jonestown. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2003.

Cialdini, Robert B. Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion. New York: Collins Business, 2007.

Dictionary. http://dictionary.com/ (accessed November, 2010).

Encyclopedia of Leadership. California: Sage Publications, 2004.

Feinsod, Ethan. Awake in a Nightmare: Jonestown the Only Eyewitness Account. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1981.

Kellerman, Barbara. Bad Leadership: What it is, How it Happens, Why it Matters. Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 2004.

–––. Followership. Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 2008.

Klineman, George. The Cult That Died. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1980.

Levi, Ken. Violence and Religious Commitment. University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1982.

Metraux, Daniel A. Aum Shinrikyo and Japanese Youth. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1999.

Moore, Rebecca. “Demographics and the Black Religious Culture of Peoples Temple,” in Peoples Temple and Black Religion in America, ed. Rebecca Moore, Anthony Pinn, and Mary Sawyer, 57-80. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2004.

–––. Interview by author. Phone. 7 November 2010.

Nelson, Stanley. Director. Jonestown: Life and Death of Peoples Temple. DVD. PBS: American Experience.

Otto, Matthew. Interview by author. Email. 24 November 2010.

Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. http://pewforum.org/ (accessed September, 2010).

Reader, Ian. Interview by Author. Email. 24 November 2010.

–––. Religious Violence in Contemporary Japan: The Case of Aum Shinrikyo. Honolulu, Hawai’i: University of Hawai’i Press, 2000.

Smith, Archie. “An Interpretation of Peoples Temple and Jonestown: Implications for the Black Church,” in Peoples Temple and Black Religion in America, ed. Rebecca Moore, Anthony Pinn, and Mary Sawyer, 47-56. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2004. Endnotes

[1] Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, http://pewforum.org/ (accessed September, 2010).

[2] Encyclopedia of Leadership (California: Sage Publications, 2004).

[3] Encyclopedia of Leadership.

[4] Encyclopedia of Leadership.

[5] Robert B. Cialdini, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion (New York: Collins Business, 2007), 116.

[6] Cialdini, 129.

[7] Barbara Kellerman, Bad Leadership (Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 2004), 24.

[8] Kellerman, Bad Leadership,191.

[9] Kellerman, Bad Leadership, 38.

[10] Barbara Kellerman, Followership (Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 2008), 54.

[11] David Chidester, Salvation and Suicide: Jim Jones, The Peoples Temple and Jonestown (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2003), 3-8.

[12] Chidester, 51.

[13] Ian Reader, Religious Violence in Contemporary Japan (Hawai’i: University of Hawai’i Press, 2000), 5.

[14] Reader, 95.

[15] Reader, 105-115.

[16] Chidester, 2.

[17] Chidester, 2-3

[18] Chidester, 3.

[19] Ken Levi, Violence and Religious Commitment (University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press: 1982), xii.

[20] Chidester, 5.

[21] Chidester, 6.

[22] Ethan Feinsod, Awake in a Nightmare (New York: W.W. Norton & Company: 1981), 13-23.

[23] Levi, xiii.

[24] Chidester, 7-8.

[25] Levi, xiii.

[26] Feinsod, 100.

[27] Kellerman, Followership, xx-xxi.

[28] Alternate Considerations of Jonestown, “Tape Number: Q162.” (accessed November 19, 2010).

[29] Kellerman, Bad Leadership, 196.

[30] Rebecca Moore, Interview by author, phone, 7 November 2010.

[31] Chidester, 84.

[32] Stanley Nelson, Director, Jonestown: Life and Death of Peoples Temple. DVD. PBS: American Experience.

[33] Archie Smith, “An Interpretation of Peoples Temple and Jonestown: Implications for the Black Church” in Peoples Temple and Black Religion in America, ed. Rebecca Moore, Anthony Penn, and Mary Sawyer, 47-56 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2004), 50.

[34] Rebecca Moore, “Demographics and the Black Religious Culture of Peoples Temple” in Peoples Temple and Black Religion in America, 57-80 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2004) 75-76.

[35] Cialdini, 142.

[36] Cialdini, 140-144.

[37] Alternate Considerations of Jonestown, “Tape Number: Q042.”

[38] “Tape Number: Q042.”

[39] “Tape Number: Q042.”

[40] “Tape Number: Q042.”

[41] “Tape Number: Q042.”

[42] “Tape Number: Q042.”

[43] Dictionary, http://dictionary.com/ (accessed November 3, 2010).

[44] Nelson.

[45] George Klineman, The Cult That Died (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1980), 11.

[46] Cialdini, 116.

[47] Feinsod, 72-87.

[48] Daniel A. Metraux, Aum Shinrikyo and Japanese Youth (Lanham, Maryland: University Press of America, 1999), 10.

[49] Metraux, 10-11.

[50] Metraux, 11.

[51] Metraux, 12.

[52] Metraux, 11-12

[53] Metraux, 12.

[54] Metraux, 12-13.

[55] Metraux, 12-13.

[56] Reader, 234.

[57] Ian Reader, Interview by author, email, 24 November 2010.

[58] Metraux, 43.

[59] Metraux, 43.

[60] Reader, Interview.

[61] Reader, 231.

[62] Reader, 235.

[63] Reader, 86-88.

[64] Reader, 229.

[65] Kellerman, Bad Leadership, 226.

[66] Kellerman, Bad Leadership, 239-241.

[67] Kellerman, Bad Leadership, 233-235.

Last modified on October 19th, 2018.
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