Michael Otterson, the head of Public Affairs for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, urges journalists to stop referring to the Church as a cult in the On Faith blog of The Washington Post “because it’s a neat, shorthand and rather lazy way of putting a whole group into a box.”
Calling the Church a cult emerges as part of the rhetorical warfare that characterizes American political discourse, he notes, and this label has again appeared recently in media with considerable intellectual heft like The Economist and The New York Times as well as lesser lights.
He acknowledges that few journalists use the term themselves as “an adjective of choice”, instead “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. “
Then Otterson throws down the gauntlet, “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.”
Why? Not because Otterson is thin-skinned. He explicitly states that he is not, but “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.”
Otterson plans to push back in the best way. Where there has been demonization, he offers knowledge in a series of upcoming articles in The Washington Post. Here are his topics:
-Why Latter-day Saints consider themselves New Testament Christians, rather than creedal Christians.
-What we mean by additional revelation.
-The nature of God.
– 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.”
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The Church is long-suffering in response to media derision and disdain. Note, for instance, the official response to the “Book of Mormon” broadway musical:
“The production may attempt to entertain audiences for an evening, but the Book of Mormon as a volume of scripture will change people’s lives forever by bringing them closer to Christ.”
The Church has stated its position in The Publicity Dilemma. The article notes that someone who said, “’This isn’t 1830, and there aren’t just six of us anymore.’ In other words, with a global membership of thirteen and a half million there is no need to feel defensive when the Church is moving forward so rapidly. The Church’s strength is in its faithful members in 170-plus countries, and there is no evidence that extreme misrepresentations in the media that appeal only to a narrow audience have any long-term negative effect on the Church.”
At the same time, when there is persistent and ongoing denigration of a faith and a people, sometimes that only stops when deliberate misunderstanding is actively challenged. What’s in a word? If the word is “cult”—a great deal.