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?

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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.

  • 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 (http://www.jefflindsay.com/LDSFAQ/FQ_cult.shtml ), 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?

  • 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: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cult_(religious_practice)

  • Julia B

    From the New Catholic dictionary: http://saints.sqpn.com/ncd02516.htm


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