A Philosopher's Blog

Is Mormonism a Cult?

Posted in Philosophy, Politics, Religion by Michael LaBossiere on October 11, 2011
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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.

 

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12 Responses

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  1. T. J. Babson said, on October 11, 2011 at 7:29 am

    If I am reading this correctly (“a distinct being”), Mormons are polytheists, whereas Christians are monotheists. This is a fairly big theological gulf.

    Modern Mormons regard God as plural.[50] They regard God the Father as the biblical god Elohim, and they believe that the Son, a distinct being, is both Jesus and the biblical god Jehovah.[51] The two of them, together with the Holy Spirit, are believed to form a heavenly counsel which Mormons call the “Godhead”. They are “one” in the sense of being lovingly united in purpose or will, a view sometimes called social trinitarianism.[52] Unlike traditional Christians, modern Mormons do not regard the Father and the Son as co-equal; rather, they generally regard the Son as subordinate to the Father.[53]

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mormonism_and_Christianity

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on October 11, 2011 at 2:59 pm

      Except for the Father, Son and Holy Spirit aspect. The Trinity poses a long standing theological and metaphysical problem for many forms of Christianity. One clever solution was to take God to be a metaphysical universal so that He is instantiated in three ways, yet is still numerically one. This creates other problems, of course, and some critics do argue that the Trinity is a form of polytheism-thus putting the Mormons in the same boat as any Christian sect that accepts the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. If we bring in angels and saints, then there would be a whole pantheon of divine beings.

  2. Dangerous Talk » Is Mormonism a Cult? said, on October 11, 2011 at 8:47 am

    [...] Is Mormonism a Cult? (aphilosopher.wordpress.com) [...]

  3. [...] Is Mormonism a Cult? (aphilosopher.wordpress.com) [...]

  4. dhammett said, on October 11, 2011 at 12:44 pm

    This is America, where the last clause of Article VI, Section 3 of the Constitution reads “. . .but no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.” and the first clause of the First Amendment reads “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; . . .”.
    I find it difficult ,for many reasons, to care about the question you posed.

  5. A J MacDonald Jr said, on October 11, 2011 at 10:50 pm

    Yes, Mormonism is a cult…an odd non-christian sect. In the 1800″s God supposedly revealed to Joseph Smith the “truth”: that no church since the resurrection of Jesus “got it right” so he had to start again with Joseph. This “we alone have the truth and everyone else got it wrong” stance, coming a small group that rejects the universal historical church, is the very definition of a cult. Add to this multiple wive needed for each man to be able to populate his own personal planet in the future is a made-up, non-historical teaching. Think about this please. Imagine a cult of philosophy that says “the law of noncontradiction is not a law of logic. Only we have this truth and everyone else is wrong.” Would you call such people philosophers and logicians?

  6. WTP said, on October 12, 2011 at 8:40 am

    From my observation, the difference between a cult and a religion is about 1000 years, give or take 50%.

    • dhammett said, on October 12, 2011 at 8:59 am

      My Lord. We agree on something, more or less. Now am I a troll?

      I’d change your last seven words to “. . .the passage of time and increase or decrease in popular participation.”
      Troll now?

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on October 12, 2011 at 1:35 pm

      That would be about right. :)

  7. [...] Michael LaBossiere doesn’t think Mormonism is a cult. [...]

  8. sam maurice said, on August 27, 2012 at 1:26 pm

    Mormonism is not a Christian faith despite the fact they use the name Jesus Christ now in their religious description. They do not believe Jesus Christ is God, but believe He is a prophet similar to their founder Joseph Smith. In this vein they are very similar to Jehovah Witnesses.Even though they state Jesus is a Son of God they violate the litmus test of authenticity outlined In 1 John..it states that if anyone does not believe that Christ is God they are antichrist. In 2 John v 7,10,11 these folk are described as deceivers and christians are warned not to approve them as they will be partaking in their evil works.
    Mitt Romney represents this antichrist group that was formed by Joseph Smith through some mystical revelation. Its early positions encouraged polygamy and child marriages (Now called statutory rape)Todays practices include the mandatory draft (to go find new recruits aggresively),racism,compulsory tithing,compulsory attendance at church events and food restrictions.
    It is sad that the right wing evangelical church endorses a leader that demeans woman,minimizes Christ and financially supports aggresive proselitizing against the christian church.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on August 27, 2012 at 5:22 pm

      There have been many interesting theological debates over the metaphysical status of Jesus, especially in the middles ages. Interestingly, this led to a rebirth of the problem of universals and other metaphysical problems.

      Laying aside the metaphysics, there is also the question of who gets to set the entry rules for Christianity. That is, who gets to say “he is Christian and he is not.”


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