Apr 4, 2022

Updates in the bible of journalism style: Appropriate 'cult' advice and other tweaks

Terry Mattingly

March 28, 2022

If you know anything about the nuts and bolts of reporting and editing, then you know that the Associated Press Stylebook is the bible — that’s with a lower-case “b” — of journalism.

It’s also a great place to chart tensions inside the news business. Consider, for example, the decades of debate about “pro-life” and “pro-choice,” as opposed to “anti-abortion” and “pro-abortion rights.” Will the next major revision of the AP manual need to include an updated definition for the suddenly controversial word “woman”?

Our GetReligion patriarch, Richard Ostling, recently sent me an interestingly list of some of the religion-beat terms in the latest revisions to this AP bible. He served as a consultant on that revision project and, thus, doesn’t want to make any comments about the results. Here is one of the updates that is sure to lead to newsroom discussions:

cult (new)

A loaded term to be used with caution.

Yes, indeed — proceed with caution. I totally agree that this is a “loaded term” that journalists should avoid whenever possible.

The problem, however, is that this is a term that religious leaders, activists and even scholars are going to use every now and then and it will be hard to avoid the term when it is used in important direct quotations. Thus, editors need to know the various ways that informed people use the word — the key is sociology vs. theology — so that these loaded quotes can be placed in context for readers. Then there are activists of various kinds who throw this term around like a verbal hand grenade.

Readers can tell, with a quick glance at the venerable Merriam-Webster dictionary, that this is a complicated subject. Here are several of the definitions:


noun, often attributive …

Definition of cult

1: a religion regarded as unorthodox or spurious (see SPURIOUS sense 2) also : its body of adherents

— the voodoo cult

a satanic cult

2a: great devotion to a person, idea, object, movement, or work (such as a film or book)

— criticizing how the media promotes the cult of celebrity

— especially : such devotion regarded as a literary or intellectual fad

b: the object of such devotion

c: a usually small group of people characterized by such devotion

— the singer's cult of fans

— The film has a cult following.

3: a system of religious beliefs and ritual also : its body of adherents

— the cult of Apollo

4: formal religious veneration : WORSHIP

See the problem or problems?

For a quick overview of how this affects religion-beat work, see this earlier Ostling post: “Entering a religion-beat minefield: What is the proper definition of the word 'cult'?” Also, see this overture from my 2008 GetReligion post with this headline: “Define ‘cult’ — give three examples.”

Long ago, during my days in the Church-State Studies program at Baylor University, I took a course on contemporary religious movements and "cults."

The word "cult" is much like the word "fundamentalist." One person's cult is another person's "sect" or another's freethinking religious movement. And, you know what? That's absolutely correct.

In that class, the veteran researcher on this topic stressed that there are sociological definitions of the word "cult" — often dealing with the role of prophetic figures who claim radical new revelations. Then there are theological definitions, in which the leaders of a religion use the word to describe those who have surrendered or radically altered major, historic doctrines in the faith.

There was a time when mainstream Christians used to pin the "c" word on Mormons, using both sociological and theological definitions. Hardly anyone does that, anymore, on the sociology side of the divide. Yet there are traditional Christian thinkers who continue to use the word "cult" to describe Mormons, due to the latter faith's radically different doctrines about the nature of God.

Let’s say that you are covering a dispute between the Southern Baptist Convention and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints about the work of missionaries in these two giant and evangelistic flocks.

It’s highly likely that someone will end up quoting something like the following:

… The Southern Baptist Convention's website on "Cults, Sects and New Religious Movements" includes page after page of materials dissecting LDS beliefs and practices. It uses this definition: "A cult ... is a group of people polarized around someone's interpretation of the Bible and is characterized by major deviations from orthodox Christianity relative to the cardinal doctrines of the Christian faith, particularly the fact that God became man in Jesus Christ."

That’s a theological use of the term “cult,” assuming that traditional, Trinitarian Christianity is normative. Journalists will also encounter this approach in the highly influential book “The Kingdom of the Cults” by the late Walter Martin, founder of the Christian Research Institute. Of course, Jewish believers can argue that Trinitarian Christianity is a similar distortion of classical monotheism.

Thus, it’s crucial for journalists who understand the framework that is being used when there is no way to cover a story without quoting “cult” language from people on various sides in an important debates.

Meanwhile, here are a few other interesting religion items from the revised stylebook. You just KNEW that this first one was coming:

"nones" (new)

The "nones" are the fastest-growing group in surveys asking Americans about their religious identity. They describe themselves as atheists, agnostics or "nothing in particular" — though the term is not interchangeable with atheist nor agnostic. Define the term when used. Use quote marks in first use and no quote marks thereafter. For example: The poll found that 30% of the "nones" — people who describe themselves as atheists, agnostics or "nothing in particular" — meditate. See agnostic, atheist.

The omnipresent Ryan Burge would, of course, note some other crucial differences between “nones” and people in the larger, often blue collar, “nothing in particular” cohort. Check out this column: “Under the ‘nones’ umbrella — America’s ‘nothing in particular’ believers are a big story.”

Here is another important style point, in the age of President Joe Biden:

devout (new)

Use sparingly if at all; better to be specific about a person's religious practice, i.e. He attends Mass daily.

Also note this important update inside the long stylebook commentary about the “Roman Catholic Church.”

A caution: Roman Catholic, which refers to the Latin branch of Catholicism, is not the appropriate first reference when referring to the pope, the Vatican or the universal church. Catholic Church should be used instead, since it encompasses believers belonging to the Latin (Roman) and Eastern churches. Similarly, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops includes bishops from Eastern churches as well as Roman Catholic bishops.

That’s important information. However, it is also important to note that these “Eastern churches” are the “Eastern-rite” Catholic churches that are in communion with the pope of Rome, as opposed to the ancient Eastern Orthodox churches that not.

Yes, let’s be careful out there.

FIRST IMAGE: A common popular culture use of the term “cult,” from the Cult Guildimage card decks, sold here.




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