Jimmer Fredette, Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman Jr. have kept the media busy covering a first-round NBA draft pick and two presidential candidates running for the White House, but Mormonism is still greatly misunderstood and often referred to as a cult.
These misunderstandings were referenced in an article in The Economist magazine, titled, “Mormons in Politics: When the saints go marching in.”
“Mainstream Protestants, and especially evangelicals, have traditionally considered Mormons a devious cult, not quite Christian and just plain wacky,” The Economist wrote.
“Once labeled as a cult, there is not much need to explain all of the baggage that comes with it,” said Micheal Otterson, head of Public Affairs for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, in the Washington Post On Faith website. “The implicit ideas of extremism, mind control, authoritarianism and secrecy that play perfectly into the kind of rigid stereotypes beloved of the ignorant and bigoted.
Otterson challenged those individuals who call the LDS Church a cult and offers explanations in his column in the Post.
“It’s the insult implicit in the word ‘cult’ that I am objecting to,” Otterson said. “Not the reasonable point that some Christians are indeed uncomfortable with aspects of Latter-day Saint theology.”
Misconceptions can generate from the media, and members of the media often perpetuate what other reporters write. Deadlines can also limit the time reporters have to accurately report on the Mormon Church.
“The media and most people don’t understand us because of what they have heard from their pastors,” said Scott Gordon, president of the Foundation for Apologetic Information and Research. “Some journalists don’t have the background to know that some of their sources are coming from anti-Mormons.”
Professor Lane Williams at BYU-Idaho’s Department of Communications writes a weekly column about the media and Mormonism and has studied such portrayals as part of his academic research.
“In general, the news media try to be fair,” Williams said in an email. “They make mistakes, as in the overuse of the word cult and … it is inaccurate to say that the news media is deliberately biased against us [Mormons] in any general sort of way.”
Attitudes toward Mormonism seem to have shifted since Joseph Smith first published the Book of Mormon, and angry mobs forced LDS pioneers from their homes in Kirtland, Ohio, and Nauvoo, Ill.
“Compared to how we were portrayed a century ago in the news, the news media treat us well,” Williams said. “Their biggest limitation is that they have so little time in which to define the faith, so it can lead to simplistic, misleading explanations of the church.”
Williams suggested reporters who are trying to improve the accuracy and truthfulness of their news coverage should be aware of the words they use to describe the topics in their stories.
“It is newsworthy that some people won’t vote for Mitt Romney because he is a Mormon,” Williams said. “It is necessary for reporters to explain what it is about Mormonism that makes it unacceptable to some voters and an explanation using the word cult is one easy way to do it.”
According to Williams the word cult can illicit negative feeling, which makes Mormons look like outsiders.
“There are better ways of describing the real differences between religions rather than throwing out the cult word, ” Williams said.
Otterson and Williams are not the only concerned members of the LDS Church who are trying to improve the image of the church.
Speaking at the annual FAIR conference in Sandy, Newell G. Bringhurst, an independent scholar and professor emeritus of history and political science at College of the Sequoias in Visalia, Calif., talked about what the media is calling the Mormon Melee between Romney and Huntsman and warns of what could be ahead.
“This could intensify scrutiny of the LDS Church,” Bringhurst said. “Critics define both the Church and the candidates unfairly.”