Tuesday, November 15, 2011

On Mormonism and the 'Cult' Issue

Lately I've been wanting to take a moment to address a few of the most major questions one is likely to deal with in dialogue between Latter-day Saints and representatives of traditional strains of Christianity. It seems that the first one of those has to be the matter of the pejorative term "cult", which is frequently used in Evangelical parlance as a classification of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It was in the news a while back with the comments made by Rev. Robert Jeffress, who wished to politically favor Rick Perry over Mitt Romney by casting Perry as a member of an acceptable religious community and Romney as a member of a fringe, deviant "cult". For a qualified audio defense of the practice of designating the LDS faith as a 'cult', see this episode (17 October 2011) of Mormonism Research Ministry's Viewpoint on Mormonism podcast. For just one recent LDS reaction to the use of the word 'cult' to describe the LDS faith (but not a direct response to the MRM podcast episode), see Kevin Barney's post "Cynical Use of the Word 'Cult'" at the By Common Consent blog. While I disagree cordially with some of Kevin's statements (and those of a few of the commentators), I agree with much of the spirit of his post and recommend reading it.

These days, Evangelicals and others who want to classify Mormonism as a 'cult' will typically recognize that attempts to actually use the standard sense of 'cult' are pretty unsuccessful. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is too large, allows for too much ideological diversity within its ranks, and is generally no more guilty of most of the standard 'secular' criteria for culthood than any of the mainstream Christian denominations. Because of this, representatives of Evangelical 'countercult' ministries typically distinguish between the "sociological definition of a 'cult'" and the "theological definition of a 'cult'". Jeffress did the same, clarifying that he considers the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to be a "theological cult".

The latter is generally defined (more or less) as any group of comparatively recent coinage that, while staking some manner of claim to normative Christian identity (or, sometimes, not), nevertheless exhibits sufficiently high degrees of doctrinal aberration on major Christian tenets as to render that claim problematic as stands; sometimes it is added that a cult will generally focus on one particular leader's (or tradition of leaders') interpretations of Christian scripture, or includes novel scripture foreign to the historic Christian tradition, and that the 'cult' will attempt to restrict its members' access to any criticisms of its teachings. In the podcast episode I linked above, Bill McKeever, drawing on Alan Gomes, defined a cult - in this 'theological sense' - as "a group that claims to be Christian while at the same time either denies or distorts the basic teachings of the Christian faith". McKeever added:
...I think we need to get this across, that if that word is to be used - and we have often said, that's not a word that we like to use a lot, I think it should be more descriptive rather than accusatory. I would certainly never go up to a Latter-day Saint and just say, "Oh, you're a cultist." I mean, that would certainly not allow for a very good conversation, and I should not be surprised if a Mormon would not want to talk to me if I acted like that, probably any more than they should expect me to want to talk to them after they come up and say, "Oh, you're a part of the Great Apostasy." [...] But if that's what they want to believe about us, I have no problem with that. I don't lose sleep at night knowing that my Latter-day Saint acquaintances or neighbors think that I'm a part of the Great Apostasy. I just don't. But I find it odd that the Mormons tend to really wring their hands over this notion that we in Evangelical Christianity don't embrace them as a part of the Christian faith. They really get upset about that.
Now, with regard to the thorny 'Are Latter-day Saints Christians?' question, I'm choosing to defer that to another post; it's a big issue and deserves more time, effort, and space than I can give it right here and now. I'll also be upfront and say that - rejecting the above 'theological definition' as offered by Gomes, McKeever, Jeffress, and others - I would not classify the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as a "cult", and at any rate do not think it is wise or charitable to call it such (for reasons partly overlapping with McKeever's stated rationale for using the term sparingly, even on his definition).

During the past several weeks as I've been thinking through this subject, and particularly the modern form of the claim as represented by modern countercult ministries, I thought I had a fairly firm idea of why I have a problem with the statement. I was going to write that I find the notion of a "theological definition of a 'cult'" to be a wholly spurious attempt to piggyback onto the cult hysteria of the late twentieth century, thereby allowing for the same sort of equivocation and dishonest play on the public perception of a common term that countercult apologists frequently accuse 'cultists' of. More recently, though, I've been doing a cursory historical examination, and I'm not sure that most of those charges will quite fly anymore.

The word 'cult' was once a fairly value-neutral term derived from the Latin word cultus, generally denoting any system of (somewhat ritualized) worship devoted to some entity - thus, one might talk of the "cult of Poseidon" in ancient Greece, or of the "Jewish temple cult" in the early first century. Eventually, however, other uses of the term began to crop up. In 1898, a church rector from Wisconsin named Arthur H. Barrington published a book called Anti-Christian Cults: An Attempt to Show That Spiritualism, Theosophy and Christian Science are Devoid of Supernatural Powers and are Contrary to the Christian Religion. The 'cults' of the title were any seemingly novel spiritual/theological counterfeits that simply revived old heresies; in a commendatory prefixed to the book, Barrington's bishop Isaac Nicholson calls them "old ghosts of old-time heresies", with each presenting itself as one of "the latest fashions, the last mental 'cult,' the newest and freshest 'religion'" (4). Barrington himself, very early in the text, goes on to write:
Too many (if there were but two or three, it were too many) - too many are being deceived, and blinded, and led astray to-day, by the false hopes, and promises, and claims of certain religious yet anti-Christian cults which in vain would undermine the truth as it is in Jesus. Undoubtedly, like other fads which sprung up in the night of darkness rather than in the light of eternal truth, these shadows of good shall come to nought, as they are unquestionably of men; but, in the meantime, the effect upon the adherents of such substitute religions cannot but be disastrous. (12-13)
Barrington later continues to refer to such groups as "these anti-Christian cults, which are making inroads into the Household of Faith" (23). In his conclusion, he again classifies them as "modern substitutes for the Gospel or anti-Christian cults" (158). Noteworthy, perhaps, is that Barrington was here focused on what we might call the 'occultic' and/or 'mind science' variety of then-new religious movements; noteworthy also is that the early Latter Day Saints also engaged in harsh polemics against many of the same movements, particularly spiritualism. In this book, Barrington never identifies the LDS faith as a 'cult', though it would be difficult to argue that he wouldn't have seen it in that light, and the general sort of rhetoric he uses against his 'cults' bears a great deal of resemblance to that used in many nineteenth-century anti-LDS polemics.

That was in 1898. It was only in 1932, so far as I know, that the word 'cult' in a non-cultus sense came to be used by sociologists, and that was with Howard Becker's modification of Ernest Troelsch's church-sect typology. For Becker, a 'cult' was a small and somewhat disorganized religious group that originates, not (like a 'sect') by way of schism from a previous religious body, but rather by way of crystallizing around some new leader or thesis. Later sociologists refined this sense.

From what I can gather, it was mostly after Becker's work that the word 'cult' came to be more widely used by Evangelical apologists to designate theologically deviant movements; up until the late 1930s and early 1940s, where the Evangelical countercult movement really began to take off, the words 'heresy' and 'sect' still enjoyed much greater currency. Jan Karel van Baalen's 1938 book The Chaos of Cults was probably an early milestone, though in those early days, the term '-isms' was also quite common (as even in the subtitle of van Baalen's book). The countercult legacy was expanded by Walter Martin's 1955 book The Rise of the Cults, where he defined a cult as a group centered on "any major deviation from orthodox Christianity relative to the cardinal doctrines of the Christian faith" (12). Of course, it was his 1965 book The Kingdom of the Cults that really became influential. In the 1970s and 1980s, of course, a secular 'anti-cult movement' arose in connection with the 'cult scares' of groups like the Peoples Temple (Jim Jones), the Branch Davidians (David Koresh), and so forth.

Somewhat contrary to my initial expectations, then, the Evangelical 'theological' use of the word 'cult' actually has a lengthy ancestry, one that predates even the 'sociological' use of the term. Historically speaking, at least a soft division can be made, though any given 'countercult' author in later years may have used the word 'cult' with some mixture of 'theological' and 'sociological' elements in mind. So there's a sense in which the Evangelical use of the term 'cult' in general is valid. Furthermore, if all of the above is accepted, then in that limited sense, the common Evangelical application of the term 'cult' (as so defined) to the LDS Church also has a sort of validity, from an Evangelical standpoint.

However, it also seems to me that most people today have a certain sense of the word 'cult', a sense inculcated in large part by the cult scares of the late twentieth century. The word conjures up images of followers devoted to a single charismatic leader, willing to kill themselves to attain enlightenment if required, or residing on a compound awaiting the leader's cue to engage in apocalyptic combat with the 'forces of darkness' residing in the outside world. There is certainly a theological element to this common sense, but it can't be reduced to just 'weird beliefs', let alone 'a supposedly Christian but doctrinally deviant group of people with some weird beliefs and practices'. Modern-day Mormonism simply does not fit the ominous popular picture of what a 'cult' is, at least not in most of the relevant aspects.

In light of this overwhelming popular notion of what a 'cult' is, it seems that Evangelicals should probably abandon the special use that prevails in our subculture, no matter how old its precedents are. Let's face it: we don't need it. Either we want to communicate precisely and only what our 'theological definition' (and preferably a more nuanced formulation of it, at that) states, or we actually desire the extra baggage of the word's popular connotations. If the latter is the case, I consider that to be rather shameful. If that's what we want, then - all our rhetoric about truth and clarity aside - we really just want to tar the LDS reputation by guilt-by-association with far more nefarious and dangerous groups. (Or, perhaps we really do believe that the LDS Church is a 'cult' in that popular way, right down to 'brainwashing'. In that case, there's no dishonest dealing here, just a need for a reality check.)

Alternatively, perhaps we really are being sincere in using just the venerable and time-tested 'theological definition' for the word 'cult'. Maybe we really do wish that people would understand the distinction, and our goal is to be "descriptive" rather than "pejorative". In the podcast episode linked at the top of this post, Eric Johnson reads a passage from Alan Gomes in which Gomes appeals to the long pre-secular usage of the word 'cult' in just this fashion as a reason to continue doing so now, since - the implication runs - we therefore have a greater implicit 'ownership' of the word than the secular/sociological uses; Gomes also finds it fitting for reasons ill-explained. (They also point out that some mainstream LDS leaders have had no qualms about using the word 'cult' in reference to, e.g., alternative claimants to the LDS legacy.) But we have to realize that we're setting up wholly unnecessary obstacles for communication with anyone outside our subculture. I don't see a need for that. We can retrain ourselves to be comfortable with words like 'heresy'; won't that do? That certainly has a far more august pedigree in Christian polemical use than the word 'cult' does. As Timothy Dalrymple writes on the subject:
If we want to communicate with the world in a way that brings both clarity and charity, then we have to deal with words according to their current meaning. It profits us nothing to call Mormonism a cult. It makes us appear paranoid, self-righteous and cruel, and it slanders the good people who believe they are following Jesus Christ in the LDS Church. According to the popular definition of that term, we are accusing Mormons of being on a level with David Koresh and Jim Jones. This is inaccurate, unloving, and unChristian.
The use of the word 'cult' is an obstacle to dialogue to a greatly unnecessary degree. Even for those Evangelicals who sincerely wish to invoke only the 'theological definition' of the term and to do so in an air of gentle love and respect, the very offensiveness of the word due to its widespread current connotations will belie that message. It is the very example of needless offense and poor communication. Now, perhaps most of our alternative evaluative terms (e.g., 'heresy') could also be offensive, and we may have to live with that, just as Latter-day Saints must learn to live with the extreme offense that their narrative of apostasy and restoration represents for all mainstream Christians. But forsaking the word 'cult' is a worthwhile gesture, since more understandable evaluative terms remain that denote the same as our cherished "theological definition of a 'cult'".

For that reason, I try to avoid using the word 'cult' whenever possible in general, and particularly in reference to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Under virtually all but the now-most-trivialized sense of the word, it's simply inaccurate. Even under that sense of the word, it communicates poorly and causes offense. And better options are available. I love and respect Latter-day Saints, and so I don't want to cause any offense that isn't necessitated by any accurate articulation of my honestly-held views. I also don't want to perpetuate inaccurate impressions of the LDS people or their faith. As best as I can, I want to speak the truth in love, and I don't believe I could effectively do that while routinely using the term 'cult' in reference to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Given the history and momentum of Evangelical use of the term, I doubt there's much hope of it dying out any time soon, but to me it's worth protesting.


  1. At a base level, I think a lot of people throw the "cult" word around because they are scared of what they don't know. If it's not within the "norm" of what has been taught it becomes beyond comprehension thus turning into something to go against. If you think about it, here is this religious movement started in the 1800 that was deemed a passing faze but now has 15 million members and growing rapidly compared to a lot of other religions out there. The church is debt free, in all facets of business (Marriott, politics, etc). I think people just don't understand how this little tiny church could have gone so large in such a short time. It's makes people uneasy. It breaks from the mainstream of what centuries of man's interpretation of the word has taught them.

    Like you said, when I hear the word "cult" it makes me thing of bad things, not a religious thing. It makes me think of a small group that brainwashes, takes kids away from parents and families separation and gets them to do things that are "bad" that they normally would not do.

    If we think of the religious type of cult. All religion could be considered a cult. The catholic because they follow the pope, each sect of religion because they follow their pastor/priest and tailor their lives bases on what their pastor/priest say.

    Here it the definition of cult on dictionary.com

    1. particular system of religious worship, especially with reference to its rites and ceremonies.
    2. an instance of great veneration of a person, ideal, or thing, especially as manifested by a body of admirers: the physical fitness cult.
    3. the object of such devotion.
    4.a group or sect bound together by veneration of the same thing, person, ideal, etc.
    5.Sociology . a group having a sacred ideology and a set of rites centering around their sacred symbols.

    If you use these definitions, all groups (religious or not) could be considered cults. Even the discussion boards for pregnant women who group together could be considered a cult according to #4 definition. :)

    If we get into another more controversial ideology- the gay/lesbian movement could be considered a cult also.

    This day and age where political correctness is so HUGE, I am still surprised by the use of such backhand references. I would think more people would be happy to see a religion that teaches good principles, teaches healthy principles (you know studies have shown LDS people live 10 years longer then others (ok so I'm a nurse have to throw in the medical aspects of it) :) ), and produce VERY productive and educated citizens.

    Anyways, long winded kari at it again. Good post.

  2. Thanks JB for a well reasoned and respectful post. Is Mormonism a Cult? That depends on the definition of the word "cult" to which you refer above. Other than the negative connotation that is often associated with that word, there is much to indicate that the practices and beliefs of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is akin to the ancient use of the word cult. There are also parallels with the modern sociological definition of the word.

  3. [Hello, Study. Found this little gem on the net. Rebecca]

    mormonism's DIRTY little secret

    by Aaronita Smith

    Non-Mormon scholars as well as Mormon ones are aware of a hard-core pornographic drawing in the "Book of Abraham" which is Mormon-approved scripture.
    This Book is part of the "Pearl of Great Price" which, along with the "Book of Mormon" and the "Doctrine and Covenants," make up the LDS church's "triple combination" in one volume.
    The porn is found in Fig. 7 of Facsimile 2 in the "Book of Abraham" which shows two beings facing each other, which were described by Joseph Smith as representing the "Holy Ghost" and "God sitting upon his throne," the latter clearly showing an aroused male sex organ.
    After Smith published this sketch in his newspaper in 1842, which offended Mormon sensibilities, the phallic portion was whited out for more than a century until the "restored" LDS church decided in 1981 to restore what had long been censored!
    Equally shocking was the discovery that the "Book of Abraham" had nothing to do with Abraham or his God but was actually based on ancient Egyptian funeral documents depicting occultic obscene practices - and the original sketches showed an erotic phallus on both beings including the one Smith blasphemously claimed was the Holy Ghost!
    For further information see "Book of Abraham" (Wikipedia). Also see Jerald and Sandra Tanner's "Mormonism - Shadow or Reality?" which on 76 pages reproduces the original Egyptian X-rated drawings and shows how Smith altered them and created one of his many frauds. Highlights in the classic Tanner work can be seen by typing "Facts From Mormons (By a Utah Resident)" and "What LDS Leaders Say" on Yahoo.

    (Mitt Romney didn't approve of this insight of mine into his faith!)