CESNUR - center for studies on new religions

J. Gordon Melton's Interview on New Religions with "Speak Magazine"

(by John Mardas - No. 2, Summer 2000)

"In the West, Christianity has had a corner on the market, religiously speaking, so the number of alternatives available to people has been limited. In essence, one has to get outside the culture to find a different authority.
There was no more despised group in the colonial period than the Quakers. Now we think most highly of Quakers. I think that in this century many of the despised religious groups of the past will be rehabilitated and come into their own.
As a Christian and an evangelical who wants to convert people to what I believe to be the truth, I want to do so in a setting where I can be assured the choices people make to come to Christianity are free choices. In so far as we coerce society to support us, we lessen our assurance of that freedom. "

J. Gordon Melton

Interview by John Lardas

Dr. J. Gordon Melton is a card-carrying -Methodistan ordained minister and Elder in the church. He is also one of the foremost experts on new religious movements, a scholar of suburban occultists, yuppie zazeners, Scientologists, Rosicrucianists, Neopagans, Branch Davidians, Theosophists, Reiki groups, modern Spiritualists, UFO enthusiasts, Hare Krishnas, new-age channelers, and all varieties of good old American magic, just to name a few. He also has a keen interest in vampires and has spent his professional career cataloguing all those individuals and groups who imagine themselves on the outside, for some reason or another, looking in.

Melton began his inquiries in the late 1960s just as new religious movements became increasingly visible. He has been on the cutting edge of the cutting edge ever since, out in the trenches, as it were, during one of the most celebrated (and televised) dissolutions of public faith in American history. In many ways his objective has always been to re-envision this faith in the public sphere, to transform apparent chaos into some semblance of order.

In Melton's project of redefining that imaginary space that we share and showing it in all of its diverse splendor there is an interesting tension at work. Although he possesses a capacity, a willingness even, to see the world in ambiguous terms, his faith in America is organic, a vision of the ceaseless, albeit bumpy, evolution of culture. He is a committed Christian, confident in his version of religious truth, yet equally committed to preserve the right of others to possess their own confidence. He is a staunch advocate of First Amendment rights and has defended the right of new religions to express themselves, filed legal briefs on their behalf, and taken much heat from his critics who see him as an apologist of nonconformity. But as Melton continually reminded me during our interview, things are always more complicated than they first appear.

Melton serves as Director of the Institute for the Study of American Religion, an independent research facility tucked into the top floor of the United Methodist Church in Isla Vista, California. It is from here that he surveys the religious landscape, comments on breaking news concerning new religious movements, writes, researches, and writes some more. Melton is a prolific writer-the author or editor of over thirty books, including, Log Cabins to Steeples: The Methodist Way in Illinois, the Encyclopedia of American Religions (sixth edition, 1998), the Encyclopedia Handbook of Cults in America, New Age Almanac, the Encyclopedia of African American Religion, and The Vampire Book: An Encyclopedia of the Undead among others. He is also an avid book collector-his office space continually disappearing under an epidemic of books despite the fact that he has already donated 50,000 volumes on all things religious to the University of California at Santa Barbara.

So it is no exaggeration to say that Melton has created his own cabinet of curious religions-an existential wunderkammern-and surrounded himself with other people's beliefs. He readily admits to his obsession-evidenced most recently by an ongoing, multi-volume project: the International Directory of the Worlds Religions-an annotated yellow pages of every religious organization under the sun. But Melton is also quick to acknowledge the importance of not becoming consumed by a singular pursuit and the need to diversify one's obsessions.

During our discussion he pointed to the other hats he wears beyond that of the engaged scholar. He proudly reminded me of his role as grandfather. He even referred to himself as a "connoisseur of country music." "I’m a great musician," he declared, mocking not so much convention but the pretense of convention. "People hardly know that, but if you came to my house you would see that I play a mean phonograph, and out of that phonograph, at my direction, comes the most beautiful country music sounds that you will ever hear in the world."

For someone who has devoted his professional career to those on the edge of "acceptable" religious belief and practice, Melton, himself, is pretty middle-of-the-road. Deliberate in speech-a slow, charming southern drawl-one wants to imagine he is not showing his hand, that he is holding something back. You want to believe that he knows something you don't, something that is too powerful to discuss openly. And how could somebody not know some pretty good secrets after having studied all those groups that thrive on secrets, on ideas, doctrines, and beliefs that remain unspeakable in the Judeo-Christian idiom of public discussion?

From my perspective, these are things that will always remain unsaid, not because of clever deceit or dissimulation, but because they could never be said in the first place. This is how the public sphere works alongside the private, resistant yet oddly symmetrical, well-oiled and precise. This is how the fringe soon becomes the middle and vice versa. This is how things are periodically undone, slowly enough that most of us remain ignorant of the shifting ground. And J. Gordon Melton has spent his whole life becoming sensitive to these issues-the continuous flow between the boundaries and the center-so sensitive, in fact, that one gets the feeling that from Melton's vantage point, there are no real boundaries even to speak of, only an increasingly sophisticated symmetry.

Speak: It seems from the sheer volume of your publications, as well as the state of your office space…

Melton: My lack of office space, you mean. [Laughs]

Speak: Exactly. It seems that you have created your own cabinet of curious religions, surrounded yourself with other people's beliefs.

Melton: One of the things I’ve noticed about myself is that when I get into things, I tend to get obsessed with it. And it was quite obvious that I enjoyed my work in documenting religions. I enjoyed meeting the different religions, meeting the believers and their leaders, but it was the kind of thing that could become all-consuming, so I continually search around for things to divert me. I believe in being a whole person, that is, in the need to express yourself in a number of ways. I’m a great musician, for example. People hardly know that, but if you came to my house you would see that I play a mean phonograph, and out of that phonograph, at my direction, comes the most beautiful country music sounds that you will ever hear in the world. And I consider myself a connoisseur of country music. So in the end I try not just to do one thing.

Speak: How does being an elder in the Methodist church, one of the most mainline of mainline Protestant denominations, square with your interest in new religions, UFO enthusiasts, and the like?

Melton: During my seminary and graduate-school days, my major professor impressed upon me the possibilities within Methodist history. I love Methodist history. I wrote some of my first articles in Methodist history. The other two topics that fascinated me were Canadian religion history and black history. And each one, at one time or another, loomed as a real possibility for me spending my lifetime concentrating upon it. But, in the end, it was quite obvious that new religions was where I wanted to go.

Speak: So your interest in pluralism developed over a period of time?

Melton: The interest in religious pluralism that finally came to dominate my life actually goes back to my childhood. While I was raised a Methodist, my father was Southern Baptist, my grandfather was primitive Baptist, and I had cousins who were Jehovah’s Witnesses and Church of God Pentecostals. I was genuinely interested in all these differences in the family. And by the time I was out of high school and into college, the study of the diversity of religion that I found just in my hometown of Birmingham, Alabama, was to me a fascinating kind of study. Then, it was primarily a study of the divisions within Christianity and the spectrum and extremes that Christianity had produced. It wasn’t until I moved to Chicago in 1964 and saw the broader spectrum of non-Christian religions that I began to shift over.

Speak: A very natural shift then?

Melton: Yes. I have a collector’s mentality. Working with new religions sort of became a hobby- collecting religions rather than stamps. I soon learned that in order to create a field of study, you have to create the reference materials that undergird it and provide the foundations. So I set out to create some of the reference books that were needed. I had no idea that I’d be writing reference books for a good part of my life. [Laughs]

Speak: Talk about your recent book, Finding Enlightenment: Ramtha's School of Ancient Wisdom. How did you come to do an ethnography on JZ Knight, the Yelm Washington woman who channels Ramtha?

Melton: JZ Knight emerged in the 1980s as probably the most successful of a new wave of channelers. Channelers are people that we used to call mediums, who claim contact with various kinds of preternatural beings and who are seen as having greater and more evolved wisdom than us common folk. Channels allow those preternatural beings to Speak through them.
My book says a number of things. First, it points to the fact that channeling as we know it today is a common phenomenon in religion and many religions are partially or totally formed on channeled documents. For example, the Book of Revelation in the Bible is a channeled document. So this is a vast phenomena that deserves more attention than it’s been getting. It was also a call to my colleagues in the para-psychological community that says we should not give up our study of mediums simply because we decided that we could not discern the truth or falsity of their claims about talking to a particular preternatural entity.

Speak: So what exactly is there to learn from JZ Knight?

Melton: In the para-psychological study of JZ and some of the leading members of the group, we discovered they have a particular psychological make-up that sets them apart from other people, that allows their channeling to occur and allows their participation in a particular kind of worldview that’s quite foreign to many of us. And that seems to me to be vitally important.

Speak: So there is a uniqueness to the Ramtha group?

Melton: Its uniqueness lies within that community of Western esotericists and channelers. Most channelers have developed a simple organizational setup-a very loose structure in which there is not a lot of interaction except for the audience asking questions of the channeler. In JZ’s case, she has developed a school for training people based upon the assumption that the teachings are not easy to inculcate, that is to say, we have grown up with an understanding with the physical world that Ramtha says is wrong and offers a new set of teaching. It is not a matter of saying, "I like Ramtha's teachings, they're cool." It is a matter of actually changing one's thinking patterns.

Speak: So it's not just a weekend retreat.

Melton: It's a weekend retreat, but it is hard work in the sense that you are actually doing exercises that will help you break through what they see as the illusion of life.

Speak: An updated version of Gnosticism, then, the old resistance to a totalizing worldview?

Melton: Yes. The great majority of people who become channelers fall into a Gnostic camp. If you look at their teachings, they are overwhelmingly Gnostic. In the West, Christianity has had a corner on the market, religiously speaking, so the number of alternatives available to people has been limited. In essence, one has to get outside the culture to find a different authority..
Religion needs authority. You have a truth that you are trying to proclaim and you need authority to proclaim it. The church has the Bible and the story of Jesus. Science has its empirical findings and the philosophical speculations that build on that. So what are you left with? You can go outside culture and history-this is what the channelers attempt to do.

Speak: Some may say that such experiments amount to a form of mind control, an abuse of authority on the part of JZ. But you have been one of the most outspoken critics of the "brainwashing" hypothesis and those who level knee-jerk accusations of mental manipulation at new religions. When did brainwashing become an issue?

Melton: In the 1970s brainwashing was introduced at the trial of millionaire heiress Patty Hearst, and later became an issue at Jonestown. During the 1980s, a number of us who studied new religious movements became concerned when a tort was introduced into the legal system. It accused new religious groups of working a sophisticated system of brainwashing that was so powerful that it was overriding the free will of members and causing them to do things, which under normal consciousness they would not choose to do.
We thought this was a little far-fetched. On the one hand, there was no real data to support the view. On the other hand, it was being taken to the legal system and multi-million-dollar judgments were being issued against different religious groups. We saw this as a real threat to religious freedom.
At that point we began to intervene, first speaking out against the idea, then initiating efforts within the major academic bodies to speak on the issue. And through those efforts, finally in 1990 a federal judge ruled against the brainwashing hypothesis in the case U.S. v. Fishman.

Speak: Where did the notion of brainwashing come from?

Melton: The idea of brainwashing emerges after the Maoist Revolution and appears to have been injected into the public debates by a journalist, Edward Hunter, who was on the payroll of the CIA. It was part of the politics of the time and the attempt by government to change the opinions of Americans about China and set up the infrastructure of the Cold War across the Pacific.
It was also a reaction to the small number of American POW's who had made offensive, anti-American statements during the Korean War. In part, it becomes an attempt to save the American conscience from itself-yet another affirmation of the role of America as an exceptional nation. There must have been this powerful technique, psychologically sophisticated, operating on these men-a necessary explanation, really.

Speak: Cold War binaries, containment culture and precious psychological fluids?

Melton: That's right.

Speak: Who are the major proponents of the brainwashing hypothesis?

Melton: The major advocates were John Clark, a psychiatrist in Massachusetts, Jocelyn West, a psychiatrist in LA, both deceased now, Margaret Singer, a psychologist with a private practice in Berkeley, and Richard Offshe, a sociologist at UC Berkeley.

Speak: The leading voices in the anti-cult movement?

Melton: Yes, but I have come to see the anti-cult movement in all its diversity. What started as a movement by parents who were concerned with their children leaving their careers for life in a high-demand religious group, has turned into a war between a group that has some benefits to gain from fighting new religions, but basically operates as a kind of defender of the status quo.

Speak: Where did the anti-cult movement come from? Can it be traced back to the Puritan move of banishing troublemakers to "the cesspool of Rhode Island?"

Melton: I don’t think it’s particularly Protestant, but I do think it has something to do with images of social stability and homogeneity. The United States has built a radically different cultural norm, in that society can remain united with a diversity of religion. Prior to that, all societies felt that religious homogeneity was possible, and various immigrant groups, for example, tried to build homogeneous communities or towns in the Midwest that would be culturally and religiously united. But this was continually being swept away so that it became impossible to keep that kind of homogeneity. But people always yearn for it. We like to associate with birds of our own feather.

Speak: I guess the sign still says we are Judeo-Christian nation.

Melton: That’s one of the things that gets reasserted in the process, but it’s been particularly acute in the period since 1965, when the immigration laws were changed since which we have taken a real jump in pluralism. The baby boomers came along just as we got an influx of Eastern religions, the growth of the New Age movement, it all happened at once, and it overwhelmed a lot of us. So it was understandable that we could get a reaction against that.

Speak: There still seems to be latent fear of those who believe in something that you don't. For example, anti-cult websites such as Cultwatch and Factnet have posted warnings that the film Battlefield Earth carries subliminal messages as a recruitment strategy for Scientology. Seems a touch absurd-John Travolta as the evil genius he plays in the film?

Melton: I agree. Scientology has become the main focus and target of anti-cult activities in the last twenty years. In part, it is due to Scientology's aggressiveness in countering the accusations of wrongdoing by former members. Because of this, Scientology has been involved in ongoing legal actions with a small cadre of people. Indeed, the most active person spreading the rumors about Battlefield Earth is an individual who was involved in a long and bitter legal fight with the church that lasted over a decade.
On the other hand, there is a very real connection. L.. Ron Hubbard, the fouder of Scientology, did write the book and the large percentage of people who read it were Scientologists. And there are elements of Scientology within it, not so much teachings of the church, but opinions. Interestingly, these elements were all part of the material from the large original book that did not make it into the screenplay.
Even if there were evidence of subliminal messages, there is no evidence that they would even work. If those messages are there and later someone could prove that they are there, the damage that could be done to Warner Brothers would be phenomenal. It would have been one of the stupidest decisions a movie executive could ever make.

Speak: Speaking of movie executives, how did you become so interested in vampires?

Melton: [Laughs] I found out during my college days that I liked vampire books more than any other kind. So when I saw vampire books, I just started buying them, reading them and clipping magazine articles and saving them. During the 1990s, vampires began to consume my leisure time. And by this time, the university had taken over my religious collection and I was very happy with that, so I began to collect vampire literature. I now have what is undoubtedly the largest collection in the United States.

Speak: Where do you think the vampire trend is going?

Melton: When this present vampire wave took off in the early nineties, we kept expecting it to collapse. But it hasn’t. It’s flourishing. New groups are coming along, Buffy is now a big thing among vampire aficionados and we keep saying it’s got to slow down, it’s got to exhaust itself as a theme for the popular culture, but it hasn’t. Goth music has come and gone, Anne Rice has come and gone, but the theme itself seems to be there.
It’s a strong theme and, in particular, we’ve seen how popular it is as a teenage thing. Almost everyone who’s interested in vampires becomes interested as a teenager, and we now understand the role that the vampire plays as a foil upon which teenagers can develop their sexuality.

Speak: And a little more complex template than, let’s say, MTV's Spring Break or the barrage of Britney Spears videos.

Melton: That’s right. That seems to be part of the idea, it’s evident in the Buffy series, which directly plays to the teenage community. And of course dealing with our sexuality is something we do throughout our lives as our sexuality grows and changes, as we marry, as we finish our child-rearing years, as we get our first divorce. [Laughs]

Speak: Particularly in American culture, where your identity is very much tied to your sexual identity.

Melton: We’ve so sexualized American culture that it’s almost beyond reason now and the vampire will remain an important symbol in dealing with that. The vampire myth itself has a status within the horror community that’s quite unique in that respect. The vampire is the only monster figure that is human enough to integrate into society, so it’s a very personal monster. And you’ve got to get pretty close to it to kill it-you have to put a stake in your hand and actually stab it in the heart, or you have to take a sword and decapitate it. You’ve got to confront the vampire personally.

Speak: A sense of empathy, then?

Melton: To deal with it, yes. And this suggests that something more is happening in vampire literature than is happening in other kinds of monster literature. So striving to understand the vampire becomes an important philosophical quest. Understanding the vampire is very much like Jungians trying to understand the shadow. You don’t become obsessed with the shadow, but coming to grips with it is an important part of maturity. I’ve come to feel that for the people who have this primary interest in vampires, it’s really an attempt to understand their shadow. It’s an attempt to understand the subconscious urges that we have to deal with, and also to understand the temptations of various kinds of grandiosity.
The vampire brings together immortality, sensuality and sexuality, and a sense of power. Now that’s a pretty heady combination-power, sex and eternal life. You begin to understand the appeal of the vampire and why the vampire can become a kind of hero, not an anti-hero, but a real hero in the late twentieth century.

Speak: It’s a nice metaphor for the idea of trying to understand the other. It seems that your interest in vampires fits with your interest in new religions. Cultivating intimacy with the fringe, but careful not to become engulfed by it-empathetic rather than sympathetic understanding.

Melton: When I’m honest with myself, I realize that I’m living life on the fringe. I’m on the fringe of the university, I’m on the fringe of, well, a fringy area of study. While new religious studies is gaining some legitimacy, many don’t yet understand the importance that this whole field is going to have in the next century. And it’s the same with vampires. It’s a fringy area of interest and it’s a way of going at psychological studies that is, shall we say, less than the majority way of doing things. But I’ve always found life on the fringe to be much more fun, much more exciting.

Speak: There’s a famous line by the poet Bob Kaufman: "the way out people know the way out."

Melton: That’s right.

Speak: Would you go so far as to say that there is a dialectic between inside and outside, between the margins and the middle?

Melton: Yes. And we begin to see this quite clearly when we realize that two of Nixon's advisors in the White House were Christian Scientists and that they actually tried to push through legislation that was beneficial to the Christian Science church. The most powerful man in the Senate now is a Mormon-Orin Hatch. These kinds of things begin to tell us that American diversity is certainly broadening and these minority religions are going to assume a role in the establishment much more quickly than, say, the Quakers did. There was no more despised group in the colonial period than the Quakers. But now we think most highly of Quakers. And I believe that in this century many of the despised religious groups of the past will be rehabilitated and come into their own.

Speak: So is it correct to say that your goal is to keep the public sphere free for religious freedom, to allow this dialectic to continue unimpeded?

Melton: I have to say it’s more complicated than that. I have my personal opinions and I’m also a citizen. As a citizen, my personal opinions will determine my daily operations, my participation in political process. However, as participant in the public policy making I also have to take into account what the public opinion is right now. For example, the public opinion right now is to allow a great deal of sexual freedom, the publication of porn, promicuous sexual contacts, gay activity, and the like. If I’m going to judge a particular group, I judge it not against my personal morality, no sex outside of heterosexual marriage, but against public standards. A group that is perfectly OK in terms of public standards-it allows extramarital sex, for example-and are otherwise operating legally, there then is no reason for the authorities to move against them, whatever my private opinions might be of their actions. Such a liberal opinion does not hold, of course, with reference to illegal activities-child abuse, fraudulent activity, etc.

Speak: That is very interesting, a combination of liberal and conservative values, all in the name of religious toleration.

Melton: That’s right. For example, all these controversial groups-Aum Shinrikyo, Scientology, the Unification Church-are religions. They may be bad religions at times, but they are religions. What that means, particularly in the American context, is that First Amendment rights and privileges are not lost to them. They have to be dealt with in terms of those First Amendment rights. You can’t just say they’re controversial, we’ll act against them. Just the same as you or I, the police can’t just barge into our house without having reason to think that we are involved in crime. Having said that, we all agree that whenever a group is involved in felonious crime, be it robbery or extortion or murder, then off with their heads.
In terms of personal morality, we all operate with different moral systems in this country. While there are some broad-based ones that the majority of us adhere to, we have to recognize that there are different moral codes operating in different communities. For example, I am a Methodist and I believe sexual relationships should be confined to marriage. Such beliefs would put me in opposition immediately on a personal level with groups that don’t adhere to that. But that’s a matter of personal moral concern and not a mater of public policy making on my part.

Speak: Still, a tension at work between the personal and the political on your part.

Melton: One of the values that I have grown up with is a kind of faith in people and the democratic system, a belief that the extremes will cancel each other out and the center will kind of dominate. If we allow people the greatest freedom, the overwhelming majority will make very positive decisions, very different decisions at times, but very positive kinds of decisions. As a Christian and an evangelical who wants to convert people to what I believe to be the truth, I want to do so in a setting where I can be assured, as far as possible, the choices people make to come to Christianity are free choices. And in so far as we coerce society to support us, we lessen our assurance of that freedom.
This is the Roger Williams position that I have come to. In the seventeenth century Williams invited Jews who were getting kicked out of South America to settle in Newport, Rhode Island. Part of his rational was for them to come here and have complete freedom of religion and experience no coercion. He said that only if the Jewish community was not coerced could they be properly approached for conversion. Williams had it right-we should create a climate in which we can freely choose our religion, an environment in which we can freely test out religion.

Speak: So what I hear you saying is that now is the time of a new reformation, something on a par with, let’s say, the Protestant Reformation in Western religious history. A time of radical transition.

Melton: It is not that new religions are proliferating. I think they have always been there in large numbers. But now they have a larger social impact. Rather than being confined to a single religious tradition or organization, they can take on different kinds of expression. Innovative religious forms can revive older organizations, challenge them or lead to the creation of new organizations. They can lead to the creation of movements that span many different religious communities.
Several decades ago, I saw what was happening in terms of both the growth of and pluralism in religion-this is a long-term trend, two centuries in America of steady growth in both the percentage of people who are affiliated with religion and the number of religious options that are available to us. One learns to cooperate with the inevitable. It is important that we understand that trend and see where we’re going. It will get us over the future shock. As a Christian, it seems important that the church take note of that trend, respond to it and not continue to hide under a bushel. For me, the idea of a Christian America as it has been voiced-even though the majority of Americans are still Christian-seems to be wrong-spirited and not true to the facts..

Speak: How is the inevitable, as you put it, tied to the advance of late capitalism? What exactly are the changes in the religious sphere that accompany a shift from savings and production to the current system that values consumption as the highest economic good?

Melton: I think, particularly in the West, as we have moved into a consumer culture, we have come to view religion as another product that we consume. And it may be that spirituality is somewhat like hunger. Hunger becomes an imperative, it forces us to go out and eat, and the choices of food we have will shape the form our meal will take. In like measure, the need for a spiritual life and a worldview that is satisfying is there and we look around and we have a whole bunch of choices. We can also create new choices at the same time. And the choices that we encounter at the local spiritual supermarket certainly shape what we finally come up with in terms of religious beliefs.

Speak: Are there any religions on the shelf that interest you more than others? Any particular favorites?

Melton: Yes. I am very interested in those groups that are actually going to have some impact upon the next century. Groups like Hare Krishna, while not very large, are representative of the growing Hindu community. And I can't get over my fascination with the groups devoted to Aleister Crowley. I keep wanting to dismiss them because they are so small and they don't seem to be all that important. But their persistence, and the fact that Crowley keeps showing up in unusual places, keeps me fascinated with them and keeps me struggling with trying to assess them.

Speak: Does Jimmy Page still own Crowley's house in Scotland?

Melton: As far as I know he does. He still has the pit bulls guarding it too. I will never forget the one time in 1980 or ’81 when I tried to make contact with whoever was living there. I was traveling with some friends in Loch Ness and we knew about the house. We drove up to the driveway and there was no one at the front gate. We were going to knock on the door as we had done in other places in Scotland-just to say hi and ask if we could look around. As we drove up, we met with several massive pit bulls and decided that this was a sign that someone really didn't want us to come visit. So we retreated.

Speak: That was about the same time that John Bonham died there.

Melton: Interesting. I never kept up with Led Zeppelin. That's not my kind of music.

CESNUR reproduces or quotes documents from the media and different sources on a number of religious issues. Unless otherwise indicated, the opinions expressed are those of the document's author(s), not of CESNUR or its directors

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