A friend pointed me to this National Geographic documentary about a cult in New Mexico that has splintered off from the Seventh-Day Adventists. The cult is led by one “Michael Travesser,” who claims to be the Messiah. A couple of things really struck me.
First, this isn’t exactly a charismatic man, someone who might have some kind of persuasive power over anyone. From an outsider’s perspective, he comes across as rather creepy and transparently self-absorbed. And yet one of his female followers describes in almost rapturous terms the joy of being held naked by this man who is fully God and fully human. It makes me wonder if some people need to see the divine, the inspired, in the mundane, the earthly.
Second, it’s amazing what some people will do when they are convinced that God is behind something. Oddly enough, a common denominator in most personality-driven religions is that eventually the leader will assume certain sexual privileges with his followers. Hence, Travesser has had multiple sexual partners among his female followers, and husbands and parents are expected to stand aside in favor of the leader, who is commanded of God to consummate these relationships. Watching the video and seeing a young girl speak so matter-of-factly about entering Travesser’s bed reminded me of how dangerous it is to give yourself, your sense of morality, your conscience, over to another person.
I think I understand somewhat how this works. I used to, in my own way, speak just as these young women did. I believed “that which is wrong under one circumstance, may be, and often is, right under another. … Whatever God requires is right, no matter what it is.” In short, when you believe in someone’s divine authority, right and wrong become relative. It becomes acceptable, even noble, to violate normative notions of right and wrong when we are told that God requires it.
I’ve learned to be far more skeptical about claims that God has commanded something, especially when that something is dishonest and immoral.