What is a Cult?
By Kathe Lowney
Guest Contributor, Valdosta State University
I admit it, I’m a political junkie. Campaign season is my favorite time of the year. And these last few months have been quite the ride, haven’t they? We have seen the rise of Huck’s Army, heard Obama Girl sing about her crush, watched McCainiacs be thrilled at their candidate’s stunning comeback, and witnessed the persuasiveness that a ringing phone at 3 a.m. might have had with Texas and Ohio voters.
But I’m not just an avid consumer of political news; as a sociologist, I’m also a media analyst. And something has been bothering me as this presidential campaign has played out: the frequency that the media have talked about the “cult of Obama” (see this Time magazine story, and this Los Angeles Times op-ed for just a few of the many media examples of this worry; and also this blog by a supporter that might offer some evidence for the media’s concern).
It’s the word “cult” that troubles me. Media commentators seem to imply that the enthusiasm and energy of the Senator’s supporters, their commitment to his vision for America, the world, and each other, is somehow worrisome and menacing.
It’s made me realize once again that sociology is not only a way of thinking about the social world we live in, but that as sociologists, we talk in a distinct – and distinctive – way. For students learning sociology, I think that learning our sociological way of talking can sometimes be hard. Doesn’t it seem like sometimes we sociologists use a lot of words to make some rather simple points? I think that too once in a while! I believe, however, that it’s sociologists’ scientific preciseness that fuels our wordiness – at least that is my hope!
“Cult” is one of those words that means one thing to sociologists and often quite different things to non-sociologists. Here’s how the text for my Sociology of Religion class defines it:
A cult is similar to a sect in its rejection of the religious patterns and formulations of denominations–or of whatever the society’s dominant form(s) of religion happens to be. Cult members were either not attracted to dominant religious groups in the first place or, like sectarians, became disenchanted with commonly-accepted religious forms. The cult differs from the sect, however, in that it does not call for a return to the original, pure religion, but rather emphasizes the new–a new revelation or insight provided by a supernatural power, say, or the rediscovery of an old revelation that had been lost and unknown for many years (and which is, therefore, new to this age) (Johnstone 2007:78)
But is this what you think about when you hear the word “cult”? I doubt it. Since the 1970s, popular culture, led by the press, has come to define the word as a religion that many people do not like; one which uses recruitment techniques unlike many traditional Protestant denominations (i.e., “brainwashing”) in order to ensnare impressionable young adults in its grasp. Cults are often portrayed as being “alien” to the U.S., run by manipulative messianic figures who are really all about lavishly spending the monies their followers raise.
In fact, this pop culture definition of “cult” has even altered our sociological vocabulary. Nowadays sociologists of religion tend to use the term “new religious movement” instead of “cult” because we recognize how pervasive this pop culture definition has become.
So when commentators write about the “cult of Obama,” they are both tapping into this negative connotation while simultaneously helping it persist. I find it interesting that it is Senator Obama’s followers who have come under such media scrutiny and not, for example, Huckabee’s Army of college-aged activists. Barack Obama is the upstart, the unexpected Democratic candidate who has more delegates than the presumptive nominee has. He is the candidate who, because of his parents’ cultural backgrounds and nationalities, has had his patriotism questioned by some opponents (i.e., the worry about an “alien” cult leader, resurfacing).
If words matter – and as a sociologist, I absolutely believe that they do – how social institutions such as the press talk can shape the public’s social construction of reality. Words like “cult” are now perceived to be, in our culture, inflammatory. So next time you read a headline or hear political commentators talk about “the cult of Obama” – think about it for a moment. What is that reporter/analyst trying to get you to believe? And perhaps more importantly, why? How does such a negative construction of Senator Obama’s followers shape the political environment of this presidential campaign? Who might the construction help?
[Full disclosure: In my state’s primary, I did not vote for Senator Obama.]