All right, time for another friendly straw poll: If an article mentions David “Moses” Berg or his movement known as the Children of God (later The Family), what words would you expect to see?
Sex? Yes, of course, what with Berg’s enthusiasms for promiscuity and “flirty fishing” among his followers.
“[Onetime] Jesus freaks”? Fair enough, considering that Berg originally attracted many hippie converts who answered to that nickname.
Cult, sect, alternative religion? Check, check, check.
Evangelical? Whoa, mama.
Now, the disclaimers:
Ã¢Â€Â¢ Don Lattin of the San Francisco Chronicle is a highly respected veteran on the religion beat, and he’s written many fine stories about characters in the Bay Area and beyond.
Ã¢Â€Â¢ Randall Balmer mentions Berg in his Encyclopedia of Evangelicalism, perhaps owing to Berg’s starting his ministry in a coffeehouse formerly run by Teen Challenge.
Nevertheless, calling Berg’s movement a “desert evangelical sex cult,” as the Chronicle does in its headline and as Lattin does without elaborating on “evangelical,” takes theological shorthand toward incoherence.
The details in Berg’s story, as provided by Lattin, suggest that Berg shed whatever remained of an evangelical background about as easily as some Children of God shed their clothes:
Berg died in 1994, but his movement lives on today as “The Family.”
Other survivors of the Children of God include hundreds — perhaps thousands — of “Jesus babies” born in the 1970s and ’80s. Their mothers were young missionaries who followed Berg’s call to share sexual favors in order to bring young men to Christ.
They called it “flirty fishing.”
Steve Kent, a professor of sociology at the University of Alberta, said the highly sexual climate at Children of God communes “did real damage to that second generation.”
Under such usage, Berg’s followers can join a select group of people who retain the evangelical label despite their anti-evangelical theology and practice. I think of Chris Brain, leader of the Nine O’Clock Service/Rave Mass movement that came to San Francisco in 1994. When it became clear that Brain was persuading many women into his bed by promising “sexual healing,” the archdeacon of his diocese in the Church of England blamed this sexual abuse on Brain’s charismatic and evangelical background rather than on the neopagan message Brain was preaching. (Roland Howard tells the story in heartbreaking detail in his Rise and Fall of the Nine O’Clock Service: A Cult Within the Church?)
Any preacher without accountability can be lured into heresy or megalomania, but mention Jesus at any point in your career and you too might forever lay claim to the adjective of evangelical. One contributor to Daily Kos, for instance, refers to mass murderer Jim Jones as a “notable evangelical Christian leader.”
Evangelicals do not answer to the same rich history and tradition as Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox believers. But their primary voice, the National Association of Evangelicals, does require member churches to affirm its statement of faith, and the same statement is a common feature in evangelicalism’s parachurch ministries. Evangelicals affirm specific beliefs — the very same beliefs that, without fail, are rejected by charlatans who proclaim themselves either the Messiah or a special messenger to whom the usual moral and theological standards do not apply.