Helpful talk on that 'cult' word

Presidential primary season is approaching, of course, which means that it's time for reporters to start dancing around the Mormon issues that will be swirling around Mitt Romney. Again.

At some point, a Romney critic or two will use the "cult" word or, just as likely, someone on the Religious Right will ask questions about Romney and then will be accused by the press of flirting with the "cult" word. At that point, the "cult" word will be in play, which was the whole point in the first place.

Some of the verbal warfare will be totally hollow. Some of it will be easy to trace back to real doctrinal differences -- the word "exaltation" is sure to show up -- between Protestant, Orthodox and Catholic Christians (the nature of God is at the top of the list) and members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

The odds are very good that, at some point, journalists will be quoting apologists from the Southern Baptist North American Mission Board. They will say highly nuanced things that will be hard for reporters to paraphrase, including statements that may or may not contain the word "cult." Some reporters will oversimplify and ink will be slung around.

Now, before all of this starts, it's important for reporters to find some serious, accurate, representative voices in three or four crucial camps -- even if they disagree with one another.

The "On Faith" team at the Washington Post ran an essay the other day that represents an excellent start for a research file. Find the corresponding Southern Baptist materials and you're about 2 percent down a long, interesting road.

The piece was written by Michael Otterson, head of the public affairs office for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. This is not a news piece, of course, but it should be of interest to those who follow the Godbeat closely. Here is an important slice, near the top of the essay, which ran under the headline, "The Mormon church and the media’s ‘cult’ box."

Where to start?

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.” ...

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.

The key here is that many journalists struggle to distinguish between people who are using the slur "cult" in a sociological sense from those who are using the term "cult" in the context of debates about radical differences in doctrine. There are Mormon critics who will do both, but I have found that their numbers are shrinking rapidly.

Most evangelicals (Southern Baptist leaders for sure) will, if they use the word "cult" at all, go out of their way to try to explain to reporters that they are using the word in a narrow and highly academic, doctrinal sense. The differences are real, and important. But I have found that talks between Mormon leaders and evangelical leaders operate on a pretty refined and dignified level, these days.

If reporters listen carefully, and respectfully, to leaders on both sides it's possible to negotiate this minefield without explosions. What will be discussed? Here is a sample of how Otterson describes this terrain:

* 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.

Otterson will be covering that topic, and others, in the near future at "On Faith." I assume that an equally candid and appropriate voice or two will speak for Protestants, Catholics, etc. This would be very helpful for reporters.

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