The below is a slightly edited version of a post I submitted to The Seeker. The post hasn’t been picked up (they prefer to only publish posts on topics where multiple different posts are submitted by the Seeker bloggers, and while the Amish beard cutting cult was a possible topic suggested, I was the only one to write on it.) But yesterday I saw the movie Martha Marcy May Marlene, a very intense portrayal of a young woman who got caught up with a group that is what in popular parlance would be called a “cult.” It wasn’t a religious group; they were located in the Catskills and were more like a 1960s free love commune on steroids. The leader of the group is portrayed by the actor John Hawkes, and he is terrific in the role. Anyway, watching this movie kind of pissed me off, because here is a group that clearly would be a cult in the popular conception of the word (the c-word is not used once in the movie, an excellent artistic choice), and yet conservative Protestant countercultists have so misused the word “cult” that, in a way, they have given such dangerous groups aid and comfort by lumping them in with established and safe Christian faiths with which such countercultists simply disagree theologically. So here are my thoughts:
The subject of cults has been on my mind lately. A week ago Tuesday I participated in a taping of a Mormon roundtable for WTTW’s Chicago Tonight, which aired Thursday evening. There were four of us on the panel, and the main topic was whether the Mormon Church is a “cult” and how chatter to that effect might affect Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign. With four of us participating in only a 20-minute segment, we were limited to very brief sound bite responses to a handful of questions. I would like to elaborate on my responses here.
My overarching concern with use of the word “cult” is that people toss it around lightly without actually defining what they mean by it. The word derives from Latin cultus (“care, worship, adoration”) from the verb colere (“to attend to, respect”). It is the source of such English words as “culture” and “cultivate.” According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word “cult” enters the lexicon in the 17th century, where it simply means worship (in the sense of reverential homage rendered to [a] divine being[s]). It also can refer to a particular form or system of religious worship, especially in reference to its external rites and ceremonies. The word is also often used in reference to ancient or primitive ritual systems (Biblical Archaeology Review regularly gets letters from Christian readers who are outraged that an article has used the word “cult” [properly] in respect to ancient ritual practices described in the Bible). Another definition given by the OED is devotion or honor to a particular person or thing, especially as paid by a body of professed adherents or admirers. The OED doesn’t even have a negative definition of the word.
My desktop Websters mirrors the OED, but then adds “great and especially faddish devotion.” Under these definitions, virtually every religion on the planet could be described as a “cult.” And if the word were consistently used with such neutral connotations, there would be nothing wrong with that. But in the 70s, the word began to take on extremely pejorative connotations of a small group, whether religious or not, dominated by a charismatic and controlling individual, that is fanatical and dangerous, involving such things as mind control, brain washing, physical and sexual abuse, mass suicide. And like the Hotel California, you can never leave.
So when conservative Protestants like Pastor Jeffres say the Mormon Church is a cult, they are playing a game of Three Card Monte, a linguistic bait and switch, a little religious semantic legerdemain. They don’t use the word “cult” for its cognitive content, but to evoke in their hearers the negative connotations that accompany it. The word is used as a boundary maintenance device, to keep their own flocks from even thinking of looking into Mormonism.
There is a cost to applying this term so cynically to groups such as Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Seventh-day Adventists, Christian Scientists, The Society of Friends, Roman Catholics, etc. Because there really are New Religious Movements out there that genuinely are dangerous to the well being of their followers, but the word has been so diluted by improper usage as to make it almost meaningless. Legitimate scholars don’t even use the word “cult” anymore due to this pervasive misuse.
After the Chicago Tonight taping, I was talking about these thoughts with my daughter’s boyfriend. I said that one of the things I thought about asking was whether the Amish were a cult. I don’t think most people think of them under that rubric, even though they live with a substantially greater tension with the surrounding culture than those groups Protestant countercultists typically single out with that label. So I was going to suggest that, if the Amish are not a cult, a fortiori Mormonism is not a cult either. But then my friend told me about the Amish beard cutting case that was just hitting the news, and that that group is being characterized in the media as an Amish cult.
From media reports, it appears as though Sam Mullet’s Bergholz clan may in fact be dangerous in a serious way to its neighbors and adherents. Unfortunately, the word “cult” has been so abused in interreligious discourse that it really is no longer available for situations where arguably the negative connotations might apply. Rather than simply tossing around a pithy four-letter label, people are going to have to actually describe with specificity the characteristics of the group in question in order to communicate meaningful information about it. Because simply using the word cult has become nothing more than an extension of the speaker’s own prejudices.