Confessions of a Cult Watcher

Cultic Studies Journal, 1988, Volume 5, Number 1, pages 132-135

Confessions of a Cult Watcher

Ronald Enroth, Ph. D.

Westmont College


The author's work has been criticized by some as “anti-cult” because, as a Christian, he makes value judgments about cults which point out the dangers of involvement He in turn criticizes the apathy and naiveté of many Christian leaders and intellectuals who defend cults.

The letter began, “Dear Ron Enroth (Garbage Pig) 2 Timothy 2:3.” That unusual salutation was a clue to what would follow. In scribbled, disjointed handwriting, the anonymous letter writer rambled and raged about what a terrible person I was because of something I had supposedly said about his pastor/leader. “You are the scum of the earth," the letter continued. The writer claimed to have a message for me from the Holy Spirit. “No swine has a soul... no pig goes to heaven... Baby, you gonna die.”

The police took that deranged threat very seriously. I had to take security precautions at home and at my office. Fortunately, I don't receive many letters quite that menacing. However, anyone who is a student of what Robert Ellwood calls “emergent religion” will soon discover that the researcher's life can be full of surprises and bizarre encounters. For example: the aerogramme I received from a man in Australia. The letter read. “On this day the Lord God of Israel gave me a nine word message with direction to send out this message world wide to all mankind. The Message: Satanism And Religion Are One And The Same Thing.

I remember a time when I spent a day, along with several other writers, as a guest of the Unification Church at their seminary in New York SM. We had been told that Reverend Moon would not be available for an interview and that he was not on campus that day. Midway through the afternoon, as I was browsing in the seminary library, the Unificationist student who had been assigned as my guide came running down the hall in search of me. "The rumor is out that Father is on his way to campus. I thought you might like to see him.”

Ifs not every day that one gets to see a messiah and so I followed my Moonie host outside to the driveway in front of the main building. At any moment the limousine carrying the Lord of the Second Advent was scheduled to arrive. I will never forget the scene. The entire student body, faculty, and staff had gathered to greet their controversial Korean leader. There was excitement in the air and great anticipation on the faces of the followers. Later, I was to recall that moment when I observed in one of my writings, “A god in the flesh is easier for some people to believe in.”

As a Christian sociologist, I believe it is essential to work at integrating my faith and my discipline. I do not think it is possible (or desirable) to achieve a value-free sociology, whether one is a Christian or an unbeliever. Because of their commitment to objectivity (at least in theory), secular sociologists are offended by evangelicals who distinguish "true” religion from "false” religion. For the Christian cult watcher, determinations of "truth” and "falsehood" are vital to the preservation of orthodoxy. Secular social scientists avoid making evaluative statements about the belief systems and practices of cults and new religious movements. The Christian scholar, on the other hand, has an obligation - whenever it is appropriately possible - to affirm the proposition that God has revealed himself in the person of his Son, Jesus Christ, and that his word, the Bible, serves as our only baseline when comparing conflicting truth claims.

Because of this strongly held conviction, I have sometimes been criticized for aligning with “advocacy groups” and the so-called "anticult” movement It may come as a surprise to some that there are very strong, emotional views within the academic community on the topic of cults. Jesuit sociologist Joseph Fichter regularly denounces the bigotry of those who are “detractors and critics of cults” while apparently seeing no inconsistency in his role as “objective” scholar when he heaps praise on the Unification Church. In a letter to The Chronicle of Higher Education (July 14, 1982), sociologist of religion Jeffrey Hadden expressed concern that the word “cult” had been used 11 times in an earlier article and that seven times it had been preceded by the adjective “destructive.”

I find it perplexing that even professing, mainline Christians are reluctant to talk about “false prophets” and the potential for spiritual harm that many new religious movements represent. Dean Kelley, an executive of the National Council of Churches, dismisses as “hysteria” the concerns of “anticult alarmists” and denigrates efforts aimed at cult awareness education. Methodist H. Newton Malony feels that it is inappropriate for a Christian behavioral scientist "to expose deviation and to warn the innocent.” He finds the very existence of an organization like the evangelical Spiritual Counterfeits Project to be “reprehensible” (personal correspondence). Malony, a professor at Fuller Seminary, has been a consultant and expert witness for several controversial new religious movements, including the Church of Scientology.

In their book Strange Gods: The Great American Cult Scare, sociologists David Bromley and Anson Shupe question the “allegations of danger" and the “horror stories” often associated with the cult experience. While it is true that exaggeration and sensationalism have characterized the accounts of cult life provided by some ex-members, I can attest to the validity of much personal tragedy and family disruption suffered as a result of membership in extremist groups. I have spent hundreds of hours interviewing people who have been the victims of exploitation - sexual, emotional, financial, and spiritual. I recall, for example, how painful it was for a mother who had spent 11 years in a cult to tell me how her nine-year-old son (who had grown up in the group) had never seen a dentist or a physician because the group which they had just left did not believe in medical care of any kind under any circumstances. Her son had broken an ankle and was now permanently lame.

I agree with Dr. Louis West, UCLA psychiatrist who argues that there are many apologists for the cults - even in academic circles - who are “armchair philosophers” and who have never seen firsthand the destructive impact that some cults can have on the lives of individuals.

Finally, I am discouraged at the apathy and especially the naiveté that exists in much of the Christian community with regard to cults and new religious movements. A Catholic priest in California told one young woman's parents that they should not be concerned about her deepening involvement in Scientology because he had heard that the organization would improve both her IQ and her personality. In a recently published book entitled Understanding Cults and New Religions (Eerdmans, 1986), Irving Hexharn and Karla Poewe, discussing the Book of Mormon, make the incredible observation that, except for its teaching about the Fall, “its theology is simple and fundamentally orthodox.”

But perhaps the most disturbing examples of naivete are found in the public statements of two well-known fundamentalist Christians - Jerry Falwell and Tim LaHaye - regarding Sun Myung Moon. Both men, sincerely concerned about the erosion of religious freedom in America, have been used by the Unification Church in an attempt to gain acceptance and sympathy from the religious mainstream in the face of Reverend Moon's imprisonment on tax charges. Both men made widely publicized appeals based on their perception that Moon had been unfairly persecuted by the U.S. government. At a Washington, D.C. press conference, Jerry Falwell called on President Reagan to pardon Reverend Moon. At a religious freedom rally in the same city, Tim LaHaye asked ministers to join him in a declaration of support for Moon by agreeing to spend one week in prison with him (Moon).

I began this essay by quoting from a letter I had received and I close by making reference to another, very different letter. I have been corresponding with a man who has had some troubling experiences with a particular group. I have tried to help him by letter, patiently answering his questions, encouraging him when possible. From his earnest, simple letters, I suspect that the man had little education. One letter was especially poignant He wanted to express his gratitude for my help. I would guess that he is a very lonely man. He said that both his parents had died within the past five years. “My finances are very bad at this time. Not employed. Enclosed is $3.00 cash to help. Your friend, Don.” That kind of letter makes it all worthwhile.

* This article first appeared in Radix (Vol. 18, No. 1, 1987, pp. 20-21) to whom we are grateful for permission to reprint it here.

Ronald M. Enroth, Ph. D., is Professor of Sociology at Westmont College in Santa Barbara, California. He is the author of The Lure of the Cults and New Religions and many other books and articles.