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Unlike “faith group” or “church” or “Bible study,” the term “cult” evokes a powerful emotional reaction.
When you hear it, your ears perk up as you await juicy details, just like they would if your friends told you they had an exciting piece of gossip to share.
To hear a religious group described as a cult is to feel immediately certain that something nefarious is going on. It calls to mind sex scandals or spiritual abuse or physical violence — in many cases, all three.
The common association between cult and various forms of trauma is a major reason why some religion scholars and journalists, among others, are leading a charge to banish the term from public life.
The Associated Press’ latest update to the religion section of its style guide suggests avoiding the label, as does a new religion reporting guide from ReligionLink.
ReligionLink notes that describing a group as a “cult” dehumanizes the people involved and increases the likelihood that they’ll face violence from government officials and others seeking to determine what’s really going on in the organization.
“Virtually no one who is part of a group labeled as a ‘cult’ sees themself as a cult member. Rather they are a believer, disciple, or part of a religious community,” ReligionLink reports.
The guide also says, “Once the label is applied ... it is virtually impossible to shake the association, and it can have extraordinary life or death consequences.”
To be clear, those who discourage use of the term “cult” still think it’s important to report on abusive or otherwise dangerous faith leaders and groups. But they recommend doing so by including thorough, nuanced descriptions of what’s happening behind the scenes, rather than labels like “cult” that encourage readers to jump to conclusions.
As journalist Bobby Ross Jr. pointed out last year, efforts to expel the term “cult” from the world of journalism have seen mixed success so far. Many journalists have stopped emphasizing the label, but they often still use it to back-up other descriptions by, for example, writing that some people would consider a group to be a cult.
In that way, the debate over using the term “cult” reminds me of the ongoing debate over using the term “Mormon.”
After leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints announced in 2018 that they’d prefer journalists to avoid the labels “LDS” or “Mormons,” many journalists began including the full name of the church in stories. However, they often still use phrases like “Latter-day Saints are commonly known as Mormons.”
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Term of the week: Archbishop of Canterbury
“Archbishop of Canterbury” is the title held by the top leader in the Church of England. The archbishop also serves as spiritual leader of the Anglican Communion, which brings together a variety of churches from around the world.
The current Archbishop of Canterbury is Justin Welby. He assumed the role in 2013.
Archbishop Welby was on my mind quite a bit last week as I researched and wrote about King Charles III’s coronation, because Archbishop Welby played a leading role in its redesign. He helped make the coronation rite more inclusive by including songs in other languages and faith leaders from outside the Church of England.
What I’m reading ...
At age 7, Ava Olsen walked out onto her elementary school’s playground just before bullets rained down from a nearby attacker. She survived, but, for six years, she was too scared to return to school. Now, Olsen is attending junior high in person and learning how to process her still-present fear. The Washington Post recently shared her remarkable story.
Thanks to a policy shift under the Biden administration, more refugees are now being welcomed into the U.S. But the same housing market trends that make it hard for you or me to find an affordable home to purchase or apartment to rent are making it hard for refugee families to find an affordable place to live. Religion News Service reported last week on the unique way North Carolina churches are working to solve the refugee housing crisis.
Odds and ends
The Bible that King Charles III placed his hand on during the coronation rite weighed a whopping eight pounds, according to The Washington Times.