As part of the rhetorical warfare that has come to characterize modern American political discourse, it was only a matter of time before someone once again used the term “cult” to describeThe Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
We saw it often during the 2008 presidential campaign. It surfaced more recently when Majority Leader Harry Reid (D) was fighting to retain his Nevada Senate seat (his opponent’s pastor accused him of belonging to a cult that “pretends to embrace Christianity”).
The British Independent, for instance, was taken with the thought that if you Google “Mormon” and “cult,” you get 2.7 million hits.
Few journalists use the term themselves, of course, as an adjective of choice. The usual method is to apportion the blame for the use of this highly pejorative label to “many evangelicals” or “some Christians” as a means of explaining how these groups might choose to vote, and to point out what a liability this is for any Latter-day Saint candidate.
To be sure, there’s some truth in this logic. But I have a message to political journalists who over the course of the current campaign may be tempted to throw out this nasty word with abandon. Expect to be challenged.
To the Independent, in relation to his Google experiment: Google results vary from computer to computer, but try also googling “evangelicals and cult.” Result on my particular browser: nearly 4 million hits. Methodists and cult: 4.3 million. Or this, which should appeal to a British journalist: Manchester United and cult - more than 2 million. Since “poodles and cult” returns millions of results too, here’s my less-than-profound conclusion: Google indexes a lot of pages. Or that something sinister is going on with poodles.
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.”
If the cult word has no currency in academia, why do some keep repeating it? Because it’s a neat, shorthand and rather lazy way of putting a whole group into a box. Once labeled as a cult, there is not much need to explain all of the baggage that comes with it - the implicit ideas of extremism, mind control, authoritarianism and secrecy that play perfectly into the kind of rigid stereotypes beloved of the ignorant and bigoted. Journalists could and should do better than perpetuate this kind of shallowness when referring to the fourth largest church in the United States. Rather than continuing to parrot it, it’s time they pushed back against those who choose to use it.
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.
For those who are interested in that kind of conversation, here are some topics that I’ll be addressing in future columns:
•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.
•What we mean by additional revelation. The Book of Mormon is described on its title page as a book intended for “the convincing of the Jew and Gentile that Jesus is the Christ.”
•The nature of God: Latter-day Saints see God as a physical being in whose image we are made. That is one reason why it is so comfortable for Mormons to refer to God as their Father in Heaven – that’s how they see the personal relationship.
•How Latter-day Saints regard “biblical inerrancy,” and what they mean when they accept the Bible as the word of God, “as far as it is translated correctly.”
At the end of his New Testament gospel, the apostle John concludes: “And there are also many other things which Jesus did, the which, if they should be written every one, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that should be written.” (John 21:25)
Sounds like a lot of room for serious conversation.
More On Faith and Mormonism:
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Mike Otterson: Why I won’t see the Book of Mormon musical
Mike Otterson: Mormons, Christians and the beliefs of the president
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Mike Otterson: Is this really a ‘Mormon moment?’
Mike Otterson | Jul 19, 2011 2:29 PM