Perhaps one of the most common, and most damaging accusations leveled at the LDS church is that it is a cult. You can find iterations of this attack in the political realm here, here, here, and here, for example. Which, of course, doesn’t scratch the surface of dialogue in the religious world, where the accusation is bandied about with alarming regularity. This topic deserves two separate treatments. Part I deals with the semantics of the word “cult” when used in the political realm. Part II will deal specifically with how well the term applies to Mormonism.
The first thing to note about the “cult” epithet is that it means nothing at all. I’m serious. Take, for example, definitions 1 and 2 in the American Heritage Dictionary.
Cult: 1. A religion or religious sect generally considered to be extremist or false, with its followers often living in an unconventional manner under the guidance of an authoritarian, charismatic leader. . . 2. A system or community of religious worship and ritual.
Applying at least one of the above definitions, try to name a religion that isn’t a cult. Catholicism? Cult. Branch Davidians? Cult. Judaism? Yep. Clearly, this is a word that has a definitional problem. You can be Jim Jones, Mitt Romney, Michael Bloomberg or Pope Benedict, and the word “cult” is broad enough to find a place for you.
However, setting aside technical definitions, the term clearly has strong connotations. Ask yourself: what do I think of when I hear the word cult? Your answer will likely include strong images of brainwashing, antisocial compounds, unthinking sycophants and suicide pacts. And now you know why so many people love to use the word: because you can attach it to anyone you want, offer your own tailored definition if pressed, but still leave the impression that the person is a crazy sociopath. In short, it is a slur.
Those who apply this label to Mormons are cheating. By calling Mormonism a cult, they get the advantage of evoking all that foreboding “Kool-aid” imagery, but can retain plausible deniability for themselves when pressed on it. No one really believes those images apply to Mormons. Most of these accusers know full well that the Mormon Church has over 13 million worldwide adherents, extensive commercial holdings, and members in every possible elite institution and routine walk of life in America. Because the word’s emotional content consists of images unrelated and inapplicable to Mormons, and because it is empty of intellectual content, this word is meaningless, and therefore perfectly adapted to use by bigots in the political arena.
But when such attacks are made, ask the accuser to explain what about the LDS church makes it a cult. Chances are you’ll hear something like “they believe in absolute truth,” “they don’t adhere to the orthodox Christian creeds,” or “if you leave the Church they’ll come and find you.”* First, note that all of these accusations can be applied to myriad other organizations, none of which are typically slurred with the same word. But more importantly, if the above contentions are the only thing the speaker wishes to convey, why on earth did he or she use the word “cult?” Why use a word that will certainly evoke David Koresh and his ilk to vent about a large, mainstream organization that has some beliefs you don’t agree with? If you mean only to say “x,” why not say “x,” instead of saying “cult,” a word that you know does not mean “x,” and that is likely to raise far more sinister thoughts in the listener’s mind?
The only rational conclusion is that the person who calls Mormons “cultists” has gone far out of his way to do so. And any definition of the word that includes Mormonism must either 1) include many other organizations that are clearly not cults, or 2) completely redefine the word in the most labyrinthine and self-serving way.
So, logic and respectful social discourse demand that anyone who uses the word ‘cult’ in reference to Mormons must give an exact definition of the word. That definition will always include the Catholics or Baptists or Quakers or some other ‘legitimate’ faith, or it will exclude the Mormons. That person should then be dismissed, because he or she is clearly not interested in any meaningful dialogue. Rather, people branding Mormons as cultists, especially in the context of a political race, are simply throwing mud at Mormons and hoping it will stick to one in particular. To such people, the collateral damage to Mormonism and their own integrity, though extensive, is no deterrent at all.
*It is true that if you leave the Mormon Church, there will likely come a day when you hear a knock on your door and a smiling man or pair of missionaries will greet you and invite you to return to full activity. There will not be ominous music playing in the background, no threats, drugs, or brainwashing techniques will be used, and if you tell them no, the worst case scenario is that they will forget to strike your name from the list, and you might see them again in a year.
Note: the above refers to the use of this term specifically in the political arena, where one’s motives for using the label are usually more transparently cynical than those using it in religious dialogue. While Part II will argue that the term does not apply to Mormons regardless of the motives of the accuser, RomneyExperience prefers to presume that some of those using the label in the religious world do so in good faith, though incorrectly. To read about the possible ways the term “cult” might be applied to the LDS Church, please see Part II.
UPDATE: Reader Evan responds to this post writing that he views Mormons as good religious people and the religion as respectable and one that contributes to society. However, he says, he still calls the LDS Church a cult because “its theology falls outside the boundaries of core Christian doctrine.” This provides the perfect example of what I’ve discussed above. If you think Mormonism has doctrines that diverge from the core of traditional Christianity (and it does), please feel free to say so. No Mormon will object to that. But if that is all you are trying to say, why on earth do you need to employ a word that is so fraught with so many messages that have nothing to do with whether one accepts core Christian theology? Happily, reader Evan has agreed in subsequent emails to change to a better description.