In a previous post in which I wrote about the political organization known as the Family, I wrote about how their philosophy was really just the latest re-packaging of the concept of the divine right of kings. I also mentioned that the Family is rather reminiscent of a common anthropological phenomenon.
Unfortunately, the vocabulary that anthropologists use to talk about this particular phenomenon is remarkably similar to the vocabulary that conspiracy believers use, or to terms that have become pejoratives and been stripped of their descriptive meaning in common use. So, please, keep that in mind when reading this. I am not assuming that the Family is a vastly powerful arm of the Illuminati or some such nonsense. The terms I use (which will include "secret society" and "cult") I use because they are the correct anthropological terms, not because I am trying to go for shock value.
So, anyway, in anthropological terms, the Family is both a secret society and a cult. A cult is simply a group that is organized around a shared set of rituals and/or beliefs. By the anthropological definition of the term, every religious group is a cult, and arguably many political and social groups would also be considered cults. Secret societies are, just as the term suggests, organizations that keep some important aspect of themselves secret. Some may keep their even their existence secret, but this is unusual. More often, secret societies are well-known to exist, and even their membership may be well known. What they keep quiet is typically what goes on behind closed doors. Most secret societies are organized around a central set of beliefs or rituals, and most (though not all) secret societies are, by definition, cults.
In the case of the Family, they are not what I suppose you could call a "strong" secret society. While they try to not attract attention to themselves, and they don't publish their membership, they also don't go through great pains to hide their membership or their ideals, even letting a journalist (Jeff Sharlet) live in one of their houses and speak with many of their members. Nonetheless, they do strive to prevent their members from mentioning associations with the Family, especially when proposing policy that the Family favors. And the organization of the Family involves placing members into "prayers cells" in which each member keeps their eyes on the other members (the Family describes this as "keeping them accountable), which "encourages" members to conform to the group's norms and keeps information generated within the Family in small circles.
So, while the Family doesn't go through the efforts to hide itself or its membership that some groups have been known to, and has even allowed its general philosophy to be learned by a journalist, it does qualify as a cult and a secret society: it tried to remain more-or-less hidden while working in its area of influence (by preventing its members from flaunting their membership, especially when doing policy work), it is organized in such a way as to keep scrutiny on its membership, and it is organized around an esoteric (arguably mystical, with its origin story involving the founder receiving a personal message from Jesus) understanding of a major religion.
So, in order to understand this better, let's put this into a broader context.
Cults and secret societies are nothing new. Every human society that we know of had a religion, and therefore had cults. The concept of elite cults, those that cater to/keep an eye on the powerful, is probably as old as human social hierarchies. Cults are neither new nor alarming. So, let's stop worrying about that for the moment, shall we.
What about secret societies? Well, these have been pretty common. In most cultures, there are organizations that engage in the transmission of specialized ritual knowledge only to the initiated, and the initiated may only come from one segment of society. In some groups, this means that all men are members of one cult and all women are members of another. In other cultures, only members of particular lineages are allowed to be members of a particular secret society, while in still others it is based on wealth. Very often, it is held that the beliefs and concepts in which initiates are trained would be dangerous (sometimes even physically dangerous) to non-initiates.
In prehistoric California, along the Santa Barbara Channel, there was a secret society known as the 'Antap (the term 'Antap comes from the native word for Jimson weed, a hallucinogenic that was used in society rituals). In order to be a member of the 'Antap, one must be initiated as a child, having had the membership purchased by one's parents. Without being a member of the 'Antap, you would be hard-pressed to rise to a position of prominence. At the same time, there is evidence that the eligibility for membership was largely dependent on being from the correct, "noble" lineages. If one looks into the mythology of the region, there is evidence that the 'Antap were feared as powerful sorcerers and/or shamans. So, in this region, a Secret Society was used to organize leaders, and also possibly to create a threat of supernatural power to those who might oppose the existing power structure, though it may also have served to give the belief in supernatural power to those who were in power so that they might be more bold.
Moving into ancient Rome, we find another sort of secret society - the mystery cult. These were cults in which initiates were introduced to new or esoteric beliefs regarding either the known and popular gods of Rome, or else were introduced to new or foreign gods. Membership was often (though perhaps not exclusively) reserved to those who could afford the cost of early fees or offerings. These organizations might serve the psychological needs of their members better than the Imperial cult or the ethnic cults, and/or they might serve to make social connections and help form political alliances between members of Roman society.
Even early Christianity, though different from the mystery cults in many ways, had many aspects of the secret society - members often kept their association quiet, meetings were held in secret, and while the tenets of the religion weren't exactly secrets, they were so widely misunderstood that they might as well have been.
Continuing up through history, we see elements of Secret Societies in the way that Medieval priests were considered to be the only people allowed to read and interpret the Bible. The Jewish Cabala, long before it was the celebrity belief du-jour of Madonna, began as a mystical movement (or rather, several mystical movements, as there are several Cabalas) that had many aspects of the secret society as well. Many trade guilds were essentially secret societies organized around the protection of the artisans and tradesmen that were members.
During the Renaissance and up through the enlightenment, many new secret societies formed. Some were attempts to resurrect ancient Greco-Roman mystery cults, others were new political and/or scientific organizations. Most of these were short-lived (ironically, the Illuminati, probably the most feared of these secret societies in modern conspiracy-mongering circles, lasted only a few decades before falling apart), but some, such as the Freemasons, continue to this day.
On into the modern day, secret societies are still common. The Freemasons, and other associated groups, are found in almost every town in the western world. Fraternities and Sororities, with their central rituals, initiation practices, and assumed lifetime membership, are themselves secret societies. The Mormon Church, with its desire to prevent non-members from entering the Temples, is structured as a secret society. There are numerous secret societies within Catholicism, and even a large number in mainstream Protestantism.
And, generally, there's little wrong with this. When people go on about the Mormon temples, or the Skull and Bones club, or the Knights of Malta, or any of a number of other groups, I am filled with a gigantic sense of "so what?" Most of these organizations have only minimal impact on non-members, and are simply the latest manifestations of very old human organizational principle, and really nothing to be too terribly worried about.
Some of these practices can even be useful. While a jury is not a secret society, there are elements of the secret society structure that are involved in jury formation and selection. Likewise with military and police departments - not secret societies, but borrowing from some of the organizational principles. Intelligence organizations - oh, yeah, heavy secret society elements there, too. Which is, like it or not, necessary for these sorts of organizations to function.
Where they should be scrutinized, and laid bare, is where groups such as the Family try to influence public policy that impacts all of us, and not just members. Secret societies in religion and social gatherings are fine, but in a government in which the public is expected to take part and make informed decisions? Well, having a group that tries to not be seen influencing public policy is horribly distorting to that process (in fact the Family leadership often talks about how their strength is their invisibility). So, here's to the journalists telling us about such groups.
But, always keep in mind, this sort of organization is nothing new, and long after the Family is gone, other groups will do the same thing, just as other have in the past. It seems to be a basic behavior that is embedded in the human social fabric. And also keep in mind that while such groups are bad for a government such as ours, there are many other factors at work - such as generally financial political corruption - that are much worse. The Family is simply the latest in a long line of secret societies. We shouldn't pay it more heed than necessary simply because it looks mysterious, lest we lose sight of other, bigger threats.