Cynical Use of the Word “Cult”

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.


  1. Hate to break it to you, but Mormonism is a cult:

  2. observer fka eric s says:

    Givens’ “Viper on the Hearth” does a good job showing how social constructs like cult serve as boundary maintenance devices. In the earlier part of the last century, the Jeffress types used goofy cartoons that portrayed Mormons to look like Italian swashbuckling mafiosos. Another attempt was made to construct, yes, a new race for Mormons. Anything to reinforce a difference and Otherness that could easily be demonized.

    (1) – I’m more interested in his unofficial website.

  3. Why does a cult have to be a bad thing? I like to watch “cult classics”.
    If we are a cult then we are a good cult. Having a wee bit of social naughtiness surrounding Mormon membership isn’t necessarily a bad thing. On a certain level, that tends to appeal to people. Especially young people. If you want to be different, try Mormon Different.

  4. People seem to want to avoid brainwashing, but that’s not exactly possible. We’re all brainwashed and the Church is absolutely a device of saturation in a particular set of ideas/ideals.

    How is this different than any other religion or culture? Even pop culture has it’s deities, texts and sacred spaces. The fact that the body is a temple means that the primary function of the human being is _atonement_. Hence everything that falls within the boundaries of human experience is a cult no matter how low the congregant numbers are.

  5. That could be the next big ad campaign. “Mormons: The Good Cult.”

  6. Bradley, Kevin’s point is that under the proper definition of the word “cult”, pretty much all religions are a “cult” because it simply refers to a system of worship or devotion. Etymologically it is completely neutral and is the root for “culture”, “cultivate” etc. as well.

    Kevin’s observation about its cynical use comes from combining this legitimate meaning with the pop culture/socio-cultural baggage it has obtained starting sometime in the last few decades. In other words, Jeffress can say “Mormonism is a cult” and be correct in the sense that his own Southern Baptist belief is also a “cult” under the proper use/definition of the word. But Jeffress is saying it with a wink and nudge:

    – He knows his audience — in this case fundamentalist creedal Christian Republican primary voters — has no idea what the actual definition of the word cult is and that when they hear the word “cult” they think of Jonestown.
    – He knows the Southern Baptist Convention does not use the word cult according to its actual definition but has given it a peculiar alternative definition that defines cult for purposes of American Evangelical Christianity as any religious system that does not worship the One Substance Trinity.

  7. To add to John’s last comment, Jeffress said explicitly that every religion and denomination in the world is a cult and their members are headed straight to Hell – except his own (or, perhaps more broadly, mainline Protestantism). That not only is stupid, it also is highly instructive. Even the most extreme statements made back in the day by Mormon leaders didn’t take it nearly that far.

    I actually think Jeffress’ use is much more dangerous than merely cynical, but Kevin’s last sentence is dead-on, imo:

    “Simply using the word cult has become nothing more than an extension of the speaker’s own prejudices.”

    I will add that the more liberally someone uses the word (as with Jeffress), the more apparent it is how bigoted and close-minded that person is.

  8. Great post!

    ‘Cult’ is now used as a 4-lettered curse word…

    I would love to say to Evangelicals who say use it against us (and others): “Show me that in the Bible!”

    As Kevin shows, the origin of the word is good, and if still followed, the New Testament would be an example of a rather interesting Christian cult! Christ was, by all accounts, a rather charismatic and commanding leader!

  9. MikeInWeHo says:

    It’s interesting that Pastor Jeffres later back-peddled just a bit. In subsequent TV interviews he referred to Mormonism as “a theological cult.” I never heard that expression before. Anybody else catch that?

  10. Yeah, Mike, I heard him do that on both Bill Maher’s and Chris Matthews’ shows. I think Maher and Matthews bought it, somewhat. To me, it felt disingenuous. You?

  11. Mike, when you’re wrong but can’t admit it publicly, it’s necessary to “clarify”.

    It’s a good thing that never happens in the Church, the Bloggernacle or in my comments.

  12. MikeInWeHo says:

    Utterly disingenuous, Hunter. Pastor Jeffres’ smug, smarmy banter on his talk-show appearances made my skin crawl.

  13. Mike, the idea of a “theological” definition of the word “cult” has actually been fairly common in Evangelical ‘countercult’ parlance for a while now. And contrary to Kevin’s implication that negative associations for the word only began in the 1970s, such use actually began in the late nineteenth century. This may be a case in which the OED is less authoritative than otherwise; it seems to omit any discussion of the use of the word “cult” in mid-twentieth-century versions of the church-sect typology as well. I’m also not certain that Kevin is correct that the shift of scholars away from use of the word “cult” is due to its dilution through application to, e.g., the LDS faith; most recent scholarship I’ve read on new religious movements (NRMs) seem to indicate that the desire is to avoid a polemical and negative attitude towards any NRM, primarily those Kevin would view as harmful.

    (Another point that might interest Kevin: coming from Amish country, I have some friends who have no hesitation in classifying the Amish, as a whole, as a “cult”.)

  14. Kevin Barney says:

    Thanks for the thoughts, JB. I admit the 70s thing was just an impression, I didn’t look into it at all. And I think you’re right about at least part of the scholarly movement from cult to NRM.

  15. Ahh, wordplay.

    Imagine my surprise as a new missionary in Paris, learning that the French word for worship is “culte,” and the word for “chapel”? “Salle de culte.”

    In France, they refer to cults as a “secte,” which made reciting the first vision awkward, where Joseph writes “…to know which of all the sects was right, that I might know which to join.”

    Now to comment on the real conversation – I agree with the author; there is no place for calling the LDS church a cult when malicious, manipulative groups (actual cults) go to such a great and destructive length to be worthy of the title.

  16. #14 – Thanks for your feedback, Kevin! The other day I also wrote up a post defending the LDS Church against the ‘cult’ charges:

    #15 – C. Stokes, that’s really interesting. Are there any translation liberties taken with the First Vision narrative in France to get around that obstacle to understanding?

  17. Great blog, unfortunately the LDS cult issue is much deeper than most LDS and mainline Protestants realize. Most of the evangelicals who use the pejorative are fundamentalists and deeply distrustful of anything that doesn’t align with their view of how things should be. LDS aren’t singled out; they are just the largest target and the hardest target to hit. Because LDS theology is, in my opinion, the most legitimate of churches labeled as “cults” by evangelicals, they take greater effort in deriding us.