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The 2002 CESNUR International Conference

Minority Religions, Social Change, and Freedom of Conscience

Salt Lake City and Provo (Utah), June 20-23, 2002

Reflections on Louisville: The Christian Countercult in Conversation

Douglas E. Cowan
Assistant Professor of Religious Studies and Sociology, University of Missouri - Kansas City
A paper presented at CESNUR 2002, Salt Lake City and Provo. Preliminary version. Do not reproduce or quote without the consent of the author


This is not so much a theoretical paper, an historical overview of the Christian countercult, or a summary of research completed, as it is reflections on a report from the field. In the time that I have, I’d like to do three things: (a) reprise very briefly just what the Christian countercult is; (b) discuss the recent Evangelical Ministries to New Religions (EMNR) conference, which was held at the Baptist seminary in Louisville, and to which both Gordon Melton and I were invited as not uncontroversial guest speakers; and, finally, (c) consider the research that has been done on the countercult in light of that experience, particularly aspects of countercult worldview maintenance and cognitive praxis.


You can experience the Christian countercult in a variety of ways. Walk into almost any evangelical bookstore, and you will undoubtedly find a section labeled "Other Religions," "Cults and Sects," "False Religions," or something similar. Or, perhaps you live near a Latter-day Saints temple – not to put too fine a point on it. Walking past the temple one day you may encounter evangelical Christians from countercult ministries such as Saints Alive in Jesus (Ed Decker), Utah Lighthouse Ministry (Jerald and Sandra Tanner), or Mormonism Research Ministry (Bill McKeever), and they’re passing out leaflets on the street. This is an especially popular activity at new temple openings, when the Latter-day Saints invites the non-Mormon public to view a temple prior to its consecration. Countercult apologists often give out tracts explaining why they believe Mormonism is not Christian; they engage visitors in conversation to that same end, and very occasionally picket the streets and avenues leading to the temple grounds.

If the secular anticult proceeds according to different versions of the brainwashing or thought control hypothesis, takes as its point of departure allegations of physical and mental abuse, and attacks a number of non-traditional religious groups on the basis of alleged civil liberties violations, the Christian countercult regards the range of choices available in an open religious economy as unacceptable because the very presence of non-traditional religious groups threatens the worldview inhabited by conservative Christians and challenges that worldview’s various claims to an ultimate authority and a unique veracity

As a social movement, in many ways the countercult is multi-faceted and indistinct, with exponents that range from the academic to the popular, and the erudite to the absurd. It encompasses large corporations as well as individual ministries; its membership includes both full-time apologists who have devoted their professional lives to researching and writing about new religious movements, and ordinary Christians who only want to know how to respond to Mormon missionaries or Witness pioneers. The resources the countercult brings to bear on what it regards as the growing problem of cults, sects, and "false religions" vary also – print publication of books, magazines, and newsletters; radio broadcasting; audio- and video-cassette production; CD-Roms; direct mail appeals; proactive evangelistic encounters; professional and avocational Internet websites; as well as lecture series, training workshops, and countercult conferences. In North America, it is both a multimillion-dollar industry, as well as an diversion to which any number of evangelical Christians have devoted a good portion of their lives. Indeed, the polymorphous character of the movement means, among other things, that there are no reliable membership statistics available. Since religious pluralism characterizes the social environment in which the countercult resides, movement intellectuals regard all committed Christians as potential participants. Thus, while less than one hundred apologists publish commercially and consistently in North America, the actual number of Christians engaged in countercult apologetics at all levels is impossible to determine.

Bearing False Witness? is a book I wrote as an introduction to the countercult movement, and will be forthcoming from Praeger early next year. Even though the countercult apologists I discuss range from the extremes represented by writers such as Constance Cumbey, Dave Hunt, and Texe Marrs, to the more erudite portrayals of evangelical superiority one finds in apologists like Francis Beckwith, Robert Bowman, and Carl Mosser, the organizing principles of countercult apologetics remain the same throughout. That is, the cognitive praxis of the countercult movement revolves around two poles: the apologetic, that is, the ongoing construction and maintenance of the evangelical Christian worldview; and the evangelistic, the continuing effort to convert to evangelical Christianity those who follow other religious traditions.

A number of things hamper these activities, however. Duplication of effort, internecine conflict over non-essential doctrinal items, and different assessments of controversial religious groups - over the years, all of these have been recognized by apologists as detrimental to the countercult enterprise. Lack of accountability and standards of intellectual and spiritual preparation for evangelism further hinder the ability of the countercult to fulfill what many believe ought to be its primary mission. Indeed, dissension has even arisen about what that primary mission ought to be: boundary maintenance for Christians, or proactive evangelism of non-Christian religionists (cf. Morehead 2000, 2002).

In an effort to address these deficiencies and increase effectiveness, participants at a 1982 conference on cults and new religious movements voted to establish a permanent countercult coalition - Evangelical Ministries to Cultists (EMTC) - to be coordinated by Gordon Lewis, a senior professor at Denver Seminary and a widely respected figure in the countercult movement (Pement 1999). It wasn’t long, though, before the founding members of the organization realized that the name they had chosen was more likely to offend the very people they hoped to reach than attract them. And, in late 1984, the name was officially changed to "Evangelical Ministries to New Religions." In addition to offering various countercult publications, providing referral services for speakers and workshop leaders, and taking one of the most significant steps in recent years–the Manual of Ethical and Doctrinal Standards, to the principles of which each member or member organization is expected to adhere (EMNR 1997)–the EMNR organizes an annual conferences on countercult evangelism and apologetics. It was this conference, held at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, to which Gordon and I were invited.

What made our presence there controversial is our status in the countercult community as "cult apologists"–Gordon of considerable stature, me working hard on it. While not all countercult participants consider scholars "cult apologists," the list includes many of our colleagues here this weekend: Eileen Barker, David Bromley, Catherine Wessinger, James Lewis, Massimo Introvigne, Andy Shupe, and Jeffrey Hadden. The operative definition of a "cult apologist" is provided by well-known Dutch countercultist Anton Hein, the most ardent proponent of the concept. "A cult apologist is someone who consistently or primarily defends the teachings and/or actions of one or more movements considered to be cults–as defined sociologically and/or theologically . . . Alternative terms used include: ‘cult defenders’ [and] ‘cult sympathizers’" (www.gospelcom.net/apologeticsindex/c11.html). The utter inability of apologists like Hein to distinguish between scholarly support for particular beliefs, and scholarly support for the right of individuals and groups to hold those beliefs is an important point, but a paper topic for another time.


The initial invitation to speak at Louisville came from the EMNR’s president, John Morehead, who is also the editor of the Watchman Fellowship’s Expositor journal. I’d been in correspondence with John since he requested a copy of my dissertation on the countercult in late 1998. Since then, various parts of the dissertation have been shared around the countercult community. That, and my book on the countercult, have caused a wee bit of excitement (cf. Cowan forthcoming). Criticisms have ranged from "He got everything in it completely wrong, and how could anyone have given this hack a doctorate?" to "Fabulous, another cult apologist we have to deal with."

In fact, a number of countercult apologists have contacted me, and asked to vett portions of the manuscript to ensure that they and their views have been represented accurately. I note as an aside that this is rarely a courtesy accorded the targets of countercult criticism.

When the countercult community learned that the EMNR was going to give over time on its annual meeting agenda to two "cult apologists" like Gordon Melton and Doug Cowan, reactions were mixed, to say the least. Some of the debate was carried out on Rich Poll’s AR-forum, a popular countercult Internet list. Many there argued that our views were so widely known, and so clearly erroneous, that inviting us to the EMNR served no practical purpose. Opponents contended that if Melton and Cowan can’t help us win souls to Christ, and their work is not intentionally directed toward that goal, why on earth would we give them a forum? We certainly wouldn’t turn over the pulpits in our churches to them! The EMNR might as well begin inviting Mormons and Scientologists to present. While it never came to pass, a few suggested boycotting the conference in protest.

Supporters of our presence, on the other hand–although certainly not supporters of our views–argued that the countercult has become so self-absorbed that it could only benefit from the critiques of those outside. It has become so emic, as it were, that it often forgets there is an etic perspective at all. This is amply demonstrated, for example, in the often negative response to some of its own movement intellectuals, such as John Morehead, Carl Mosser, and Paul Owen (cf. Beckwith, Owen, and Mosser 2002; Morehead 2000, 2002; Mosser and Owen 1998), who have also been critical of countercult methodology and epistemology, or of evangelical academics like Craig Blomberg who have attempted to bridge the communication gap between his community and, in this case, the Latter-day Saints (cf. Blomberg and Robinson 1997).

The impression all of this gives is that the much of the countercult community is simply unwilling to consider criticism of its intent, its methods, or its preparation for the task at hand. On the other hand, those who argued that Gordon and I should be allowed to speak–including such prominent EMNR board members as James Bjornstad–insisted that the countercult could benefit from critique no matter what the source. Even on the very day the conference was to begin, however, the debate continued at an executive meeting of the EMNR. I had no idea as I landed in Louisville if we would be ignored and treated as pariahs, if our presentations would be boycotted, or, indeed, if we would be allowed to present at all.


I certainly can’t speak for Gordon, but, by and large, I was treated very courteously by most of the participants with whom I interacted. Conference attendees had been made very aware of who we were, and from the moment I arrived people wanted to talk with me, to hear what I had to say–in some cases, to quiz me to see if I really knew what I was talking about. Others were just as clear they wanted nothing whatsoever to do with me. On the whole, though, I spent more time interacting with conference participants at the EMNR than I have at any secular academic conference. And, I was informed later that our presentations were among the best attended at the conference.

When John invited me, he specifically asked that I address the question: "If the Christian countercult wants to be taken seriously by secular academics, what do it need to do differently?" That is, since the majority of countercult cognitive praxis is oriented towards an evangelical boundary maintenance rather than a proactive missiology, based on your research, if we want to preach to anyone beyond the choir what adjustments do we need to make? I organized my response to address four principle issues: epistemology, questionable scholarship, honesty, and respect.

The first issue is epistemology, or "how we know what we know." I pointed out that standards of evidence vary across social domains, and what may be considered sufficient in one venue is often decidedly insufficient in another. For example, in criminal court proceedings, decisions are rendered based on evidence that is presented "beyond a reasonable doubt." In civil proceedings, on the other hand, there is a reduced burden of proof. A case must be proven only "by a preponderance of the evidence"; which means, simply, a thing is more likely than not. What I believe the Christian countercult must address in this regard is the epistemic circularity on which a considerable portion of its apologetic argument is based. In other words, countercult apologetics is predicated on a circular argument, a logical fallacy to which that apologetic almost always falls prey and which is one of the first criticisms raised about it outside the evangelical domain. I mean, of course, the claim that the Bible as the uniquely authoritative Word of God - inerrant, infallible, and insuperable.

In the case of this epistemic circularities, and conservative Christianity is hardly the only venue in which this exists, the "burdens of proof" are different within the community than without. That is, the standard of evidence that would convince someone who either already believes or is already inclined to believe in the Bible as the uniquely authoritative Word of God is significantly different than that required to convince someone who is not so disposed. I suggested that the countercult would do well to take note of this, and address it in some fashion, rather than simply repeating the same circular arguments for biblical inerrancy over and over and over.

Questionable Scholarship

My favorite example of questionable scholarship is the use made of the humble endnote. When the Christian Research Institute issued an official statement about fellow apologist Dave Hunt, and claimed that, although they considered him a "brother in Christ," they did not regard him as a credible scholar, Hunt was outraged. "I’m not a scholar? How is that defined? In spite of the more than 800 footnotes in A Woman Rides the Beast, I’m not thorough in my research?" (Hunt 1995: 3). Occult Invasion (1998) contains nearly fifteen hundred endnotes. That countercult apologists employ the apparatus of scholarship is, of course, not the issue; how those apparatus are employed is. What are the sources and are they reliable? Are they quoted fairly and correctly? The mere use of scholarly apparatus in no way ensures the reliability of the information provided.

In the introduction to Reasoning from the Scriptures with Catholics, Ron Rhodes makes it clear that he understands that Roman Catholicism embraces a wide variety of theological positions, popular and liturgical pieties, as well as social and cultural contexts. "Roman Catholics cannot be lumped together into one big bucket," he declares, immediately prior to doing virtually that. "There are some Roman Catholics," he continues, "who do believe what is taught in the Bible about grace and justification and are, in fact, saved" (Rhodes 2000: 15). In his note on "methodology," Rhodes states that "it is not my goal in this book to simply quote what other Protestants have said about Roman Catholicism. Rather, I intend to quote or cite directly from key representative Roman Catholic sources" (2000: 21), among these, the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

Of the over 450 endnotes Rhodes provides, however, less than half are to Roman Catholic sources, official or otherwise. And only twenty-eight of these reference the Catechism. Among the most oft-cited of Rhodes’ Catholic sources are: Ludwig Ott’s Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma (1954), Hardon’s Pocket Catholic Dictionary (1985), and The Essential Catholic Handbook (1997). Of these, Ott’s book is significantly pre-Vatican II, Hardon’s an abridged, popular edition of his magisterial Modern Catholic Dictionary (1980), and the third bills itself as "a compact guide to the basic tenets of the Catholic faith." Hardly a catalogue of "key representative Roman Catholic sources," despite the regard with which both Ott and Hardon are held in the Church. On the other hand, almost forty percent of his references are to evangelical Protestant sources, including such explicitly anti-Roman Catholic writers as James White (1996, 1998), James McCarthy (1995, 1997), and himself. This leads to:


The ninth of Ten Commandments reads: "Thou shall not bear false witness against thy neighbor" (Ex. 20:16; Dt. 5:20). Ex. 23:1 expands the pentateuchal statute, and further enjoins the adherent: "Thou shalt not raise a false report: put not thine hand with the wicked to be an unrighteous witness." Put simply, don’t tell lies about people. Here I pointed out that, given the authority with which Scripture is regarded in countercult cognitive praxis, this injunction ought to be of more concern to countercult apologists than it often appears. This is evident from the use some, arguably most apologists hope readers will make of their work. "We are not simply a source of information," writes Dave Hunt, for example. "We earnestly desire to join together tens of thousands of concerned believers who will not only be informed but who will act upon the information we provide" (Hunt 1992: 1). If this is the case, the reliability of that information becomes of critical concern - especially when we are dealing with factual claims that are open to immediate and conclusive disconfirmation. I then provided a number of examples drawn from the work of various countercult apologists.


All this led, quite naturally, to the issue of respect. And, for this, I referred to the EMNR’s own Manual of Ethical and Doctrinal Standards. While coalitioning movements such as the EMNR can serve any number of specific functions, in the MEDS these marshal under three broad categories: (a) the clarification of organizational doctrines and objectives; (b) the establishment of professional standards of ethical and missiological conduct; and (c) the collection and administration of acceptable countercult apologetic material.

The MEDS acknowledges that countercult interaction with non-Christians ought to be conducted in a same spirit of gentleness and humility–the same way Christian ought to treat one another. As such, EMNR members are enjoined to "avoid the use of harsh language where possible," to "beware of presuming to discern the motives, intents or inner thoughts of non-Christians," and to "bear in mind that our goal is to win them, not to alienate them" (EMNR 1997). "In our printed and oral presentations against error," the document continues, " . . . we must avoid the use of 'loaded language' or emotional terminology which will breed contempt in the audience rather than compassion" (EMNR 1997).

Now, I could go on, quite literally, for hours about the antipathetic, often vitriolic language with which countercult material is riddled - everything from disease to invasion metaphors, and from the language of spiritual warfare to countercult iconography. Once again, though, as so often happens in countercult discourse, there is a stunning lack of awareness in the MEDS about what is actually being said.

In this same section, not five sentences earlier, in fact, we read: "Though unbelievers are slaves to sin and possessed of a darkened, rebellious nature toward God, we have no warrant for impugning their motives in all cases" (EMNR 1997). Which suggests, of course, that there are situations in which such censure would be warranted, and that countercult apologists possess the wisdom to know the difference. Additionally, one is led to wonder just how, say, a devout Neopagan, a person at least as committed to her spiritual path as the countercult apologist is to his, would hear the phrase "slaves to sin and possessed of a darkened, rebellious nature toward God"?

In terms of the ongoing professionalization of the countercult, one of the most important sections of the MEDS deals with "self-representation," in which five critical areas outline standards for professional credentialing, authorship, testimony, employment, and accomplishments. The EMNR recognizes that embellishment, hyperbole, the solipsistic interpretation of events as either anecdotal atrocities or anecdotal miracles, and the outright invention of one's past are all detrimental to the countercult agenda. Regarding "Educational Degrees and Ordination," for example, the MEDS reads: "EMNR members shall not advertise themselves as having degrees of higher education unless the degree has been legitimately earned at an institution requiring in-class instruction or through an accredited 'distance education' facility" (EMNR 1997). For some in the EMNR, for example Gordon Lewis or Douglas Groothuis, this doesn’t present any difficulty. For another founder, however, the venerable Walter Martin, the issue of whether he claimed for his degrees more academic freight than they could legitimately carry remains open. Similar issues have been raised about countercult apologists such as John Ankerberg, Hank Hanegraaff, John Weldon, and James White.

My point here was that, since, in the Christian countercult, nouns such as "expert," "authority," and "specialist" are used with cavalier abandon, and regularly coupled with adjectives like "international," "renowned," and "leading," the potential for and temptation to misrepresent one's credentials is quite high. Further, since there is no real accrediting body, no official magisterium, indeed no formal requirement for special education of any kind, the problem becomes that much more complex. Put simply, anyone who wants to can hang out a shingle that reads: "Countercult Apologist: Slaves to Sin Saved Here."

?Rich Poll, formerly of the Christian Research Institute and now the operator of Apologia Report, was the first to respond. "Ouch!" he said.


In the aftermath of our participation in the Louisville conference, a number of things happened–all of which speak to the insular nature of the Christian countercult as it is currently constituted, and the conflict that obtains within the countercult over efforts to mitigate that provincial mindset. A number of circumstances specifically speak to this.

First, prior to the conference, John Morehead had contracted with a conservative, evangelical press to edit a collection of essays on the current state of the countercult. He specifically asked that a chapter drawn from my presentation at the EMNR be included, and I provided a detailed abstract, which was accepted by the publisher. Shortly after the conference, the publisher informed John that my chapter was not to be included, and that the publication contract hung in the balance of his decision. The publisher also insisted that all contributing authors sign an evangelical statement of faith as a condition of their contract–something I, obviously, couldn’t do. While no other chapter was to be excluded, and mine was the only one specifically critical of countercult apologetics as a religious enterprise, the publishers made it clear they were not going to be party to promulgating the views of a "self-proclaimed agnostic."

Which is interesting since that’s exactly the phrase that was used to critique at least my presence after the conference was over. A number of people, including EMNR board members, argued that there is nothing that can be learned from a "self-proclaimed agnostic." Whether there is a connection between this, and the demand from the publishers that my chapter be dropped, I leave to be pondered by Mel Gibson driving his taxi cab in Conspiracy Theory.

One of the ways in which John Morehead has tried to disseminate the proceedings of the EMNR is through the publication of conference papers on their website. Shortly after the conference, when I contacted him about this, I learned that John had been refused permission to include either my paper or Gordon’s in those proceedings. Regardless of any disclaimer that might precede our papers, "cult apologists" were simply not going to be given another forum.

Which raises interesting possibilities for the EMNR conference in 2004, which is scheduled to be held in Kansas City. John wants to make Bearing False Witness? the subject of an "Author meets Critics" roundtable. It remains to be seen whether, at that conference, "cult apologists" are on the program, or on the menu.


It is clear that there is a battle going on in the countercult community for control over the direction it will take in the coming years. The EMNR is a relatively small organization, from which a number of prominent countercult individuals and organizations have chosen to exclude themselves. Since it is an entirely voluntary organization, it has no control over the way in which less honorable members of its community conduct their affairs.

Having just completed the book on the countercult, my fear was that sitting on the plane from Louisville to Kansas City, I’d be thinking, "Oh shit, I’ve gotten this group completely wrong." That wasn’t the case, by and large. Indeed, quite the opposite.

That there are more rigorously academic countercult apologists is clear, although they have yet to really make their appearance on the field. Emergent movement intellectuals such as Carl Mosser and Paul Owen are making something of a name for themselves in evangelical-LDS apologetics. They were graduate students when they wrote "Mormon Scholarship, Apologetics and Evangelical Neglect: Losing the Battle and Not Knowing It?" (1998), one of the most significant emic reassessments of countercult apologetics in recent decades; whether they will continue as countercult apologists is anyone’s guess.

I suspect, though, that the primary reason they haven’t yet begun to make their mark is that they counsel a very different, considerably more difficult epistemological course for the countercult than has heretofore been the case. They urge apologists at all levels not simply to read evangelical material about target groups, but to read material produced by the groups themselves. They argue that, because it almost invariably presents a skewed vision of the group under discussion, reading only evangelical countercult material is perhaps the most fundamental mistake made by the Christian countercult. While many countercult apologists may appear to cite primary sources, they are very often citing them from the writings of other countercult apologists - stripped of context and dependent on those who went before them to have rendered the material accurately. The result? If the only material countercult apologists read is that produced by other apologists - who may themselves have read and worked from the original, but whose research is diluted through generational extension and democratization - then the movement becomes locked in a progressively deteriorating epistemic loop, the intellectual rigor of which will continue to degrade over time.

Put differently, unless the efforts of apologists like John Morehead are successful, it becomes little more than a tail-chasing exercise in boundary-maintenance - everyone quoting each other in hopes of supporting their shared worldview.


Beckwith, Francis, Paul Owen, and Carl Mosser, eds. 2002. The New Mormon Challenge: Responding to the Latest Defenses of a Fast-Growing Movement. New York: Zondervan.

Blomberg, Craig L., and Stephen E. Robinson. 1997. Who Wide the Divide? A Mormon and an Evangelical in Conversation. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press.

Cowan, Douglas E. Forthcoming. Bearing False Witness? An Introduction to the Christian Countercult. Westport: Praeger Publishers.

EMNR. 1997. Manual of Ethical and Doctrinal Standards; online at www.emnr.org/manual.html.

Gomes, Alan W. 1998. Truth and Error: Comparative Charts of Cults and Christianity. Zondervan Guide to Cults and Religious Movements. Grand Rapids: Zondervan.

Hunt, Dave. 1992. "Heeding the Berean Call." The Berean Call (April): 1-6.

_____. 1995. "Q & A." The Berean Call (July): 3-4.

Morehead, John W. 2000. "Tired of Treading Water: Rediscovering and Reapplying a Missiological Paradigm for 'Countercult' Ministry." Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of Evangelical Ministries to New Religions, New Orleans, Louisiana.

_____. 2002. "Moving Together Beyond the Fringes: A Paradigm for EMNR’s Viability in an Age of Religious Pluralism. Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of Evangelical Ministries to New Religions, Louisville, Kentucky.

Mosser, Carl, and Paul Owen. 1998. "Mormon Scholarship, Apologetics and Evangelical Neglect: Losing the Battle and Not Knowing It?" Trinity Journal, Fall: 179-205.

Pement, Eric. 1999. "A History of Evangelical Ministries to New Religions." EMNR Quarterly Update 3 (1): 4.

Rhodes, Ron. 2000. Reasoning from the Scriptures with Catholics. Eugene: Harvest House.


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