Magazines 2019 Jul - Aug Cult or self-help?

Cult or self-help?

03 July 2019 By James A. Beverley

Making sense of Nxivm

If you want to start your own religion and get worldwide attention, follow the model of a small self-help group called Nxivm (pronounced nex-ee-um), founded in Albany, New York in 1998. Here are the steps:

1. Have a good-looking, charismatic and somewhat mysterious leader – Keith Raniere (born 1960).

2. Have fabulously wealthy socialites bankrolling the group – Clare and Sara Bronfman, heirs to the Seagram fortune.

3. Have a famous actor promoting the movement – Allison Mack, longtime star of Smallville.

4. Have the followers push fabulous praise on the leader – Raniere, known in the group as Vanguard, is as smart as Einstein and represents a Buddha figure for our age, his disciples allege.

5. Have controversial sex practices, all defended with reference to personal freedom and growth – Raniere encouraged polyamorous relationships for himself, monogamy for the women who slept with him.

6. Have members and critics coerced into silence – Nxivm launched legal attacks to silence figures like Frank Parlato, a former consultant; Sarah Edmondson, a Canadian actor and ex-member; and cult watcher Rick Ross. In addition, Nxivm leaders collected damaging info on members as collateral and threatened public humiliation if they left.

If the above is not enough, then...

7. Have something unique to your group that will truly shock the media and the public – Raniere, Mack and other top leaders started literal branding of select women as part of a secret, elite group called DOS or The Vow. Accounts vary on whether the branding on the pelvis is of Raniere’s initials, Mack’s or both.

If anyone duplicates the whole Nxivm pattern, two things are certain. Your group will be called a cult and the leaders will be accused of brainwashing. Whether jail time is involved depends on whether laws are broken.


In the case of Nxivm, five leaders have already pled guilty, including Mack, Clare Bronfman and cofounder Nancy Salzman. Their guilty pleas range from identity and visa fraud to racketeering and sex trafficking. Raniere, arrested in Mexico in March 2018, has pled innocent and his trial in a Brooklyn court started May 7, 2019. The court drama is followed by media all over the planet. Some of the videos of ex-members have been viewed more than a million times.

As strange and immoral as the Nxivm case sounds, Raniere’s conviction was not totally certain from the start. His highly successful lawyer Marc Agnifilo argued publicly and in court that Raniere’s sexual escapades involved consenting adults, as did the branding: It’s okay to get a tattoo of your favourite sports star, but not your guru? Agnifilo also told the court his client is not responsible for the criminal actions of the other leaders in the group. That said, the lawyer admitted early on the case involved an uphill battle.

Regardless of the verdict and appeal process, Raniere’s days as a popular guru are over.

The Nxivm drama and tragedy should remind our society of some crucial realities about bad religion and corrupt spirituality.

The Bible is right to warn about the dangers of false teachers. 1 John 4:1 states, "Do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world." Jesus provides an even starker word in Matthew 7:15. "Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves."

These warnings reflect the important truth that spiritual peril is usually camouflaged. In the case of Nxivm, the darkness was hidden by the leader’s charm and self-effacing manner. You can see this for yourself in his YouTube conversations with Allison Mack. As well, glowing testimonies about Raniere’s brilliance and wisdom served as fuel for spiritual and emotional blindness, accompanied by clichés to keep inquiring minds docile. ("Yes, Keith has critics, but Jesus had critics, didn’t He?" "Who are we to judge?" "One person’s cult is another one’s religion.")

The dark side of Nxivm was also masked by the fact that Raniere had some truthful, valuable principles that helped his disciples. (I have yet to research one religion or self-help group that is totally false and evil.) Raniere taught followers to take responsibility for their lives and avoid a victim mentality. Ironically, that is what led Lauren Salzman (daughter of the co-founder and one of Raniere’s lovers) to plead guilty. She recognized her own criminal behaviour and refused to shift total blame to Raniere.

Of course, the lion’s share of blame for the Nxivm debacle goes to Raniere. His evil machinations and soul-crushing actions provide a stark contrast to the ways and teachings of Jesus.

James A. Beverley retired at the end of June after 31 years at Tyndale Seminary. His new home base for writing is Moncton, N.B.

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