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RELIGIOUS POWER + CONTROL

The Power & Control Wheel was created by the Domestic Abuse Intervention Project to demonstrate the power and control dynamics at play in abusive relationships. Each spoke of the wheel represents a different reason why a survivor might feel trapped in a relationship with their abuser

This is my adapted version of the Power & Control Wheel in the context of religious abuse. 

RT Power & Control
COERCION + THREATS

 

This tactic maintains control through the use of threats (either explicit or implied). Members are coerced by their fear of practical and spiritual consequences. Nonbelievers may be coerced to join the group for the same reasons. Some common coercion and threats include:

  • Being judged or punished by God or the group leaders

  • Being kicked out of the group

  • Being publicly shamed

  • Going to hell or being eternally tortured

  • Being eternally separated from loved ones

  • Being harmed or tempted by evil spirits or forces

  • Being harmed or deceived by non-believers

 

SPIRITUAL INTIMIDATION

 

Claiming to have a direct connection with a higher power is incredibly intimidating and can inspire unquestioning submission. Spiritual claims might be about the belief system, the religious leaders, or the group itself. This often includes condemnation of all other belief systems and justification of the group's right to enforce their rules on outsiders. Some spiritual intimidation claims are:

  • The group’s beliefs are the ultimate, undisputable truth

  • The group is not subject to secular authorities

  • The leader has a divine calling that gives them authority

  • Group members are superior to nonbelievers

  • The group has the right to rule or have dominion

  • The religious text is perfect or inerrant

  • The group's practices are superior to other groups

 

EMOTIONAL ABUSE

 

This abuse tactic disempowers people by decreasing their confidence in their own worth apart from the group. Members who have been repeatedly shamed are much more likely to submit to leaders who appear to be more enlightened. This can look like:

  • Setting unrealistic spiritual expectations

  • Suppressing and shaming emotional responses

  • Shaming and villainizing nonconformity

  • Name-calling (“sinner, apostate, heretic”)

  • Devaluing self-care and healthy boundaries

  • Villainizing self-confidence (“pride”)

 

ISOLATION

Cult control techniques almost always involve cutting off the group members from outside support. This prevents them from hearing things that contradict the group’s ideology or raising awareness about problematic practices. Isolation tactics can look like:

  • Limiting access to outside resources (healthcare, education, etc)

  • Condemning the use of secular media

  • Controlling communication within the group

  • Discouraging relationships with nonbelievers

  • Inciting fear of external threats or agendas

  • Dehumanizing outsiders

 

MINIMIZING, DENYING, + BLAMING

 

This common abuse tactic, often referred to as "gaslighting", allows abusers to maintain control by making their victim doubt their own perceptions and opinions. This establishes the abuser as the only one who can accurately assess reality and make valid decisions. This often looks like:

  • Invalidating members' complaints

  • Denying that mistreatment occurred

  • Justifying mistreatment with good intentions

  • Blaming victims for causing their own mistreatment

  • Using spiritual bypassing (see Chapter 6)

  • Requiring forgiveness or reconciliation regardless of the circumstances

 

LOSS OF AUTONOMY

 

Groups may use transparency and a lack of privacy to produce conformity. Suppressing personal agency and discouraging critical thinking makes members reliant on the leaders. Loss of autonomy can look like:

  • Requiring submission to group leaders

  • Telling members to consult leaders before making decisions

  • Requiring regular confessions

  • Encouraging members to police and report on each other

  • Villainizing self-trust and intuition

 

DEFINING GENDER + SEXUALITY

 

This control tactic uses patriarchal views to create strict expectations, enforce conformity, and isolate power to an elite few. This is often done by: 

  • Setting explicit or implicit gender roles for men and women

  • Enforcing cisgender and heterosexual norms

  • Villainizing LGBTQIA+ identities and behaviors

  • Shaming or excluding members who express themselves in non-conforming ways

  • Denying women, queer or trans people, or other minorities access to positions of leadership

 

ECONOMIC CONTROL

 

Many groups profit economically from member donations which are sometimes required. Members are strongly encouraged to volunteer their time and resources for the sake of the group. This normalizes practices that force members to rely financially on the group. This can look like: 

  • Requiring tithing or donations

  • Mandating certain money management techniques

  • Discouraging members from saving or investing money

  • Demanding trust in God’s provision

  • Shaming the enjoyment of worldly things

  • Limiting the education or employment status of certain members

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