Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Is Mormonism a Cult?

With Mitt Romney again running for President of the United States, the word "cult" is getting a lot of air time.

Is the Mormon church a cult? You can't give a simple yes or no answer.

There are (at least) three ways to use the word "cult" — and they're all correct usage:

The broadest, but least common, refers to any system of worship. It is not derogatory; it simply distinguishes one religious group from another. In history, the "Jewish temple cult" was the way orthodox Israelites worshipped YHWH at Solomon's temple in Jerusalem.

The narrowest, and most common among Americans at large, refers to groups with wildly unusual teachings that influence their members using unethical tactics (e.g., sleep deprivation) and try to cut them off from their friends and families (at least in the popular imagination). Think Branch Davidians or Heaven's Gate.

In between these two in scope is a usage that is common among American Evangelicals: a group that is an unorthodox off-shoot of an existing religion. It simply refers to groups that don't follow all of the rules. By this definition Christianity is a cult of Judaism, and the Jehovah's Witnesses are a cult of Christianity (because they do not hold to the deity of Christ or the doctrine of the Trinity).

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (aka, LDS Church or Mormons) is also a cult of Christianity by this definition.

The problem is that most Americans, when hearing the word cult, think about David Koresh or Jim Jones. To these Americans, calling the Mormon church a cult is sure sign that you are a weirdo. You'll rarely, if ever, be given a chance to explain what you mean. You'll simply be tuned out or castigated.

It is not useful to call the LDS Church a cult in politics or apologetics. It demeans you. Just don't do it.


Ken said...

Romney, and any Mormon offended by being referred to as cultists, need to be asked why they adhere to a religion whose prophet, Joseph Smith, referred to Christianity, in general, as being cultic.
He actually, claimed that God Himself referred to Christianity as “all wrong,” an “abomination,” “all corrupt” and “far from me”—this is the very foundation of the Mormon religion.
Pardon the spam-like URL but, see: http://www.examiner.com/messianic-jewish-in-national/rick-perry-on-robert-jeffress-mormonism-as-cult

Unknown said...

As an LDS member I appreciate your even-handed discussion of this topic. I think what has many people concerned about Romney is whether his religious views will have undue influence on him (much like John Kennedy). Where was this concern with George W. Bush?

mikexplorer said...

happy weekend to you.. nice posts.. keep posting and keep in touch..

Salim said...

Chris, wise words.

From an outsider (atheist) perspective it's very difficult to determine if one religion is any more valid than another.

I agree that "cult" is mostly a pejorative - that's why I prefer to use the phrase "emerging religion". Today's cult might be tomorrow's major religion. Christianity and Islam all might have once been regarded as strange, exotic cults.

Obviously some religions such as the Jehova's Witnesses, Scientologists or Hare-Krishnas have more worrying requirements such as to leave your family or dedicated huge proportions of income or time to the fiaith. These sorts of requirements tend to limit the appeal of religions. I think Scientology particularly tends to appeal to more maladjusted types for whom rejecting society is not such a big deal.

On the other hand, I don't think the evidence for the beliefs of the LDS faith is any stronger or weaker than that of mainstream Christianity. If I were to total up the far-fetched claims of all the world's religions I'd expect that Roman Catholicism would come out top with it's pantheon of saints their array of miracles and relics.

At least we can say that the founders of the LDS religion were actual historical persons - this is far more than most religions can be certain of.


ChrisB said...

@Mr. Lawslo,

There were a lot of people who were concerned about GW Bush's religion -- especially the second time around. They were not, as a rule, evangelicals.


The question is not which religion is more valid but what is the relationship between these to faith systems.

Salim said...

"The question is not which religion is more valid but what is the relationship between these to faith systems."

I'm not sure what you mean - are you concerned of the likely influence that some faith or non-elected leader might have on an elected politician?

For example some voters were concerned that President Kennedy might be taking orders from the Pope.

ChrisB said...

"are you concerned of the likely influence that some faith or non-elected leader might have on an elected politician?"

No. That's addressed in the next post. This simply addressed whether or not the Mormons are a "cult" -- and what that means.

Salim said...

Yes, then we are in agreement. Neither of us feel that the word cult is particularly applicable in this case.

I'm just curious - do you regard Scientology or the Unification Church to be cults? What about the Nazi party of Germany before the 2nd world war?

There's something about organizations which build themselves around the personality of one individual. That to me signifies the "cult-like" organization more so than any particular religious beliefs.

I do not think we can call Mormonism a cult under this standard since Joseph Smith is long-dead and modern Mormonism is quite different to the religion he founded. We could have called it a cult back then... with all those people who were following a guy who claimed to have received secret tablets from an angel!

ChrisB said...

Actually, I think cult is an accurate word properly understood. I just don't think it's a very useful one.

The Unification Church could probably be classified as a cult in the 3rd sense of the word listed above.

As for Scientology, I'm sure you're thinking of the 2nd, more disconcerting, use of the word; frankly I don't know enough about it to say.

A cult of personality is a different animal. The Nazis were certainly that, but I don't think it would be accurate to use it in any other sense.

Salim said...

I think the Unification church can be thought of as both a cult (in the religious sense) and also a personality cult since it's dominated by a single human individual.

I expect that there was a time when LDS followers could also have fallen under both of the above criteria.

Believe All Things said...

I also appreciate the tenor of this post and would suggest reviewing my post - albeit from an LDS perspective - Is Mormonism a Cult?. There appear to be many similarities between the ancient, and even more modern sociological definitions of the word cult. I'd appreciate your thoughts if you wouldn't mind commenting on the blog. Thanks.