The Atlantic: Apparently, ‘evangelical’ now equals ‘cult’

Veteran GetReligion readers will know that, every year or two, there is some kind of mainstream media meltdown linked to (a) leaders of a mainstream religious group using the word “cult” to describe another religion or (b) some radical new religious movement behaving in a truly frightening manner that leads to it being labeled a “cult” by secular journalists.

The results are often rather icky, from the point of view of logic and information. During one of these blowups a few years ago I wrote, in a GetReligion post:

… I realize that “cult” is a loaded word, whether one is using it in a doctrinal context or in a sociological context. In a mainstream newsrooms, reporters have no business using it in stories about doctrinal conflicts, unless the word is used by one of the groups in a dispute and there is no way to avoid explaining how and why they are using it. Like what? Southern Baptists may refer to Mormonism as a “cult,” because of the latter faith’s radically different doctrine of God, in comparison with traditional forms of Christianity through the ages. But no one, including 99.9 percent of the Baptist leaders I know, would claim that modern Mormonism is a “cult,” in a sociological sense of the word.

Should mainstream reporters use this loaded word at all?

Note the stress on a doctrinal approach to this dangerous word, as opposed to a sociological approach. Journalists need to know that these distinctions exist in religious and academic discourse.

Why? Here is another practical example, from one of my “On Religion” columns:

… The Southern Baptist Convention’s web site on “Cults, Sects and New Religious Movements” includes page after page of materials dissecting LDS beliefs and practices. It uses this definition: “A cult … is a group of people polarized around someone’s interpretation of the Bible and is characterized by major deviations from orthodox Christianity relative to the cardinal doctrines of the Christian faith, particularly the fact that God became man in Jesus Christ.”

Why do I bring this up right now? Well, The Atlantic just published a very interesting article with one of those headlines that reach out and grab readers by the neck (especially if readers are Godbeat professionals): “The Seven Signs You’re in a Cult.”

Oh my.

While this is a first-person piece, and, thus, not written in hard-news form, it does provide some material worthy of discussion. Yes, this is another trip into the maze known as the International House of Prayer and one of its spin-offs. This piece immediately calls this non-pancake IHOP an “evangelical” organization, which is way too loose a use of that vague and mushy term.

Then — boom — there is this:

Several years ago, the founder of IHOP, Mike Bickle, created a list of seven ways to recognize the difference between a religious community and a cult. Written down, the signs seem clear:

1. Opposing critical thinking.

2. Isolating members and penalizing them for leaving.

3. Emphasizing special doctrines outside scripture.

4. Seeking inappropriate loyalty to their leaders.

5. Dishonoring the family unit.

6. Crossing Biblical boundaries of behavior (versus sexual purity and personal ownership).

7. Separation from the Church.

So this is the definition of “cult” that was used by a group that The Atlantic is now suggesting is a cult. Interesting.

The article goes on to tell a dark and deadly story that includes many, many clues that we are, in fact, reading about a group that has elements of being a sociological cult centering on an all-powerful individual whose word is Truth with a big T. While some Christian doctrines are being taught, with heavy doses of Pentecostalism thrown in, the article suggests (and I accept that part of the reporting) that these doctrines were twisted.

But here why I bring this to the attention of GetReligion readers. The article seems to be suggesting that this IHOP spin-off was a cult simply because it was “evangelical” or Pentecostal. I kept reading and reading, waiting for a clear statement on how the word “cult” was being defined in this article in a major publication.

Let me be clear: The word “cult” may apply here, in a sociological sense of that word and I also think basic Christian beliefs were mangled in this case.

But it appears that, in this piece, evangelical Christianity equals “cult,” or evangelical beliefs (whatever they are in this case) lead to behavior that is cultish in nature. Meanwhile, liberal Christianity is truly Christian.

Did I miss something? Please read it all and let me know: What does the word “cult” mean in this Atlantic piece?

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.

  • Darren Blair

    I’m an active member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, and as part of it have been – of my own accord – doing apologetics work since circa 2000.

    Over the years, I have seen many different definitions of the word “cult” in use by various nominally Christian “counter-cult” groups. Each group tried to re-define the word in such a fashion that any organization they didn’t like would pass muster as a “cult” under their new definition, a somewhat twisted fulfillment of George Orwell’s warnings as contained in his “Politics and the English Language”.

    However, virtually all of these attempts at redefining the word fail.

    In some instances, their definition can easily be turned against them, such that they – or Christianity, in whole or in part – can be defined as a “cult”. I’m almost sad to say that turning things around like this tends to be a devastatingly effective debate technique, as most of the counter-cult members I’ve spoken with are unable to counter.

    In other instances, the criteria set in place are so faulty in some regards that even things not relating to religion at all can be flagged as being a “cult”. For example, at the bottom of his page on the LDS “cult” controversy ( ), apologist Jeff Lindsay provides a “proof by spoof” in which he demonstrates how “high school athletics” can be deemed to be a “cult” by one prominent redefinition of the word in use at the time he created that page.

    As far as the list presented by The Atlantic goes?

    1. Opposing critical thinking

    This one on the surface may appear to be a good standard, but I’ve seen far too many individuals and ministers of far too many different religions – including ones that most people agree are not cults – who are guilty of violating this one. I actually recall a friend of mine telling me about the first time he tried to read a Book of Mormon; his minister caught him with it, and demanded that my friend immediately throw it in the trash (otherwise, the minister would do it himself).

    2. Isolating members and penalizing them for leaving

    This one is, simply, too vague.

    What is meant by “isolating neighbors”? What is meant by “punishing them for leaving”?

    3. Emphasizing special doctrines outside scripture

    This one’s also a dud, in that it borders on the hypocritical. Most denominations – even mainline denominations – that I’ve dealt with have relied upon some sort of pronouncement made by their leaders that go above and beyond the denomination’s officially-accepted canon, even if the pronouncements are only attempts at clarification of what is supposed to be the official interpretation of the scriptures.

    4. Seeking inappropriate loyalty to their leaders

    This one also needs to be defined more clearly, such that one must ask what is and isn’t “inappropriate”.

    5. Dishonoring the family unit

    Yet another one that’s vague. What does it mean when the family unit is “dishonored”? I’ve seen people who felt “dishonored” simply because one of their relatives felt compelled to join a different denomination.

    As it is, I didn’t see in the story how the organization highlighted went astray from this one.

    6. Crossing Biblical boundaries of behavior (versus sexual purity and personal ownership)

    This one should have been split into two different items so that additional clarification could have been given. Also a dud.

    7. Separation from the Church

    Which church? The main denomination that the “cult” broke away from? Mainline Christianity as a whole? What?

    • tmatt

      And your journalistic comment on the issue raised by my post?

      • Darren Blair

        “Personal experience is such that usage of the word ‘cult’ should be avoided unless immediately clarified in-text, and care should be exercised in choosing which definition of the word to use. Otherwise, one risks putting out an article as sloppy as the one being discussed in which a mostly meaningless definition is used as the standard.”

  • FW Ken

    I just finished reading Julia Duin ‘ s book about Church of the Redeemer, Houston, which fits neatly into some of those signs of a cult, and was, in fact, targeted by a “deprogrammer” back in the day.

    However, Duin had personal experience of it all, as did I, though in a much more limited way. The point is that what can appear cultists may not be, if you know the larger picture. Our it might be sort of cultish. The point is that you have to gain a feel for the people involved, if not an empathy.

  • Julia B

    What about the original meaning of “cult”/ “cultus”. It’s a term still in use by the Catholic Church after hundreds of years. And yet another perfectly good term has been hijacked and turned on its head.

    Explanation in Wikipedia: “The term “cult” first appeared in English in 1617, derived from the French culte, meaning “worship” which in turn originated from the Latin word cultus meaning “care, cultivation, worship”. The meaning “devotion to a person or thing” is from 1829. Starting about 1920, “cult” acquired an additional six or more positive and negative definitions.

    In French, for example, sections in newspapers giving the schedule of worship at Catholic churches are headed Culte Catholique; the section giving the schedule of Protestant churches is headed culte réformé.”

    Check it out:

    • wlinden

      And “gay” means “excited with mirth”. Good luck.

      • Julia B

        But “gay” isn’t/wasn’t an ancient organization’s official terminology for something specific.

  • Julia B

    From the New Catholic dictionary:

  • wlinden

    There are plenty of soi-disant “real Christans” who call the Catholic church a “cult” with a straight face. (And before indignantly calling that they are using a “wrong” definition, recall Bromley and Shupe’s piece on “the Tnevnoc cult”.

  • DutchAmsterdam

    It’s not that difficult, really. When you use the word ‘cult’ you simply have to define what you mean.

    The term ‘cult’ has a precise definition — or rather, several precise definitions. Which definition is the right one largely depends on the context in which the term ‘cult’ is applied:

    • Julia B

      From the “Cultdefinition” site: “In the early part of this century sociologists tried to figure out how they could classify groups that didn’t fit neatly into the prevailing categories. Where, for example, could Christian Science or the Self-Realization Fellowship or the Theosophical Society be placed? It was then that the term “cult” was developed. Any religious group that didn’t qualify as a church or sect was labeled a cult. It was, in a sense, a “leftover” category.”

      Why didn’t they invent a new word instead of swiping a perfectly good one that has been in use for centuries by the Catholic Church and is still used everywhere except in English speaking countries where it has unfortunately been hijacked to describe a group seen negatively. The term even pre-dates Christianity in the Roman world.

      My guess – they chose the word “cult” that Catholics use to describe their own devotional services on purpose. Any religious group that seems similar to the Catholic mold is a “cult”. I really enjoyed reading about “the Tnevnoc cult” which kind of explains things, as I see it.

      The materials now available on-line has opened my eyes to what a surprisingly large number of people actually believe about Catholics that they never used to admit out loud to Catholics of their acquaintance.

    • tmatt

      And what was The Atlantic’s definition?

  • fredx2

    This stuff is getting widespread, however. One day my brother started telling me that the Catholic church was a cult. (We were both raised Catholic) He said there were six tests involved, and they started with “Worshipping one man” who “Had insights from God”
    After I told him we did not worship the Pope, his whole argument sort of petered out.

    • Darren Blair

      One of the issues with attempts to redefine the word “cult” is that such re-definitions have a bad habit of becoming nothing more than an excuse to bash whatever religious group the person making the definition doesn’t like.

      If the person doing the redefining is from a Christian counter-cult organization, then odds are their definition of “Christian” has been similarly redefined to say, in essence, that a person is only a “Christian” if they agree with the organization on certain doctrines.

    • Shannon Menkveld

      “Petered out,” did it?

      Well played… that might be the best religious pun I’ve read since “And then the fit hit the Shan.”


  • tmatt

    Is anyone interested in the specific issue raised by my post?

    • Darren Blair

      Back in the late 1980s, there was an (in)famous trial known as Vance vs. Judas Priest, in which the latter – a British heavy metal band – found itself being sued for supposedly driving two young men to commit suicide via subliminal messages hidden in the band’s music.

      At trial, the band demonstrated that the human brain is automatically wired to seek out and recognize patterns. If a person is given the suggestion that there is something they should be listening for, then they’ll hear it. In most instances in which a person claims to hear a “back-masked” message in music, the message does not actually exist; the listener’s brain is simply misfiring due to a mix of “pattern recognition gone awry” and possible suggestive influence.

      So it is with the Atlantic article -> by dropping the “definition” so early in the article, the author, whether by accident or by purpose, is giving readers the suggestion that the group in question is a “cult” and asking them to keep comparing said group to the list. Thus, a reader who is not sufficiently cautious will be influenced against the subject of the article before even having a chance to read about it.

      Based on the other comments, it would appear that we’re all in agreement that trying to play the “cult” angle is dirty pool; we’re merely arguing how dirty it happens to be.

      (As far as the trial goes, the case was dismissed on its merits. The families of the deceased were unable to prove that there was any specific message hidden in the songs, no additional suicides were discovered despite the album in question having been on the market for several years at that point, and as the band was making most of its money off of album sales it would have been against their own best interests to insert such subliminal material into their music in the first place. The demonstration merely clenched the deal. Vance vs. Judas Priest was later cited as precedent to dismiss similar lawsuits against Ozzy Osbourne and IIRC a few other bands.)

      • Shannon Menkveld

        If memory serves, Vance vs. Judas Priest also produced one of the best smart-ass remarks ever uttered by a witness in a product liability case…

        “If backmasking worked, I’d have had them put in ‘Buy seven copies!’ ”


        • Darren Blair

          Pretty much.

  • EqualTime

    I read the article and think Mr Mattingly is overly sensitive when expanding the story from a cult-like prayer group within IHOP to the entire evangelical church. The Atlantic article does not even suggest IHOP is a cult. Your valuable column space would have been better used to answer the implicit question, “how does God allow so much evil to be done in His name?”

  • Rhysem

    I read the article in question over the weekend. I have to agree with another poster that Mr. Mattingly is taking an overly sensitive approach to reading it. The prayer group that is central to the article was quite clearly a cult by IHOPs own definition. Furthermore, the seven “signs” of a cult listed by the author are not particularly controversial and couldn’t credibly be applied to the Evangelical community at large to begin with.

    * Apologies for editing, Discus went wonky.

  • Andrew Dowling

    Religious fundamentalists very much have practices and policies that would befit any definition of a cult.

  • Russ Dewey

    A good description of cults, without ever using the term, can be found in Eric Hoffer’s little gem, The True Believer (1951). He discussed common practices of mass movements in early, radical phases. Communism, Nazism, and Christianity all made the same demands on their converts: a willingness to die for the faith (Hoffer’s definition of fanaticism) and willingness to leave the family for the sake of the movement (families tended to disapprove). Earliest Mormonism and Christianity qualify. The later conservative forms, honoring the family, do not fit the popular notion of cult any more.

    Keep in mind that academics sometimes use “cult” to refer to a distinct focus of a religion (“cult of Mary”) without intending negative connotations.

  • Sarah Webber

    My bet is illicit sex + death = cult. It is a more visceral than intellectual reaction. But the author was a participant so can hardly be considered objective.

  • Shannon Menkveld

    I am not a journalist, but I think I’ve got a pretty good recommendation for a rule of thumb:

    To determine whether or not it is appropriate to use the word “cult” in an article, other than in a direct quote, apply the late Issac Bonewits’ Advanced Bonewits Cult Danger Evaluation Frame.

    I don’t know if Bonewits himself ever said where on the scale one should draw the line, but I seem to remember “7 or higher = run away” being mentioned a few times.

    As a religion reporter, it might even be better to include the score that you came up with, with maybe a sidebar on the scoring system… more educated readers can only be a good thing, especially for those paid by the word.

    Just a thought from the peanut gallery.


  • CarrieB

    Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. If you redefine cult to include theological distinctions and not just sociological ones, why should you be surprised that writers would redfine it again to include you? The purpose is the same– to use a loaded word with negative and even frightening connotations to denigrate the beliefs of those you disagree with.