Response to John Trott

October 2000
By Ronald Enroth, Ph.D.

For reasons known only to him, Mr. Jon Trott of Jesus People USA (JPUSA) Covenant Church has decided to re-open the controversy surrounding my writing about former members of that congregation in the book, "Recovering from Churches That Abuse" (Zondervan, 1994). I had hoped and thought that the members of JPUSA had ''buried the hatchet'' and put the issue (dating back six or seven years) behind them. Instead, Mr. Trott has revisited the controversy by writing a chapter in a recently published book published by New York University Press. The chapter is entitled, ''Is Abuse About Truth or Story: Or Both?'' and is part of an edited volume, "Bad Pastors: Clergy Misconduct in Modern America." My guess is that Jon Trott saw an additional opportunity to discredit me personally and professionally and could not resist that opportunity-this time in a book, which will be read largely by a professional and academic audience.

Because of the nature of some of Trott's comments about me (as well as what he did not report), I cannot allow the attack to go unanswered. At the same time, I realize that what I say here will not change his thinking and that of his defenders. My purpose is solely to make my rebuttal available to as many people as will listen, realizing full well that JPUSA will come back with yet another set of denials, distortions, and untruths.

Trott's strategy in the chapter is simple: he recites his credentials; he cites credentialed people who agree with him; he avoids giving a comprehensive summary of what he is criticizing; he fails to recognize or deal with the issues I raise in my book, focusing instead on my methodology and engaging in ad hominem attacks; he selects quotes that he misuses to make me appear unfair or stupid; he throws in a large dose of sarcasm, which he tries to make ''forgivable'' by presenting himself as the aggrieved party; and then concludes his ''story'' by restating the utter folly of my point of view.

What surprised me most after reading the Trott chapter was the extent to which his comments and conclusions about me were based upon extensive personal correspondence of mine which had been duplicated by JPUSA and widely circulated without my knowledge or consent. This correspondence was between myself and the leadership of Trott's denomination (The Evangelical Covenant Church--ECC), members of the JPUSA staff, my publisher, and select others. Note the following quotes from Mr. Trott's chapter:

  • Not only letters, but copies of letters, began circulating. This ''communication by fax'' became a multi-voiced, but ultimately futile dialogue involving JPUSA, the ECC, Enroth, and various interested others (including other evangelical counter-cultists). There is no way to represent the sheer volume of the correspondence(p. 163)

  • [Trott specifically identifies ''interested observers'' including William Backus, Ruth Tucker, Eliot Miller, Francis Beckwith, Norman Geisler, Bob and Gretchen Passantino, and Anson Shupe, and then adds] all of whom I sent much of the Enroth vs. JPUSA correspondence. (p. 163)

  • "But Zondervan's Stan Gundry was shocked to discover that I had been sending Nearly all the correspondence between Enroth, Zondervan, the ECC, and JPUSA to various Christian spokespersons. Gundry seemed most shocked when I mentioned having sent the entire correspondence (more than an inch thick even at that point) to professional acquaintances at Christianity Today" (p. 165)

  • "Anson Shupe agreed to visit us after reading the correspondence I'd sent him" (p.165)

  • "Norm Geisler wrote Enroth regarding the correspondence I'd forwarded"(p. 166)

  • "dozens of packets of the entire correspondence (some forty letters, most more than one page) had been mailed to various evangelical and secular spokespersons." (p. 168)

Attorneys familiar with intellectual property law have clearly indicated that personal correspondence is covered by copyright, according to Section 102(a), Section 107, and Section 202 of the Copyright Act of 1976. There is legal precedent set forth in a number of cases, including Salinger v. Random House.

The extensive use of my personal correspondence, without my knowledge or consent, amounts to ''trial by correspondence.'' More seriously, it appears to be a violation of the law. I hold author Jon Trott, editors Anson Shupe, William A. Stacey, and Susan E. Darnell, together with New York University Press, jointly responsible for what appears to be careless disregard for copyright law. Readers of this response should also know that the leadership of the Evangelical Covenant Church, heretofore fully supportive of JPUSA, were not apprised of Trott's use of their correspondence or mine. In a letter to me dated September 1, 2000, Dr. Glenn R. Palmberg, the current president of the ECC, stated that the leadership of that denomination neither authorized nor consented to the distribution of the correspondence, which Trott so frequently mentions in his essay.

Likewise, in a letter to me dated October 13, 2000, Rev. Herbert M. Freedholm, Superintendent of the Central Conference of the Evangelical Covenant Church, a person I had extensive contact with during and after the completion of my book, indicated that he gave no authorization to distribute any of his correspondence. Neither he nor Dr. Palmberg were aware of Trott's chapter until I brought it to their attention.

In another instance of highly questionable behavior, Jon Trott makes reference (p. 166) to a taped interview I supposedly conducted with an ex-member. ''I have a copy of an interview Enroth did with a former JPUSA member, who taped the phone call and later sent a copy to me.'' I asked Mr. Trott to provide me with proof that I had given permission for that interview to be taped. In a letter to me dated August 26, 2000, replied, ''To your request that I prove permission was given to tape your interview. . . I decline.'' In most states, the act of taping someone by telephone without obtaining permission to do so constitutes an illegal act. Trott was apparently unconcerned about whether his source was acting legally.

When Trott did reference the extensive correspondence noted above in his recent essay, he did so selectively. For example, he quoted extensively (footnote 13, p. 179) from a letter written by Paul Larsen, the president (at that time) of the Evangelical Covenant Church. Much of that footnote quotation has no relation whatsoever to the points I raised in my book about JPUSA. It is a totally erroneous, if not ridiculous, suggestion that somehow my problem is that I have a middle class bias against people who live in a countercultural community. What Trott fails to quote from that same letter is Larsen's ''below the belt'' suggestion that my ''financial ties to Zondervan'' will transcend my commitment to scholarly inquiry. In my response to Dr. Larsen (dated July 14, 1993 and not mentioned by Trott), I state, ''For you to suggest that Zondervan and I will profit financially from the 'pain' that I supposedly intend to inflict on your denomination is extremely offensive to me.''

Larsen's attitude from the start was essentially that I was out to expose and willfully hurt the folks at JPUSA and thereby tarnish his denomination. He went so far as to guess that my book might turn out to be ''one more dreary, one-sided account of Christian failure.'' I assured him that I had higher expectations for the book. ''Based on the overwhelming positive response to "Churches That Abuse," I am confident that it will provide help and hope to many. I trust that The Covenant Church will be able to put aside the defensive posture demonstrated by your letter and join me in reaching out to those who have been hurt.''

But the problem was (and still is) that Jon Trott and some leaders in the ECC do not believe that people have been hurt. They either refuse to see or are unable to see any problems warranting ''reaching out.'' Trott and his defenders completely ignore the possibility that there might be ''some'' truth in what 40 - 50 ex-members have told me about their experience at JPUSA. I was not saying that JPUSA was all-bad! I was merely saying that here is evidence that suggests that things might not be as rosy as the leadership claims. I made a modest empirical assertion. They distorted my empirical assertion, presented it as a monstrous attack, ignored the data on which it was based, and waged an extended ad hominem designed to do to me what they claimed I was trying to do to them-utter discreditation!

Reading Jon Trott's chapter as well as all the articles appearing in the earlier, infamous ''Enroth issue'' of Cornerstone magazine, one clearly gets the impression that I am bound and determined to attack, undermine, and sink the JPUSA ship. Let me quote again from page 151 of my book-a passage I quoted in my June 1994 letter to the editor of Cornerstone (which they never printed):

  • "JPUSA pastors and Covenant administrators have reconceived my research findings as 'accusations,' 'charges,' and 'allegations.' Unfortunately, this inaccurate redefinition of scholarly research may give some the impression that I am personally bringing complaints against a Covenant congregation. It unfairly casts me in an adversarial role, something I reject."

That adversarial role is reinforced in Jon Trott's recent publication. He does not quote any portions of my correspondence or published writing in which I convey my sincere hope that any problems at JPUSA will be addressed and resolved. He surely overlooks my statement on page 153 of Recovering From Churches That Abuse: ''I pray that JPUSA will become a shining example that reconciliation with former members and genuine change are possible.'' Instead, he repeatedly questions my motives and sidesteps the main issues I raise. As one former member (not one of my interviewees) recently wrote me regarding the Trott chapter, ''I find it telling that they [JPUSA] through Jon are focusing on your methodology and presuming your motives and lending no credence to the voiced pain of ex-members.''

Jon and his defenders inexplicably refuse to acknowledge that real people have really been hurt during their time at JPUSA. To quote from an e-mail I recently received from a former member: ''Most of us arrived at JP with a burning desire to serve God. Most of us were wounded and JP was kind of like the last resort, the only place where we felt we could find help in the Body of Christ. And Christ was there, though the leadership, perhaps unconsciously, assumed prerogatives and powers that only God has the right to. But because God values our free choice, even He refuses to pre-empt our choice. Because of the questionable practices the community engaged in, I think many felt ultimately betrayed and even used.''

Sadly, Trott's latest essay exemplifies the lack of sincere compassion for those ex-members of JPUSA who just might be telling the truth about their hurt that I have discussed elsewhere. Jon doesn't seem to accept the validity of a word like ''hurt.'' Words like ''doubts, anger, disillusionment'' likewise are dismissed by Trott as mere ''vague accusations.'' (see pp. 161 - 163) In the earlier series of articles in Cornerstone, several JPUSA supporters trivialize the idea of being a victim, thereby denigrating the role of ''ex-member.'' This point was well made by a former member of an aberrational Christian group, Elizabeth Davies, in a letter to the editor of Cornerstone that was never published. ''Dr. Anson Shupe's article undermines the validity of every ex-member who has a complaint about the group they were involved in. He claims that they often exaggerate and embellish their accounts and the truth. He goes on to claim that if the person does not admit to embellishment or exaggeration later, it's usually a result of 'cognitive dissonance.'''

To quote another letter to the editor that was never printed, ''I don't believe that orthodoxy gives one the license to hurt others or, if the wounds are unintentional, to dismiss the hurting ones of your community because their pain is inconvenient to your public image.'' This, it seems to me, gets at the crux of the problem. Trott and his associates simply refuse to acknowledge a problem and in so doing, they further distance themselves from people who truly have been spiritually abused. In his chapter Trott states that I describe the abuse of former JPUSA members in a ''maddening way'' and that my ''charges'' are ''mysteriously undefined.'' I am said to go about doing my ''sociological duty by hunting for patterns of behavior. . .'' And I use ''scare'' words. I am also reminded of a letter to me in which Dr. Paul Larsen, former ECC president speaks of my use of ''secret informants.'' He makes it sound like I've been conducting some kind of furtive investigation, lurking around in dark shadows, talking with ''secret informers'' and plotting the downfall of JPUSA. That would all seem amusing, if the context were not so serious.

My ''mysteriously undefined'' complaints and my ''vague accusations'' are not at all mysterious or vague to people who have experienced spiritual and psychological abuse. In fact, I would argue that the average reader, the average man or woman on the street, has a fairly coherent understanding of what it means when someone claims to be confused, lacking self-esteem, feeling abandoned, having difficulty making decisions, experiencing doubt and anger and feeling put down. Trott may have difficulty with those words, but the hundreds of people I have interviewed over the last thirty years understand them well.

Allow me to comment on several parts of Trott's chapter that are misleading or misrepresentations or additional examples of selective quoting. On page 160 Trott states that I have ''closely identified'' with the views of certain individuals who have employed terms like brainwashing and mind control in their writing. Included in the list are Ted Patrick and Conway and Siegelman. What is important here, as in so many passages in the chapter, is what Trott does not state. He erroneously gives the impression that I am supportive of the views of these people when in fact I have strongly criticized them. Why doesn't Trott include the following observations about Conway and Siegelman that I made in the Cultic Studies Journal, (vol. 2, No. 2, 1986):

  • "From the perspective of the evangelical Christian cult watcher, a primary example of insensitive and ill-informed writing about cults and their supposed similarity to evangelicalism can be seen in Conway and Siegelman's book, "Snapping" (1978) [sic]."

  • Elsewhere in the article I refer to the ''gross errors of fact and interpretation [sic] in their widely-read book.'' For Trott to conclude that I ''closely identify'' with these two writers is, if I may borrow the expression, a ''gross error of fact and interpretation.''

Likewise, Trott's linkage of me with the name Ted Patrick (as did one of his defenders, Alan Gomes) is unfair and misleading. The name Ted Patrick is well-known in cult-watching circles because of his notorious practice of deprogramming. Jon knows full well that I have never approved of any form of forcible deprogramming and if he is not aware of my stance on the topic, he has not read my publications carefully. In short, Trott appears to have deliberately linked me with these specific individuals simply because they have used concepts related to mind control and brainwashing in their books. Because the word ''brainwashing'' appears in the title of one of my books and because I devote considerable space to a discussion of that notion, to link me with Patrick , Conway and Siegelman is simply wrong and indicative of sloppy scholarship.

Trott identifies what he sees as a contradiction in my quoting sociologist James Beckford. He, Beckford, does not discount the stories that defectors tell. I mention this in the original book because critics of my methodology claim that I am one-sided, placing too much emphasis on the role of ex-member. Trott correctly quotes Beckford as stating that ''the testimony of ex-members should be taken just as seriously as that of practicing members.'' This all relates to my much-repeated assertion that in "Recovering From Churches That Abuse" I was focusing on former members of churches like JPUSA, not current members. Beckford correctly notes that practicing members should be taken seriously. I agree fully. If the purpose of my inquiry were the congregation of JPUSA, I certainly would give careful attention to the views of current members. But that was not the objective of my research, a point that JPUSA members and ECC officials could not seem to understand.

I was not writing a book about members who did not perceive their experience as abusive. I was writing about recovery and healing, not about those who did not see recovery and healing as a priority or even as a problem! What Trott and his defenders wanted me to do was to give equal time to former and current members. He says as much on page 164. ''That was all we wanted.'' If that was, in fact, what he wanted, why didn't he insist that sociologist Anson Shupe spend an equal amount of time with some of the more than 40 ex-members I interviewed? On pages 165 and 166, Trott mentions that Professor Shupe stayed two days and a night at JPUSA. ''Two days might not have been much time still it was more than we ever received from Enroth, who despite repeated invitations never darkened our door.'' How many days did Dr. Shupe spend interacting with former members, Jon? Why not require ''equal time'' of him, if indeed your standard for methodological excellence is looking fully at both sides?

The disparagement of the testimonies of ex-members of JPUSA by Trott and others has implications for the evangelical counter-cult ministries that for years have shared the stories of former members of organizations like Christian Science and Jehovah's Witnesses. Time and time again during and after my JPUSA research I was told how unreliable the accounts of ex-members were. Specific individuals were named and I was told to mistrust their information. Generalizations were made about all former members of JPUSA, even though I suspect that this would be denied. It is true-and most ex-members know what I am talking about.

What about the testimonials of ex-members of cults? JPUSA is not a cult, but it surely recognizes other groups like the Mormons and Jehovah's Witnesses to be (theologically) cultic. If we are told we can't trust the word and independent witness of ex-members of a Christian church like JPUSA, what does that say about the accounts of former members of the large, world-wide groups that evangelicals regularly regard as cults? Former JPUSA members feel pain when they are dismissed as disgruntled people who are not to be believed. JPUSA, because of their obvious disdain for most former members, is communicating a similar message to those who have left Jehovah's Witnesses or the Unification Church. Only current, contented members are to be acknowledged. I have in my office two books published by Baker Books, a well-known Christian publisher. One is entitled, Ex-Mormons: Why We Left and the other book is entitled, Why We Left a Cult: Six People Tell Their Stories. Using Trott's logic, these are only narratives, they are simply anecdotal accounts of former members. Are they ''about Truth or Story, or both?'' I guess I have more confidence in the accuracy of the reports of former members than Jon Trott does and I think that evangelicals can learn much from former Mormons, Unificationists, and JW's, as well as from former members of what I call spiritually abusive churches.

Trott's comments about my publisher, Zondervan, need to be addressed. Mr. Trott is correct in noting (p. 164) that preliminary publicity for my book contained references to Waco and Jonestown. As soon as that was brought to my attention and to the attention of senior staff at Zondervan, the matter was dealt with. Whoever was responsible for writing the ad copy, obviously made a very poor choice of wording. But the fact that Zondervan acknowledged and made apology for the mistake, was never mentioned by Trott. An equally poor choice of wording is used by Mr. Trott on page 164 where he writes about a meeting that took place in Chicago in January of 1994 involving myself, Dr. Stan Gundry of Zondervan Publishing House, leaders of the Evangelical Covenant Church, and representatives of JPUSA, including Jon Trott. He states that the meeting was ''forced,'' which is another example of Trott's sometimes-inflammatory style. As early as the fall of 1993, Dr. Gundry stated the following in a letter to me dated November 17: ''I still think it might be a good idea for us to try to get together in Chicago with one or two key people from The Evangelical Covenant Church and a couple of key people from JPUSA with a hope that somehow we can clear the air, and clear up any misunderstandings.''

In no sense was the meeting ''forced.'' Zondervan paid my way to Chicago and I was more than willing to be part of a meeting that might achieve a degree of mutual understanding and perhaps reconciliation. That was not to be, however. As Trott correctly reports, ''Paul Larsen lectured Enroth and Gundry about proper methods of research regarding ascertaining abuse'' It was a rather pompous lecture with Rev. Larsen reminding me that he was very knowledgeable about social science research methods because of some course work he had once taken. In that same passage, Trott refers to ''Enroth and his Zondervan contact (italics mine), Stan Gundry.'' Since Trott failed to inform the reader of Dr. Gundry's title, allow me to do so: Vice President and Editor-in-Chief, Book Group. Trott's choice of words here may not seem significant, but note his obviously disdainful reference to Zondervan Publishing House on page 171. After admitting that my book was ''somewhat anticlimactic in comparison with some of the far-out allegations included in the correspondence,'' Trott refers to Zondervan as a ''supposedly evangelical'' publisher! I wonder if Trott's defenders, some of whom have published with Zondervan (including Ruth Tucker and Alan Gomes) agree with his characterization of my publisher as ''supposedly evangelical.'' At the very least, his descriptive words reveal a man who is still angry and very bitter. Someone has said that bitterness is a refusal to let go of an old wound. Ephesians 4:31 reminds us to ''Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice.'' (NIV) For some Christians, malice means hoping that God will punish someone who wounded them.

On the same page, Trott's attitude towards me is further exemplified in his choice of words to describe my work: ''scholarly folly.'' I have already stated my conviction that Trott focused on my methodology rather than deal with the substantive issues I raise. I have discussed my methodology elsewhere (including the lengthy letter to the editor that Cornerstone refused to publish) so I won't take much space to rehash those issues here. I have described my style of writing as (hopefully) highly readable, but informed by scholarship, using the appropriate methodology of my discipline to the extent possible. I never claimed to be doing a comprehensive sociological study of JPUSA. The book Recovering From Churches That Abuse was aimed at a wide readership and not intended to join the reams of readerless studies that fill the academic journals of our university libraries.

Trott makes use of two secular sociologists of religion to critique my methodology: Anson Shupe and James T. Richardson. Shupe, one of the editors of the book containing Trott's essay, once referred in a legal deposition to a respected counter-cult organization with which I am associated, the American Family Foundation, as a ''hate group,'' albeit a ''sophisticated hate group.'' On pages 127 - 130 (Scott v. Ross et al. 1995) of his deposition he discusses contemporary counter-cult organizations in the historical context of the KKK, anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant, and anti-Jewish hate groups. A few years before making those statements, I had more cordial correspondence with Professor Shupe during which he sent me a copy of his proposal for a sabbatical leave project on the topic of clergy malfeasance, the same topic which (excepting Trott's chapter) is the subject of the book he helped to edit and which I am discussing here. Interestingly, his proposed methodology included interviews, case studies, and anecdotal data-all of which I, too, have employed. Then he lists several ''exemplary published book sources'' including my Churches That Abuse. And in a letter to me dated May 11, 1992,Dr. Shupe notes: ''I have your Churches That Abuse and it is excellent . . . . [it] exemplifies the best identifiable examples.'' He then asks me to keep him ''on your personal list of recipients for 'things that embarrass' churches.''

I find it curious and puzzling that Dr. Shupe should find Churches That Abuse, in which I use basically the same methodology that I also used in researching the follow-up book, to be ''excellent'' whereas just a few years later Trott quotes him about my committing ''scholarly sin'' in the book in which I discuss JPUSA. I'll let you, the reader, figure that one out.

Trott quotes sociologist James Richardson at length. Richardson claims that my book is not sociological and that I do not reference the scholarly work by other sociologists. Incidentally, I am familiar with the work of all the scholars he lists except for one, but I don't mention them because, as I have already stated, my book was not designed to be an exhaustive sociological study. It is clear to me, at least, that Trott makes use of these two secular sociologists in an attempt to discredit me. But what is truly amazing is Richardson's statement that ''there is a glossing over of the writer's own particular religious persuasion.'' Glossing over? Did Richardson really read the book? In every one of my books I clearly identify myself as a Christian and I regularly use Christian themes. What Richardson and other secular researchers do not begin to understand is the fact that those of us in Christian higher education are committed to the integration of our faith and our discipline. I have been a faculty member for over 35 years at a Christian college, which, like most evangelical Christian colleges I know of, stresses the importance of integrating faith and learning. That is part of my calling and that is what I try to do without apology in all of my writing and research.

What is truly appalling is Trott's derogatory comments on page 175 about my ''Christian bias.'' I should hope that I have a Christian bias! Trott's lack of familiarity with the field of sociology and its relationship to Christian scholarship is evidenced by the fact that he footnotes only one compilation of work by evangelical sociologists, a book published in 1982 interestingly by that ''supposedly Christian'' publisher, Zondervan. He needs to acquaint himself with a more recent volume put out by that same publisher: The Sociological Perspective, edited by Michael R. Leming, Raymond G. DeVries, and Brendan F.J. Furnish. Perhaps he failed to reference it because two of the editors are former students of mine and another is a departmental colleague. In any event, I suggest that Trott read especially chapter two on sociological research and value commitments.

Trott's cruelest and most revealing comments are found on the last two pages of his chapter. As I read those words, I wondered why Jon Trott or anyone else at JPUSA familiar with my work over the past thirty years had waited so long to inform me that my work was ''folly'' and that I had abused the discipline of sociology. Years earlier, when I had published just a few books, I was once invited to present a seminar at a JPUSA Cornerstone festival. I don't recall anyone questioning my scholarship at the time, although it might be argued that my work would have been less developed at that stage of my career and hence more vulnerable to criticism. Just two years before the publication of the book in which I discuss JPUSA, Cornerstone magazine referred to me as a ''Christian leader'' (vol. 21, issue 98). How things have changed since I drew attention to problems at JPUSA that leaders there are unwilling or unable to acknowledge. Note Jon Trott's most recent description of my writing: ''We look upon his version of science as akin to the bogus science of phrenology-measuring skulls-by which African Americans were alleged to be less intelligent than the white scientists who measured them.''

I do not think that is a fair assessment of my work, but I respect Jon's right to form that opinion. Others, many others, have come to far different conclusions.

Most hurtful of all, however, is Jon's unchristian attack on my motives on pages 175 and 176. It's one thing to hold differences of opinion re methodology or even the definition of abuse. It is quite another to impugn one's motives. Jon states that I want to be the ''hero'' of my own story. ''He sees himself, as is made clear over and over in the JPUSA/Enroth correspondence, as the defender of disenfranchised victims of religious groups.'' Then he quotes something I wrote in Recovering from Churches That Abuse (by the way, Jon incorrectly uses the word recovery in the book title on page 176): ''In this book I seek to be the voice of the voiceless.''

While it is deeply hurtful to be characterized as wanting to be ''the hero of my own story,'' I am proud to side with the ''disenfranchised victims of religious groups.'' Without wanting to sound pious and thereby giving you more material to quote, Jon, I think in identifying with those victims, I am following the directives of One who always resonated with the oppressed and the weak, yes, even with those who had been abused.

Jon Trott's chapter is far more than an attack on me. He writes with a vengeance. He is still an angry, bitter man. No where in his chapter does he even allude to the sections of my book where I talk about God's grace, the need to forgive, the need to recover. Why? Max Lucado once wrote the following: ''Anger. It's a peculiar yet predictable emotion. It begins as a drop of water. Yet, get enough of these seemingly innocent drops of anger and before long, you've got a bucket full of rage. Walking revenge. Blind bitterness.''

Trott has given us a bucket full of anger and bitterness disguised as an attempt to show how one sociologist abused an entire congregation. For his own spiritual well being, I sincerely hope that Jon will be able to deal with the attitudinal problems that are so evident in this particular piece of writing. I hope he will be able to bury the hatchet and move on with his life.

To see more documents/articles regarding this group/organization/subject click here.