{LDSL Blog} When “Cult” and “Non-Christian” Cause an Uproar

The past few days, LDS news has been almost clogged with stories about the Rev. Jeffress comment about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. There have been a lot of great stories, and many people have stood up for the Church with only good things to say.

Of the stories, one that interested me most was Jeffress's interview with Anderson Cooper, partly because I thought Cooper did an excellent job reporting the facts and standing up for the Church. The other reason I was interested was because Jeffress tried to clarify what he meant when he used the term cult:

“When I talk about a cult, Anderson, I’m talking about a theological cult, as opposed to a sociological cult. You know, theologically, a cult is a religion that has a human founder versus a divine founder. . . . Secondly, cults tend to look at other religious texts outside the Bible for their guidance.”

It was the first time I heard that description of the term.

First of all, Jeffress’s interview with Cooper is a spectacular example of backpedaling; he was trying to make it sound as if he didn’t really intend for people to take the word “cult” to mean the pejorative sense of the term, but I’m sure he knew the effect it would have. Since he is one who uses words to make a living and convince people of his beliefs, I find it hard to believe he didn’t intend to insult, and I doubt he would ever retract his comment for its effect.

Still, as I listened to him explaining cult academically, and later read an Evangelical's commentary on whether Mormons are "Christian" or not, it made me wonder if, when some academics use these descriptions, we misunderstand their meaning.

Jeffress is correct in implying that there is a “neutral” use of the term cult (in fact, academics are trying to neutralize the term for academic discourse), as well as a “negative” form of the word (which is what most people think of). This is also true for the classification “Christian” vs. “non-Christian”—when people say Mormons are not Christian, we typically think they don’t believe we follow Christ. But, as the evangelical I cited above (Richard Mouw) explains, academics use “non-Christian” to describe faiths with respect to historical Christianity (for example, belief in the Trinity). Mouw, in fact, does a great job of explaining from the get-go what he means when he says “Christian,” and even though he says he doesn’t know yet if he can call Mormons Christians, he acknowledges that we are genuine followers of Jesus Christ.

I’m not saying I agree with either of them in their classifications—obviously we believe that the Church was RESTORED by Joseph Smith, not founded by him, and if one looks purely at the way the Bible describes Christians, there should be no debate that Mormons are Christians, regardless of history or tradition. But understanding the terms from an outsider’s academic perspective, their use makes more sense than the common meanings of the terms.

I wonder if some people use these words in a more academic aspect ("cult" is simply something founded by a person, and "non-Christian" simply describes the religion's relationship to historical Christianity), and the general population misunderstands their meaning.

The take home message: I think some people use these terms and are not trying to be as insulting as they seem to be.

A few notes in closing:

(1) I’m sure some people use those terms because they COUNT on people misunderstanding them and either hope to cause a stir or hope to scare people into following their edicts.

(2) I think academics who don’t mean to cause problems either need to start using other non-pejorated terms to describe these circumstances to the general public, or they need to explain themselves fully whenever they DO use them in an academic sense (like the evangelical listed above who describes what he means when he debates whether Mormons are Christians in the traditional sense).

(3) I acknowledge that I might be giving people too much credit. Either way, though, I think we can take something from this: when this happens, we do what we can to inform others about the truth, and then we TAKE IT IN STRIDE. (Michael Otterson just wrote an excellent column for the Washington Post on how we respond to these claims.) This won’t be the last time someone says something like this—and rather than spend a lot of time getting upset and offended, we can work toward a time when most people really understand that we follow Jesus Christ as our Savior and the son of God.

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