The Pain of Leaving, the Pain of Being Left
Interview With Anson Shupe
Late last year, after Dr. Ronald Enroth’s accusations against Jesus People USA Covenant Church (Cornerstone’s parent ministry) became known to us, we contacted a number of sociologists asking them to visit our community as well as examine Dr. Enroth’s methods of research as revealed in his letters. (Copies of the total correspondence were sent to some of them.) Nearly every sociologist we spoke to brought up the name of Dr. Anson Shupe, and it was the sociology department of a midwestern Christian college which urged us most strongly to contact him.
Sociologist Dr. Anson Shupe has tracked what he calls “the anticult movement” for some fifteen years. Professor and chair of sociology and anthropology at the joint campus of Indiana/Purdue Universities in Fort Wayne, Dr. Shupe is critical of the secular anticult movement. He cowrote the first research of the movement, The New Vigilantes: Deprogrammers, Anti-Cultists, and the New Religions (1980) and Strange Gods: The Great American Cult Scare (1982). Yet Shupe is no apologist for the cults. He has documented some groups’ deceptive techniques and has done extensive research on the Mormon church, published in his Mormon Corporate Empire (1985) and The Darker Side of Virtue (1991).
We spoke to Dr. Shupe by phone and were delighted to discover he was a subscriber to Cornerstone. He patiently listened to our recounting of the charges of “spiritual abuse” lodged against us and admitted up front that he, too, was working on a book about abuse among religious groups. Dr. Shupe was intrigued by our discussion of our own history and agreed to visit our community for a weekend. While he was here, we supplied him with copies of the Dr. Enroth/JPUSA correspondence. Shortly after his visit, we interviewed him regarding his impressions of Dr. Enroth’s methodology and the dynamics of life in a religious community.
Dr. Shupe, we appreciate the time you took to briefly visit our community and to read the correspondence between ourselves and Dr. Ronald Enroth. Could you, from your own experience, explain how you conduct a sociological investigation of a group which is being charged with “abuse” through the testimonies of former members?
I get the stories of former members clear in my mind and do a little background research. For example, if somebody says, I’ve been in the movement twenty years, I ask them pointed, detailed questions about what they did those twenty years.
I want to know the circumstances under which they left. Was it a matter of the straw that broke the camel’s back? Maybe in hindsight they had been on the way out of the movement for the last couple of years. I need to know that. In other words, I attempt to get at the deep background behind the storyteller.
If the charges made against the group are serious allegations, I make an effort to go to the group being charged and give them a chance to present their side of the conflict. It’s simply to be fair in the sense of giving the group their day in court. From my professional experience, when somebody comes out obviously angry at a group and is no longer a member, I’m wary about what they say. Sometimes the stories are just simple embellishments, and sometimes they’re such extreme distortions that they border on being outright fabrications.
You have written of your concern about the lack of scholarship on the part of the press and secular anticult organizations regarding new religious groups. How were you first made aware of this?
When I first started researching new religious movements, I believed what I read in the press. But when I did fieldwork firsthand, I saw that the reporters had taken things out of context; the groups were not nearly as horrible as they had been portrayed. I could probably take you to just about any religious group in the country and make it sound despicable if I presented the information in a certain way. I am not accusing and have never accused former members of any group of lying. I think they’re sincere and are basically recounting from their perspective true episodes or incidences. But what is the context? That means everything.
People are so capable of arguing a point of view that is in their own best interests and appearing to have no other concern but truth and factuality. I have learned that earnestness and passion behind a point of view don’t necessarily amount to a guarantor of validity. No one should be taking these stories one after another like they’re hard news coming off the wire service. To me, that’s a naive methodology.
The first religious movement I ever really studied was the Unification Church [sometimes known as the Moonies]. It must be kept in mind that I am not approaching them from a theological, Christian point of view. I have my own opinions of Moon and his idea that he is the new Messiah. But I’m critiquing them from a sociological point of view. The initial horror stories I heard were shocking: All they do is read Moon’s Divine Principles, they have no free time, they’re run ragged until they drop, they don’t have enough sleep, they’ve been beaten down until they lose their critical thinking abilities. I was really sympathetic to the parents’ organizations at first, thinking, “That’s terrible that a group would do something like that.”
Then I did fieldwork and lived among the Unification Church members, and in light of that experience began rethinking the stories I had heard. I observed these people in their natural habitat. For example, one Sunday afternoon I hung around with one of their fund-raising teams. They slept in late, they mended their clothes, they did laundry, they cleaned out their vans. One guy was reading Lord of the Rings — one young lady was reading Jackie O. There was a ruckus upstairs; some guys were having a water fight. Other guys were sitting around taking naps.
The retort I would get from the anticultists is Oh, well, they just showcased you the examples; they only let you see what they wanted you to see. But I had dropped in unexpectedly. I had come at unpredicted times. I had overheard things that couldn’t have been said for my benefit because they didn’t know I was there in the other room. After awhile, the stereotypes began to crumble. I could see where the stereotypes had emerged from, because there’s usually some truth in any stereotype, but it had been blown out of proportion.
If you were looking at a Christian group such as ours, would you use the same methodology?
My methodological experience is that if some of your former members had contacted me with their stories like they did Dr. Enroth, I would have said, Okay, I understand what you’re saying. But that would set in motion my attempting to check out the stories. I wouldn’t stop there. But he did stop there.
When I have written controversial material, whether about the Mormons or Moonies, unless I thought it would hurt somebody directly I named the name of the accuser. For instance, my book The Mormon Corporate Empire has on the average over a hundred footnotes per chapter — interview with such and such at what place and what day. So if I am asked, Where’d you get that information? it’s there; it’s footnoted.
Scholars are wed to footnotes even though it bores lay people. The point is accountability. That’s why I was impressed with Cornerstone the first time I saw one. [Sociologist] Dave Bromley sent me a copy of your Lauren Stratford issue, noting, “This article seems pretty thoroughly researched.” After looking at it I had to agree. So when Cornerstone’s Warnke article came out, I immediately turned to the back to see what kind of footnotes you had because that’s the mark of my line of work. It was obvious somebody had done their homework.
When we interviewed psychiatrist George Ganaway on the subject of satanic ritual abuse, he used the phrase “narrative truth versus historical truth”–that is, some people approach truth through stories, whether or not those stories can be validated. He believed that scholars and reputable journalists should approach truth through standard methods of historical research.
Yes, that’s right. The responsibility of a journalist and of a social scientist is to try to find the historical truth. This is done through numerous methods that will cross-check each other and help the researcher home in on the historical truth at the heart of the situation. You don’t rely on simply one source. If possible, you try to get other points of view, and from it all, like a historian, you piece together what seems to have happened.
Instead, the anticult folks often reify the testimonies of former members without going any further. To reify is to turn a story or concept into something literally real. For instance, IQ tests measure only how you do on test taking. They don’t measure creativity or ability to analyze; they measure a narrow view of something you could call intelligence. The reifiers treat the abstract results of the test as if its a true measure of one’s brain capacity. In fact, it’s only a narrow measure of one aspect of what a person can do. And I believe that’s what the anticult people have done with these horror stories about new religious groups–they have confused these stories with objective reality.
If Ronald Enroth has committed a scholarly sin, it’s that he has treated narrative accounts as literal . . . as history. But it seems to me he fails to take into account the individual perspective of each observer of any event. Reality is complex. The average reader wants to be presented with something that either happened or it didn’t. I mean, how well would a book do if it were titled Churches That Might or Might Not Be Abusing?
The Christian approach seems to be that the best way to reach a person involved in one of the new religious groups is to evangelize them with the gospel and then, if there are any ethical problems in their organization, to point those problems out. In other words, the Christian approach has a bit more respect for the person in the group and doesn’t automatically categorize them as a fool or a dupe or a brainwashed robot. The secular model focuses on this idea of brainwashing or mind control.
Dave Bromley and I wrote about that in our 1980 book, The New Vigilantes. There are two metaphors here. One is a kind of possession metaphor, which is the secular model. And the other is a metaphor of being misguided, in error, and in need. That’s why Jerry Yamamoto [Christian researcher of cults and author of Beyond Buddhism] would never have encouraged deprogramming, but his secular counterparts endorsed it. Enroth floats back and forth. Enroth likes to have it both ways.
Enroth doesn’t publish in outlets that other sociologists read. In fact, most sociologists and sociologists of religion never heard of him. Only in this narrow area of new religious movements would one know who Enroth is because he’s identified with the anticultists such as Margaret Singer and the Cult Awareness Network (CAN). They’re the main ones promoting the brainwashing paradigm.
After one of my books on Mormonism came out, Dr. Enroth wrote me a letter stating that we were really both on the same side, we’re very close together. And I answered back that he had accepted the Leo J. Ryan Award from Citizens’ Freedom Foundation (which was an anticult organization into mind control theory)— they don’t give that award to people who think like I do.” The brainwashing/mind reform explanation is not even discussed anymore at sociology meetings, it’s so discredited. You have to know who the anticultists are to understand the conflict over new religions.
In your writing you have used the term disaffiliation to talk about people leaving a group, whether Christian or non-Christian. Could you explain that a bit more?
Disaffiliation is a multistep process of gradual disillusionment that continually mounts. Things that might not have bothered a person for years begin to, and finally there’s a point at which the person is just going through the motions. But that member hasn’t left the group yet. Then there’s what we call a precipitating event — we could call it the straw that breaks the camel’s back — and that’s when the person makes the decision, I’ve had it!
An acquaintance of mine had been a Jesuit for twenty-eight years and then quit, married a lady, and had a couple kids. Everybody was always asking him, You were a Jesuit for twenty-eight years–how could you quit? I invited him to one of my classes to speak about his experience. He said, “It was a lot of little things I hadn’t really paid attention to. But one morning I was looking in the mirror, getting ready to shave again in cold water, and all of the sudden I just looked myself in the eye and said, ‘I don’t want to do this anymore.’ “
A flood of bad memories and things he’d forced himself not to think about rushed into his head. He realized, This isn’t working anymore. This lifestyle is no longer for me–I’m not growing. Then he made the decision to quit. But in hindsight, he realized he’d been getting ready to quit for some time, even though it was not really a conscious thing.
Most of the people writing about disaffiliation have come up with about six or seven stages. If I had sat down with some of Enroth’s former JPUSA members I would have gotten beyond their complaints and their horror stories, and backtracked through their own personal histories, their involvement with the movement, and the last year or two leading up to the time they quit. I believe I would be able to explain a lot of what they’re doing now, what they’re saying, why they’re saying it. Such research would have helped reveal the context and fill in the whole picture. There’s a well-established theory called cognitive dissonance. It’s part of a general approach to the idea that people strive to have consistency among their thoughts. In other words, you rationalize by adding another thought that neutralizes the thought which causes you problems.
When people burn bridges, they’ve done things they cannot undo. It’s easier for them to rationalize in a way that makes their past actions seem reasonable than it is to change their ideas. It is easy to see what happens: they leave, then go on record condemning the group. Later it would be a hard thing for them to go back and say, Well, I either embellished or maybe I was wrong. Reconciliation is going to be rather difficult because they have now gone forward and accused and condemned the group in question. They can’t undo that.
So it is easier for them to say, No, I was right all along. I’m not going to take back what I said. They’re probably not going to change their social reality because that would involve a lot of strain and effort. Unfortunately, once we human beings have committed ourselves to certain actions, we have a tendency to defend those actions.
When you visited us you mentioned that a person’s separation from a religious group parallels a divorce paradigm.
In sociology, divorce is currently the model used for understanding disaffiliation. For years, sociologists and psychologists were hung up on studying conversion or affiliation–how people get into movements. It’s like falling in love. Some people fall in love at first sight, but for most people it’s a progressive thing.
And though I’ve not been divorced, from everything I know about divorce, one doesn’t wake up one morning and say, I’ve had it. That decision is usually preceded by a number of events that gradually have disillusioned the person with the relationship. Leaving a group is not an overnight thing either. At the time of the divorce, when the couple has made a commitment to disengage, there are usually bad feelings. There is a sense of loss and maybe a sense of having been harmed by the other person, having been betrayed or slighted, or feeling the other person didn’t hold up their end of the relationship.
There’s what we call a social exchange in sociology, a sense that one’s been cheated. I’ve seen it for years. They have a sense of having invested part of their lives in a movement and it didn’t pay off. They feel it isn’t their fault–they’ve been wronged. And so there’s a lot of bitterness around the time of the divorce, and people have nothing good to say about the other partner. All the good times and the rewarding aspects of the relationship are pushed out of their minds. It’s only some time later, when the emotional hurt has somewhat passed, that one can remember there were some good times. I’m sure if I talk to some of the people Enroth has talked to I would find this same process of estrangement.
First published in Cornerstone (ISSN 0275-2743), Vol. 22, Issue 102/103 (1994), p. 43-44, 47. © 1994 by Cornerstone Communications, Inc.
Electronic version may contain minor changes and corrections from printed version.
Copyright © 2000 Cornerstone Communications, Inc.