The FBI is distributing this disturbing essay by Dr. Robert Bunker, examining the criminological implications of the Santa Muerte cult, spreading among Mexican drug trafficking communities. Excerpts:

While addressing the rise of such dark spirituality requires a balanced perspective (e.g., avoiding a repeat of the Satanism scare of the 1980s), enough ritualistic behaviors, including killings, have occurred in Mexico to leave open the possibility that a spiritual insurgency component of the narcotics wars now exists. Not all of the narcotics leaders, their foot soldiers, and assassins have remained religious or, alternatively, embraced secularism. But, evidence suggests that the numbers of defections to the cults that worship a perverted Christian god (e.g., La Familia Michoacana and Los Caballeros Templarios) and the various unsanctioned saints (e.g., Jesús Malverde, Juan Soldado, and Santa Muerte) have grown for years.

This rise in deviant spirituality has not come as a surprise. Mexico still contains a significant population of persons living in poverty and feeling disenfranchised by a government system perceived as being based on patron-client relationships and the influence of wealthy ruling families. This underclass produces a disproportionate amount of unsanctioned (folk) saint worshipers—though only a small percentage of them end up as killers for gangs and cartels. Still, many of these men and women who brutalize, torture, and kill others need a way to rationalize their activities. If not offered solace via mainstream Catholicism, they will seek comfort elsewhere. While the adherents of a more benign drug saint, such as Jesús Malverde, can engage in nonreligious killing, others who worship Santa Muerte increasingly appear unable to separate their criminality from their spiritual beliefs.

For U.S. law enforcement agencies, the rise of a criminalized and dark variant of Santa Muerte worship holds many negative implications. Of greatest concern, the inspired and ritualistic killings associated with this cult could cross the border and take place in the United States.

Stories like this unmask the inadequacy of our liberal constitutional and cultural order to deal adequately with religious difference.

As regular readers know, I place a lot of value on religious freedom; indeed, it was at the heart of the American founding, and I am confident that the First Amendment is a bulwark within which Christians like me will be able to take refuge in the years to come. That said, what do we do with cults like this? As a legal matter, I suppose they must be free to do what they like as long as they do not break the criminal law. And yet, who wants to allow such a malicious and evil system of religious thought to take root here?

As a general matter, we are accustomed to thinking that religion is good, or at least benign, and that occasions of religion being evil (e.g., the Branch Davidians, the People’s Temple, etc. ) are aberrations. That is a reasonable view. But what happens when the religion in question is wholly other? Leaving aside the law enforcement questions, how does one deal with this sort of thing as a cultural matter, if one wishes to be relativistic and tolerant?

At what point does a religion become so repugnant that to tolerate it at all is dangerous?