Is Mormonism a Cult?
Robert Jeffress, a Texas pastor, handed the media another controversy by his remarks about Romney and Mormonism. Jeffress noted that while Romney is a moral man, he does not regard Romney as being a Christian and sees Mormonism as a cult. He did add that he would prefer Romney over Obama.
Hearing Jeffress compare Romney and Perry, I was struck by the fact that Jeffress refereed to Romney as being moral in a way that made it sound derogatory. Jeffress noted that he would prefer a Christian to a moral and good person. This could, of course, be taken as indicating that Jeffrress thinks that Christians would do things that a good and moral person would not, but presumably he thinks that being a Christian someone makes a person better than someone who is merely moral and good. It is, of course, not entirely clear what this would be in terms of doing what is right. In any case, I will now turn to the main focus of this post, the matter of Mormonism.
Some years back I had the opportunity to discuss the matter of cults with a colleague in religion. His considered view was that the term “cult” was merely a derogatory term and that there seemed to be no principled way to distinguish between a religion and a cult (other than the fact that “cult” is a dysphemism for “religion”). I, perhaps because of many years of writing Call of Cthulhu adventures, was inclined to contend that “cult” did have some use as a term of classification-if only in terms of popular usage. However, the claim that “cult” is a mere insult with no real intellectual heft behind it does have some appeal.
That said, cults are generally taken to be distinguished from religions on the basis of size and doctrine. In terms of size, cults are supposed to be relatively small. However, the size factor does not seem to be the most significant. After all, there are small religions and it seems reasonable to think that cult could get rather big and still be a cult. Unless, of course, a cult must be (by definition) small. Mormonism is, obviously enough, not small and hence would not be a cult if a necessary condition for cult status is being small. Of course, “small” is a vague term, so perhaps it could be considered small given the right sort of definition of the term.
In terms of doctrines, cults are supposed to have strange, sinister, threatening or pernicious tenets. To use a fictional context, the cults in Call of Cthulhu worship alien beings (like Cthulhu and Hastur) and often intend to bring about terrible things, such as mass destruction or the fall of man. To use a real world example, Heaven’s Gate members held that the earth would be recycled and that they could escape via a UFO by committing suicide. There do seem to be some important and practical distinctions between these cults (real and fictional) and, for example, Episcopalians. If so, the question then becomes whether or not Mormonism is more like Heaven’s Gate (or a Cthulhu cult) or the Episcopalian church.
Mormonism does, of course, have what strike many as odd tenets and beliefs. For example, Joseph Smith claimed to have translated an ancient book through God’s power and he also claimed to have visions. While using magic to translate texts is standard fare in D&D (the spell comprehend languages does it quite nicely), it does seem like an odd thing. Mormons also practiced polygamy (and some sects still accept it) and there are various secrets that are supposed to be held by the church (including what some folks call “magic underwear”).
Of course, if Mormonism is compared with other religions (or cults, if your prefer) it does not seem to be unusual in such matters. After all, the bible is full of tales of the supernatural (burning bushes, parting seas, healing of the sick and raising from the dead). Also, some folks see accepted religions such as Catholicism as being full of secrets and having sinister and pernicious doctrines. As such, there seems to be nothing about Mormonism that would single it out for cult status that would also not include other faiths that are typically not regarded as cults. As such, my considered view is that Mormonism is no more (or less) a cult than Catholicism or any evangelical variety of Christianity.
As far as Mormons not being Christian, that would seem to depend on whether Jesus is really the Christ or not. While the Mormons have some different doctrines relative to Christian sects, they do seem to have the main tenet in that they accept Jesus as their savior and so on. So it seems likely that he would accept them as Christians. Of course, Jesus seems to often be rather more loving and tolerant than some of his followers.
If Jesus was just some guy, then there seem to be two main possibilities. The first is that Christianity is thus a mere fiction and asking whether they are Christians or not is a bit like asking whether people are really Sith or Jedi or not. The second possibility is that Christianity is some sort of social construct that does, in fact, matter in some way. In this case, the question would be one of who gets to define what it is to be a Christian (much like the question of who gets to define what it is to be a liberal or conservative).
My considered view is that the Mormons are, in general, just as much Christians as the other folks who profess to be Christians. In fact, it would be rather un-Christian for a professed Christian to reject them as mere cultists. But, of course, this is not up to me-God gets the deciding (and only) vote.
As far as how this will impact the general election, I suspect that conservative evangelicals would back the cultist Romney over Obama and that most other non-Mormon Americans would probably not hold Romney being a Mormon as a mark against him. There would be, no doubt, some vocal exceptions.