New Zealand’s most American-styled Evangelical Christian faction, Destiny Church, held their annual conference last Labour weekend. In a “covenant oath” ceremony, 700 male members swore “a solemn oath of commitment that is binding, enduring and unbreakable… irrevocable [and] undissolvable,” and were required to pledge allegiance to Bishop Brian Tamaki. The retired editor of Challenge Weekly, Garth George, has attempted to argue that this is evidence of Destiny becoming a “cult”, which he defines not by examining any of the extensive academic studies of so-called “cults”, but by opening up his little old dictionary, which defines a “cult” – reflecting the popular usage of the word – as “a system of religious devotion directed towards a particular figure or object” and “a relatively small religious group regarded by others as strange or as imposing excessive control over members.”
But if we use Garth George’s definition then – apart from the largely irrelevant aspect of the size of the group – doesn’t this description of a “cult” apply to just about any religion?
As an example, let’s think about that potential cult, the Roman Catholic Church. Is there any religious devotion directed towards a particular figure or object in the Catholic Church? Well, this is just a little too easy. If memory serves, even the most wacky and out-of-touch of the Pope’s statements are considered to be infallible (when issued as a solemn promulgation of dogma). Furthermore, the Holy Father regularly attracts thousands of faithful adherents, who strain to hear his every (infallible) verbal ejaculation. So that’s a big tick on this part of the popular definition of “cult”. But how about “regarded by others as strange”? Oooh, this is just getting easier and easier. I won’t even comment on the life-long prohibition of sex for its priests and the alternatives that they end up exploring. Because Catholics believe that bread and wine turns into the literal flesh and blood of Jesus (transubstantiation), that a virgin gave birth to God, and that earthly sins will be purged out of them over the period of many years following their deaths in a place called Purgatory. That’s some freaky shit. And how about “imposing excessive control over members”? Talking about “members”, if a man covers his Catholic member with a prophylactic, or attempts to procure an abortion for his raped daughter, he is automatically deemed a non-Catholic, excommunicated, and thus confined to the fires of Hell. Now that’s some pretty clear “cultish” excessive control. And although the size of the Catholic Church is relatively large, does it display that all-too “cultish” trait of offering exclusive salvation? You betchya. Even if you’re a baptized, born-again, and utterly devoted Protestant Christian – if you refuse to acknowledge the authority of the Pope, then the Catholic Church’s doctrine is clear: there is no possibility of salvation for you.
From an outsider’s point of view, and employing the populist definition to be found in the Oxford Concise Dictionary, it is impossible to distinguish a “cult” from a “religion” – without special pleading. It is sometimes said that ‘a cult is an unpopular religion, and a religion is a popular cult.’ And that has it about right.
But all this makes Garth George’s use of the term “cult” highly suspect. Massimo Introvigne points out that members of long-established religions often employ the term “cult” as a “stereotype-loaded term” with the intention of polemicizing against newer religions – as opposed to any objective attempt to define the nature of such religions. (In this regard, it is no coincidence that Garth George himself is a Catholic.) But as the above analysis shows, an outsider’s superficial polarization of Catholicism could equally conclude that it displays all of the main traits polemically associated with so-called “cults”. So the use of the term “cult” is largely meaningless and rhetorically loaded.
From his track history, I’m guessing that Garth George will continue to employ the popular prejudices and vacuous rhetorical blather encapsulated in throwaway terms such as “cult”. But he should consider the following comments by Benjamin David Zablocki and Thomas Robbins in Misunderstanding cults: searching for objectivity in a controversial field (2001:5):
“Historically the word cult has been used in sociology to refer to any religion held together by devotion to a living charismatic leader who actively participates in the group’s decision-making than by adherence to a body of doctrine or prescribed set of rituals. By such a definition, many religions would be accurately described as cults during certain phases of their history, and as sects, denominations, or churches at other times. The mass media sometimes make a distinction between ‘genuine religion’ and cults, implying there is something non-genuine about the latter by definition. We do not share the implicit bias that seems to be embedded in this usage.”
It is time for the mass media, Garth George included, to reach beyond their dictionaries and raise their analysis above the superficial and populist misunderstanding of so-called “cults”. Destiny Church is a religious manifestation that should be examined alongside other religious manifestations (such as the Catholic Church), and in light of its own particularities, without forcing it into any polemical box.