SALT LAKE CITY — Mike Otterson, head of the LDS Church's Public Affairs Department, has a message for those in the media who persist in referring to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as a "cult": "expect to be challenged."
Writing in the Washington Post's "On Faith" blog, Otterson asserts that the word continues to crop up in news stories about Mormonism because "it's a neat, shorthand and rather lazy way of putting a whole group into a box."
"Once labeled as a cult," Otterson continues, "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."
For example, Otterson refers to a story in the Independent in Great Britain, which claims that "if you Google 'Mormon' and 'cult' you get 2.7 million hits." Otterson points out that while Google results can vary on different computers, similar results can be obtained by Googling "evangelicals and cult" (4 million hits), "Methodists and cult" (4.3 million hits) and even "Manchester United (a popular English soccer team) and cult" (more than 2 million hits).
"Since 'poodles and cult' returns millions of results too, here's my less-than-profound conclusion: Google indexes a lot of pages," Otterson wrote. "Or something sinister is going on with poodles."
Otterson makes it clear that "it's the insult implicit in the word 'cult' that I am objecting to, not the reasonable point that some Christians are indeed uncomfortable with aspects of Latter-day Saint theology. Of course they are. I am equally uncomfortable with some aspects of traditional, orthodox Christianity, which was the very issue that gave rise to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the first place."
"Such differences, however, should be examined thoughtfully, reasonably and respectfully in any national conversation about a particular faith," he concludes. "And they should be examined alongside the enormous doctrinal and practical similarities between these different branches of Christendom. For my part, I plan to keep politics and pejoratives out of it."
If you'd like to read an excellent overview of Mormonism in the Mormon Moment that doesn't use the word "cult" even once, try this story in the Washington Times. It includes the astute observation of historian Jan Shipps that this should actually be identified as the third "Mormon moment" of this century, following the 2002 Winter Olympics and the 2008 presidential campaign. ("And it's still a really young century," Shipps notes).
"'The result, she said, has been the raising of the church's profile and an improvement of its image among non-Mormons," the article says. "A few more such moments, and Mormons could find themselves following in the footsteps of the Jews as members of an achievement-oriented minority faith whose clout as opinion and cultural leaders far outstrips their numbers in the population at large."