What’s so bad about cult leaders anyway? They inspire, they unite people toward a common cause, and they spread powerful messages. And yet, the Torah tells us that someone who starts a cult and encourages others to worship another god are to be killed. I can definitely see why such a command could ruffle some feathers and offend modern sensibilities.
As a counter-missionary I can tell you this is not as bad as it looks. Once you really see the damage that populist leaders can do with feel-good messages and half-truths that steer people in very dangerous directions. I’ll give you one of the most common scenarios: recovering drug addicts. How many testimonials for such-and-such a cult are given by a former junkie who was saved by their new-found faith? This is the angle that Mike Brown, one of the biggest “Messianic Jewish/Christian” missionaries alive, uses to engage audiences about the saving power of Jesus. This is half the story. Yes, Brown is no longer slamming needles into his arm. What he doesn’t say is that he simply traded one addiction for another. He says that he could have never been saved from drug addiction without his faith. This is simply not true. Only Nicorette gets to make a claim like that. Many atheists, agnostics, and members of a whole variety of faith groups have beat drug addiction, without having to sell their soul in the process.
People like Mike Brown spend every second of every day dedicated to spreading the faith. Even benevolent actions are done with the thought in mind that it is only worthwhile if it sucks someone in. His magnum opus is a five-volume set dedicated just to answering Jewish objections to Jesus. Think what he could have done if he had used that same energy to solving world hunger! Even someone like me who is engaged in the religion business, when I’m actually working on this business, spends only a portion of my time explaining why to believe and more it explaining how to put the Torah’s lessons into practice to make your life better.
Now I understand many people aren’t into the religion thing at all. That’s fine. That doesn’t mean they aren’t susceptible to the influence of strong charismatic types. Isn’t that what politics is all about? Think about this: in 2010, the bi-partisan Simpson-Bowles commission came to the conclusion that to alleviate this country’s, we are going to need to cut spending AND raise taxes. Imagine any candidate running on such a platform. According to the Torah, if this is really what’s best for the country, this is what should be done. It will be the populist leader who will run on a message that sounds appealing but is really self-destructive. Unfortunately, in every election every candidate is the populist leader.
Just remember from the story of Yiremiyahu (Jeremiah). Yiremiyahu, the true prophet, was telling the Jews to submit to Babylonian rule and they wouldn’t get hurt. Baruch, a competing false prophet, said that the Babylonians would have no power over them. The end result of the Jews trying to fight the Babylonians was the destruction of the First Temple.