The White Protestant Assumptions In The Word “Cult”

Here’s what you’re actually saying when you call something a cult.

1. The world ‘cult’ derives from the Latin ‘cultus,’ which simply means worship.

2. In the late nineteenth century some of the earliest scholars of religion began using it to describe the worship practices of so-called ‘primitive’ societies.  These people  believed that cultures evolved like species did, and that religious systems that emphasized ritual were inherently primitive, as opposed to religious systems that emphasized theology and ethical behavior, which were advanced. They believed this because they were Protestant and placed their own way of being religious on the top of the evolutionary ladder.

Of course, this had racial implications. “Cults” were religious systems that non-Protestants (and particularly non-white) people participated in; religion was what white people did.

3. Following this, in the early twentieth century, conservative Protestant evangelicals began to use the word “cult.” They, like the academics, used the word to refer to forms of Christianity that were, to them, fake Christianity: that is to say, non-Protestant. So, Roman Catholics and Mormons were cults because they mixed “real” Christianity with things that conservative Protestants thought weren’t really religious – like, for instance, ritual, or a charismatic leader. Again, though, “cult” meant to them “non-Protestant.”

4. In the 1960s and 1970s, these Protestant assumptions had sunk deeply enough into American culture that psychologists and sociologists started using the term to refer to religious systems that they found troubling. It was no mistake that most of these were Asian. Transcendental Meditation, formulated by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in India in the 1950s. The Unification Church, founded by Sun Myung Moon in Korea in the same time period. The International Society for Krishna Consciousness (the Hare Krishnas) founded in the 1960s by Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada. 

These religious movements did not seem religious at all because they weren’t Protestant. They demanded special dress from their believers (something virtually all religious traditions other than Protestantism require). They (like Roman Catholicism) had a charismatic leader. They pressed their followers to behave economically in distinctive ways. They emphasized ritual. And of course, they were led by people who were not white.

5. What people think they’re saying when they say “cult” is a religious movement that is abusive or dangerous in some way. If that is what you mean, simply say that. Use the phrase “abusive” or “dangerous” religion.  When you use the “cult” in a derogatory way, what you are doing is

a) implicitly asserting that only Protestantism is genuine religion, because the various meanings of “cult” we use today all stem from the idea that Protestantism should be normative: cults are religions that have charismatic leaders (Protestantism doesn’t); cults are religions that separate themselves from society (which Protestantism does in some countries, but not in the US, because Protestantism is dominant in society here); cults are religions that are “high-demand” (which Protestantism is not in the US, because it, again, frames what society is already like so it doesn’t have to be high-demand) and so on;

b) putting yourself in alliance with conservative evangelicals from the 1940s by assuming that these things are normal, and

b) drawing on a rhetorical legacy deeming the religious practices of non-white people as primitive.

So: don’t call religions “cults.”

Gender and the LDS Church in the Global South, Part 1

Women dancing, Fiji, photo by author

I didn’t suspect that inviting the missionaries for dinner would launch a research project.  

While we were eating, the Fijian missionary mentioned that showing good table manners in her home meant that her dad (the LDS bishop) and brothers ate first. After the men and boys had eaten, her mom and sisters ate the leftovers. 

Because I was interested, I wrote down her exact quote: “I have four sisters and three brothers. My brothers are good at eating. I wished there to be enough.” With good humor, she made this comment with a laugh and her head held high. 

“I have four sisters and three brothers. My brothers are good at eating. I wished there to be enough.”

Talking with this missionary about the gender-based rules and traditions in her culture made me wonder how the gendered practices of the church are interpreted in places like her Latter-Day Saint home and her Latter-Day Saint ward.

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How Much Federal Money Do the BYUs Receive?

The Short Answer: About $275,000,000 a year.

The Long Answer: Read on

BYU is a private institution and can do whatever it wants to do. If you don’t believe me, read any comment section on any recent article about BYU’s accreditation status, labor practices, or student policies. Enforced wokeness is for public schools only, or private schools that just don’t know any better. By refusing to sup at the government’s table, the BYUs free themselves from the tyranny of the government’s yoke. Or so the story goes.

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Religious Education at BYU: An Open Letter to the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities

Michael Ing is a BYU alumnus and an Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Indiana University. This letter was sent to the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities, BYU’s regional accreditor, during the public comment period of BYU’s reaccreditation visit. The Commission will accept written comments from any member of the public through March 6. Comments should be addressed to: NWCCU at: Attn: Third Party Comment, 8060 165th Ave NE, Ste 100, Redmond, WA 98052.


To Whom It May Concern:

I write in accordance with Brigham Young University’s cycle of reaccreditation with the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities. I write as a graduate of BYU (BA, 2002), an associate professor in the Department of Religious Studies at Indiana University, and an active member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I am writing with regard to credit granted for Religious Education courses.

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How [Not] to Motivate: “Opting In” and Lessons from Authoritarianism

by Abigail J., CES Employee

“Are you opting in or out?” Employees at all CES institutions have been discussing this question in careful conversations recently, since the Powers that Be announced a new policy not only requiring all new CES employees—including faculty and staff at the BYUs—to “hold and be worthy to hold” a current temple recommend as a condition of employment, but also asking current employees to “adopt this standard voluntarily.” Conversations have increased in urgency and angst as employees have received additional announcements, emails, and verbal reminders to declare their decision to opt in or not. [fn1] [fn2] [fn3]

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Reflections on a Mission to Ukraine

Note: On 24 January 2022 The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints announced that it was “temporarily reassigning full-time missionaries assigned to both the Ukraine Dnipro and Ukraine Kyiv/Moldova missions to locations outside of Ukraine … and a few missionaries who are approaching their planned release date will complete their missionary service and return home.” In light of recent events, I asked Thomas Christensen, who belonged to the latter group, to reflect on his mission experience.

Looking out over the frozen Dnieper River on the day we were evacuated from Ukraine

I returned from my mission in Ukraine at the end of January. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, I was only able to serve in the Ukraine Kyiv/Moldova Mission from May 2021 to January 2022; the first 15 months of my mission were spent in Utah. 

I loved serving in Ukraine and Moldova. The people there are so resilient and amazing. It was hard to deal with the pandemic and all the restrictions, but the members would testify so often of how the Lord blessed them and their families as they tried to remain faithful.

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New BCC Press Book: Warner Woodworth’s Radiant Mormonism

Warner Woodworth’s new book Radiant Mormonism is an actual event, and an important one at that. If you don’t believe us, listen to Nobel Peace Prize winner Dr. Mohammad Yunus, the founder of Grameen Bank in Bangladesh, and a worldwide leader in micro-finance. Yunus pioneered the practice of giving small, simple-interest loans that impoverished people can use to start their own businesses and raise themselves from poverty. This is what Dr. Yunus has to say:

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Tomorrow Is Ash Wednesday

Pączki from Familiar Bakery in Chicago

Which means that today is Fat Tuesday.

I’ve written before about how, since moving to Chicago, my family has wholeheartedly embraced the Chicago-by-way-of-Poland Fat Tuesday tradition of Pączki Day. And, in fact, I’m sitting at home[fn1] with six pączki in a box on my counter, with however many more my wife is bringing home after work (she was going to hit at least two Polish bakeries on the way to and from work).

But I’m not posting this to boast about how many pączki I’m going to eat today (or, at least, I’m not posting this solely to boast about how many I’m going to eat); rather, I spent this morning thinking about the tension in Christianity between asceticism and consumption.

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Esau’s Embrace: Thoughts on Genesis 33

Bleker, Gerrit Claesz.; The Meeting of Jacob and Esau; Shipley Art Gallery;

Finally, there is the risk of embrace. . . . I open my arms, make a movement of the self towards the other, the enemy, and do not know whether I will be misunderstood, despised, even violated, or whether my action will be appreciated, understood, and reciprocated. I can become a savior or a victim—possibly both. Embrace is grace, and ‘grace is a gamble, always.

–Miroslav Volf, Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation

One of the great things about the Hebrew Bible is that it never quite does what it is supposed to do. Like many of its main characters, the text itself is a trickster. It serves its own ends and refuses to cooperate with our flannel-board versions of the story (Kids, think of a really big iPad where you have to stick the pictures to the screen yourself). Every time we think we know what the text is saying, it shifts the narrative and says something different.

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A surprising thing the ‘Book of Red’ says about blue hats

Sodom and Gomorrah took center stage last week in the churchwide seminary curriculum. The teacher’s manual specifically identifies the “very grievous sin” which caused God to destroy the city as “homosexual behavior,” saying it was “widely accepted and practiced among the inhabitants.” The lesson briefly lists “other sins” identified by a later prophet—Ezekiel—including pride, idleness, and oppression of the poor and needy. But the rest of the lesson is spent on sections including “The Law of Chastity,” “Doctrinal Truths That Help Us Understand Why Homosexual Behavior Is a Serious Sin,” and “Sexual Purity.”

It’s a good idea to talk to your kids about this if they’re in seminary. It offers a great opportunity to think about the importance of reading scripture in context.

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BCC Press Announces Scott Abbott’s Dwelling in the Promised Land as a Stranger

It is not by design—but it is certainly a happy accident—that BCC Press is releasing Scott Abbott’s Dwelling in the Promised Land as a Stranger at a time when Brigham Young University is in the news for a number of controversial things. It has always been challenging for the Church’s flagship institution of higher education to balance the competing demands of its mission to provide its students with both an excellent university education and a distinctive religious experience. There are a lot of places where these two things come into conflict, and in its history, BYU has managed to find most of them.

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Apologies vs. Changed Behavior

When I was in High School, I was sometimes a bit of a mean girl. Shocking, I know. I wasn’t always a good friend. I sometimes picked on the weak members of the herd. I laughed at comments that belittled those on the fringes.

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The Wordles of Zion

Like about 20% of the English-speaking world—and a much higher portion of my personal friends and acquaintances—I play Wordle every day. I start at exactly midnight, play the day’s Wordle, and then post my result to Facebook, where dozens of friends post their scores, commiserate with me when my score sucks, and celebrate with me when it doesn’t. It has become an important ritual in my life.

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Priesthood and Temple Ban Winners and Losers Edition

Last Night I was watching the Jeopardy college tournament, and I was inspired to bring a game show approach to the topic of the moment by sorting out the winners and losers:

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God Under the Bus

“The ancient man approached God (or even the gods) as the accused person approaches his judge. For the modern man, the roles are quite reversed. He is the judge: God is in the dock. He is quite a kindly judge; if God should have a reasonable defense for being the god who permits war, poverty, and disease, he is ready to listen to it. The trial may even end in God’s acquittal. But the important thing is that man is on the bench and God is in the dock.” —C.S. Lewis, “God in the Dock”

In his classic essay, “God in the Dock,” C.S. Lewis spoke to the difficulties he encountered when he tried to talk about religion with modern secular audiences. The core of the problem, as he outlines it, is that people expect God to conform to their secular moral perspectives. God, he lamented, is constantly on trial in the modern world because people are not willing to let go of their own assumptions about right and wrong. [Read more…]

88 Keys and the Limits of “Chopsticks”

I thought I’d do one last post on Brad Wilcox’s now-infamous youth fireside. Tuesday I wrote about his offensive take on race and the priesthood (for which he has since apologized, though on the question of its sincerity ymmv). Yesterday I posted about the problems with his expressed views on gender. And today I’m going to look at what he said about other religions.

But today’s post is going to be a little different. Because at one point, he invoked a metaphor. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, he said, is like a piano keyboard.

Some churches play a few notes, some churches play several octaves, but we’re the only church that has a whole piano. So when we are saying, “We’re the only true church,” we’re just inviting people to come and see what we can add to the truths that already fill their lives.

A few seconds later, he adds that he doesn’t “want to lose a whole piano. You walk away from the church, say goodbye to the whole piano. Have fun playing ‘Chopsticks‘ the rest of your life.”

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Brad Wilcox and Institutional Problems, Part 2

Monday night, I saw a clip on Twitter of Young Men general presidency member Brad Wilcox making a tremendously racist statement in a youth fireside. I posted about it yesterday and, in the comments, people told me it wasn’t just racism. There was misogyny and religious bigotry mixed in too.

So last night I looked at a little more of his address and, well, it too is not good. So today I’m going to add a little. I’ll note that I still haven’t watched the whole thing and today’s post will be a lot shorter, in large part because I have to do actual work that I get paid for; thus, I’m going to pull out one or two parts.

Today’s post won’t be overshadowed by questions of the sincerity of the apology though because, unlike his statements on race and the priesthood, there has been no apology.

And with that, here we go:

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“Lead Out in Abandoning Attitudes and Actions of Prejudice”

Note: between when I drafted this post and when I scheduled it to go live, Bro. Wilcox apologized for his statement. And it’s a real-deal kind of apology, not a squishy avoiding-blame one; in fact, it’s a model for one step of precisely what I hoped for. I’m still going to posting for two reasons. First, while apology is a critical part of repenting, it is not the only step. And second, I don’t think this was primarily an individual problem–there is an underlying institutional problem that his comments highlighted and his apology didn’t and couldn’t change. But I’m making some changes to what I previously wrote in light of his apology.

Last weekend, Bradley Wilcox, second counselor in the Young Men’s general presidency and associate teaching professor of ancient scripture at BYU-Provo, gave a youth fireside in Alpine, UT. Somewhere in the fireside he asked, rhetorically, why Black church members didn’t get the priesthood until 1978. (To be clear, his framing of the question is wrong: in the first decades of the church, a number of Black men received the priesthood; it wasn’t until 1852 that Brigham Young imposed the priesthood-and-temple ban on Black members.)

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Please Help Save Utah Lake

“Look to the winged ones who soar on the wind. If we endanger these ecosystems, how will we consider the winged ones?” Matt 6:26). As the First Nation translation of the New Testament invokes, our economic interests are transcended by what nature can teach us.

Lake Restoration Solutions has filed a defamation suit against Brigham Young University scientist Ben Abbott for his scientific perspective on their project to create islands in Utah Lake so that an ill-advised real estate development can proceed. Ben is one of the finest scientists I know. As a fellow ecologist, I can state unequivocally that his science is solid.

Consider another angle on this attempt to co-opt a resource that all citizens of Utah may currently enjoy: the beauty and wonder that Utah Lake offers.

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I Dissent: Questions Regarding the Efficacy and Repercussions of a Dissenting Vote

by John S.

Recently the Church Educational System (CES) announced that “all new employees who are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints will be required to hold and be worthy to hold a current temple recommend. Church members already working at CES institutions will be invited to adopt this standard voluntarily.”

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Call for Papers: 2022 Joseph Smith Papers Conference

From the JSPP:

To commemorate the release of volumes 12, 13, and 14 of the Documents series, the Joseph Smith Papers Project will host the sixth annual Joseph Smith Papers Conference on September 9, 2022, in Salt Lake City, Utah. In the event that COVID-19 conditions prevent holding an in-person conference, digital options will be offered. The theme of the conference is “Texts and Contexts in Nauvoo.”

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Conference on D. Michael Quinn

Announcing a conference on the life and work of the late Mormon historian, D. Michael Quinn. Registration is free, either in-person, or via Zoom. March 25, 2022, sessions from 9:00am to 5pm at the University of Utah. Register for in-person participation at For Zoom, register at

Announcing Experiment Upon the Word

Last year, when we announced the Essays in Mormon Literature, we proudly crowed that we were unveiling “something big—really big.”  Since then, we have issued the second volume in the series—Mormonism and the Movies—to rave reviews and enthusiastic applause. Today, we are releasing our third volume, Experiment Upon the Word, Frederick Kleiner’s expansive analysis of the Book of Mormon that began life, not merely as a dissertation, but as a German dissertation.  Let us tell you more.

Though the German-born scholar’s name, Kleiner, technically means “smaller,” there is nothing small about Experiment Upon the Word. At 506 pages, it may well pack the most scholarly insight for your money anywhere in the Mormon-Studies world. And it comes with a hefty analytical rigor of the sort that the German academic system demands.

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Kristine Haglund, Eugene England and the Possibility of Mormon Liberalism

My most vivid memory of Eugene England goes like this: In the early 1990s, I was a teaching assistant in the BYU English Department—a position that, under certain circumstances, and only when accompanied by the professor I teaching-assisted, permitted me to enter the faculty lounge on the second floor of the old JKHB. Once when I was in these hallowed halls working on final grades for a Victorian Lit class, Gene was there doing the same with his American Lit TAs. My group was using a calculator to compute points from quizzes, tests, and papers, using attendance and participation points to raise or lower a close call. Gene was leading his TAs in prayer.

This was not a general, “please help us be sensitive to our students’ needs” kind of prayer. They were going through the class list in alphabetical order, and Gene was asking God for inspiration about every student by name. Even at BYU in the 1990s, this was a little bit strange—made even stranger by the fact that the prayers were completely sincere. Gene was not playing to a crowd. He really, genuinely wanted to know what God thought about his students’ grades.

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Handbook Changes: Music at Church

When I was in high school, I volunteered to have my saxophone quartet play a special musical number in sacrament meeting.

My offer was declined.

I suspect it was declined on church policy grounds. The 1989 Handbook—the one that would have been in effect when I was in high school—didn’t have explicit policies on the types of music and the types of instruments permitted in sacrament meeting; rather, it limited its guidance to the requirement that “[m]usic and musical texts are to be sacred, dignified, and otherwise suitable for a Latter-day Saint meeting.”

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BYU’s New Demonstration Policy Explained

Dear students,

As you have no doubt heard, the Lord has revealed a new demonstration policy for students at His university. This policy is designed to maximize our students’ moral agency–which we define as “the ability to exercise uncompromising obedience in the face of difficult moral choices while not being gay.” There has been a lot of discussion about these new regulations, and we want to make sure that our expectations are clear. To do this, we have devised the following scenarios–each represented by a photograph that illustrates the deep gospel truths of this policy. Please keep in mind that any drawings or photographs of rule-breaking behaviors are simulations only. No student testimonies were harmed to create these scenarios.

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The Brain’s Lectionary—Something New and Beautiful at BCC Press

The Brain’s Lectionary by Elizabeth Pinborough, cover by Christian Harrison

We have a simple mission at BCC Press. We work with brilliant and creative individuals to create truth and beauty in the world that would otherwise not exist. And sometimes, we do such a good job that pride overwhelms us and we have to repent. We will be repenting a lot this week as we release Elizabeth Pinborough’s true and beautiful new collection of art and poetry, The Brain’s Lectionary: Psalms and Observations.

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Butts in the Pews(?)

Photo by Drew Murphy on Unsplash

Over the last month or so, I’ve heard from several family members and friends that their wards are trying to wind down online church. There are variations, of course, everything from announcing that there will be no more Zoom church to making the link available only to people who get approval from the bishop (presumably because of health or familial issues).

I’m not clear on whether these are ward, stake, area, or general church initiatives. But I am clear that this is a terrible idea, made more terrible because nobody has explained the underlying reasons to restrict or eliminate online church.

The most immediate reason it’s a terrible idea is the current omicron wave, which sickened as many as 1 million people Monday alone, is quickly filling up our hospitals, and is just as quickly shutting our schools.

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Paradoxical Glory—and the Start of a Great New Year for BCC Press

One of the things that makes us happy at BCC Press is poetry. Lots and lots of poetry. And that means that we are going to be really happy this year, as we are coming right out of the gate with a great book of poetry: Paradoxical Glory by Nancy Heiss. As you would expect from BCC Press, the poetry is amazing, possibly life-changing. But wait, there’s more. Along with the great poems, this is also a book of great art–drawing by Brooke Newhart accompany the poems.

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No Future Without Forgiveness: Desmond Tutu’s Big Idea

“To forgive is not just to be altruistic. It is the best form of self-interest. What dehumanizes you inexorably dehumanizes me. It gives people resilience, enabling them to survive and emerge still human despite all efforts to dehumanize them.

― Desmond Tutu (1931-2021), No Future Without Forgivenes

The death of a great person gives us an opportunity to reflect on the ways that their lives have touched ours. Few people impacted the 20th century as profoundly, or as positively, as Archbishop Desmond Tutu did, so I expect (and hope) to see a lot of reflections about him in the coming weeks. In writing my own I hope only to be part of a long line celebrating a wonderful life.

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