Monday, October 17, 2011

What is a cult?

There has been lots of fascinating discussion recently of whether Mormons are Christians and whether religion has any place in politics.  Not much of that discussion has really gotten into the definition of a "cult."  (All of this results from a claim from Southern Baptism minister named Jeffress that Mormonism is a cult and that Mormons are not Christians.)

One writer who has tackled the definition of the word "cult" is my son, Robert Young.  His piece, posted on Facebook (see, is thought provoking, and much of it is  well stated and well thought out.  But it's certainly not immune from question or correction.  I offer some of both in my analysis, which follows (his text in regular type face, with my comments in bold and in square brackets):

I [this is my son Robert speaking at this point] feel like chiming in on one ongoing debate: The Mormon church was recently called a "cult."
There have been many definitions of the word "cult" throughout history, including:
1) "A relatively small group of people having religious beliefs or practices regarded by others as strange or sinister." [My comment: This is more or less the common, current, popular meaning of the word–in other words, when people use or hear the word nowadays, this is usually pretty much what they understand it to mean. By the way, this definition is from the OED and was added to that admirable source in 2004.]
2) "A system of religious veneration and devotion directed toward a particular figure, person, or object." [This is the original meaning, but is no longer current except in some technical, usually academic settings.  In this sense, “cult” is essentially synonymous with “religion” or “system or act of worship.” I like the OED versions of this definition: "Worship; reverential homage rendered to a divine being or beings" (obsolete); "A particular form or system of religious worship; esp. in reference to its external rites and ceremonies" (often in reference to primitive religions).]
3) "A religious or spiritual organization that requires financial dues in exchange for religious truth." [Where’s this from? I don’t think this is a standard definition, though I’m sure some people have chosen to define the word this way for whatever purposes and with whatever justification they’ve given themselves. It’s not, however, a widespread or historically supported use of the word.]
[Another important definition: In the 1930s, a sociologist tried to classify religions as “churches,” “denominations,” “sects,” and “cults,” with the last of these being “small religious groups lacking in organization and emphasizing the private nature of personal beliefs” (see  Note that this is similar to definition #1 above, but without the negative connotations.]
[There’s one other definition that the Southern Baptism minister who recently used the word apparently had in mind: what he himself called a "theological" definition, a definition that has been created by evangelical or conservative Christians to identify a certain kind of “false” religion, a definition they use in their theology schools, their literature, and sometimes in their sermons or in-house discussions.  The minister himself identified two elements of "cults": they have human founders rather than a divine one (so in the case of Mormonism, Joseph Smith rather than Jesus Christ--not of course how Latter-day Saints view the matter since they believe Jesus is himself the founder of their church), and they use other scriptures besides or in addition to the Bible.  This view of "cults" includes the connotation of “sinister”—or even worse, of “diabolic” and “evil”—and “heretical” or “false.” Wikipedia ( ) indicates that this view goes back to the 1940s when, among conservative Christians, “all new religious groups deemed outside of Christian orthodoxy were considered ‘cults.’”]
In all of these cases, there is an argument to call the LDS church a cult. [The arguments are stronger in some cases than in others, as some of the following indicates.] It is true that they require tithes and offerings for temple worthiness, and thus temple ceremonies. Those ceremonies contain keys to the gospel and eternal salvation, so yes, this is "cult-ish." [But this is not quite the same as exchanging religious truth for financial dues, for the following reasons: the religious truth conveyed in the temple is conveyed in a special and powerful way, but there is no specific doctrinal content that is not also available for free to anyone.  Also, strictly speaking, you don’t have to pay anything to go to the temple: if you have no tithable income, you can still attend, assuming that you would pay tithing if you could, showing that the principles involved are faith and obedience, not money.]
In early phases of the Mormon church, and in some present functions of it, Joseph Smith is worshipped and adored as a separate figure. [Joseph Smith has never been worshipped in the LDS Church; “adored” is an ambiguous term, but if it is defined strictly as “worshipped,” then it’s not accurate either.  “Praised,” “admired,” “revered”: yes.  The claim of Joseph Smith worshipping as ever being an official practice or doctrine of the Church is false. Note that "cult" is used in a derivative sense in connection with politicians, movie stars, musicians, and even writers: "Devotion or homage to a particular person or thing, now esp. as paid by a body of professed adherents or admirers" (OED def. 3).  This could perhaps apply to Joseph Smith--as well as to Barack Obama and the Beatles, among many others.] The song "Praise to the Man" serves as one example. Additionally, the concept of a living prophet who members should obey (essentially without question) taps the same vein. [Very arguable: “in the same vein” stretches faith that a human being can speak for God into the idea of worshipping the human intermediary.  And though a lot of people have promoted the idea of “without question,” that’s not an accurate reflection of the real-life experience of many Latter-day Saints—and I can give an essay full of quotations indicating that it is the teaching of the Church, whether or not people understand it very clearly, that “questioning” in the sense of “thinking” and “testing” is an appropriate part of listening to a prophet, and that prophets themselves have taught that prophets are humans who are not constantly and perfectly conveying the divine will but must be listened to with spiritual discernment because they sometimes speak non-prophetically.] While not really sufficient to call the faith a cult (the religion does focus on Christ for the most part), this is – sorry – "cultish." [In any case, “mode of worship” as a definition of “cult” is a mostly archaic definition that applies to all religions since religion involves worship.]
Additionally, the idea of a "relatively small group" that has strange spiritual beliefs, is quite well founded. As a small presence in the U.S. and abroad the believes in non-traditionals like abstaining from tobacco and alcohol, proxy baptisms, and eternal families, the Mormons are bizarre. Again, this qualifies as "cultish." [“Relatively” is obviously a relative term.  But it’s not very helpful here.  Yes, Latter-day Saints probably constitute less than 2% of the US population, but that still amounts to millions of people.  And most standard sources place the Church as the 4th, 6th, or 8th largest Christian church in the US (depending mostly on whether various Lutheran and Presbyterian churches are grouped together or considered separately).  That means that the LDS Church in the US is larger than the Episcopalian Church (which I’ve never heard called a “cult”) and larger than the major separate bodies of Lutherans or Presbyterians in the country.  With roughly 14 million Latter-day Saints in the world, the Church is a major global player and has been called by one non-LDS scholar “an emerging world religion.”  Academic students of religion (apart from conservative evangelicals and a few others) normally classify Mormons as a “church” or even a “people” (sort of like the Jews), but not as a “cult.”
    As for strange practices, I guess that’s in the eyes of the beholder: abstention from tobacco and alcohol doesn’t seem to me bizarre and is recommended or expected in other religious traditions.  “Eternal families”: unusual, yes, but I don’t think it’s an idea that strikes most outsiders as “bizarre.”  Proxy baptisms seem strange to some, especially if they think corpses are involved (note that many pagans thought early Christianity involved cannibalism and incest), but the practice of baptism for the dead is Biblical (1 Corinthians 15:29).  There are other things you don’t mention, though, that might some as more strange than any you have mentioned.  I’ll save those for another day.  But there’s nothing stranger than what you can find in virtually any religion—Catholicism is full of odd practices, and some find the general Christian practice of symbolically partaking of Christ’s body and blood to be strange.  Emerson kind of lost his belief in orthodox Christianity in part over his revulsion at the idea.]

So, is the LDS church a cult? Maybe. There's certainly an argument to calling them one. But we must note that many other groups qualify by these same standard. As a few examples:
1) Scientologists. (Small, non-standard, religious, require payment for scans.)
2) Ron Paul supporters. (Small, definitely non-standard, pseud-religious, requests campaign contributions.)
3) Early Christians. (Small, very radical, requested complete communal living)
4) All early protestants. (Small, counter-political, required funding and voice to operate.)
5) Martin Luther King Jr. (Minority support, very vocal and against the grain, much of the reverence focused toward a single man and his beliefs.)
[Yes, there’s a good deal of truth in your list, though there are obviously lots of distinctions among these.  Oh, by the way, all religions pretty much require some kind of funding to operate.] The list goes on. So while we can argue that Mormonism is a cult, we should really be asking the following: Is it really a bad thing to be a cult? Are there are substantial ways a "cult" religion differs from the beliefs of "standard" faiths that would apply to the political arena? And why do we always preoccupy ourselves with name-calling instead of asking the real and practical questions?
[Good questions.]

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