Let's handle them in reverse order.
#3: "Rick Perry Supporter Calls Mormonism a Cult": Per the Times, a Southern Baptist minister named Robert Jeffress introduced Gov. Perry at a shindig called the Values Voter Summit, held in Washington. (The summit -- remember when that word meant Reagan meeting Gorbachev? -- was organized by groups like the Family Research Council, and we gather that its values didn't include, say, the right of labor to organize, or the occupation of Wall Street.)
So, Jeffress introduced Perry as "a genuine follower of Jesus Christ," and then -- in separate statements to the press -- used the "c" word to describe the faith of another Republican candidate. As the Times says, "injected a potentially explosive issue into the presidential campaign," and "raised immediate suspicions that the attack may have been a way for surrogates or supporters of Mr. Perry ... to gain ground by raising religious concerns."
For the record, when Perry himself was asked, he said that he does not consider Mormonism a cult. Still, since he (like Michelle Bachmann) makes much of his faith on the campaign trail, it is likely that a bit of religious furor will help him. In that sense, the papers are justified in making a fuss about this, and even is suspecting a bit of campaign opportunism. (Here's Sarah Posner's take on "anti-Mormonism" at the VVS).
But let's consider #2: Evangelical Pastor Calls Mormonism a Cult. Well, duh. This version of the story is dog-bites-man, as they say, meaning utterly unremarkable. Somewhere in America, some evangelical pastor probably does this every few minutes.
The mistake that the Times makes, and which we suspect some other news organs will as well, is to restrict the story to "Evangelicals," in the American news-media sense of that word. The fact is that no Christian community, so far as we are aware, recognizes in the Latter-Day Saints as sharing a faith compatible with its own. In other words, none of us consider them Christian. (Think about that: Southern Baptists, Roman Catholics, and the Metropolitan Community Church can see in one another the same essential faith, and yet none of them can see it in the LDS).
The Mormons are understandably peeved by this. By their own lights, "followers of Jesus" is precisely what they are; they simply have access to more information about him than the rest of us.
But the Jeffress story has an added complication, since he didn't merely make a distinction between Mormons and Christians-as-conventionally-defined. This brings us to variation #1: Mormonism is a Cult! In the current cultural climate, these are fighting words. No wonder, since to be called a "cult" is to be lumped in with Jim Jones and David Koresh, with Jack Hickman and the Raelians. It is to be classified as a brain-washing, child-abusing, apocalypse-mongering collector of guns, concubines and federal warrants. And few people familiar with Mormonism would seriously mean to do that.
Of course, the word "cult" is tricky. It can be used sociologically, to describe manipulative and authoritarian patterns of leadership and behavior, but its earliest use was religious. Some modern Christian apologists use it to describe heretical movements -- not just within Christianity, but within other religions. This is the standard by which most Christians unhesitatingly identify the LDS as a cult. Like Elijah Muhammad's renegade creator scientist Yakub, Joseph Smith's visit of Jesus to the New World is a critical bit of mythological history unacceptable (and a bit comical) to more conventional believers.
But underneath even this use lies an older non-pejorative use of the word "cult": to mean a particular religious movement, especially when regarded as a system of worship. This is the sense of the Latin cultus, which at its root is about agriculture, whence nurture and reverence, whence finally worship. When Peter Brown writes (brilliantly) about "the cult of the saints" in Latin Christianity, he offers no judgment, either theological or sociological. And in that sense, we're all cultists. (Ooops.)
What, then, should we make of the Jeffress story, and of Gov. Perry's putative involvement?
On one hand, we at the Egg can affirm that Mormonism is indeed a cult, in both less and more pejorative senses of that word: it is a system of divine worship, and from any Christian perspective an heretical one. Yet we have to reject the most pejorative sense; Mormons may be odd ducks, but they are not, as a group, the brain-washed Kool-Aid drinking automata that many people associate with the word. Quite the contrary.
So when, in the midst of a heated (and in Perry's case, floundering) contest, one candidate's supporters start declaring that another candidate is a cult-member, we do indeed think it is a cheap shot, intended to stir the coals of religious bigotry. Needless to say, that sort of thing has no place in a secular democracy, not to mention no place among civilized people. Or, to put it more bluntly: Hey, Jeffress -- leave it for the ayatollahs, okay?