Long ago, during my days in the Church-State Studies program at Baylor University, I took a course on contemporary religious movements and "cults." The word "cult" is much like the word "fundamentalist." One person's cult is another person's "sect" or another's freethinking religious movement. And, you know what? That's absolutely correct.
In that class, the veteran researcher on this topic stressed that there are sociological definitions of the word "cult" -- often dealing with the role of prophetic figures who claim radical new revelations. Then there are theological definitions, in which the leaders of a religion use the word to describe those who have surrendered or radically altered major, historic doctrines in the faith.
There was a time when mainstream Christians used to pin the "c" word on Mormons, using both sociological and theological definitions. Hardly anyone does that, anymore, on the sociology side of the divide. Yet there are traditional Christian thinkers who continue to use the word "cult" to describe Mormons, due to the latter faith's radically different doctrines about the nature of God. Click here for a column I once wrote on the struggles to understand why some people use the word "cult" in this context and others do not.
But the key is that you have to define this word, one way or another, if you are going to use it with any sense of integrity. This word demands a sense of perspective. Which is precisely what is missing in the recent Los Angeles Times piece that ran with the headline: "Radical Shiite cults draw concern in southern Iraq." Here is the opening of the story:
NAJAF, IRAQ -- Security official Abu Ali has reviewed hundreds of documents about the obscure messianic cult that incited deadly clashes last weekend at the height of Shiite Islam's most important holiday.
The group, Abu Ali and other security and government officials say, wants to spark a war among Shiite Muslims.
Officials said the so-called Supporters of the Mahdi disrupted Shiite worshipers last weekend in Basra and Nasiriya and fought security forces, leaving as many as 80 people dead. In similar battles in January 2007, hundreds of members of another cult, Heaven's Army, were killed.
Later in the story, we are given a tiny slice of information about the meaning of that crucial phrase "Supporters of the Mahdi."
The Supporters of the Mahdi group is named after a figure Muslims believe will appear with Jesus to establish peace. Most Shiites believe the Mahdi is their 12th imam and a descendant of the prophet Muhammad who they say went into hiding in 878 and will return. Some cults believe they can hasten his return by spreading chaos.
There are several problems here. First of all, I do not believe that it is accurate to say that "Muslims believe" that the Mahdi will return at the end of all things. This doctrine has not -- please correct me if I am wrong -- been formalized as a Sunni teaching. Meanwhile, it is one of the defining characteristics of Shia faith and practice.
Thus, there is nothing particularly alarming in the name "Supporters of the Mahdi." That's like a Catholic group calling itself, "We Love the Pope."
The question, of course, is, "What makes this group a 'cult' in comparison with traditional forms of the Shiite faith?" And that is where the story does not give us a single clue as to what is going on.
Are there Shiites who are NOT supporters, quote-unquote, of the Mahdi? What are the doctrinal differences between this group that is being hit with the "cult" word, as opposed to the more mainstream Shiite leaders they are trying to kill or drive out of power? If it is simply a matter of clashing tactics in the battlefield that is the alleged nation of Iraq, then why use a religious word -- "cult"?
Or, is the newspaper using "cult" in some other way? Just asking.