The Rev. Robert Jeffress' endorsement of Texas governor Rick Perry went on exactly one four-letter word too long for many people.
Surely you've heard about it. Jeffress, senior pastor at the First Baptist Church of Dallas, went gaga over Perry at the conservative Voters Values Summit. Controversy ensued and then some.
Typical was the outraged email by Arthur Caplan, the University of Pennsylvania's preeminent expert on medical ethics who wandered away from his usual topics:
"Let's speak up ethicists. Is it really ok for the media to continue to report gross religious bigotry as simply part of the goings-on at the GOP conservative 'values' meeting," he wrote. "What the hell values are on display there? Intolerance. Hate. Bias."
Caplan's passion surprised me a bit. Aside from one word, I thought what Jeffress had said was unsurprising and, in fact, inevitable, once you have political leaders who urge voters to use theology as a factor in choosing a presidential candidate.
So I asked Caplan what the what?
My question turned out to be in the ballpark of "Aside from that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you like the play?" The one word was enough, he said.
"Cult talk," Caplan told me, "is hate talk."
That one word, "cult, "wasn't even part of Jeffress' formal introduction of Perry. But it was of a piece with the tone of his official remarks. The pastor had just explained how voters should choose the Texan over Mitt Romney because Romney, a former bishop in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, isn't Christian.
"Do we want a candidate who is a good moral person," Jeffress asked, "or do we want a candidate who is a born-again follower of the Lord Jesus Christ?"
He helpfully clarified his statement later to reporters:
"Mitt Romney's a good, moral person, but he's not a Christian," Jeffress said. "Mormonism is not Christianity. It has always been considered a cult by the mainstream of Christianity."
The next day he continued his helpful clarifications. Here's what he told Fox News: "When I'm talking about a cult, I'm not talking about a sociological cult, but a theological cult," Jeffress said.
So what's the big deal?
"Cult" is one of those technical theology words and Jeffress is just being misunderstood by us non-theologians? Well, maybe and maybe not.
The Rev. Albert Mohler is, like Jeffress, a Southern Baptist. He's also the head of Southern Baptist Theoligical Seminary in Louisville. He reacted to Jeffress in a podcast with both defense and regret:
"From the Christian tradition especially of the past 150 years or so, cults have been identified theologically. And we've talked to ourselves quite commonly using the word cult, he said. "We know exactly what we mean when we use that word. But we need to take care understanding that in the public square the word means something very different. It means a secretive group with nefarious and subversive aims," he said. "It is heard as a form of name calling. "
I asked Mohler for a bit more clarification:
"My concern in the podcast (and article I am working on as I write this) is to move us away from the use of the word. The academic world did so long ago," he told me. "Using it in public discourse today looks and sounds like name calling. It is not the best way to make a theological argument."
He's right about how most academics (and secular religion reporters, by the way) have distanced themselves from the word in the past decade or so. So it's all a misunderstanding? That inside the tent, Southern Baptists know they're only talking about theology?
Maybe and maybe not.
The North American Mission Board is one of the primary organizations within the Southern Baptist Convention. Its purpose is to equip evangelists to take their faith to this continent, even as the International Mission Board sends missionaries overseas. And NAMB has a website with a whole page about cults.
As I'm looking at it now, here is how that page starts out:
Americans and Canadians have seen much in the media in recent decades about the phenomena of cults and sects. The tragic mass suicide of the People's Temple in Guyana, the horrific flaming destruction of the Branch Davidians in Texas, the self-destruction of the members of Heaven's Gate in California, and the deadly collapse of the Solar Temple in Quebec have shocked North Americans into a realization that many Americans and Canadians are deeply involved in strange and dangerous religious movements.
Christians especially have become more aware of this escalating situation. However, most do not have a clear understanding of what constitutes a cult or a sect, or know how to determine if a religious movement or church is authentically Christian.
What follows is a discussion about Mormons, Christian Scientists, Scientology, the Unification Church, Jehovah's Witnesses, Baha'is, and other non-Baptist religious groups.
From that introduction, it seems clear that Southern Baptists are to consider these of a kind with the People's Temple, Branch Davidians, Heaven's Gate and the Solar Temple. As secretive groups with nefarious and subversive aims, not to mention violent and self-destructive.
It does not sound like the SBC is trying, even inside the tent, to use the word "cult" simply as a term of art about theology.
Beyond that, Jeffress is no public speaker rookie.
He's an outspoken and intentionally provocative pastor who frequently makes a case for his theology against the mainstream culture. For him to claim he didn't realize how he'd be understood is as plausible as a modern Hindu making the case that he didn't know that a swastika would be seen as anything but a traditional good luck symbol.
Maybe. And maybe not.