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Mormon Media Observer: Time for journalists to look more deeply at the 'countercult' movement

Published: Monday, July 25 2011 5:00 a.m. MDT

It’s time for journalists to investigate the “countercult” movement within some branches of Christianity and bring to public scrutiny the connections that have likely led to some of the public hostility against Mormonism.

Three articles this last week have led me to make this public call.

First, a pair of editorials from a cover story in the interesting, evangelically oriented news magazine, World, had a back-and-forth between two writers about whether an evangelical could vote for Mitt Romney (a subscription is required for this magazine).

As a Mormon, I suppose I appreciated, at first, that some conservative evangelicals engaged this necessary dialogue, but as I studied the arguments, I became amused, then disappointed.

Romney’s defender went first and rather than sticking with his central point of the fact that it was OK to vote for Romney even though he was a Mormon, he meandered to this muddled, weak conclusion:

“If having a Mormon in the White House would give cultural cachet to a false religion, then that might be a reason — the only one I can see — for evangelicals to vote against him on religious grounds.”

It was as though he had collaborated with the other writer who proceeded to make precisely that argument:

“Electing a Mormon to the world's most powerful political office would dramatically raise the profile and positive perception of Mormonism. That is why I cannot in good conscience vote for Romney, despite agreeing with him on a good many social and fiscal issues.”

Sigh.

In fairness, evangelicals may vote for whomever they wish for whatever reason they choose, and it also should be noted that it is unfair to evangelicals that the press singles them out for their opposition to Mormonism.

It is my experience that secular liberals say the most hostile public things about Mormonism, and reporters rarely note that.

However, in my research of the Romney campaign over the years, one of the first things that struck me was that during the campaign of George Romney, there was no mention of the word “cult” in association with Mormonism in the coverage while in the case of Mitt Romney, it happened frequently, in scores of stories.

To be sure, journalists, with a few notable exceptions, still avoid directly calling Mormonism a cult. Instead, they use “cult” as a short-hand to explain why people wouldn’t vote for Mitt Romney because of his religion, as in “some Christians think Mormonism is a cult.”

It doesn’t take long to see why this short-hand is invidious, however. A writer could choose to explain simply that “Mormons and evangelicals have important doctrinal differences” instead and not raise the specter of a loaded word like “cult” in explaining religious difference.

As a student of what scholars call framing theory, it is obvious to me that words like “cult” have great power to influence perception. Furthermore, out-of-context, simplistic explanations of our beliefs about the end of the world, about historic polygamy, about alleged secrecy or about alleged prejudice all can add to this impression that Mormons are cultish and possibly dangerous.

Hence, I agree whole-heartedly with Michael Otterson’s call this week to cut the use of the word “cult” in reference to Mormonism in news coverage; I join him in the direct challenge he makes to journalists, and I might add this: It seems time for journalists to look at the counter-cult movement in some branches of Christianity. It is also time for our friends in the evangelical movement to stop supporting financially those who make much of their living by mocking another faith.

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