TIME MAGAZINE, JANUARY 27, 1997 - VOL. 149, NO. 4




They are both experts in religious studies; they live in the same city in California; each is an evangelical Protestant. They once co-authored a book, and even share the academic look of beard and glasses. But Dr. Ronald Enroth and Dr. Gordon Melton have one big difference: each thinks the other is dead wrong about cults.

Says Enroth: "You've got this fundamental pro-cult, anti-cult debate going on in religious scholarship, and it's drenched with emotion." As leading academics on either side of that fence, Enroth and Melton try to restrain their own language but Enroth sees Melton as an "apologist" for cults, and Melton thinks Enroth is "alarmist" about what he prefers to call new religious groups.

Enroth, brought up a Presbyterian in New Jersey, is a sociologist of religion at Westmont College, Santa Barbara. He accuses cults of mind-control, extremism, and anti-social conduct.

Melton, raised a Methodist in Alabama, is a religious studies researcher at the University of California, at the opposite end of Santa Barbara. He thinks new religious groups deserve every protection under rights to freedom of belief and argues they are not only harmless but beneficial for spiritual pluralism and moral teaching.

For Enroth, the worst aspect of the upsurge of cults is their "adversarial character," their demands for extreme commitment and loyalty and their view of those who want to leave the fold as "defection deserving of some fearful harassment." Enroth, who is also a director of the anti-cult help group, The American Family Foundation, does not claim these groups have no right to exist, but he says they should be regarded with the utmost suspicion.

Melton, however, says Enroth and other anti-cult figures give too much credence to the horror stories of "hostile" former cult members, which he says is "like trying to get a picture of marriage from someone who has gone through a bad divorce." He is against the forceful removal of young adherents to new groups, although he says he has sympathy for their parents "who don't quite comprehend what's happening to their children." He thinks new religious groups are no more weird than old ones used to be, and says even the Catholic tradition has harbored some "weird cults." Melton says new religious groups "are at least allowing people who would otherwise have no religious experience at all, nor any moral teaching to speak of, to have both."

There are some points where Enroth and Melton come close to agreement. One is that the cults and new movements display what Enroth calls "a craving for legitimization." They also recognize two factors that have made Europe fertile ground for such groups in recent years: the ever-increasing secularization of European culture, which has left a vacuum for non-traditional spiritual experimentation; and the demise of communism. According to Enroth, here cults have rushed in where established religions once feared to tread.

How harmless/dangerous this growth is has increasingly polarized their argument since 1985, when Enroth and Melton co-wrote Why Cults Succeed and Churches Fail. Recalls Melton, with a smile: "We hoped to sell the book both to those on his side and those on my side. Instead, those on my side didn't buy it because they didn't like him, and those on his side didn't buy it because they didn't like me."