J. Gordon Melton — Religious Scholar
J. Gordon Melton is an American religious scholar.
He was the founding director of the Institute for the Study of American Religion (ISAR).
He is also the co-founder of CESNUR, the Center for Studies on New Religions — an Italy-based organization widely known by critics for its defense of various religious cults. Melton is a member of its international board.
In 2011 Melton became Distinguished Professor of American Religious History with the Institute for Studies in Religion, at Baylor University. Baylor is a a private Christian university in Waco, Texas.
“The Father of Cult Apologists”
This Methodist minister (Melton is an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church) is seen by many Christian apologists and counter-cult professionals, as well as by a number of (secular) cult experts, as a cult apologist — someone who comes to the defense of movements and organizations widely considered to be cults.
Some even refer to J. Gordon Melton as the ‘Father of Cult Apologists.’
Though Melton professes to be an Evangelical Christian, many Evangelicals do not consider his views on cults and other religions as representative.
Rather than recognize and acknowledge the sociological and/or theological aspects that make each of these movements cults, Melton prefers the euphemistic term “New Religious Movements”.
John Gordon Melton has become a controversial figure for several reasons:
- His defense of various groups widely viewed as, theologically, cults of Christianity (e.g. the Local Church, and The Family). Though he has admitted that he does not know where to draw the line between orthodoxy and heresy, Melton even aided the Local Church (a cult of Christianity) in its lawsuit against a Christian counter-cult ministry.
- His largely uncritical treatment of groups ranging from the Church Universal and Triumphant to the Church of Scientology. Some of his work reads like made-to-order PR material. His study of the Church Universal and Triumphant, done in co-operation with fellow cult-apologist James R. Lewis, is described by one sociologist as a “a travesty of research.”
- His attacks on Christian apologetics ministries, apologists, and counter-cult professionals.
- His assertion that apostates invariably lie.
For these reasons, while most people acknowledge Melton’s expertise at gathering and organizing research data, many religion professionals and secular anti-cult activists believe he does a poor job at interpreting that data.
In a message forwarded to AR-vent, the companion list to AR-talk, J. Gordon Melton wrote
One of my motivations for getting into “cult” studies was the abysmal state of evangelicals studies on new religions and the amateurish and “hateful” attitude that unfortunately still pervades their approach.
My interest in new religions is ultimately missiological not apologetic. I believe that the emphasis on apologetics in the Evangelical community (especially what passes for popular apologetics) is a doing more harm than good.
– Source: Msg by J. Gordon Melton, posted Aug. 27, 1999 by Irving Hexham to AR-vent (later renamed to AR-forum)
The publishers of Apologetics Index believe it is Melton’s approach that does more harm than good. It certainly appears that Melton’s “missiological” interest generally works in favor of the cults many of which use his works,
- in their crusades against the anticult and countercult movements, and
- in their efforts at gaining legitimacy in the form of official governmental recognition.
Melton’s Point of View
The following quote is illustrative of Melton’s stand:
In labelling the alternative religions as ‘cults’, anti-cultists assumed that in some measure the alternative religions were essentially all alike, an assumption that has proved completely false. The only characteristic they share is a negative evaluation; they each present an alternative to traditional Christianity. The assumption of similarity has been used to attack the ‘cults’, by attributing to all of them the faults and excesses of any one of them. This practice, among with the highly polemic motivation underlying most anti-cult literature, makes such materials the least useful in understanding the nature of life in alternative religions, though of immense usefulness in understanding the climate in which NRMs have had to operate.
– Source: Modern Alternative Religions in the West, J. Gordon Melton in A New Handbook of Living Religions, edited by John R. Hinnels, Penguin Reference, London, 1997. P. 610.
That is an inaccurate and unfair description of what motivates anti-cultists and/or Christian apologists and counter-cultists (Melton fails to make the distinction).
Melton also misses several points.
For one thing, in some measure, cults are all alike. They share certain sociological and/or theological characteristics. See these articles, and this theological definition of a cult – the latter seen from an orthodox, Evangelical Christian perspective.
For another, cults are not ‘attacked’ by “attributing to all of them the faults and excesses of any one of them.” Rather, they are evaluated on their invidual sociological characteristics and/or theological claims (see, for example, the work of these organizations).
This highlights another distinction Melton often fails to acknowledge. While secular anticultists may focus on “the nature of life in alternative religions” (a sociologial approach), Christian apologists and countercult professionals concern themselves first with the theological claims of alternative religions, and second with their sociological behavior. As Alan Gomes, author of “Unmasking the Cults,” says:
Bad doctrine produces bad fruit behaviorally (e.g., Mark 7:7-13; Col. 2:20-23; 1 Tim. 4:1-5; 2 Pet. 2:1; Rev. 2:14-15, 20, 24), which is as true for Christians as it is for cultists. As Van Baalen stated, ‘If practice follows from theory, if life is based upon teaching, it follows that the wrong doctrine will issue in the wrong attitude toward God and Christ, and consequently in warped and twisted Christian life.’
– Source: Alan Gomes, ”Unmasking The Cults” Zondervan, 1995, p. 47
Promoting Religious Pluralism
In trying to portray cults merely as “religious alternatives” to Christianity, Melton is not taking a “missiological” approach – at least not on behalf of Christianity. After all, instead of recognizing and acknowledging what is bad about such movements – sociologially and/or theologically – he spends his time and energy crusading on their behalf, mainly highlighting what he deems to be good about those movements.
At the very least, someone who considers himself to be an Evangelical Christian, can be expected to evaluate religious movements from a Biblical perspective – making sure people are aware of how these movements counter the Gospel of Jesus Christ in their theology and/or behavior.
Problem is that Melton, a United Methodist minister and self-proclaimed evangelical, is ill-equipped to evaluate cults on a theological level. After all, he admits:
And I have, not being a theologian — and I make no claim to be one — a difficult task in sorting through doctrinal questions to do an adequate theological analysis of most groups’ beliefs. I’m a church historian with most of my theological work in historical theology, not systematics. That’s part of where I’m coming from. I also have another problem…I have a problem as to where to draw the line — what’s heresy and what’s evangelically kosher. What is acceptable doctrinal deviation?
– Source: Ron Enroth and J. Gordon Melton, Why Cults Succeed Where the Church Fails 1. Brethren Press, 1985, 1, 2. Emphasis, Apologetics Index
If J. Gordon Melton — given his confessed lack of spiritual discernment — indeed does not know how to tell orthodoxy from heresy, he is unable to determine whether or not a movement is a cult of Christianity. Christians may well wonder on what basis he evaluates the theology of the movements he discusses and defends (see this evaluation of his testimony in one of the Local Church legal cases) .
But in light of his admission that he does not know where to draw the line, it is not surprising that Melton’s approach has established him as a missionary for religious pluralism.
Indeed, he sees himself on the forefront of religious dialogue:
In 1993, at the centennial of the World’s Parliament of Religions, the events which marked the beginning of religious pluralism in the West, the new religions participated as full members is dialogue. In addition, religious and social science scholars, led by the Institute for the Study of American Religion in Santa Barbara, California, CESNUR (Center for Studies on New Religions) in Turin, Italy, and INFORM in London, now draw on three decades of new religious studies. There is every sign that as the twenty-first century approaches the new alternative religions, having become a familiar part of the Western religious landscape, will be fully accepted as members of the religious community.
– Source: Modern Alternative Religions in the West, J. Gordon Melton in A New Handbook of Living Religions, edited by John R. Hinnels, Penguin Reference, London, 1997. P. 616.
Not coincidentally, Melton was founder and chairman of ISAR (Institute for the Study of American Religion), and is a CESNUR board member (erstwhile chairman of CESNUR USA). INFORM‘s Eileen Barker is also a CESNUR board member.
In many ways, CESNUR — led by Massimo Introvigne — is the world’s foremost cult apologist organization.
J. Gordon Melton’s work on behalf of cults
Melton’s defense of cults has earned him listings as a "religion expert" by the Scientology-backed "Cult Awarness Network" and The Family (formerly known as the Children of God) (listing), a movement he tirelessly defends. But having cults determine who is or is not a religion expert is like having former President Bill Clinton define what is or is not a lie.
The Local Church
Melton filed an amicus curiae (Explation: Friend of the Court) brief on behalf of the Church of Scientology in the case of "Church of Scientology International v. Steven Fishman and Uwe Geertz." It is referred to in Jeffrey K. Hadden‘s statement on behalf of the Church of Scientology in the same case. For details, see "When Scholars Know Sin."
Melton also testified on behalf of the Local Church against the Spiritual Counterfeits Project. (See this article on the case) In his testimony, he made it clear he considers apostates to be liars. SCP endured an extended financial crisis as a result of the Local Church’s four-year lawsuit, but survived. (Read SCP’s critique of Melton’s statements during the court case)
After the 1995 gas attacks committed by Aum Shinrikyo, Melton joined a couple of other cult defenders on a trip to Japan to defend the cult’s religious freedom.
[Los Angeles lawyer Barry Fisher] was accompanied by two Santa Barbarans – J. Gordon Melton, director of the Institute for the Study of American Religions, and James R. Lewis, director of the Association of World Academics for Religious Education–and Thomas Banigan of Anver Bioscience Design Inc. in Sierra Madre.
– Source: Teresa Watanabe, Alleged Persecution of Cult Investigated : Japan: U.S. activists visit Tokyo. They’re concerned about treatment of sect suspected in subway attack., Los Angeles Times, May 6, 1995
The Americans held a pair of news conferences to suggest that the sect was innocent of criminal charges and was a victim of excessive police pressure. […]
The Americans said the sect had invited them to visit after they expressed concern to Aum’s New York branch about religious freedom in Japan. They said their airfare, hotel bills and "basic expenses" were paid by the cult. […]
One of the Americans, James Lewis, told a hostile and evidently incredulous roomful of Japanese reporters gathered at an Aum office Monday that the cult could not have produced the rare poison gas, sarin, used in both murder cases. He said the Americans had determined this from photos and documents provided by Aum.
Source: T.R. Reid, Tokyo Cult Finds an Unlikely Supporter, Washington Post, May 1995
Incidentally: Were the cult apologists really invited? Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi writes:
Another claim by the AUM apologists is that the trip to Japan was initiated and financed by AUM ‘dissidents,’ shocked by the acts of their leaders. The reality is that the trip was initiated by the NRM scholars involved, who contacted AUM to offer their help, and that there are no AUM dissident. As of 1999, AUM Shinrikyo is alive and well, one and indivisible, the members united in their loyaly to Shoko Asahara, and this includes the alleged dissidents who hosted our collegues in 1995.
Source:Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi, Collaborationism and Research Integrity, Part 1, Chapter 1 of Misunderstanding Cults (University of Toronto Press, 2001), p. 36
The reputation of religion scholars was not helped by the intervention of American scholars specializing in new religions (though not, it should he stressed, experts in the Japanese field). In the aftermath Of the gas attack and the government raids on Aum, and before the confessions showing Aum was the guilty party, American scholars Gordon Melton and James Lewis visited Japan, where they spoke of their concern for the rights of religious movements and the fears of government repression of religion. Since it was widely reported that their tickets to Japan had been paid for by Aum, and since the general public and media already believed Aum was guilty and hence ought to be repressed, their visit was not well received in Japan. Melton had earlier made the comment that, when the media reports scandal stories about religious movements the substance of such stories normally proves to be less than the extent of the allegations; in this case, however, the evidence showed the actions of the movement to be even greater than had originally been rumored. As a result of all this, not only has the reputation and image of religion in general been damaged, but so has that of its scholars–at precisely the moment when it is important for the voices of religion scholars to be heard who are concerned at the government’s rhetoric about altering the nation’s religious freedom laws.
– Source: Ian Reader, “Aum Affair Intensifies Japan’s Religious Crisis; An Analysis.” Religion Watch, Vol. 10, No. 9, July/August, 1995, 1-2
“We compiled a list of 47 different cult characteristics,” says lawyer Arends. “The Two-by-twos meet all the points. They are extremely secretive, have no written doctrine or records, you can’t get a straight answer from them, and yet they claim to be the only path to salvation. Their ‘friends’ must give unconditional obedience to the workers, or they’re guilty of backsliding. And if they backslide, they’re damned.” Mr. Arends says his case is bolstered by California academic Ronald Enroth’s work Churches That Abuse, Port Coquitlam author Lloyd Fortt’s In Search of ‘the Truth’, and the testimony of a dozen former members in Alberta.
However, Gordon Melton, the California-based editor of the Encyclopedia of American Religions, argues the Two-by-twos are simply an “old-line, 19th-century Christadelphian sect,” an isolated subculture of non-Trinitarian Christians. They are not a cult because “there’s no real threats or violence,” he says. “A good comparison is the Amish. They keep to themselves, with a minimal creed; they stress community, and their faith is passed from generation to generation. The big difference is that the Two-by-twos blend into the community, own houses and work normal jobs.”
– Source: Joe Woodard, Doubts about a mystery church — ‘Sect or cult?’ is the question before an Alberta court, Alberta Report, September 15, 1997
Again, Melton’s self-confessed inability to tell orthodoxy from heresy, and his apparent unwillingness to acknowledge cult-like behavior, clouds his judgement.
Melton’s booklet The Church of Scientology (Studies in Contemporary Religions, series volume 1) might as well be included in the cult’s PR package.
Though the book is uncritical, Melton (who has delivered depositions on behalf of the “church”) says he did receive a “nasty letter” from the “church” after the book was published. He still believes Scientology is a religion.
Melton and Vampires
Like fellow cult apologist Massimo Introvigne, director of CESNUR, Melton has a hobbiest interest in vampirism, a topic on which he has written “The Vampire Book: An Encyclopedia of the Undead” (Visible Ink Press, 1994), and produced a video guide: “Videohound’s Vampires On Video” (Visible Ink Press, March, 1997) (Review).
Both Melton and Introvigne are members of the The Transylvanian Society of Dracula – an association dedicated to the study of Dracula and vampires. Massimo Introvigne presides over TSD’s Italian chapter, and Melton heads the American chapter (which he founded). See also this letter from Introvigne, which includes information about the society.
While everyone is entitled to his or her hobbies, these are somewhat odd activities for an ordained minister in a mainline Protestant denomination.
J. Gordon Melton on apostates
Like many other cult apologists, Melton essentially calls ex-cult members liars:
DR. MELTON: When you are investigating groups such as this, you never rely upon the unverified testimony of ex-members.
MR. MORGAN: Why?
DR. MELTON: To put it bluntly, hostile ex-members invariably shade the truth. They invariably blow out of proportion minor incidents and turn them into major incidents, and over a period of time their testimony almost always changes because each time they tell it they get the feedback of acceptance or rejection from those to whom they tell it, and hence it will be developed and merged into a different world view that they are adopting.
– Source: As stated during expert testimony for the Local Church in its lawsuit against Spiritual Counterfeit Project. Published at this Local Church site (Internet Archive). Information about the lawsuit and Melton’s testimony
The major source of primary data to appear in anti-cult books comes from the reports of ex-members who have broken with the group because of an intense internal dispute or deprogramming. Unfortunately, their testimonies are usually highly distorted by their hostility and desire to hurt the group at all costs.
– Source: J. Gordon Melton and Robert Moore, The Cult Experience. New York: Pilgrim Press, 1982, 171-172
See, in contrast to Melton’s ill-informed claims regarding the testimony of ex-members, Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi’s comments:
Recent and less recent NRM catastrophes help us realize that in every single case allegations by hostile outsiders and detractors have been closer to reality than any other accounts. Ever since the Jonestown tragedy, statements by ex-members turned out to be more accurate than those of apologists and NRM researchers. The reality revealed in the cases of People’s Temple, Rajneesh International, Vajradhatu, the Nation of Yahweh, the Branch Davidians, the Faith Assembly, Aum Shinrykio, the Solar Temple, or Heaven’s Gate is much more than unattractive; it is positively horrifying. In every case of NRM disasters over the past 50 years, starting with Krishna Venta (Beit-Hallahmi, 1993), we encounter a hidden world of madness and exploitation in a totalitarian, psychotic, group, whose reality is actually even worse than detractors’ allegations.
– Source: Dear Colleagues: Integrity and Suspicion in NRM Research, by Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi
- Book Review: Finding Enlightenment: Ramtha’s School of Ancient Wisdom This scathing review provides some insight into Melton’s views and research tactics. Enlightening indeed. By cult expert Joe Szimhart
- Cult Apologists FAQ, by Tilman Hausherr. No longer maintained, by very informative.
- The Farce Revealed : Church Universal and Triumphant in Scholarly Perspective A critical look at the AWARE study, ”Church Universal and Triumphant in Scholarly Perspective,” which was edited by cult apologists James R. Lewis and J. Gordon Melton. By Peter Arnone
- Integrity and Suspicion in New Religious Movement Research Overview of a paper by Dr. Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi. Identifies J. Gordon Melton as one of four American scholars who “traveled to Japan “to defend Aum…against charges of mass terrorism and urge Japanese authorities not to ‘crush a religion and deny freedom.'” Read the paper itself.
- When Scholars Know Sin: Alternative Religions and Their Academic Supporters, by Stephen A. Kent and Theresa Krebs, Skeptic Magazine, Vol. 6, No. 3, 1998.
- “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. […] 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.” by Jordan Bonfante, ‘Apologist’ vs. ‘Alarmist’, TIME, Jan. 27, 1997 Vol. 149 No. 4 ↩