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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