See Part I here.
Despite the weaseliness of the “cult” label, the word does actually mean something. To most people, it implies a group of people lacking in independence or sophistication under the sway of a powerful doctrine or charismatic leader, which leads them away (often dangerously or objectionably) from mainstream society. It is only fair to ask whether the LDS Church exhibits tendencies that could place it in or near this definition.
First, do Mormons lack sophistication or independent will such that they can be brainwashed or unfairly manipulated? There is no way to objectively answer this question, but it is helpful to try to find such manipulation or brainwashing in the church’s practices. If such brainwashing exists, it must take place in church meetings or other church-related venues. And yet, every single meeting connected with the church involves only discussions of the gospel, organizational administration, or social activity. While it is true that Mormons would include in their view of “the gospel” topics not seen in other Christian churches (including unique perspectives on the Trinity, salvation, and Priesthood), roughly 70% of what is discussed in any church discussion would be very familiar to a visiting Christian. Lessons and talks on topics such as charity, repentance, Christ-like living, and faith abound. In other words, what Mormons are doing in their churches is almost identical to what those of other faiths are doing– discussing points of doctrine and coordinating efforts to serve each other. No pressure is applied, no coercive techniques are used, and everyone is free to come and go as they please.
Of course, there is one setting of Mormon worship that is unique to the faith: the Temple, where only worthy members of the Church may enter to perform ceremonies that are not discussed outside the Temple. The secrecy surrounding Temple activities is troubling to some. Mormons explain it as arising from the need to hold some deeply sacred things private between themselves and God, but they are also happy to discuss Temple ceremonies in generalities. For example, one of the most significant ceremonies performed in Temples is a Temple marriage, called a sealing, in which a man and woman are bound together for all eternity. The actual ceremony consists of nothing more than a bride and groom kneeling together at an altar while an ordained temple minister gives impromptu words of advice and then says a roughly two-minute prayer binding them forever. If cameras were allowed in a sealing room, the resulting television show would rank somewhere between a normal Sunday mass and This Old House for titillating entertainment value. In other words: don’t let the secrecy fool you. These things are sacred, but they are not scintillating.
Secondly, are Mormons under the influence of a dominating doctrine or charismatic leader? The doctrines of the church are taken seriously. It is well-known that Mormons seek to live a highly moral lifestyle, in that they tend to avoid smoking, drinking, recreating on the Sabbath, and salacious entertainment. What is interesting is that almost all of these practices line up directly with what mainstream America believes in, whether they do it or not. In other words, most people of faith agree that drinking, smoking, strip clubs, pornography or Sunday shopping are vices, it’s just that Americans in general are lax in holding themselves to such ideals. Faithful Mormons are unique only to the extent that they try hard to live these ideals (and of course, as with any faith, there is huge variation of how well they do at that). It cannot be that Mormons belong to a cult because they simply make more effort to follow rules that most other religious Americans believe in.
Further, there is no such thing as a “charismatic” leader in modern Mormonism (it would be unfair to focus only on the founding leaders of long ago since every religion, including Christianity, started with leaders that could be called charismatic). The Church has many well-known leaders, many of whom are held in very high regard. Mormons even hold the church’s president to be a prophet, who can speak for God. And yet, when he speaks for God, the message is almost always routine: reach out to others, try to be kind, stay clean from the moral rot in the world. More importantly, if there were some leader with hypnotic, charismatic abilities, he would have difficulty bringing the Church’s 13 million adherents under his spell. The vast majority of Mormons never meet the church President or any of its general leaders. Instead, they deal day to day with local leaders, who are called directly out of the flock and receive no formal training or compensation. By definition, then, these leaders are ordinary people without unique persuasive or charismatic gifts.
The final question is whether Mormons have been led by cultist tendencies out of the mainstream of society. Again, it is indisputable that there are some ways in which Mormons are different from other people. And again, these differences revolve around their adherence to rules most people acknowledge as generally moral and beneficial. Yet these differences are externally trivial enough to allow all Mormons to take full part in modern society. Mormons use technology, dress in modern clothing, live all throughout the United States and the world. They travel, obtain employment of every kind, and seek to rise through the ranks of their organizations and provide for their families. And while Mormons self-identify as Mormons, with the accompanying uniqueness that implies, they also very much identify themselves as Southerners, New Englanders, Americans, Brazilians or Filipinos as well. In nearly every single measure of “normalcy” in modern America, Mormons compare well with their peers. There is simply no question that U.S. Mormons partake in the mainstream of American society and culture.
Despite all of the above, there are elements of the Mormon faith that those using the “cult” label point to as providing a basis for their accusations. For example, faithful Mormons tithe; that is, they give ten percent of their income to the Church. To some outsiders this makes the Church look like a vast money-making operation, more concerned with lucre than with salvation. And yet, the measure of a church’s alleged avarice should not be how much money it takes in, but what it does with that money. The LDS Church allocates immense sums to its building program, constructing hundreds of chapels and numerous temples throughout the world. It is also well-known for its extensive humanitarian donations to over 1500 charitable organizations worldwide. And if the tithing program is a scheme for getting rich, it has failed in its purpose, as the Church’s leaders live verifiably modest lives. Very simply, global organizations require funds to operate, and the LDS Church has a structure in place for collecting those funds. Given that no news of scandal or financial impropriety has surfaced from the church in at least a century, any accusation of LDS greed or misappropriation would utterly lack foundation.
Perhaps the aspect of Mormonism that critics point to most frequently as evidence of its cultish tendencies is the willingness of its members to follow the counsel of their leaders. Generally, it is correct that Mormons place a high value on following their leaders, as they believe, just as the Israelites and primitive Christians did, that their leaders are inspired by God. This does not mean there is no accounting in LDS doctrine for human error. No leader, including the LDS prophet, is held to be infallible. Indeed, most Mormons can point to an acts or pronouncements by local and general leaders that they view to have been mistaken- including some of the theorizing of Brigham Young, for example. And while all Mormon leaders at all levels are presumed to act according to God’s revealed will, the Church has built in a structure to protect against error and abuse. Each member of the Church is frequently told that all truth may be confirmed by individualized revelation from God, and encouraged to seek such confirmation where any leader’s statement or decision raises concerns. This ultra-egalitarian approach to revelation is unique among hierarchical religious communities, and allows the lowliest member to proceed by his or her own lights regardless of the surrounding orthodoxy.
The tension that can sometimes arise between following one’s leaders and confirming truth for oneself is softened by the foundational principle of Mormon leadership, encapsulated in one oft-cited Mormon scripture, which offers what may be the best argument against those who call the Mormon Church a cult. Whereas cultists generally employ methods of persuasion meant to coerce adherents to follow certain strictures, Mormon scripture demands the opposite:
No power or influence can or ought to be maintained by virtue of the priesthood, only by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned; by kindness and pure knowledge, which shall greatly enlarge the soul without hypocrisy and without guile– Reproving betimes with sharpness, when moved upon by the Holy Ghost; and then showing forth afterwards an increase of love toward him who thou has reproved, lest he esteem thee to be his enemy; That he may know that thy faithfulness is stronger than the cords of death.
A foundational tenet of Mormonism is that even God himself will not coerce any person against his or her will, and therefore it would hardly be the place of any human leader to do so. In such an environment, where coercion is eschewed, and the charity of Jesus is offered as the supreme example, brainwashing, manipulation, and mind control are far out of place, both in theory and in practice.
While none of the above ideals of the Mormon church are followed by every church member, each informs the spirit and attitude that animates the church’s ranks. It is this commitment to respecting each person’s independent free will that sets the LDS faith apart so starkly from groups that deserve the label of cult.