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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