Spend any time in anti-cult activism, and you’re sure to eventually hear the phrase “undue influence.” This is actually a legal term that means, according to this site:
“A judicially created defense to transactions that have been imposed upon weak and vulnerable persons that allows the transactions to be set aside.”
In plainer English, you can claim “undue influence” if a person is vulnerable and was convinced to do something not in their best interest. It’s often used in the framework of estate planning, where perhaps grandma was convinced to leave more of her estate to a certain child who coerced or threatened her. Being old and frail and not in the best heath, grandma simply goes along, but another child claims she was under “undue influence” in order to contest her will.
The phrase “undue influence” is also used when talking about cults and abusive, high-control religions. Weak-minded persons are convinced to do things that are not in their best interest for the sake of the religion, and this is a common sign of a cult versus a healthy organization.
Seeing Undue Influence Firsthand
My mother is certainly an example of undue influence; she was abused as a child, a mother as a teenager, and barely able to support herself as an adult. When the Witnesses knocked on her door in the early 1970s, she was very susceptible to their message that god was going to step in and fix everything for her, and very, very soon! (See this website for the predictions of Jehovah’s Witnesses regarding the year 1975.) The concept of this “quick fix,” or of god taking care of things so she didn’t have to, was very appealing to my mother. She didn’t need to go through the hard work of healing mentally and emotionally from her horrific childhood, or of being a responsible adult. Instead, she only needed to “march in place,” which was a phrase she has often used to describe her life, and wait for the JW “new system” to come along and take everything away from her.
In the process, my mother was unduly influenced, or pressured by those in the religion, to stay with my abusive stepfather, to give money to the religion, to advance the religion by proselytizing versus working to make herself feel fulfilled, and by avoiding doctors and counselors who tried to help her by pointing out this undue influence. She was constantly told that her reward for doing this was right around the corner, that this was what god wanted of her, and that to suffer for the sake of the religion was something good and to be desired.
This influence came mostly from the elders in the religion but also from the literature produced by Jehovah’s Witnesses that encourage women to stay in such situations (see this post). My mother was a perfect patsy for such teachings, an emotionally weak individual who wasn’t able to think for herself and who was easily manipulated, controlled, and abused.
So, then, who is abusing the abusers?
It’s Not Always Undue Influence
My mother was convinced to do things that were not in her best interests, that’s obvious. However, what about those who were coercing her to do these things? How were they acting against their “best interests”?
It’s generally thought that undue influence occurs against those who are weak-minded or “susceptible to overreaching.” Undue influence is related to the concepts of dominance, duress, and high pressure methods. If this is true for those being influenced, how can it be true for those doing the influencing? If undue influence means exercising power over others, how can the concept be applied to those who are actually exercising the power themselves? Who is abusing them?
It’s easy to say that elders and other leaders in a religion are being unduly influenced by religious literature, but what about those writing the literature? Remember, too, that literature consists of words on a piece of paper. I’ve read the bible, the Koran, the Torah, and a host of other “holy” books and they don’t influence me one bit. They’re all just words, no more significant than a Harry Potter novel. There are also literally billions of people on the planet who read the same “holy” books and don’t abide by them, so it’s not like their supposed influence is automatic; this literature may influence the decisions of those who read and believe it, but something in their personalities must agree with that information, or they would be like the rest of us and just shrug it off.
You might also argue that elders are not free from undue influence themselves, as they are told by their religion’s leaders to give up many aspects of their own life, including their free time and money. Okay, but consider what they get in return, including immediate power and control over others. Undue influence means a “grossly unfair transaction,” so how are elders or religious leaders the ones being treated unfairly in this “transaction” or relationship with the congregants? If you’re comparing the situation of cults to those of an elderly person who is coerced to change their will, of course grandma is the victim, but would you say the child who did the coercing was also under undue influence, or a victim? Would it not be more accurate, then, to refer to elders and others as a partner in the crime, an accomplice, the mafia guy out actually breaking the knees at the behest of the mafia boss?
An elder, a religious leader, a husband in an unfair relationship or downright abusive marriage isn’t acting against their best interests; they actually have their interests fulfilled in that arrangement. He or she has their needs met, whether it’s needs in a marriage or financial support by congregants or just the need for authority itself. Perhaps they do give up some free time and money, but is this simply a price they’re willing to pay for how those interests of theirs are fulfilled? What are they really giving up, what is being taken away from them in this arrangement so that you can argue that they, too, are being coerced, are acting under duress, are being dominated, are being treated unfairly, are being abused, or are being unduly influenced?
What’s Your Point?
My point is this; when anti-cult activists and others say that we need to educate people about the concept of undue influence in order to wake them up to the damage that is being done to them, I would agree, but only to a certain extent. People like my mother should understand how Jehovah’s Witnesses are just using her to forward their own interests. Counselors, doctors, therapists and others need to understand how victims of these religions and other such arrangements are coerced to stay, and that they’re often not dealing with emotionally strong people to begin with.
However, to say that undue influence is some sort of blanket explanation of cults and controlling, abusive religions is very shortsighted, in my opinion. Perhaps many in that religion are not necessarily suffering as helpless victims but are glad to have their positions, and are glad to have an outlet for their incessant need for power, for anger, for self-expression, to feel superior to others, and to have their own selfishness fulfilled.
It’s vital to understand this because approaching these religions as if everyone inside is a victim is going to be futile. As one of Jehovah’s Witnesses, I never met an elder, overseer, or anyone in such a position of authority who was bewildered and delicate, to be pitied and handled with kid gloves. On the other hand, stories abound of elders who have outright said that it was “their congregation” they were managing, and who have no issue with bellowing orders, demanding obedience, and even being downright abusive to congregants. The man who molested my friend Bo Juel was one such elder; in his book, “The Least of God’s Priorities,” Bo tells of how the man would interrupt a meeting to demand parents remove a child from the auditorium. This was the same elder who was habitually raping and molesting little children in that congregation, and who got away with it repeatedly. How, indeed, was this monster a poor pitiful victim of undue influence by the religion?
If those in power, those who are wielding this undue influence, are not victims themselves, why treat them as such? Not recognizing their true nature may be one reason why the Watchtower still stands.
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