Regulating Religion



Regulating Religion
Series Editor:
Melvin Lerner, University of Waterloo, Waterloo, Ontario, Canada
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Reno, Nevada
Leo Montada, University of Trier, Trier, Germany
Regulating Religion
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New York
The German Enquete Commission
on Sects
Political Conflicts and Compromises*
Hubert Seiwert
An English translation has been published
under the title Final Report of the Enquete
Commission on So called Sects and Psychogroups (Deutscher Bundestag, 1998a). It
is to be expected that this report will influence the ongoing public debate on "sects"
and "cults" not only in Germany, but also in
other European states, and it is therefore useful to throw some light on the working of the
commission and the political controversies
influencing its deliberations.
Because I was a member of the
commission myself, I should make it clear
that I was and to a certain degree still am
a participant in these controversies. I do
not agree with many of the interpretations
and particularly the political conclusions
drawn by the majority of the commission.
My own interpretations were presented
in the final report as a minority opinion,
which was also supported by commission
member Dr. Angelika Koster-LoBack,
M.P. Dr. Koster-LoBack was the only
representative of the Green Party (Bilndnis
90/Die Griinen) in the commission, which
had nominated me as an expert member
(although I am not a member of that party).
In May 1996, the German Bundestag established an Enquete Commission on "Socalled Sects and Psychogroups." Despite the
somewhat puzzling title, it was generally understood that the commission would deal
with new religious movements, and above
all with the Church of Scientology, which
in 1996 was a perceived as a major threat
to the State and society by the German public. Accordingly, in the media and in common language the commission was simply
called Sektenkommission (sect commission). Unlike a similar commission of the
French National Assembly, which presented
its report in January 1996, 6 months after its
installation and after only 21 hours of deliberations (Assemblee Nationale, 1996), the
German sect commission had 49 sessions
in 2 years. In June 1998, it presented its
final report (Deutscher Bundestag, 1998b),
which was later published as a book of nearly
500 pages (Deutscher Bundestag, 1998c).
* Updated, revised, and reprinted from Social Justice
Research, 12 (4), 1999.
Although active participation in the
work of the commission on the one hand
allows me to present more detailed information on its procedures and internal discussions than would otherwise be the case, it is,
on the other hand, a factor that adds rather
subjective perceptions to this paper. I cannot
avoid making some critical remarks on the
Final Report of the commission. However,
this paper is not intended as a criticism of the
majority opinion of the final report, which I
have done elsewhere (Seiwert, 1999), but to
explain the work of the commission and the
political processes that restricted it.
The installation of the Enquete Commission on sects marked the culmination of a
public debate in Germany that goes back
to the early 1970s. At that time, a number of new religious movements was introduced into Germany, among them the Unification Church, Scientology, ISKCON, the
Children of God, and the Divine Light Mission. These five movements became generally known as youth religions, a term coined
by the late Rev. Friedrich-Wilhelm Haack,
who was the first and most influential critic
of new religions in Germany (Haack, 1978).
As in other countries, these new religious
movements were highly controversial and
became the target of a small but influential group of anti-cult activists. Most active among the critics were some "sect experts" (Sektenbeauftragte) of the Protestant
Churches who also promoted the formation of many private "initiatives of parents
and concerned persons" (Eltern und Betroffeneninitiativen ). Some of these initiatives
gradually developed into private centers of
counseling and information that inform the
public and the media about the alleged dangerous influence of sects.
New religious movements received attention periodically in the media, partic-
Hubert Seiwert
ularly after the mass suicide by members of the People's Temple in 1978. Although controversial religions remained a
marginal phenomenon in quantitative terms,
they were generally perceived as harmful
and dangerous. Public opinion almost exclusively relied on information provided by the
sect experts of the major churches and the
private counseling centers. For a number of
reasons, academic research on new religious
movements was not promoted, and the few
studies that did exist were ignored in public
discussion (Baumann, 1998).
In the early 1990s, the public debate
on new religious movements gained new
momentum after the unification of the two
German states. Some sect experts argued
that the collapse of the socialist system in
East Germany had left an ideologic vacuum
that provided a fertile ground for the invasion of sects. Although it soon became obvious that the expected "invasion" did not
take place or at least was not successful,
dangers caused by sects became a regular
theme in the media. The continuing apprehension of· new religious movements was
fostered by awful events abroad (e.g., the
Waco incident, 1993; the murder and suicide
of Solar Temple followers in Canada and
Switzerland, 1994; the criminal activities
of Aum Shinrikyo in Japan, 1995). These
events, which surpassed even the most atrocious stories about the baleful activities of
sects, contributed to the increasing public
concern. By early 1996, public apprehension
of sects had taken forms that were properly
described as hysteria even by observers who
are wholly unsuspected of playing down the
dangers caused by new religious movements
(Niichtem, 1997, 1998; Fincke, 1998).
For reasons that deserve further sociological investigation, the main focus of this
hysteria became the Church of Scientology.
Although Scientology had been severely
criticized and accused of illegal activities in
other countries as well, it was in Germany
that the fight against Scientology became a
major political issue. It is difficult to imagine
The German Enquete Commission on Sects
today the frenzy prevailing in 1995 and
1996. Scientology was perceived as a serious
political danger that not only threatened to
tum individuals into will-less zombies, but
was also conspiring to overthrow the democratic constitution of the state. For the first
time, the public campaign against a "sect"
was launched by senior politicians, including some federal and state ministers. The
"Great Scientology Scare" had a tremendous
impact on the public perception of new religious movements. Regarding Scientology as
a public enemy became a matter of political
correctness, and being suspected of having
any relations with it-let alone of being a
member-led to ostracism. Because Scientology was generally labeled a "sect," the
Scientology fear was easily transferred to
other "sects"-that is, new religious movements and other social phenomena to which
the same label was applied. The strong negative cooootations that the term sect had
acquired in public language were thus further enhanced. At the same time, it was
used almost indiscriminately for religious
minorities of any kind, putting the "youth
religions" side by side with Jehovah's Witnesses and Evangelical communities, while
demonstrating the perilous nature of sects
with reference to the unquestioned atrocity
of Scientology. It was this climate of sect
hysteria that provided the background for
the Enquete Commission of the Bundestag.
Public opinion demanded political action. It
seemed obvious to anyone that sects were a
serious societal problem and a possible danger. Accordingly, the decision to establish
the commission left no doubts about this.
The commission was charged to "identify
dangers emanating from these organizations
for the individual, the State, and society"
(Deutscher Bundestag, 1996b).
Thus, right at the outset it was taken
for granted that "these organizations" cause
dangers, a mindset that strongly shaped the
aims and methods of inquiry. It was never
asked whether the public apprehension of
new religious movements was possibly a
result of distorted information, not to mention the question of whether "these orga- ·
nizations" might possibly have other than
harmful effects on the society. Although it
became clear during the proceedings of the
commission that no criminal or other unlawful activities could be substantiated for
any new religious movement in Germanythe only exception being Scientology (which
the commission did not regard as a religious
movement)· --the propositions that had led
to its installation were never questioned by
the commission. The majority of the commission avoided stating clearly that the public perception of new religious movements
as dangerous or even criminal organizations was unfounded. Instead, it extended
the range of social phenomena included into
the inquiry far beyond "sects" in the common sense of the word (i.e., minority religions), treating such diverse things as direct
marketing and pyramid schemes (chapter
3.3.4), occultism and Satanism (chapter3.4),
alternative therapies and life-counseling
(chapter 3.5.2), and ritual child abuse (chapter 5.2.6). Jn this way, "so-called sects
and psychogroups" became a catch-all for
anything that might be perceived as eerie
and threatening. Because new religious
movements were presented as in some
way associated with these sinister phenomena, the prevailing apprehension was
To understand better the self-imposed limitations of the commission's work, it is useful to have a glimpse at the political setting surrounding it. As has been mentioned,
during the years preceding its installation,
public fear of sects had increased. Although
new and unconventional forms of religion,
sects and cults were publicly and even by
some government representatives suspected
of various harmful and illegal activities.
However, there was an almost complete lack
of evidence supporting these accusations. As
there was no evidence of unlawful activities by new religious movements, no public
prosecution occurred and government policy paid little attention to the problem. This
situation contrasted sharply with warnings
of sects experts promulgated by media reports that alerted the public to the perilous
influence of "sects." Political pressure on the
federal government to take some action increased, although the existing laws did not
allow doing more than had already been
done. Because the constitution protects the
.freedom of religious belief and free exercise of religion, the authorities could not interfere with the activities of sects, as there
was no evidence for violations of the law.
What the federal and state governments did,
however, was to issue leaflets and public
statements warning against individual sects
and sects in general. The list of federal and
state government publications on new religious movements is too long to be cited
here. The first publications appeared in 1979
(Nordrhein-Westfalen, Rheinland-Pfalz). I
could trace only three that appeared during the 1980s (1983, Nordrhein-Westfalen;
1983, Federal Government; 1988, BadenWiirtemberg) and three in 1994 and 1995
(Berlin, Schleswig-Holstein, MecklenburgVorpommern). Between 1996 and 1998,
government publications on new religious
movements mushroomed, with a considerable proportion dealing with Scientology.
The courts had approved such warnings, arguing that they did not interfere with the
free exercise of religion but responded to
the government responsibility of informing
the public (Federal Court of Administration,
1989; Federal Constitutional. Court, 1989).
Earlier, the federal government and other administrations had also financially supported
private anti-cult organizations, but this had
been outlawed by the Federal Court of Administration because such public funding
had no legal basis (Federal Court of Administration, 1992). Efforts aimed at creating
Hubert Seiwert
proper legal authorization for the provision
of public funds to private information and
counseling centers failed because of substantial constitutional doubts within the administration (Deutscher Bundestag 1998a,
p. 275). Thus, the federal administration
could not respond to the political pressure
for further action against the harmful influence of sects because its options were
restricted by the existing laws.
It was against this background that
the Social Democratic Party's (SPD) parliamentary group in February 1996 tabled
a motion to establish an Enquete Commission of the Bundestag on "so-called sects
and psychogroups" (Deutscher Bundestag,
1996c). The motion was discussed in the
parliament on 14 March and referred to the
Committee for Scrutinity of Elections, Immunity and Rules of Procedure, which submitted a recommendation for a decision on
9 May 1996 (Deutscher Bundestag 1996a,
pp. 8488-8500). Although the SPD as opposition party did not command a parliamentary majority, the Enquete Commission was
established (Deutscher Bundestag, l 996b)
with the support of the government coalition parties, even though their speakers had
uttered some reservations during the session on 14 March. The speaker of the Liberals, Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger,
doubted that the establishment of an enquete
commission was the right way to deal with
the subject (Deutscher Bundestag 1996a,
p. 8494). She was not nominated by her party
as a member of the commission. The commission consisted of 12 members of parliament and an equal number of external experts. The government coalition of Christian
Democrats (CDU/CSU) had five members,
the Liberals (PDP) had one member. The
SPD had four members, and the Green Party
(Bilndnis 90/Die Grtinen) and the Party of
Democratic Socialism (PDS) had one member each. The same number of external experts was nominated by each party.
The member of parliament who had initiated the motion was Renate Rennebach, a
The German Enquete Commission on Sects
back-bencher of the Social Democrats who
for several years had made herself a political spokeswoman of the anti-cult network. In
her speech, she described the dangers caused
by sects with the whole spectrum of anti-cult
We are confronted with the situation that
people are driven into psychic and financial dependency, that children are forced
to meditate for many hours and with silicon plugs in their ears, that the most
severe frights are stirred up and people
are exposed to the most atrocious practices of psychic indoctrination, which induces, for instance, their prostitution or
even makes children available to sexual
perversities. We are confronted with a situation, that people are refused medical help,.
that families are destroyed, that whole
branches of the economy are infiltrated
and firms are bankrupted. (Deutscher
Bundestag, 1996a, p. 8488)
She made also clear that of the assumed 600 sects and psychogroups it was
not just Scientology that had to be scrutinized, but also "the 599 other groups" and
the problems caused by 1J1em (Deutscher
Bundestag, 1996a, p. 8494). Thus, the target of Mrs. Rennebach, who once called the
enquete commission her "baby" (Leipziger
Volkszeitung, 1996) and invested considerable passion into it, was obviously the whole
range of sects and cults. It was probably
this zeal serving all popular prejudices that
made it difficult for the government parties
to block the motion of the opposition party.
Instead, they supported it and attempted to
direct the work of the commission with their
majority to a more moderate path. The different approaches of the government parties
and the Social Democrats had some influence on the selection of external experts.
At least three of the four SPD experts were
known for their anti-cult commitment. One
is a sect expert of the Protestant Parish Service for Wiirtemberg, one is the head of
the Scientology Task Force of the State of
Hamburg, and one is a judge and former
officer of the same task force. The fourth
is a professor of religious studies. However,
the coalition parties relied more on academic
professionals. There were two social scientists, one psychologist, one officer of the
Catholic Bishops' Conference, one lawyer
and professor of law, and one officer of the
Bavarian State Ministry of the Interior. The
last two were known for their engagement
in the anti-cult struggle, particularly against
That both factions did not agree in aims
and methods first became evident to the public after the summer. At the first hearing
of the commission on 14 November, when
officers of the internal intelligence service
(Verfassungsschutz, i.e., Offices for the Protection of the Constitution) were questioned,
one of the SPD experts, Mrs. Caberta,
refused to answer asked questions because the vice president of the Bundestag,
Antje Vollmer, was present. Ursuala Caberta
y Diaz is head of the Scientology Task Force,
Ministry of the Interior, Hamburg. She is one
of the best-known and most active champions of the anti-cult campaign. She argued
that Mrs. Vollmer, a member of the Green
Party, had personal contacts with Gottfried
Helnwein, a renowned painter, who is supposed to be a member of Scientology. Because of these contacts, Mrs. Caberta suspected the vice president of the parliament
might possibly reveal secret information to
Mr. Helnwein and in this way to the Scientology organization. As could be expected,
the Green Party reacted sharply to this insinuation against one of its senior politicians.
The conflict was further fueled when a few
days later the expert who had been nominated by the Green Party (the author) was
publicly accused by Mrs. Rennebach and
Mrs. Caberta to be in some way connected
with Scientology, or even to be a member.
They demanded that the Green Party withdraw my nomination. Because I am personally involved, I do not want to go into the details of this campaign. 1 What can be safely
stated, however, is that the zeal of the two
SPD members did not find the support of
the other factions in the commission. The
spokesman of the Christian Democrats attested to Mrs. Caberta's "hysterical traits,"
and the spokesman of the Liberals even suggested that she should be recalled as a member of the commission (Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 1996).
These episodes illustrate the internal
tensions that affected the work of the commission from the very beginning. There
was a steady conflict between the Social
Democrats, who followed a plain anti-cult
policy, and the two members of the Green
Party's faction (the author was not a member of the Green Party), whose position was
more liberal and influenced by the results of
academic research on new religious movements. The government majority took a position in between these two poles. Although
the government faction controlled the majority of votes, it had a strong interest in
an unanimous report. One may only guess
that they wanted to keep the theme out of
the coming election campaign, lest the Social Democrats would present themselves
as the sole fighters against the sect danger.
As we shall see, this strategy was largely
With the exception of some public hearings, all meetings of the commission were
confidential. The aura of secrecy surrounding the commission contributed to a deep
mistrust on the part of new religious movements, many of which sharply criticized the
existence of the commission. For them, it
seemed to be an institution of inquisition.
Nobody knew which sects or cults were being investigated or what evidence was used
by the commission. In fact, the commission
itself was quite uncertain about how to define
the object of its investigation. With the exception of Scientology, which was a constant
Hubert Seiwert
point of reference in most discussions, there
was no clear delimitation of the field of inquiry. As has been noted, it finally included
even economic phenomena like direct marketing and pyramid schemes. In the beginning, however, the focus was more concentrated on religious and spiritual groups.
In January 1997, 15 "so-called sects" were
invited for confidential hearings, including Rosecrucians (AMORC), a charismatic
Christian church (Gemeinde auf dem Weg,
Berlin), Mormons, ISKCON, Jehovah's
Witnesses, Soka Gakkai, and Scientology.
The identity of the 15 groups invited was revealed only in the Final Report (Deutscher
Bundestag, 1998, p. 24). However, the discussions of the commission never systematically investigated the communities invited
or other groups. To be sure, the members
of the commission were covered with loads
of papers dealing with the most diverse religious communities and other phenomena.
These papers-newspaper reports, extracts
of anti-cult literature, court decisions, government statements, and occasionally even ·
scientific reports-arrived in a rather random way. They were rarely discussed, let
alone systematically evaluated. This is certainly one of the shortcomings of the commission's work, due partly to the lack of
time and partly to a lack of methodology.
Although the secretariat of the commission,
which was staffed by several social scientists, did its best to structure the proceedings, the discussions were mostly exchanges
or confrontations of political opinions rather
than attempts at rational analysis. This impression is one of an academic professional
who is used to other forms of discussions, of
course. However, one may ask whether parliaments are well advised to leave enquiries
into subjects that arouse high emotions to
commissions not committed to any juridical
or scientific rules.
One of the results of the free-hand
methodological approach was a certain nonchalance in dealing with the information
available. Especially in the first year, there
The German Enquete Commission on Sects
was a tendency to take all information critical of sects and cults at face value, while
at the same time information provided by
the religious groups themselves was usually
regarded as unreliable apologetics. As an illustration of this procedure, I quote from the
intennediary report:
The range of activities [of so-called
sects and psychogroups] is multifarious
and engenders various potentials of dangers. It ranges from economic exploitation
and dangers to the physical health of individuals to the induction of criminal acts
by the members of problem groups or by
providers of services in enterprises of the
new industry of consciousness and their
clients. Likewise, the ideological and economic approaches, which extend as far as
the claim to world domination, are diverse.
It is, therefore, necessary to uncover the
dangers to people directly or indirectly
concerned, i.e., to their rights protected
by the constitution like physical or psychic health, the freedom of action, of will,
and of thought (beliefs), as well as to the
free and democratic society and its institutions. (Deutscher Bundestag, 1997, p. 78;
my translation)
The majority of the commission did not
regard it as necessary to add any evidence to
these and other allegations, and in fact there
was no evidence supporting them available
to the commission, except the well-known
anti-cult literature. This tendency to utter general insinuations without verification
was fostered by a decision that at first sight
seemed quite reasonable. The commission
had agreed not to make a list of sects or to
criticize specific sects in order to avoid stigmatizing them. Instead, the problems connected with sects and cults should be treaied
in a more general way. However, this approach allowed the collection of a variety of
allegations from different realms and the accumulation of them to build a horrific picture
of sects and cults without any specification.
This procedure was sharply criticized
in a minority vote to the intermediary
report by the two members of the Green faction (Deutscher Bundestag, 1997, pp. 3942). We also criticized that the majority had
recommended an observation of Scientology by the domestic intelligence services because the commission had never discussed
the pros and cons of such an observation.
At that time (May 1997), the Scientology
hysteria was still on its climax, and the ministers for the interior of the federal states
were preparing a decision allowing an observation, which was taken in June. Supporting
this policy was an act of political correctness, and the authors of the minority vote
were accordingly severely attacked, both by
the spokespersons of the other factions and
by critics in the media.
The second year of the commission's
work was in several ways different from the
first. The preparation of the final report demanded more concentration on certain topics and the drafting of the report. These
drafts were often discussed controversially,
but with a remarkable willingness to reach
a compromise. The most important single
factor contributing to a more rational procedure, however, was the submission of several
research papers that had been requested by
the commission.
The major research project is an empirical study of individual biographies of members and former members of sects and cults
(Fuchs-Heinritz, Scholl, Streib, & Vester,
1998). Another one is a review of quantitative studies on the psychological effects of membership (Murken, 1998). Other
research reports deal with the "psychomarket,"-that is, suppliers of alternative
therapies and life counseling, and practical
experiences in counseling connected with
new religious movements (cf. Deutscher
Bundestag, 1998e). Although the incoming research reports had different themes
and methods, they had one thing in common: None of them supported the allegations
against new religious movements that prevailed in public opinion and were taken for
granted by the majority of the commission.
In particular, there was no evidence that
conversion to new religious movements and
commitment to them was caused by weird
"psycho-techniques," which deprived the
"victims" of their capacity to act freely. It
also became clear that conversion and membership depend in the first place on the "fit"
between the individual's needs and the specific features offered by the respective community, and that individuals are active in
the formation of this relationship. The researchers had found no indication that membership presented hazards to individuals that
cannot also be found in other social contexts. A convenient summary of the results
of the research projects can be found in
the minority opinion to the Final Report
presented by Angelika Koster-LoBack, MP,
and myself (Deutscher Bundestag, 1998a,
pp. 311-352).
Although these findings were hardly a
big surprise for anyone roughly familiar with
former social scientific research on new religious movements, they contradicted obviously the fundamental assumptions that had
led to the establishment of the commission.
Likewise, other allegations as to the infiltration of economic and political institutions by
sects were difficult to uphold in the light of
the evidence available. Thus, it seemed that
the commission had finally found a commonly accepted base of facts on which to
build the final report. However, the majority of the commission was not prepared to
accept the sole conclusions that could reasonably be drawn from the research results.
This would have been to inform the parliament and the public unambiguously that new
religious movements and religious minorities in general do not present a particular
danger to individuals, the state, and society
at large; that certain dangers and risks do
exist, but are not specific to new religious
movements and occur in other social contexts as well. Such a clear statement, however, would run against the political interests
and expectations connected with the establishment of the commission, because one of
Hubert Seiwert
the major aims of some on the commission
was to clear the path for new laws to allow
more effective measures against "so-called
sects and psychogroups."
In view of an almost complete lack of reliable evidence for dangers caused by new religious movements, the commission shifted
its line of reasoning. Instead of "dangers,"
the final report concentrates on conflicts allegedly caused by "so-called sects and psychogroups." Thus, the commission's field of
study was redefined as "not [only] the groups
themselves but [also] clearly defined social
actions and conflict-triggering actions by
individuals-or more precisely, individual
members of groups-most of which claim to
have, or are ascribed, a religious or ideological status" (Deutscher Bundestag, l 998a,
p. 37; words in brackets are not in the original German, but are in the official English
translation). This definition states correctly
that the commission did not systematically
investigate particular groups. However, it
wrongly suggests that the report goes on
to produce evidence of individual actions
that can be regarded as conflict triggering.
Rather, the report confines itself to the discussion of "potential conflicts" (Konfiiktpotentiale ), which removes the obligation to
deliver any evidence.
The long list of potential conflicts,
which is provided in chapter 3.3.5 of the
Final Report, is an example for the attempt to
conceal the lack of evidence and to obscure
the actual findings of the research results.
Far from dealing with "conflict-triggering
actions" by individual members of groups,
it accumulates accusations against "religious and ideological communities and psychogroups" that have been brought forward
during the past decades. The list is presented as a "typology" of potential conflicts and therefore remains open to what
degree these possible conflicts are actual
The German Enquete Commission on Sects
conflicts and to which "religious and ideological communities and psychogroups"
they apply.
The last point deserves particular attention because it reveals a fundamental
methodological weakness of the report. The
commission had great difficulties in demarcating the range of its inquiry. Although
the decision of the Bundestag defined "socalled sects and psychogroups" as "new religious and world-view movements," 2 the
commission extended its understanding of
"psychogroups" to suppliers and clients of
"alternative, non-orthodox educational, psychological and psycho-therapeutic methods" (Deutscher Bundestag, 1998a, p. 33).
Actually, however, the report goes even
further, including certain commercial practices such as pyramid schemes and multilevel marketing systems. These are labeled "commercial cults" that might attain
"quasi-religious characteristics." "Employees are[then] exposed to a greater risk of
exploitation and even psychological breakdown. [In such cases J a distinction between
these and the 'psychogroups' (psycho-sects,
psycho-firms) can no longer be made"
(Deutscher Bundestag, 1998, p. 196; insertions in brackets were in the original
German). This line of reasoning not only
justifies the inclusion of "commercial cults"
into the discussion, but at the same time
suggests that the risk of exploitation and
psychological breakdown are characteristics
of psychogroups. Incidentally, the research
report on the "psycho-market," which had
been submitted to the commission and is
summarized in the final report, did not
sustain any of these allegations (Deutscher
Bundestag, 1998a, pp. 90-102; cf. Hellmeister & Fuchs, 1998). The inclusion of
phenomena that are not new religious and
worldview movements into the definition
of "new religious and ideological communities and psychogroups" has significant
methodological consequences because it
obfuscates what exactly the report is talking
One has to admit that the problem to
define "so-called sects" is a difficult one. It
is also one with considerable political and
juridical implications. The commission allotted many hours to the problem of definition and the issue proved to be highly controversial. Several conflicting arguments and
interests were involved. In the intermediary
report, the majority of the commission had
agreed to a definition that included practically all religious communities except those
that were established churches in Germany
before 1919 (Deutscher Bundestag, 1997,
p. 44 ). During the drafting of the final report,
it was argued that in public usage, the term
sect has too many negative connotations to
be used as a descriptive term. The suggestion
to replace it by the more neutral and scientifically common term new religious movements was at first sharply opposed by the majority. One can only guess about the reasons
for this surprising resistance. One member
argued that the definitions should not be too
precise to allow the inclusion of a wide range
of phenomena. Another reason might have
been the attempt to bypass the adjective "religious" with its constitutional implications.
It was argued that a "sect" was not defined
by its religious nature but by its detrimental
social effects and potential of conflicts. After long discussions, however, the majority
decided to drop the term sect and replace it
with new religious and ideological communities. In the decision to establish the commission "so-called sects and psychogroups"
is explained by "new religious and worldview movements" (neuere religiose und
weltanschauliche Bewegungen). It should
be noted that the commission changed
this definition in two ways: First, it takes
"new religious and ideological communities" as an equivalent to "so called sects,"
making "psychogroups" an additional (and
rather indistinct) category. Second, it replaced weltanschaulich (referring to world
views) with ideologisch (ideological). Incidentally, weltanschauliche Gemeinschaften
(world view communities) have the same
constitutional rights as religious communities, which is not the case with ideologische Gemeinschaften. Although the final report discusses the problems of terminology
extensively (Deutscher Bundestag, 1998a,
pp. 27-37), it does not arrive at a definition of the term new religious and ideological communities. The conclusion of
the chapter summarizes instead the conflicts
that are caused by "new religious and ideological communities and psychogroups,"
thereby conveying the impression that causing conflicts is indeed their most important
characteristic (Deutscher Bundestag, 1998a,
p. 36).
It is not a difficult task to criticize internal
contradictions in the commission's report.
However, to do justice to it one must bear
in mind that the text is the result of political
compromises. Roughly speaking, there were
"radical" and "moderate" factions. The former's background was the experience of actual conflicts that many of its members had
with new religious and ideological movements, be it as Church sect expert, lawyer,
officer, or anti-cult lobbyist. These experiences largely conditioned their perception of
new religious movements. They had a strong
interest in drawing a picture that transmitted
their own experiences and evaluations to the
public. Thus, they developed a tendency to
concentrate on certain cases that seemed to
support their perception. The members of
the "moderate" faction were not personally
involved in conflicts with certain sects. Consequently, they had a broader understanding of "new religious and ideological communities" that included the whole spectrum
of religious minorities. Without denying the
possibility and actuality of conflicts in some
cases, they were aware that the phenomenon
of new religious movements is complex. Relying more on social scientific research than
on personal involvement, they were anxious
Hubert Seiwert
not to make generalizations that cannot be
The way to reach a political compromise between these two positions was the
usual one: A tacit understanding to give
voice to both positions. Because new religious movements-that is, sects in the common sense-did not provide the expected
atrocities, the "radical" faction was allowed
to illustrate its alarmist position by other
phenomena and hypotheses. Thus, black
masses of Satanists with rapes and torture
found their way into the report (Deutscher
Bundestag, 1998a, p. 84), and an excursion about ritual child abuse was inserted
into the chapter on children in new religious
and ideological communities (Deutscher
Bundestag, 1998a, pp. 181-186). Another
tactical compromise was to allow the presentation of hypotheses and suggestive questions to break the force of certain findings.
A good example is the chapter on "Forms
of social control and psychological destabilization" (5.1), which treats at length the
question of what could be understood by
"psychological dependency" and what are
the possible dangers of psychological destabilization. Factual statements are avoided,
and it is correctly stated that according to
available studies, what is described as psychological dependency "appears as part of a
search and adaptation behavior that can be
neither induced nor replaced by psychological manipulation on the part of the group,
but which may well be controlled by it"
(Deutscher Bundestag, 1998a,p. 153). However, the scenarios described in the rest of
the chapter convey the message that psychological dependency caused by "psychological destabilization" is indeed a danger.
Thus, the text equally states that "[t]he manipulation of individuals by groups is amply
documented" (Deutscher Bundestag, 1998a,
p. 149), although not the slightest documentation is given. We may interpret this
chapter as an attempt to obscure the simple truth that the hypothesis of psychological destabilization through the use of certain
The German Enquete Commission on Sects
"psycho-techniques" by sects could not be some of their expert members. However, the
sustained by any evidence and contradicted report contains little that can be used to fuel
the hysteria prevailing at the time the comthe available research results.
Considerable compromising ingenuity mission was established. On the contrary,
was applied to minimize the force of re- the report presents the results of research
search that had been conducted on behalf obviously contradicting the usual anti-cult
of the commission and that, therefore, could stereotypes, even if it avoids drawing too
not simply be ignored. Particularly two much attention to these findings. Thus, the
social scientific studies produced results SPD faction did not succeed in using the rethat were disturbing, because they chal- port to present its own alarmist version of
lenged the prevailing picture of dangerous the sect problem. Strangely, they realized
sects of the majority. One comprehensive their failure only when the draft of the genstudy on the social and psychological ef- eral conclusion was discussed. Although the
fects of membership in new religious move- text (chapter 6.1) stresses the problems and
ments was reduced to little more than conflicts that may arise in connection with
one page (to be compared to almost four new religious movements, it avoids dramatipages on ritual child abuse). Furthermore, zation and does not ignore the research findits results are presented in the subjunctive ings. Also, it clearly, if not very prominently,
mood, indicating that the commission did states that "[fjrom the perspective of society
not identify with it (Deutscher Bundestag, as a whole, the new religious and ideolog1998a, pp. 112-115). In the other case, the ical communities [presently] do not pose a
major empirical research project with a threat [danger] to government or society, or
book-length report, the "radical" faction (to] any of the relevant domains in society"
frankly refused to accept the draft sum- (Deutscher Bundestag, l 998a, p. 284; words
marizing the results as part of the com- in brackets from original German).
The SPD members rejected this conmission's report. The heated debate finally
led to a strange compromise: In the main clusion and presented a minority opinion to
text of the Final Report, the results of the this chapter of the report, which is a remarkstudy are presented only in brief (Deutscher able piece of ideological mutter (Deutscher
Bundestag, 1998a, p. 111 f), with reference Bundestag, l 998a, p. 30 I f). It throws off
to the appendix, where an extensive sum- all restrictions that the commission had immary is given. Incidentally, this summary posed on itself when it asserted that "the
is much longer than the original draft. The Enquete Commission has not endeavored to
incident illustrates the sometimes irrational appraise religions or ideologies" (Deutscher
forms of conflicts and compromises, which Bundestag, 1998a, p. 19 f). The SPD miexplain many of the inconsistencies of the nority vote does not conceal why it is
opposed to new religious movements: "Nureport.
From the point of view of political strat- merous new religious and ideological comegy, the government faction in the com- munities and psychogroups offer deceptive
mission was successful. The majority re- or fictitious solutions to the problems faced
port undercut the Social Democrats, who by individuals or society as a whole. Involvewere not allowed to gain political credibil- ment in these groups is often synonymous
ity as lonely fighters against the danger of with a withdrawal from the political system
sects; Although the compromises diminish and real life." And a little later:
the value of the report as a piece of transIt is therefore necessary to realize that
parent information, they were easily acceptvalues influencing individuals' activities
able politically. They also served parts of
through new religious and ideological
the Christian Democrats' own clientele and
communities and psychogroups are a form
of political and social protest. In the most
extreme cases such values do not coincide either with the predominantly Christian values and standards of our country or
with the concepts anchored in the Constitution that have to be defended primarily
by political means (Deutscher Bundestag,
1998a, p. 302).
This text leaves no doubt about the real
conflict underlying the passionate opposition to "sects" on the part of these members
of the commission: It is an ideological conflict between new religious and ideological
communities and, as it were, old ideological communities. Because the SPD minority
opinion must be regarded more as a political
confession than a conclusion to the commission's findings, it did not receive any attention in the media. The government faction of
CDU/CSU and FDP had succeeded in neutralizing the major opposition party.
The two members of the Green
faction did not support the report of the
majority, but presented their own minority
report (Deutscher Bundestag, l 998a,
pp. 305-370). One reason was the ambiguities that characterize the majority report.
Accordingly, our minority report mainly
consists in a systematic and often verbatim
exposition of the research results that had
been presented to the commission. The
conclusion drawn from these results is
that individual conflicts in connection with
new religious movements certainly exist.
However, it is emphasized that conflicts are
interactive processes, the causes of which
usually cannot be attributed to only one
side. Furthermore, conflicts are ubiquitous
in pluralist societies and do not demand
government interference as long as existing
laws are not violated. Because no evidence
for systematic violations of the law by new
religious movements or their members had
been found by the commission, it is not
justified in regarding them as a danger or
a social problem demanding government
action. For this reason, our minority opinion
Hubert Seiwert
rejects all recommendations of the majority
report demanding new legislation.
The parliament had charged the commission
not only to analyze the dangers and problems
connected with new religious and ideological communities and to scrutinize the reasons for their supposedly growing membership, but also to draw up recommendations
for political actions. Quite early in the deliberations, the majority reached consensus
about a number of political measures, including new laws and the extension of the
scope of existing laws. Unlike the drafts
of the descriptive and analyzing chapters,
which occasionally led to heated debates,
the recommendations for action were not
controversial. Because it was clear that the
members of the Green faction would not support any new legislation, they usually abstained from the discussions.
The recommendations of the majority
were apparently not affected by the results
of the inquiry. In fact, they may be said to
contradict the statement of the report, that
"new religious and ideological communities and psychogroups do not pose a danger to government or society or to any of
the relevant domains in society" (Deutscher
Bundestag, 1998a, p. 284), for the majority report recommends no less than five new
acts and laws ( and in six
more cases the extension of the scope of legislation currently in force (,,, and 6.2.4). Included are:
1. An act establishing a Foundation in the
field of "new religious and ideological
communities and psychogroups"
2. Introduction of a legal basis for the provision of public funds for private counseling and information centers (i.e.,
cult-watching organizations)
The German Enquete Commission on Sects
3. An Act Governing Commercial LifeCounseling Services
4. Introduction of responsibility under
criminal law for legal entities and associations of persons (including cults
and sects)
5. Making the operation of pyramid
schemes a criminal offense
6. Including pyramid schemes under
general laws concerning financial and
insurance services
7. Charging the Federal Administrative
Office with responsibility to act as an
information and documentation center on "new religious and ideological
communities and psychogroups"
8. An amendment to the Associations
Act dispensing with the exemption
of religious communities from the
scope of application (i.e., providing
a legal basis for the ban of sects and
cults under certain circumstances)
and amending the tax law ensuring that only religious organizations
showing a modicum of loyalty vis-avis the constitution and the legal system will be recognized as nonprofit
organizations for tax purposes
9. Amendment to the Act on NonMedical Practitioners and addition of
"healing fraud" as a criminal offense
10. Changing the definition of usury in
the criminal law to include the exploitation of psychological predicaments (by cults and sects, as they raise
11. Calling for observation of the Scientology Organization by internal intelligence agencies
12. Calling for establishment of a European information center on "new religious and ideological communities
and psychogroups"
introduces and permits direct public funding
of private counseling and information centers (Deutscher Bundestag. 1998a, p. 286).
Furthermore, indirect funding of private
counseling centers should be provided by
a foundation to be established (Deutscher
Bundestag, 1998a, pp. 273, 285).
Another recommendation deserving
comment concerns the systematic observation of sects and psychogroups. A separate
provision in the Act on the Establishment
of the Federal Administrative Office is demanded to charge the office with the responsibility "(t]o collect and evaluate materials
which are important for the development
in the field of 'new religious and ideological communities and psychogroups,' including organizations or associations which are
linked to such communities or groups, either legally and commercially or in terms
of their religious or ideological objectives"
(Deutscher Bundestag, 1998a. p. 288). It
is difficult to understand how a commission with a considerable number of lawyers
and judges among its members can demand
the systematic collection of data about individuals and organizations selected exclusively with regard to their religious or ideological orientation. The same report that
two pages earlier states that new religious
and ideological communities pose no dangers to the government or society (Deutscher
Bundestag, 1998a, p. 284) now wants a federal agency"[ t]o publish information leaflets
and other materials to educate the public
at large and professionals in the field as
to the (dangers] in the field of 'new religious and ideological communities and pychogroups'" (Deutscher Bundestag, l 998a,
p. 288; English translation has "hazards"
instead of "dangers," as in original).
It is not within the scope of this paper to analyze these recommendations in detail. One of the more important points is the
call to adopt a legal regime that explicitly
The Final Report was officially published on
9 June 1998. Ten days later, the spokespersons of the parties presented their positions
during a plenary session of the Bundestag
(cf. Deutscher Bundestag, 1998d, p. 2452
ff). Reactions in the media were short and
concentrated on the central statement that
sects in general were not considered as a danger by the commission, which for the journalists was the main message of the official
press release. Some critics attacked the minority opinion of the Green Party for having
failed to join the lines against the invisible
danger. Then the sect hysteria of the 1990s
was over.
In fall 1998, the federal elections
brought a new government coalition of SPD
and the Green Party. The agreements of the
coalition do not mention the "sect problem" or the recommendations of the enquete
commission. It was a commission the 13th
Bundestag and the 14th Bundestag does not
seem to be eager to put it on the agenda
again. As of fall 1999, none of the proposed
political and legislative measures have been
tackled, but the enquete commission's report
was once again a topic of discussion in the
Bundastag in January 2000, but with no action taken at the time of this writing.
For those who had hoped to utilize the
enquete commission to make available public resources to combat new religious and
ideological communities, it was a failure. In
spite of the deficiencies that its Final Report
certainly has, it contributed to a more rational and less emotional attitude towards new
religious movements in Germany. How long
this will prevail remains to be seen.
Two years after the present chapter was written it is possible to assess more clearly the
effects of the Enquete Commission. With regard to the media it is still true that public
attention to new and alternative religions has
almost disappeared. This may, however, be
due to the change in government in 1998 that
brought about new political themes to fill the
papers. In any case, the anti-cult lobby did
Hubert Seiwert
not succeed in bringing the theme back to
public attention.
One interesting observations is that the
change in government did not significantly
affect government policy. The major opposition party still criticizes the government
for not taking legislative measures to protect the population against dangers thought
to be caused by sects and cults. What has
changed is that the major opposition party
now is the former government party and
vice versa. In March 2002 there was a
debate in the Bundestag (Federal Parliament) about implementation of recommendations that the Commission had made in its
Final Report (Deutscher Bundestag, 2002,
pp. 22557-22562, 22579 f). The spokesman
of the government party (SPD) listed three
points to show that the government had not
been inactive. One was a program to qualify
existing counseling institutions for dealing
with cases related to sects and cults. Another was an amendment to the Civil Code
(Burger!iches Gesetzbuch, BGB) that forbids corporal punishment in the education of
children (§ 1631 BGB). This rule, of course,
does not specify religious communities. Its
being mentioned in this context reflects the
opinion that corporal punishment of children
is common in some minority religions.
The most important point was an
amendment to the Associations Act (Vereinsgesetz), which implements of one of the
Enquete Commission's recommendations.
The law allows the government to ban associations under certain specified conditions,
such as criminal objectives or activities contradicting the constitutional order and the
idea of international understanding. Until
November 2001 religious associations were
exempted from this provision i.e., it was
impossible to ban them. After the terrorist attacks of September 11th the government took the opportunity to change the law.
The new provisions were applied almost immediately to ban an Islamic community in
Cologne on the charge of promoting hate
against the Jews and Israel and aiming at
The German Enquete Commission on Sects
founding an Islamist state. Understandably,
this ban was welcomed by the public in a
situation when the fight against Islamist terrorism had high priority. The implications
of the new law when applied to other religious associations were never discussed, although in the parliamentary debate the Scientology organization was mentioned as a
possible target.
Although the Associations Act does not
entitle the government to ban religious (or
other) associations at will and there always is
the possibility to appeal against a ban, it cannot be denied that the new law changes the
status of religions in the German legal system. The new law reinforces an already existing tendency of having two classes of religious communities with unequal rights. On
the one hand there are religions that are juristic persons as associations, which at least in
principle can be banned. This applies to all
new religions and most religious minorities.
On the other hand there are the traditional
Christian churches and Jewish communities,
which are corporations by public law and
cannot be banned. These legal distinctions
appear to be of little significance in practice.
However, they introduce a two-class system
of religions, which promotes the idea that
only religious communities with corporate
status are "recognized" religions. Actually,
the German legal system has no provisions
for the "recognition" of religions, but granting or denying the status of corporation by
public law now has almost the same function.
It is against this background that a decision of the Federal Constitutional Court
in December 2000 gains high significance.
The community of Jehovah's Witnesses had
appealed to the court because it was denied
the status of corporation by public law. The
case has a long history that started when
in 1993 the State Government of Berlin refused to grant this status to Jehovah's Witnesses (Besier & Besier, 2000). While to
lower courts decided in favor of the Witnesses, the Federal Administrative Court
supported the State Government's view. The
central argument was that Jehovah's Witnesses do not allow their members to participate in public elections. Since the legitimacy
of the State rests on democratic elections,
it was argued that the Witnesses' refusal to
take part negated and undermined this legitimacy (Bundesverwaltungsgericht, 1997,
pp. 15--17). This judgment was quashed by
the Federal Constitutional Court because
the argument has no legal basis and contradicts the constitution, for there are no
provisions demanding religious communities support the existing political system.
Since all religions have equal rights and
Jehovah's Witnesses fulfill the formal requirements for being granted corporate status, denying it on these grounds is unconstitutional. However, the court left it open
whether there might be other reasons to
deny it, and the case was referred back to
the lower courts (Bundesverfassungsgericht,
The case is symptomatic of tension between the legal and the political systems.
The constitution secures the equality of all
religions, including new and minority religions. In the political arena, however, there
are considerable reservations against religious communities labeled as "sects" and
"cults." The reluctance of the federal administration to take legislative measures seems
to be caused primarily by former court decisions that narrowed the margin for political
action. In any case, constitutional restrictions are more important than the aftereffect of the Enquete Commission. In fact,
most speakers in the parliamentary debate
of March 2002 conveyed the impression that
they have only read the report's recommendations for action and reproduced the same
stereotypes as five years before. This may
disillusion those who believed in the rationality of politicians. They can find consolation from the fact that the fight against sects
and cults does not attract any more the attention of the public and is fuelled more by
the personal warfare of some lobbyists than
by a general climate of religious intolerance
in Germany.
l. The accusations against me were reported in major German newspapers (e.g., Siiddeutsche Zeitung,
21.11.96, "Streitiiber Sachverstandige"; Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 21.11.96, "Streit belastet Arbeit der Enquete-Kommission"; Berliner
Zeitung, 21.11.96, "Interner Streit gefahrdet Arbeit
der Sekten-Kommission"; Leipziger Volksz.eitung,
23./24.11.96, "Krach in der ektenkommissionMitglieder in Scientology-Verdacht?" Cf. also
Siiddeutsche Zeitung, 23./24.11.96, p. 8, "Interview
mit dem Religionswissenschaftler Hubert Seiwert."
2. "Neuere religiose und weltanschauliche Bewegungen, sogenannte Sekten und Psychogruppen"
(Deutscher Bundestag, 1996b). The translation of
"weltanschaulich" (referring to Weltanschauung) is
difficult. The English translation of the Final Report
usually renders it as "ideological," which is a possible translation. However, in German there is a difference between weltanschaulich and ideologisch, the
latter having negative connotations. The issue is of
juridical significance because religiOse und weltanschauliche Bekenntnisse ("religious and worldview
confessions") enjoy equal protection by the Constitution (Art. 4 of Grundgesetz). The same does not
apply to "ideological" confessions or movements.
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