Another Cult Leader Convicted

I’ve got to give the government credit: they’ve been doing an excellent job cracking down on criminals who try to hide behind religion. Between Kent Hovind, Warren Jeffs, and now a new conviction, federal prosecutors have been diligently enforcing the law against creeps, con men, and petty tyrants who claim that the law of God gives them license to break the laws of society.

This month’s creep is Tony Alamo, former head of Tony Alamo Christian Ministries. On Friday, Alamo was convicted on ten counts of taking girls as young as 9 across state lines for sex between 1994 and 2005.

If you’re not familiar with Tony Alamo, this report by the Southern Poverty Law Center gives plenty of sordid details. The high points include intense hatred for Catholics (including Jack Chick-esque pamphlets denouncing the Vatican as a demonic conspiracy), a past conviction and prison sentence for tax evasion, and daily radio broadcasts by Alamo defending polygamy and underage marriage. Based on the SPLC report, the Alamo compound was run with the vicious, authoritarian attitude standard for all cults:

The following year, the Alamos purchased the property in Saugus and built sex-segregated dormitories for their California followers, who today number in the hundreds. Members collected spoiled food from supermarkets and Dumpsters to prepare communal meals. Living conditions were squalid. Punishment for stepping out of line ranged from fasting to beatings to being kicked out of the group and losing your spouse and children, many ex-members say.

And what would a good cult be without a heaping helping of hypocrisy and greed among the leadership?

…[Members] toiled as field hands on farms in nearby Bakersfield, turning their entire paychecks over to their cult leaders. The Alamos directed their followers to build them a large, lavish home on a nearby hilltop and drove a fleet of black Cadillac sedans (today, Tony Alamo favors a black Escalade). Ex-members report that Susan Alamo spent thousands of dollars on fur coats, fake eyelashes, plastic surgery and wigs. Tony wore turtle-leather platform boots, diamond pinky rings and a bearskin coat with bear claw epaulettes.

At its peak, Alamo’s ministry was taking in millions of dollars per year. But his career took a bizarre turn when his first wife, Susan, died in April 1982. For months, he kept her embalmed body and ordered his followers to pray around the clock for her resurrection. The failure of this effort may have been what snapped Alamo’s already tenuous grip on reality, and soon afterward, according to ex-members, he began taking multiple wives, some barely into their teens, some even younger. Repeated complaints to the police by former members who’d escaped finally spurred prosecutors to take action.

Just in case you had any residual sympathy for Alamo, permit me to wipe it out with this report of his behavior at trial:

He blurted out a reference to the Branch Davidian raid at Waco, Texas, muttered expletives during testimony and fell asleep even while alleged victims were testifying.

…”I’m just another one of the prophets that went to jail for the Gospel,” Alamo called to reporters afterward as he was escorted to a waiting U.S. marshal’s vehicle.

Why do I bring this up? It’s not just to exult in Alamo’s downfall (although there’s more than enough reason to do that). It’s because this case is another object lesson on two important, interrelated points.

First: Being religious does not make you a good person. If anything, it worked in the opposite direction. Alamo’s extreme religiosity allowed him to justify, to his followers and himself, why he should wield unlimited power over them, and their faith in him is what permitted this sex abuse to go on as long as it did. And, it must be said, the Bible does support polygamy, and says nothing about age of consent. A morality based on reason, not on blind faith and obedience, would not have led to this.

Second: This is why atheists criticize religion. Too many people who should know better persist in believing that religion is beneficial and harmless – even when confronted with stories like this one. We speak out because we want to tear down this facade, tear down the societal illusion that anything with “faith” in the name automatically deserves respect. That’s the belief that allowed Alamo’s cult to flourish. We want to instill the attitude that claims require evidence, that it’s worth being skeptical when a two-bit hustler claims to be a prophet of the one true God. If more people thought this way, there’s a much better chance that future Tony Alamos might be prevented.

Atlas Shrugged: The Craft of Not Acting
Atlas Shrugged: The Rapture of the Capitalists
Bangladesh Is Killing Atheists
SF/F Saturday: Terry Pratchett’s Death
About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, City of Light, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • Thumpalumpacus

    And a third object lesson: criminals often don religious attire in order to hoodwink the credulous.

  • exrelayman

    Thumpalumpacus – It is almost mandatory for politicians to do so.

    All – Remember the Alamos

  • GG

    May he rot in prison.

  • Tommykey

    Too many people who should know better persist in believing that religion is beneficial and harmless

    That’s my same take on the way the media treats purported spirit medium John Edward, who claims to be able to communicate with peoples’ deceased friends and family members. A few months ago on my local news station, the morning anchors were plugging a series of shows Edward was having at the Westbury Music Fair. The lady anchors were practically swooning. “He’s such a great guy.” “Have you ever had a reading with him?”

    I was like “How about actually investigating his claims to see if they are true?” Because when the media reports on him uncritically, they are in effect giving a pass to anyone who claims the ability to speak to the dead. “Oh well, I can’t get a ticket to John Edward’s show, so maybe I will try the fortune teller down the block.” It leaves gullible people vulnerable to frauds and con artists. So, even if Edward is not directly harming people, which is arguable, the mostly uncritical treatment he receives in the media leaves naive people with the impression that not only can he speak to the dead, but that other people can do so too.

  • Staceyjw

    I could use a million and a nice house and car(s). I think Im in the wrong business :)

  • Ebonmuse

    Sometimes I get that feeling too, Stacey. :) I’ve got to admit, if I ever needed some easy money, the best way to get it would be to claim to have converted and then write an essay for the Templeton Foundation. Their primary mission is apparently to give away huge sums of money to anyone who’s willing to write happy-clappy essays claiming that science and religion are compatible and are working toward the same end.

  • Danikajaye

    Well then Ebon aren’t we lucky you are a godless individual with a strong sense of morality because I have a feeling you could be quite convincing what ever you choose to write.

  • Leum

    Being a good writer seems to be a liability for cult starters. The Book of Mormon is atrocious and I’ve never heard anything good about the Scientology writings.

  • Modusoperandi

    Leum: I’m guessing that you haven’t read the original versions. They lost some of their impact once they were translated from their orginal form (the first Book of Mormon consisted entirely of crayon stick figures with giant heads and too many fingers, and the Scientology texts were old Ziggy cartoons with edited speech bubbles. True story).

  • Brock

    Leum: not to mention the Christian Science text by Mary Baker Eddy. Unreadable.

  • Scotlyn

    Perhaps unreadable, contradictory, infantile holy books work so well because they can function as a Rorschach test – what readers see on the page reflects whatever happens to be in their heads. If such books were more lucidly written, they might force the reader’s attention away from “what they want to see” towards “what is written there” and trigger a more critical approach.

  • Thumpalumpcus

    exrelayman –

    I was actually unaware of any difference in the two breeds.

  • Steve Bowen

    what readers see on the page reflects whatever happens to be in their heads.

    Hmmm.. I’m currently attempting the Quran (In translation with commentary) and I’m getting this very same impression.