Americans are proud of their freedom of religion, and the work of J. Gordon Melton shows they have a whole lot of religions to choose from.
The Roman Catholic Church may be huge but it's only one among 116 Catholic denominations. Orthodox Christians have an even higher total, and Protestantism is notoriously splintered; its Pentecostal segment alone counts groups by the hundreds.
There's a denomination for practically everyone.
If the Episcopal Church won't do, worshippers can move leftward into the Metaphysical Episcopal Church or Free Episcopal Church, or rightward into dozens of breakaways like the Anglican Mission in America.
Does Unitarianism seem too conventional? The denomination offers a subgroup of Unitarian Univeralist Pagans.
Moving further from the mainstream, there's always the Church of God Anonymous, the Nudist Christian Church of the Blessed Virgin Jesus or the Only Fair Religion.
All are among 2,630 U.S. and Canadian faith groups described in the new edition of the indispensable "Encyclopedia of American Religion." Melton, a one-time United Methodist pastor, treats each entry with nonpartisan objectivity and — when necessary — a straight face.
The total includes ecumenical organizations, loosely-knit movements and defunct faiths. But most are still-existing denominations with distinct flocks (Melton prefers to call them "primary religious groups").
Melton's task includes placing religions into 26 "families" — and then breaking those down into subcategories. For instance, his "Psychic New Age" family includes Sun Myung Moon's Unification movement, Jim Jones' suicidal People's Temple and the Church of Scientology.
Among religions difficult to classify are the eight that practice drug use, 22 that believe in UFOs — including the Raelians at the center of the recent human cloning claims — and 12 mail-order religions that dispense instant clergy credentials or divinity degrees.
Melton's curiosity originated during his Alabama boyhood, when he attended a family reunion at a rural church. His mother warned, "Whatever you do, don't talk about religion" because some relatives were touchy Pentecostalists and Jehovah's Witnesses. By late high school, he had given up stamp collecting for sect collecting.
In the 44 years since, he has obsessively compiled data on more creeds than anyone knew existed.
He has deposited his trove of 70,000 books and 40 filing cabinets of materials at the University of California, Santa Barbara, where he teaches part time. The campus is two blocks from his Institute for the Study of American Religion.
Melton, 60, is especially adept at tracking obscure, smaller groups. He's an expert on occultism and takes pride in discovering religions that practice rigorous secrecy, such as the Kennedy Worshippers, who have made the late U.S. president into a divinity, and the Two-by-Two's, a network of nomadic evangelists.
Other Melton mentions:
_ All-One-God-Faith Inc. (based in Escondido, Calif.) is simply a soap company that spreads its eclectic doctrines through the labels of its products.
_ The Church of the New Song (Bluffs, Ill.) recruits prison inmates and once claimed porterhouse steaks and Harvey's Bristol Cream to be its communion elements.
_ The Embassy of Heaven (Strayton, Ore.) considers all earthly governments illegitimate and takes the logical step of issuing its own auto license plates.
_ The Worldwide Church of God (Pasadena, Calif.) did something no other new religion ever has, rapidly reverting to standard Christian theology after the death of idiosyncratic founder Herbert W. Armstrong, known for his "World Tomorrow" broadcasts and Plain Truth magazine.
Two points emerge to Melton from all his counting, tracking and compiling.
The United States is the most religiously diverse nation in the world — especially since immigration laws loosened in 1965 — though Europe as a whole is comparable. Christianity is the biggest single element: 70 percent of Americans belong to "some brand of Christian church."
What's more distinct, Melton says, is that America "is certainly the most religious country that has ever existed, in terms of voluntarily taking part in religion. There's no country to equal us, to date." The turning point was World War II when "the majority of the public became church members for the first time."
He thinks diversity contributes to that.
"The Christian groups know they have to compete. It keeps them alive, growing, and adapting, not resting on their laurels as groups in the majority tend to do," he says.
The latest encyclopedia, its seventh edition, has some 250 groups that are newly listed since the 1999 version.
As soon as the manuscript went to the printer, Melton set aside a manila folder for discoveries to add next time. So far, he has found 10 new faiths, three of which believe in vampires.