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

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

In a provocative paper presented at a conference in Provo late last year, BYU scholars Louis Midgley and John Gee argued that the so-called countercult movement began in the 1950s when a defrocked minister, Walter Ralston Martin, began to publish a series of booklets attacking the doctrine of various faiths, including Mormonism.

One of his books, “The Kingdom of the Cults” ultimately sold more than 750,000 copies, they said.

Gee and Midgley point out that on many items, Martin and his associates were “simply wrong.” They said that it took 23 years for Martin and his assistants to get it right that a local Mormon unit is a ward, presided over by a bishop.

Over the years, this movement has spread into scores of “ministries;" by Gee and Midgley’s count more than 750.

Yet, according to Gee and Midgley, only 10 articles have been written in the mainstream press about this phenomenon over the years. It has hardly merited any public notice by journalists.

Gee and Midgley, therefore, called for a public accounting by journalists of the funding and connections of these groups and for Mormon candidates to ask their opponents to publicly disavow the countercult movement.

Indeed, journalists might ask Michelle Bachmann, Rick Santorum, Rick Perry, Sarah Palin, Mike Huckabee and all the rest: “Do you think the countercult movement in evangelical Christianity has borne false witness against Mormonism?”

Given the prevalence and growth of the countercult movement, is it any wonder that the idea that Mormonism is a cult has branched into the press over the last 40 years? Is it any wonder that so many evangelicals have great disdain for Mormonism?

I understand and respect that evangelicals have religious differences with me. I have differences with them. Those differences deserve careful respect and intelligent dialogue.

Still, I have voted for an evangelical and expect I will in the future. I like several evangelical candidates immensely this year and would be willing to vote for some, if not all, of them in the current crop possibly running for president. I hope our evangelical friends would be willing to vote for a Mormon too.

But, regardless, it is time for a new language to describe religious difference.

It is time to remove the word “cult” from the descriptions of Mormonism and time for a deeper, yet respectful, journalistic accounting of the "countercult" movement much responsible for these terms, and it is time for our evangelical friends to stop supporting financially those who mock and distort the faith of others.

Lane Williams teaches journalism and communication at BYU-Idaho. He is a former journalist whose scholarly interests include Mormon portrayals in the media, media and religion, and religion and politics.

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