A cautious use of the word 'cult'

I know that it will be painful, but think back for a moment to earlier posts about the young mother Ria Ramkissoon and the death of her infant son, Javon Thompson. The child was starved to death because he kept refusing to say "amen" after the prayers during meals in the bizarre religious community that his mother had joined in Baltimore. The key issue here, from a journalism perspective, is how to describe the community of people surrounding "Queen Antoinette" and her congregation -- One Mind Ministries.

An early CNN report -- the subject of a GetReligion post -- offered this context, with some attribution to Ramkissoon's attorney, Steven Silverman:

Court documents say Ramkissoon joined One Mind Ministries after Javon's birth in 2005. Silverman described her as a petite, soft-spoken woman who rejected her family's Hindu religion, became a devout Christian and wanted to raise her son in that religion. ... The group insisted she wear a uniform the colors of royalty: white, tan and blue; give up her cell phone; stop referring to her family members by name; and not leave her home on her own, among other things.

However, subsequent stories -- especially in the Washington Post and the Baltimore Sun -- made it clear that this group could accurately be described with a cautious use of the word "cult," both in terms of its approach to faith and, most of all, in the life-and-death authority that Queen Antoinette held over the lives of her disciples.

Now, 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? A new story in the Baltimore Sun about the Javon Thompson case does a pretty good job of placing the term -- as used during legal proceedings -- in a sociological context and then backing it up. Here is how the story opens:

Three accused cult members, convicted of starving a toddler to death in the name of religion, were sentenced Tuesday to a collective 150 years in prison.

Toni Sloan, 41, who claimed God had christened her "Queen Antoinette," received a 50-year sentence composed of two consecutive 25-year terms, one for second-degree murder and the other for first-degree child abuse. Sloan said she was "not sorry" for the toddler's death. Trevia Williams, 22, and Marcus Cobbs, 23 received the same sentence, with all but 15 years suspended for each.

"There can still be hope" for them, said Baltimore Circuit Judge Timothy J. Doory. He did not express the same optimism for Sloan, who had issued the order in 2006 to starve the 16-month-old boy until he said "amen," according to prosecutors.

The Sun team unfolded that "cult" language a bit more later in the story.

During the trial, Sloan was characterized as the head of the group, a cult leader who lured young people into her home and controlled the most minute aspects of their lives through her self-styled religion. ... According to court testimony and prosecutor statements, Sloan took in at least a half-dozen young people, including her co-defendants, over several months in 2006, convincing them that they would suffer "eternal damnation" if they failed to follow her rules. ...

Among the group living with Sloan in 2006 was 19-year-old Ria Ramkissoon. She had moved in with her infant son, Javon Thompson, in part because she wasn't getting along with her stepfather at home. Things were fine at first. But when Javon stopped repeating his mother's "amen" after prayers, Sloan ordered food and water withheld from him until he said it. He never did. His body wasted away, and he died within a week.

Ramkissoon testified that she had agreed to let Javon go hungry because she thought it would rid him of a "spirit of rebellion" that she took to be an actual entity. After his death, she was convinced that she could resurrect him if only she had enough faith.

The young mother is currently living in a residential treatment facility, while receiving long-term psychiatric care. You may recall that authorities agreed to drop the charges against her if her son came back to life. She had been given a 20-year term, with her prison time commuted to the 19 months she had already served.

Prosecutors concluded that, simply stated, she had been brainwashed to believe anything and everything Queen Antoinette said, as her spiritual leader. This was, in effect, a personality cult that led to the creation of a new and twisted form of faith. Thus, it was -- sociologically speaking -- a "cult."

That's a loaded word. But sometimes people are going to use it in the public square, which means that journalists have to have some standards on how they will allow the word to make it into print. The Sun pulled that off, in this case.

Art: An old CNN report that still provides some useful background material.

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