Here we go again…the words “evangelical” and “cult” being misused in the media

Here we go again…the words “evangelical” and “cult” being misused in the media October 9, 2011

According to SOME news reports (I always have to say that because news reports don’t always agree with each other) this past week the pastor of First Baptist Church, Dallas, publicly proclaimed that evangelicals cannot vote for a Mormon candidate for president because he belongs to a “cult.”  (One report said he qualified that by saying that evangelicals should vote for the Mormon candidate ONLY if the only other option is President Obama!)  Apparently, this pastor represents himself as speaking for evangelicals in general.  The media certainly is treating him that way.

Those of you who have followed my blog for a while will be able to predict my reaction to this.  Against whom is my dismay (maybe even disgust) directed?  Not the pastor (although I have nothing but disdain for Christian leaders who try to manipulate fellow Christians in the political arena using shame or tribalism or both.)  No, my dismay (maybe even disgust) is aimed at the media who fail to explain to readers/listeners that these words have multiple meanings.

In my opinion, in reporting such a highly charged speech, a good reporter or editor would add a paragraph or side bar explaining that there are different meanings of “cult” and that there is no one person who speaks for all evangelicals as the latter are not a unified group.  If some did, I didn’t see it.

To report on an influential person publicly calling Mormons a “cult” is irresponsible without some qualification–e.g., quoting someone responding to that explaining that in this sense “cult” is almost certainly being used as synonyous with “unorthodox” and does not imply a dangerous group stockpiling weapons and abusing children (which is the popular image of “cult”).

Similarly, the word “evangelical” means very little in the media.  Most of the spokespersons featured by the media are fundamentalists.  For a reporter or editor to allow an article to convey the impression that evangelicals are a monolithic block dedicated to one party or solidly against one candidate (because he’s non-evangelical) is also irresponsible (IMHO).

As a sidebar–I will be interested to see whether the pastor’s church will be investigated by the IRS for possibly violating the rule forbidding non-profit organizations (not just religious ones as many people imagine) from participating in partisan politicking.  Of course, a religious leader can endorse a candidate (or speak against a candidate) FOR HIMSELF OR HERSELF, but when the pastor speaks publicly AS PASTOR OF A PARTICULAR CHURCH that seems to infringe on the spirit of the rule if not its letter.

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  • To expect fairness from the media when discussing the gospel is a lost cause, but the prominent pastor’s inappropriate remarks invite such abuse. William Bennett was right, the Baptist pastor did Perry no good, and, one could add, the cause of Christ great harm.

  • sarah chapman

    I did think that preachers weren’t allowed to talk politics from the pulpit or the church they were affiliated with would lose their non-profit status. I didn’t see the broadcast. Was this at a church? Was he stepping over the line?

    • rogereolson

      When an official of a non-profit organizations speaks publicly in a partisan political way he or she is supposed to state explicitly that he or she is speaking for himself or herself only and not for the organization. In such cases the person usually (to stick closely to the letter of the rule) drops his or her title and speaks as a private person.

  • Can Mormons be accepted as being Christians? That question has probably been debated since 1830, when the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints was organized. The answer to that question by most traditional Christians is no! This is so in-spite of demonstrable evidence that Mormons are Christ-centered in their attitudes, believe strongly in the Bible, and seek to keep all of the commandments given by Christ.
    It is correct to say that Mormons are not Christians in the orthodox or traditional sense of that term. It would be more accurate to say that the Mormons are the
    “New Christians”. Just like the original Christians in the days of the apostles could properly be call the New Israelites, retaining a belief in the Old Testament, and providing us with a new book of scripture, the New Testament, the Mormons are the New Christians, retaining faith in the existing scriptures, and bringing forth a new scripture, the Book of Mormon, a second witness for Jesus Christ and his atoning sacrifice.
    We all believe in the promised glorious return of our Savior. When he comes, he will look upon all of those who love him, and follow him, as Christians.

    • rogereolson

      That that’s what I said. The only possible true sense of “cult” that can be applied to the LDS Church is “theologically unorthodox.” Unfortunately, that is not how most people understand “cult” anymore, so it’s probably a word to be abandoned except with reference to fanatical religious groups involved in violence, illicit sex, abuse, etc.

    • Tim Reisdorf

      Hi Wallace,

      Just as a quick preface, I would say that I’d have no problem whatsoever to have an LDS member as President – whether that is Romney or Huntsman or Hatch (though not Reid – gotta draw the line somewhere).

      However, I’m uncomfortable with the label of “Christian” for the LDS. Certainly “New Christians” is somewhat better, but still not satisfying. The thing is, that the LDS church is polytheistic – belief about many discrete deities. The thing is, that the LDS is quite secretive about some of the goings on in the temples. The thing is, the LDS church does not rely on the original 1830 translation, but has changed it repeatedly (the exact opposite direction that textual criticism has taken the Bible – for the better).

      Do the LDS attempt to follow Christ? Absolutely, I have no doubt that following Christ is of utmost importance to LDS. But until the LDS Church has it’s “post-Herbert W. Armstrong-moment” I would be hesitant in calling them Christians without qualification.

  • John Ross

    I am a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the Mormons), and I think the two pastors who this week publicaly denied my faith in Christ, and branded me a cultist have dishonored their Lord. Jesus said: “By this shall men know if ye are my disciples – if ye have love one for another.” and also “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto the least of these, ye have done it unto me.”

    However, it is even more despicable to suggest that government ought to throttle even such ignorant and hateful speech.

    • rogereolson

      And who suggested that? I certainly didn’t. I don’t know whom you are responding to with that last sentence. Also, I don’t think you’re justified in assuming the pastors (I only know of one) who labeled the Mormon church a “cult” hate Mormons. In many conservative religious circles any group that is perceived as unorthodox doctrinally is called a “cult.” I don’t agree with that use of the word (which I tried to make clear) but it isn’t hate speech.

      • You did imply that the IRS, a government agency, should investigate the pastor for possibly breaking its rules. Such an investigation, even if it doesn’t lead to sanctions, can be seen as throttling free speech. But I would argue that it is justified in a case like this, where presumably the church has voluntarily agreed to limit its activities in exchange for tax benefits.

        • rogereolson

          I thought all I said was that it will be interesting to see if the IRS conducts such an investigation. I didn’t mean to imply it should. I’m actually quite ambivalent about that rule.

  • DLewis

    But how do we know that the pastor didn’t want to have the scary connotation at least subtly connected to his statement? He certainly hasn’t made any effort to nuance his claim–why should the media bend over backward to soften his statement?

    • rogereolson

      Because even reporting that an influential person called a religious group a “cult” without comment (by the reporter or editor) puts a target on them–given the almost universal interpretation of “cult” as a religious group that stockpiles weapons, abuses children, etc., etc.

  • cms

    great thoughts, thanks!

  • LindaSDF

    Unfortunately, there ARE people who use the word “cult” to cause a knee-jerk reaction of fear, hatred, or at least, mistrust, disdain, etc. I’m sure that the last thing Jeffress and his ilk want is for the media to qualify their words. To them, “Christian” is defined as “anyone who believes exactly like I do or as I think they should” and “cult” is defined as “Any group I don’t believe, that I want others to fear and hate as much as I do”. Frankly, IMHO, a lot of them can’t afford for us to be right.

    • rogereolson

      Insofar as that’s true, that’s why I aimed my criticism as the media. They need to offer some qualification such as “The word ‘cult’ means different things to different people.”

  • steve rogers

    Well said, Dr. Olson. The media loves to work these kinds of tone deaf comments from spiritual leaders. This pastor’s offering was as ill advised as many of the things Jeremiah Wright said in the last election cycle–from the other pole, of course. I disagree with both of them.

  • David Rogers

    Sadly, there are several areas where no attention should be paid to the reporting of the journalistic media, especially the television media. These areas require important contextual attention and the quick sound bite and video clip tendencies of the television “journalists” reveal an inability to report accurately the story. All too many reporters and prompter readers do not understand the subject matter enough to ask and explain the proper stage setting questions and background. Pay no attention to news stories about:


    • rogereolson

      Yes, unless the journalist is known to have genuine expertise in the area. But there seem to be few anymore who have genuine expertise in religion. There used to be some.

  • blark

    Dr. Jeffress is either ignorant or a religious bigot. And, most often one is the ugly step sister of the other –ignorance being the fertile ground from which bigotry sprouts. Are we really to assume that he did not know exactly what kind of vitriol he was delivering last week? Outside of his narrow theological world, he understands clearly the common person equates “cult” and “non-Christian” as very negative insults and characterizations. If he does not grasp that, then he is ignorant. Some people claim ‘exclusive’ membership in Christianity by narrow definitions and technicalities. Others simply are christians by the way they live their lives according to Christs’ example. Anyone who cares to look into this deeper will find out for themselves that Dr. Jeffress is the former variety of Christian and Mitt Romney is the latter kind of Christian. Over an above his career in which he provided for himself and family a livelihood, Mitt has served God from the time he was a young man, without any monetary compensation or reward. In terms of dollars and percentage of income, Mitt gives more to the poor and needy and to God’s work than any other candidate –by far. This is something he has done all of his life, not just present political positioning. He commits 10% of his income to the Lord, and then on top of that, gives generously to many other causes, including one managed by a local volunteer church leader in a way that 100% of what he donates goes directly to help the poor and needy –no overhead. Whatever wealth Dr.Jeffress has, has come through his life-long career as a pastor in his church. I would be interested to know what of that he gives back. True Christianity, as exemplified by Christ himself, has always been about what you do not about what you say.

    • rogereolson

      My post was not about politics, per se, but about the media’s tendency to sensationalize stories which may include what they don’t say as much as what they do.

  • Ivan A. Rogers

    I invited the two young Mormon missionaries into my home for a conversation. I then introduced myself as a veteran minister of the gospel of Jesus Christ and courteously gave them the option of sharing first. When my turn came, I asked them a question: “What does Jesus Christ mean to you?” They answered without hesitation, “We love Jesus with all our hearts. He is our personal Savior who died on the cross to save us from our sins; it grieves us to think that our sins caused his suffering. I replied, “On the basis of your confession of faith in the Savior, I fully expect to see you both in the promised world to come, but it grieves me to think that you don’t expect to see me there.” NOTE: I watched Anderson Cooper interview the pastor of the First Baptist Church – Dallas. This pastor was so arrogant and judgmental that I was ashamed to identify with him as an evangelical Christian. When pressed, he admitted to labeling Romney as a member of a a “cult” and Mormons as “non-Christian.” He further admitted that he publically urged his audience not to vote for Romney; stating that he favored Perry. Under criticism, he tried to equivocate the word “cult” but it didn’t work. Finally, after he had savaged Romney and advised all Evangelicals not to vote for a Mormon, he admitted that given a choice between Obama or Romney he, himself, would vote for Romney. Wouldn’t that make the pastor a “flip-flopper”? Sheesh!

  • Jerrine Regan

    I saw the interview with the Dallas Pastor and he did qualify, at least twice, that when he said the word “cult” he meant it in a “theological” way. Christians would understand that he meant in regards to the fact that Mormon doctrine does not support traditionally Christian views, but most people would not understand this distinction. That’s why I agree with you that it is the media that is at fault here for not insisting that terms be defined. I believe it is the media’s agenda to make Christians look bad and in this case they succeeded.

  • Michelle

    Whether or not the media did a dis-service to their readership by not correctly defining the buzz words of “cult” and “evangelical”, the fact is that even people that know the correct definitions of those words know the firestorm those words will incite. I am certain that the Pastor knew what would happen if he called Mormons cult members- anger, press, debate and the general public equating Mormons to cult members. He did this on purpose and I think that’s the worst part of all of this.

  • Dwight Rogers

    One of the reasons people say members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons) are not Christian is because of some differences in some key areas between Mormon belief and mainstream Christianity of today. But it should be remembered that there are some very fundamental differences between today’s mainstream Christian belief and the mainstream Christian belief of past Centuries – particularly the early centuries. The doctrine has changed over time.

    It is claimed that Mormons are wrong because they believe in extra-Biblical revelation and scripture. Yet much of Christianity believes in extra-Biblical creeds and councils formulated centuries after the time of Christ and the Apostles. Most of the wording formulations in these creeds cannot be found in the Bible. This is often the excuse used to exclude members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons) from being Christian. . If you must believe in the creeds to be Christian than what do you do with all those Christians before the creeds? Were they not Christian? What do you do with The Apostles and Christ Himself? They did not teach the creeds either. The further back in time you go the more Mormon-like the doctrines of Christianity become. What do you do with all those Mormon-like beliefs of the early Christians?

    And, if the Bible is complete, and God has finished His work, and there is no post-Apostolic revelation, then the creeds violate that premise are an unauthorized addition.

    It seems so ironic to me that Mormons are criticized for believing in the more original Christian doctrines that are discarded by many Christians of today and yet Mormons are the ones that are not Christian. . It seems so ironic that Mormons are criticized for believing in extra-Biblical revelation and scripture when those doing the criticizing do the same thing by insisting on belief in exta-Biblical creeds.


    • rogereolson

      Even many of us (e.g., Anabaptists) who don’t insist on adherence to or allegiance to extra-biblical creeds find the Mormon worldview antithetical to biblical Christianity. That doesn’t mean individual Mormons cannot be Christians. I know some who I believe are, but it’s in spite of, not because of, some of the beliefs held by most Mormons. I admit, however, that the LDS church as a whole is moving gradually in a more decidedly Christian direction. And I would never refer to it as a cult (now that the word has taken on such radically different meanings).

    • Tim Reisdorf

      Hi Dwight,
      Creeds are a way of summarizing thoughts and beliefs. As far as I know, they are never equated with Scripture. However, they are a teaching/explaining tool. It is similar to what gets talked about on these webpages frequently. The word “Calvinism” stands for a certain flavor of beliefs about God and the world. Yet Calvinists would insist that the source of those beliefs are from the Bible. To be a Calvinist is not to hold beliefs in addition to the Bible, but to hold a set of beliefs drawn from the Bible. Of course, how well they are taken from the Bible is a point of some contention. You make too much of the creeds.

      “Mormons are criticized for believing in the more original Christian doctrines that are discarded by many Christians of today . . .” The only possible reference I can think of regarding your statement is the question of the baptism for the dead. Apart from that, methinks your statement has little merit. Concerning the baptism for the dead, I’d need to defer to others as I’ve not studied that issue in depth and cannot contend with you on a level I’d feel comfortable.

      By the way, do LDS follow the “Teachings of the Apostles” (the Didache)? Why or why not?


  • The pastor of First Baptist Church in Dallas prides himself for being outspoken. In some cases that is good, but in other cases he does not serve the cause of Christ. He prefers Perry over Romney because the latter is not a Christian. But the moment you think you understand his ethical rule — choose a Christian over a non-Christian — he jumps sideways by saying he would pick Romney (non-Christian) over President Obama, who has always claimed Christian faith.

    And, yes, the pastor violates federal law by choosing particular candidates in this fashion. The church is a non-profit corporation under 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code, and to obtain that status the church cannot speak out in favor of particular political candidates. Many pastors know that, but they violate the law anyway. There’s nothing like having it both ways. The end justifies the means, right?

    So, as I divine his ethical hierarchy, it is:
    Support the Republican Party over anything
    Support Christians over non-Christians
    Support the federal law, if supporting 1 and 2 allow you to do so, which they don’t.


  • Kyle Carney

    First preface, I believe we can vote for Mormons (although I would rather vote for Obama, personally; however I do think Romney is the best guy in the Rep. party). Everyone American should be okay with voting for people of other religious beliefs as long as that person stands underneath the constitution while holding their office.

    Second preface, I am from a conservative Christian background, so using the word “cult” is synonymous with something for which I want to have a word a little stronger than “theologically unorthodox.”

    To me, saying that Mormons are just theologically unorthodox is incredibly impotent to describe the truth of the matter from a Christian perspective. Perhaps, where I might be wrong is that I don’t feel heterodox to be to the point of anethema. To me, heterodox describes someone who is Christian but perhaps mislead from orthodox doctrine but has the Spirit. To me, “cult” is a more accurate descriptor of Mormonism. I agree that Mormons could accidently be Christian. I love Mormons as people, my neighbor, but I do not embrace them as brothers or sisters in any sense. I think “cult” is accurate for this. If that word has too many connotations past being anethema, then I just feel we need a better word than theologically unorthodox. If Mormons want to reconcile with us, we are waiting with opens arms for them to leave their deceptions and false doctrines (Jesus and Satan are spirit brothers; As God once was/ so we are, As God now is/ so will we be; etc.) and turn to seek Jesus as God and Savior (biblically equivalent terms for ONE God).

    Again, I’m for Mormons, as well as any other faith community, participating actively in every role of our country. I just feel there is a lot of mixing up of tolerance in public government versus within the church.

  • C. Ehrlich

    I doubt that additional qualification–if truly representative–would have rendered this pastor’s remarks less divisive.

    The big issue is that many evangelicals deny that Mormonism teaches the faith by which a person can be saved, reborn, or have access to a Spirit-filled life. For many evangelicals, the fact that Mormons call themselves Christians only makes matters worse–rendering Mormons proponents of a false gospel, whose doctrines are made all the more deceptive through resemblance to the saving faith. This conjures images of wolves in sheep’s clothing, and the servants of Satan masquerading as servants of righteousness. To express all this in a word, “cult” does a better job than “unorthodox.”

    • rogereolson

      My point was about secular journalists, not theologians. I don’t think secular journalists should allow the word “cult” to appear in their articles without some qualification as today “cult” means (to the vast majority of people) a dangerous group that stockpiles weapons and abuses children, etc. It’s too late to assume most readers of newspapers (for example) understand “cult” to mean anything else. The LDS Church is not a cult in that sense and that is the only sense most people understand.

  • John Metz

    However one may think concerning Mormonism (I would not call it a Christian religion), the use of the word ‘cult’ elicits certain emotional baggage that cannot be avoided. The theological use of the word ‘cult’ was once universally understood as you used in it your post–a deviation from accepted orthodoxy. However, since the 1970s, the word has acquired an additional pejorative that brings to mind mass suicide, sexual abuse, financial fraud and a host of other negative things.

    One should not use the word in a public setting or in the media unless that is the intended image. In these days, no amount of explanation can change that.

    • rogereolson

      My point exactly.

      • Kyle Carney

        So, my point earlier is that it is well and good to suggest that we do not use the word “cult,” but we need a word that connotes more of a distinction from truly Christian than “unorthodox.” Hardly anyone (if anyone) in conservative evangelicalism is using the word to intentionally conjure other images in peoples minds. I think “most people” would say evangelicals are not smart enough for such craftiness. There must be a different word used to distinguish this group who not only has some misguided or offbeat ideas but also creates a different gospel (Jesus is fundamentally different, you get to heaven based on your good works and knowledge rather than grace, the end goal is completely different, etc.). Someone who is merely “unorthodox” belongs in the same religion in the way that I use the word. Mormons are not the same religion. We must find a different word if we need to stop using “cult.”

        • rogereolson

          What’s your suggestion?

          • Kyle Carney

            At least “false Christians” might fit. I think, we could make the case from 1 John that “antichrists” fit although that might be inappropriate to address a secular media that has extra ideas about that word. If a better word comes to mind, I’ll come back to this.

          • rogereolson

            But, of course, journalists in the secular media cannot label people “false Christians.” Remember, my post was about the media use of labels such as “cult.” Still, there’s another problem. If a secular journalist quotes someone saying that Mormonism, for example, is a “cult” he or she should realize that many (if not most) people will think that person is saying Mormonism is sinister (in ways other than spiritual). That’s the common, almost universal, meaning of “cult” today–a religious group that stockpiles weapons, engages in physical and perhaps sexual abuse of children, has terroristic tendencies, etc. If the person being quoted had merely said Mormons are “false Christians,” everyone would understand that as a value judgment and would not immediately jump to the conclusion he is saying Mormons are dangerous people (as is the case when they hear or read someone saying they constitute a “cult”).

          • Kyle Carney

            Your observation has taught me that “cult” is the wrong word to use about Mormons and other false Christian groups because of the current connotations. So, I guess “false Christians” is a good word to describe Mormons at least from a Christian perspective. I still don’t know a good word that a secular media reporter could use. I still think “unorthodox” is inaccurate because I think we could fit whole Christian sects underneath this word (for example, I change my mind back and forth about Oneness Pentecostals, modalists who I would call unorthodox, who deny a critical biblical doctrine yet I could still expect the majority of this group to be in heaven because the gospel could still be coherently received in tact). I would not, however, extend the label of unorthodox Christians to Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Christian Scientists, La Luz Del Mundo, etc.) In other words, I think there is a line that is somewhat difficult to define where a group can be considered to be significantly off the mark, maybe dangerously, yet still Christian. But, groups that distort the gospel essentials of saved by grace through faith and add doctrines from authorities separate from the Bible and antithetical to its teaching cannot merely said to be unorthodox. Thus, false Christian or another similar term is necessary.