Many lives were destroyed or thrown off track by the influence of such cults. But the problem was nowhere near the scale suggested by the media, religious leaders or even the U.S. government.
Cults had no great power to brainwash, as indicated by their embarrassingly poor retention rates. Most recruits stuck around for a year or two before drifting away, either gravitating to a new group or returning to normal life. This revolving-door effect makes solid statistics hard to come by, but the work of scholars such as J. Gordon Melton suggests that all sects combined were influencing a few hundred thousand people at any given time. “Moonie” membership in the U.S. crested at about 7,000 (as documented by Mr. Melton), before declining steeply in the 1980s.
The panic over cults resulted partly from savvy media manipulation by a variety of interest groups. Mainstream religious organizations played a role, as did networks of families who feared that they had lost their children. More sinister were so-called deprogrammers, self-appointed experts who would””for a hefty fee””kidnap cult members and reverse the “brainwashing.”