Helpful talk on that ‘cult’ word

Presidential primary season is approaching, of course, which means that it’s time for reporters to start dancing around the Mormon issues that will be swirling around Mitt Romney.


At some point, a Romney critic or two will use the “cult” word or, just as likely, someone on the Religious Right will ask questions about Romney and then will be accused by the press of flirting with the “cult” word. At that point, the “cult” word will be in play, which was the whole point in the first place.

Some of the verbal warfare will be totally hollow. Some of it will be easy to trace back to real doctrinal differences — the word “exaltation” is sure to show up — between Protestant, Orthodox and Catholic Christians (the nature of God is at the top of the list) and members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

The odds are very good that, at some point, journalists will be quoting apologists from the Southern Baptist North American Mission Board. They will say highly nuanced things that will be hard for reporters to paraphrase, including statements that may or may not contain the word “cult.” Some reporters will oversimplify and ink will be slung around.

Now, before all of this starts, it’s important for reporters to find some serious, accurate, representative voices in three or four crucial camps — even if they disagree with one another.

The “On Faith” team at the Washington Post ran an essay the other day that represents an excellent start for a research file. Find the corresponding Southern Baptist materials and you’re about 2 percent down a long, interesting road.

The piece was written by Michael Otterson, head of the public affairs office for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. This is not a news piece, of course, but it should be of interest to those who follow the Godbeat closely. Here is an important slice, near the top of the essay, which ran under the headline, “The Mormon church and the media’s ‘cult’ box.”

Where to start?

The Economist’s Los Angeles-based reporter wrote this in the print edition of May 3 this year: “Mainstream Protestants, and especially evangelicals, have traditionally considered Mormons a devious cult.”

The point was repeated on June 9: “Many Americans see Mormonism as a cult: in polls over the years a steady one in four say they would be less likely to vote for a Mormon as president.”

I’m not a professional statistician, but I do know that because one in four people say they are less likely to vote for a Mormon, it doesn’t follow that one in four see Mormons as a cult, “devious” or otherwise. Unless the reporter has data that the rest of us have not seen (in which case he should have cited it) the indiscriminate use of the word “cult” is unjustified.

Wikipedia correctly labels “cult” as a pejorative term, and adds: “The popular, derogatory sense of the word has no currency in academic studies of religions, where “cults” are subsumed under the neutral label of the “new religious movement.” …

Lest anyone think I am unduly thin-skinned, it’s the insult implicit in the word “cult” that I am objecting to, not the reasonable point that some Christians are indeed uncomfortable with aspects of Latter-day Saint theology. Of course they are. I am equally uncomfortable with some aspects of traditional, orthodox Christianity, which was the very issue that gave rise to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the first place. Such differences, however, should be examined thoughtfully, reasonably and respectfully in any national conversation about a particular faith. And they should be examined alongside the enormous doctrinal and practical similarities between these different branches of Christendom. For my part, I plan to keep politics and pejoratives out of it.

The key here is that many journalists struggle to distinguish between people who are using the slur “cult” in a sociological sense from those who are using the term “cult” in the context of debates about radical differences in doctrine. There are Mormon critics who will do both, but I have found that their numbers are shrinking rapidly.

Most evangelicals (Southern Baptist leaders for sure) will, if they use the word “cult” at all, go out of their way to try to explain to reporters that they are using the word in a narrow and highly academic, doctrinal sense. The differences are real, and important. But I have found that talks between Mormon leaders and evangelical leaders operate on a pretty refined and dignified level, these days.

If reporters listen carefully, and respectfully, to leaders on both sides it’s possible to negotiate this minefield without explosions. What will be discussed? Here is a sample of how Otterson describes this terrain:

* Why Latter-day Saints consider themselves New Testament Christians, rather than creedal Christians whose doctrines were formalized in the centuries following the foundation of Christianity. It is perfectly true that Mormons do not embrace many of the orthodoxies of mainstream Christianity, including the nature of the Trinity. It is not true that Mormons do not draw their beliefs from the same Bible.

Otterson will be covering that topic, and others, in the near future at “On Faith.” I assume that an equally candid and appropriate voice or two will speak for Protestants, Catholics, etc. This would be very helpful for reporters.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Jerry

    Reading the wikipedia’s discussion on cults, I felt like my head was going to explode. The word is at least as differently used as evangelical or fundamentalist. On one side, we have the absolutely classic Simpsons Joy of Sect episode. On the other we have carefully worded theology. If I had a functional wishing well, one wish would be to stop using all those words because they’re worse than meaningless, they’re going to always be misleading because someone will assume the word means something different than intended.

  • Mike O.

    Great read, tmatt!

    At this point can the word “cult” effectively be used in the context of differences in doctrine and not as a pejorative term? I would have to say no.

    Those people who say they are trying to use it in that manner, are they really trying to use it that way or are they claiming so in order to give a wink, wink, nudge, nudge to link the LDS with the common usage of cult without explicitly saying so? I would have to go with the latter. Often when we communicate with people we have to choose our words carefully in order to not give the wrong impression. I find it hard to believe that someone would opt to use the term “cult” instead of something clearer like “major differences in doctrine” without knowing the impression that they would give to the general public.

    Also in that article by Michael Otterson where he quotes Wikipedia, I’d be curious when people think that a “new religious movement” simply becomes a “religious movement”.

    So I would agree that it’s tricky for journalists to deal with the issue of when one party claims another party is or is part of a cult. To me, the best thing to do would be (as you mentioned) see what definition of the word they say is being used, but to also reference organizations that deal with cults (e.g. ICSA) and see if that second party’s practices fall under those of a cult.

  • Jon in the Nati

    Also in that article by Michael Otterson where he quotes Wikipedia, I’d be curious when people think that a “new religious movement” simply becomes a “religious movement”.

    One demarcation I’ve seen used is that everything post-dating the advent of the Baha’i Faith (1844) is sociologically considered to be an NRM. I’m not sure what the rationale is for this; it does seem rather arbitrary, but it appears to be accepted by some people.

    Of course, by that measure, the LDS movement (1820s-30s) is not really an NRM.

  • Julia

    There’s also the ancient cultus, which describes the various rituals and ceremonies associated with worship or veneration of a deity, heroes or saints.

    The Catholic Church still uses the original meaning of cult from the Latin cultus.

    I guess this word took on the pejorative sense when rituals and ceremonies per se began to be disparaged by certain types of Protestants?

  • tmatt

    MIKE O:

    The question is whether JOURNALISTS can accurately quote the way the term is used, when it is used accurately.

    There is no question that Mormonism is a doctrinal “cult” in the context of the history of Christianity. It’s also clear that no one would use the sociological term “cult” to describe Mormonism, today.

    Now, can you say that Jews could use the doctrinal term “cult” to describe Christianity, in part due to the major change in the nature of God (ie Trinity)? Of course. Would that freak journalists out, too? Probably.

    Like I said, the goal for reporters is to accurately quote people. Journalists do not choose people’s words for them. If someone uses the word “cult” it is not automatically a slur. It may be, it may not be. Reading constructive materials on the issues, such as this piece and corresponding pieces of dialogues between Mormons, SBC officials, etc., is the place to start on getting the facts down straight.

  • tmatt

    Spiking away.

    This is not the place to vent your feelings on various religious groups.

  • Tregonsee

    The real question is whether it is Christian, or a new religion which shares much with Christianity. Imagine a Christian insisting to a Jew that he is a Jew. Or a Muslim insisting he is really a Christian. In each case, the counter argument would be that the insister has his own book or books, prophets, and messiah. The same can be said for Mormons. Even though Mormons and mainstream Christians share the same messiah, there are some interesting nuances in their belief. My impression is that a slow transformation is going on within the LDS toward the more traditional elements of Christianity.

    I sometimes watch BYU-TV for the music and historical programs. I have heard at least two discussions by members of the BYU faculty that the LDS is not a cult, but that is does have some characteristics that can look like a cult to “gentiles.”

  • Jefferson

    Great post, tmatt.

    Thanks for pointing out the Otterson post, someone should follow up on his demand for data. If there is no data, it’s time for Pew or someone to do a more specific poll. That there’s public anxiety about a member of LDS as the U.S. President is no longer news; ascertaining more specifically who and why would be news. For example, which kind of voter – GOP, Democrat, or independent – has the highest anxiety about an LDS candidate being elected to the Presidency?

    As for your question about whether journalists can usefully employ “cult” I think the answer is no. As you say, journalists should quote people who use the word, but reporters are obliged to follow up with the the folks who use it so they can explain what they mean.

  • tmatt


    What you recommend is precisely what I said.

    Journalists should not INTRODUCE the word. If used in quotes, they must not assume that everyone is using the word in the same way.

    They must press for context and definitions.

  • Jettboy

    Drop the word “cult” altogether in news stories. The word, if used for sociological, doctrinal, or otherwise makes no difference. It is a pejorative period and should be treated like the “N word” is now! If its brought up at all, I think a responsible reporter will challenge the assertion. They challenge Evangelical and conservative Christians on everything else. The problem is that reporters are anti-Mormon with as much fervor as anti-Christian anything.

  • Cody Dickerson

    New Religious Movement is by and far the better term. There isn’t really any good demarcations for it, the Baha’i are a good start but any religious movement that started off in the 19th century can pretty well fit under the umbrella. I think Sikhism is a good example of a “recent” (15th century) religion that is not under the auspices of NRM.

    And of course there is absolutely no real dividing line between an NRM, a religion, and a world religion, as all are fairly vague. Considering that there are more Mormons than Jews, do we still have to call Mormons an NRM? Or do we have to wait another hundred years? I would say that since Mormonism’s roots are close enough, and since that when Mormonism is under discussion its roots are readily examined, new religious movement still suffices.

    Either way, NRM is the new academic alternative to cult, and the meanings are largely parallel. It just allows academics to talk about them and say things about them from an academic standpoint without people associating the popular baggage that “cult” has.

  • tmatt

    Spiking away.

    Mainly spiking comments ordering journalists to stop using “cult” at all, even when used in legitimate ways by people who are using an established definition of the word.

    Stop making up your own definitions, folks. You have to deal with the sociological definitions and the doctrinal. They are out there already and journalists can’t stop people from using them.

  • tmatt

    Sorry folks, it looks like I will have to shut this thread down.

    Too many people are venting and not focusing on the actual content of the post.

    Once again, I suggest that you actually turn — for example — the work of Mormons and Southern Baptists, to site one group, who disagree but are in dialogue.