Ronald M. Enroth (born October 28, 1938) has been a Professor of Sociology at Westmont College in Santa Barbara, California, prominent evangelical Christian author of books concerning what he defines as "cults" and "new religious movements" and important figure in the Christian countercult movement.
Enroth is a graduate of Houghton College and earned his M.A. and Ph.D. at the University of Kentucky. He began his career in teaching sociology during his doctoral studies, and held the post of an instructor at Westmont College from 1965-67. He was appointed as an assistant professor (1967–71), and then associate professor (1971–76) at Westmont. He became a full professor in 1976.
Although Enroth's doctoral work was in the field of medical sociology, he has pursued research and teaching in the sociology of religion, new religious movements, social problems, and the sociology of deviant behavior. He holds memberships within four professional organizations: American Sociological Association, Society for the Scientific Study of Religion, American Academy of Religion, and the Association for the Sociology of Religion.
Enroth won the Leo J. Ryan commemorative award in 1982. He was the Social Science editor for the periodical the Christian Scholar's Review (1987–1990). He has also served on the editorial advisory board of the secular anti-cult movement periodical the Cultic Studies Journal. He also served for a number of years on the board of reference for the ministry the Spiritual Counterfeits Project in Berkeley, California. In 1987 he delivered the Tanner Annual Lecture at the Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, Deerfield, Illinois. In 1994, Westmont College awarded Enroth twice for both Faculty Researcher of the Year and also Teacher of the Year in Social Sciences.
Enroth has written, co-written and edited a number of books and essays where he presents an evangelical interpretation of the sociology of cults and new religious movements. He has also written and edited works specifically concerned with the evangelization of adherents of cults.
He was an early chronicler of the countercultural movement within evangelicalism that was known in the 1970s as the Jesus People movement or the Jesus revolution movement. His co-written book The Jesus People covered para-church organizations that held to Christian orthodox doctrines, and also examined controversial groups whose orthodoxy was open to dispute among evangelicals (such as the Children of God.)
Another early work of his examined the emergence, sociology and theology of gay churches within Protestantism.
In the late 1970s he wrote Youth, Brainwashing and the Extremist Cults, where he explored the dynamics of conversion and member participation through some case studies of various controversial minority religious groups such as: Hare Krishna (ISKCON), Children of God, Alamo Christian Foundation, the Love Family, the Unification Church, the Way International, and the Divine Light Mission. Enroth argued there were characteristics to cult commitment that were aberrant, such as the separation of youth from their families, intensive and manipulative activities of instruction and recruitment, and tests of loyalty to the group. He argued that the sociological and psychological processes of recruitment and indoctrination involved some form of brainwashing or mind control. The final part of his study explored the spiritual problems he discerned with cults from the standpoint of evangelical Christianity.
Although Enroth argued in support of the brainwashing theory of cult conversions, he was nonetheless very critical of the tactics of secular anti-cult individuals who engaged in deprogramming. In the early 1980s Enroth criticized the views of the deprogrammer Ted Patrick. In an interview with Neil Duddy, Enroth rejected deprogramming as a remedy for dealing with cults. J. Gordon Melton also reported Enroth’s views about opposing deprogramming in Christianity Today magazine.
During the mid-1980s Enroth had a formal and frank exchange of views with J. Gordon Melton on a range of questions and methodological approaches to studying cults. This dialogue first appeared in an abridged version in Christianity Today in March 1984, and was then expanded into a book Why Cults Succeed Where The Church Fails. One of the important outcomes of this dialogue was an agreement between Enroth and Melton that a technically precise demarcation was needed to differentiate the Christian countercult movement from the secular anti-cult movement.
Enroth complained that Melton, together with co-author Robert Moore, had lumped Christians in with secularists in their 1982 book The Cult Experience. Enroth also accused David Bromley, Anson Shupe, and Lowell Streiker, of committing the same error in their writings. Enroth stated: "I recognize the distinction Gordon was mentioning between the Christian and the secular anticult movement, but he doesn’t, unfortunately, make the distinction in his published writing. We’re all painted with the same brush." (p. 30). Melton, who acknowledged the distinct differences between the two movements, promised to rectify this point in his writings. In the 1986 edition of his Encyclopedic Handbook of Cults in America Melton introduced religious studies scholars to the neologism Christian countercult as a means of demarcating it from the secular anti-cult movement.
During the late 1980s and early 1990s Enroth turned his attention on to the subject of marginal or fringe churches. In his studies Enroth has pinpointed church groups that operate outside mainstream denominations that promote a legalist understanding of the gospel, and operate with manipulative processes of membership. He discusses these problems in Churches That Abuse and Recovering from Churches That Abuse.
Cults and evangelism
Although Enroth has explored sociological questions in many of his books, he has also been an advocate of Christian evangelism toward members of so-called cults and new religious movements. In his book Evangelizing the Cults he recommends that Christians explain the gospel message to adherents. He emphasizes the role of prayer in this activity. Enroth urges Christians to adopt the style of evangelism used by St.Paul in his Areopagus speech in affirming the search while unwavering from the gospel.
In his recent text A Guide to New Religious Movements, Enroth reiterates many of these points. However he also suggests that Christians follow the example set in Christian missions’ literature of understanding the customs, culture and beliefs of groups and adopting a less confrontational attitude in evangelism and apologetics.
In general, Enroth's writings have been acknowledged in Christian circles as significant contributions on the subject of "cults". In 1992 J. Gordon Melton made special mention of Enroth as an important figure in the Christian countercult movement. Unlike most of the apologists who concentrate on doctrinal questions, Enroth is distinguished as one of the few writers in the movement to both hold credentials in sociology and to apply sociological tools in his analyses. Melton stated that Enroth was "the single most widely read of the Evangelical Christian counter-cult writers."
In 1993, Enroth's book Recovering from Churches That Abuse set off a "firestorm of debate among religious scholars," centered around a chapter on the group Jesus People USA which included several stories of alleged abuse within the group.
James T. Richardson, former president of the Association for the Sociology of Religion and currently Professor of Sociology and Judicial Studies (University of Nevada, Reno), criticized Enroth's book and research methods in an issue of JPUSA's Cornerstone magazine, writing in part:
"Enroth's book can be viewed as another in a long line of popular books that teach people how to become good victims by reinterpreting their past. Ironically, this thoroughly non-sociological book makes use of a sociological truth--that people are constantly reinterpreting their past to make their view of that past more functional for their present--as he delivers the message that people's problems are not really their fault. Someone else is always to blame. This line of thought is controversial from several perspectives, of course, including the theological and the therapeutic. ... Enroth reminds the reader several times that he is a sociologist, thus implying that he is doing sociology in the book, but this slim volume is not sociological. There is no attempt to sample properly, or to limit generalizations in any explicit way. There is no effort to discuss the issue of self-serving accounts that plague all such books of this 'anticult' bent, and there is a glossing over of the writer's own particular religious persuasion. Furthermore, there is virtually no recognition of the considerable scholarly research that might be used to counter the apparent thesis of Enroth, who seems to believe that religious groups that require heavy discipline and commitment should be avoided in favor of less demanding mainstream groups."
JPUSA elders, who attempted to convince Enroth to remove the chapter prior to the release of the book, referred to the chapter as "poison in the well." Ruth Tucker, a professor at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School also defended JPUSA saying Enroth was "sadly misdirected and his research methods seriously flawed."
In defense of Enroth's work, Paul R. Martin, the director of Wellspring Retreat and Resource Center, one of the few residential treatment centers in the world for former members of cults and "abusive groups," supported Enroth's findings, saying that his facility had seen a flood of requests for help from former members and that JPUSA "displays virtually every sign that I watch for in overly authoritarian and totalistic groups."
Ronald Enroth himself responded to the controversy (some of which had occurred prior to the release of the book) in the book itself, in part with:
"There has been much correspondence between leaders of the Covenant Church and JPUSA and me since I began to do the research for this book. They have questioned the integrity of my reports, the reliability of my respondents, and my sociological methodology, but I have conducted more than seventy hours of in-depth interviews and telephone conversations with more than forty former members of JPUSA. They have also largely discounted the reports of abusive conditions past and present in the JPUSA community. ... Unwilling to admit serious deficiencies and insensitivity in their pastoral style, the leaders of JPUSA have instead sought to discredit the former members who have cooperated with my research efforts."
As a result of the book's chapter on JPUSA, according to a later newspaper article, "scores" of members read it and decided to leave the group.