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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.

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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