Labeling and ascription
presidential campaign of Mitt Romney is an interesting vantage point to test
theories of labeling and ascription as applied to Mormons in
the other hand, not all ascription processes are created equal. In some
societies ascription governs most of societal activities – the caste
Labeling is different from ascription (Cullen and Cullen 1978), insofar as a label is
generally regarded as negative while an ascribed status may be value-free.
Being Bulgarian (an ascribed status) is not normally regarded as negative in
most countries of the world, which have no quarrels with
again, is in a grey area. “Roman Catholic” is certainly not a label
Starting in the 19th Century, labeling in matters religious has been mostly carried out by defining certain unpopular religions as “cults”. In an article I co-wrote with James T. Richardson in 2001 (Richardson and Introvigne 2001), we argued that unpopular religions are re-labeled as “cults” by using a four-stage model.
First, the model claims that some minorities are not really “religions”
but something else: “cults”, criminal associations, or political
conspiracies. In July 1877 anti-Mormon author John Hanson Beadle (1840-1897)
wrote in the Scribner’s Monthly that “Americans have but one
native religion [Mormonism] and that one is the sole apparent exception to the
American rule of universal toleration. (...) Of this anomaly two explanations
are offered: one, that Americans are not really a tolerant people and that what
is called toleration is only such toward our common Protestantism, or more
common Christianity; the other, than something peculiar to Mormonism takes it
out of the sphere of religion” (Beadle 1877, 391).
Beadle’s astute observation effectively blackmailed American readers into
concluding that Mormonism was not a religion. In fact, readers were presumably
committed both to religious tolerance and to the idea that the
Second, the model posits that what distinguishes genuine religions from
groups falsely claiming their right to the name of religion is something called
brainwashing, mental manipulation, or mind control. Anti-Mormon author Maria
Ward (probably a pseudonym of Elizabeth Cornelia Woodcock Ferris [1809-1893]),
attributed the non-religious character of Mormonism to its systematic use of
“a mystical magical influence” capable of depriving followers of
“the unrestricted exercise of free will”. This is what “is
now popularly known by the name of Mesmerism”. According to Ward, the
Mormon prophet Joseph Smith (1805-1844) “came to possess the knowledge of
that magnetic influence, several years anterior to its general circulation
throughout the country” from a “German peddler” (Ward 1855, 230).
Since religion is, by rhetorical definition, an exercise of free will, a
non-religion may only be joined under some sort of coercion. This hypnotic
paradigm used against Mormonism resurfaced – after the Cold War
conveniently supplied the metaphor of brainwashing – in the 1970s “cult
wars” in the
Third, since brainwashing theories are the object of considerable scholarly criticism, the model requires as a third step discrimination among sources and narratives. “Victims”, i.e. those normally defined by social scientists as “apostates”, are defined as more reliable than scholarly observers. The “victims” are the former members converted into active opponents of the group they have left. Although many such ex-members resent being called “apostates” the term is technical, not derogatory, and has been used for some decades by sociologists (see Bromley 1988; Bromley 1998). Empirical data on the prevalence of apostates among former members are available only for a limited number of religious movements, but uniformly suggest that they are a minority (see Solomon 1982; Lewis 1986; Lewis 1989; Jacobs 1989; Introvigne 1999), perhaps between 10 and 20 per cent. Most former members have mixed feelings about their former affiliations and, at any rate, are not interested in joining a crusade against the group they have left.
Objections that “apostates” are not necessarily representative are met by the fourth stage of the model. We know that “apostates” are representative of the groups’ membership, or at least former membership, because they are screened and selected by private, reliable watchdog organizations which serve as moral entrepreneurs. Anti-cult organizations, we are told, are more reliable than other observers, including scholars, because the former, unlike the latter, have a “practical” experience and work with “victims”.
In 2001 I and Richardson reconstructed this model with reference to the
“cult wars” of the 1990s in
Mormonism and Labeling
the moral entrepreneurs of anti-cultism, “cult” by any standard is
not an essentialist definition but a socially constructed label. What is a cult
in Europe is not necessarily a cult in
was much more prominent in the 19th Century, because polygamy and
the domination of
If anti-Mormonism is scarcer than counter-Mormonism, labeling of Mormons should come primarily from the religious and Evangelical media, rather than from the secular and liberal. Although to a large extent this appears to be true, how the Romney campaign influenced the wider picture was the subject matter of Mike Homer’s paper in this session.
that paper dealt with the
news is that to a larger extent the fact that the
I have collected coverage of Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign in the first seven months of 2008 (January to July) in fifty Italian daily newspapers and one hundred periodicals having a Web site (or published only via Web). I have eliminated the articles mentioning Romney only in passing, and have focused on the first 1,000 texts (sorted by relevance) discussing Romney in some details.
Of these, 991
(or 99,1%) mention the Mormon affiliation of Romney. This is a first
interesting result. By contrast, out of 100 newspaper or magazine articles
selected among Web results in Italian about Hillary Clinton, not even one mentions that she is a Methodist. This is a nice example of how abscription
works. As we get more close to what at least some sections of the media brand
as “cults” the religious element becomes important, while normally
it is not particularly relevant for mainline, secular media. If a citizen who
happens to be a follower of Reverend Moon kills his wife, the headline will
probably be “Moonie kills his wife”. If in
are the data about polygamy. 473 articles (or 47,3%) mentioned that
Romney’s religion has something to do with polygamy, although 115 (11.5%
of the total, and 24.3% of those discussing polygamy in connection with Romney)
did some homework, and explained that Romney’s Church is not actually
polygamist. However, very few articles are entirely accurate on this point.
Most would say that Romney belongs to “a branch” of Mormonism which
is non-polygamist, or that polygamy has become “rare”. 173 articles
(or 17.3%) made some mention of Warren Jeffs, the events in
between January and July 2008, on the other hand, mentioned the TV serial Big
Love in connection with Romney. In
A particularly telling result is that 93 articles (or 9,3%) include sentences which are variations of “Mr. Romney has only one wife”. This is of course reminiscent of the often-told story of the Mormon Apostle visiting Italy who, tired of being asked how many wives he had, ended up answering that he had several but was traveling only with one since Europe is so expensive. On a more serious note, it tells us that for a significant number of Italian reporters the word “Mormonism” immediately rings a bell whose sound is “polygamy”.
It is possible
that in other Central and Southern European countries the results would be
Obviously the attitude of Italian, French or German media has little, if any, influence on American voters (and vice versa: the prevailing hostile attitude of foreign media towards Silvio Berlusconi did little to prevent him from being elected for the third time as Italian Prime Minister in April 2008, with a record number of votes). On the other hand it is sociologically significant for the public image of Mormonism.
that ascription and labeling are very long processes, and that the fact that
most scholars of religion do know the basic facts about Mormons and polygamy
does not easily translate into general or media awareness. Ultimately scholarly
articles, press releases by the
Beadle, J.H. “The Mormon Theocracy”. Scribner’s Monthly, vol. 14, no. 3 (July 1877), 391-401.
Bromley, David G. 1988. Falling from the Faith: Causes and
Consequences of Religious Apostasy.
Bromley, David G.
1998. The Politics of Religious Apostasy: The Role of Apostates in the
Transformation of Religious Movements.
Cullen, Francis T.
- John B. Cullen. 1978. Toward a Paradigm
of Labeling Theory.
“Fede privata e scelte pubbliche, lo strano caso di Mitt Romney”. 2006. il Foglio, December 22, 2006.
Ingraham, Prentiss. 1902. “
Massimo. 1999. “Defectors, Ordinary Leave-takers, and
Apostates: A Quantitative Study of Former Members of New Acropolis in
1989. Divine Disenchantment: Deconverting from New Religions.
Lewis, James R. 1986. “Reconstructing the `Cult’ Experience”. Sociological Analysis, vol. 47, n. 2, 151-159.
Lewis, James R. 1989. “Apostates and the Legitimation of Repression: Some Historical and Empirical Perspectives on the Cult Controversy”. Sociological Analysis, vol. 49, n. 4, 386-396.
Lodolini, Lilia. 2007. “Affari e rigore morale”. Jesus, February 2007.
Richardson, James T. - Massimo Introvigne. 2001. “‘Brainwashing Theories’ in European Parliamentary and Administrative Reports on ‘Cults’ and ‘Sects’”. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, vol. 40 no. 2 (June 2001), 143-168.
Sim, Georges (pseud. of Georges Simenon.) 1930. L’Oeil de l’Utah. [Note: This is the only edition known by the French National Library. However, the novelette should have been published, at least in feuilleton form, in 1929 or earlier, since in 1929 an Italian translation, L’occhio dell’Utah, was published in the monthly literary supplement of Italy’s leading daily newspaper Corriere della Sera: Il Romanzo mensile, vol. XXVII, n. 10, October 1929].
1982. “Integrating the Moonie Experience: A Survey of Ex-Members of the
2001. Sociology: Internet Edition.
1855. Female Life Among the Mormons,