What Is a Cult?

Recently, apparently members of the Christian right are suggesting that presidential candidate Mitt Romney is not a “Christian,” but a member of a “cult.” As a resident of Utah for nearly twenty years, and as a not-very-active Episcopalian who still resents the revision of the King James version of the Bible and Book of Common Prayer, I find the raising of this issue more than a disturbing, not so much the question of what Mr. Romney believes, but the implications that his beliefs are any stranger or weirder than the beliefs of those who raised the issue.

Interestingly enough, the top dictionary definitions of the word “cult” are “a system of religious rites and observances” and “zealous devotion to a person, ideal, or thing.”  Over the past half-century or so, however, the term cult has come to be used in a more pejorative sense, referring to a group whose beliefs or practices are considered abnormal or bizarre.  Some sociologists make the distinction that sects, such as Baptists, Lutherans, Anglicans, Catholics, etc., which are products of religious schism, therefore arose from and maintain a continuity with traditional beliefs and practices while cults arise spontaneously around novel beliefs and practices. Others define a cult as an ideological organization held together by charismatic relationships and the demand of total commitment to the group and its practices.

Mitt Romney is a practicing Mormon, a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, but does that make him a member of a cult?  Since the LDS faith specifically believes in Jesus Christ and follows many “Christian” practices such as baptism, belief in an omnipotent God and his son Jesus Christ, and rejected the practice of polygamy a century ago, can it be said to be a total “novel” faith or any more “bizarre” or “abnormal” than any number of other so-called Christian faiths?  Mormonism does demand a high degree of commitment to the group and its practices, but is that degree of commitment any greater than that required by any number of so-called evangelical but clearly accepted Christian sects?

While I’m certainly not a supporter of excessive religious beliefs of any sort, as shown now and again in some of my work, and especially oppose the incorporation of religious beliefs into the structure of secular government, I find it rather amazing that supporters who come from the more radical and even “bizarre” [in my opinion] side of Christianity are raising this question.  What troubles me most is the implication that fundamentalist Christianity is somehow the norm, and that Mormonism, which, whether one likes it or not, is clearly an offshoot of Christianity, is somehow stranger or more cultlike than the beliefs of the evangelicals who are raising the question.

This isn’t the first time this kind of question has been raised, since opponents of John F. Kennedy questioned whether the United States should have a Catholic president, with the clear implication that Catholicism was un-American, and it won’t be the last time.  The fact that the question has been raised at all in this fashion makes me want to propose a few counter-questions.

Why are those politicians who endorse and are supported by believers in fundamentalist Christianity not also considered members of cults?

Are we electing a president to solve pressing national problems or one to follow a specific religious agenda?

Does rigid adherence to a religious belief structure make a more effective president or a less effective one?  What does history show on this score?

And… for the record, I’m not exactly pleased with any of the candidates so far.


14 thoughts on “What Is a Cult?”

  1. R. Hamilton says:

    Mormon theology (as I understand it) is very different from mainstream Christian theology on some points – in the (perfectly legitimate, in terms of the right to hold that view) view of many, incompatibly different. But I don’t see that the modern sense of “cult” applies, either in the (mostly subjective) pejorative sense nor really in the sense of a group that establishes a dangerous and un-sane degree of control over its members.

    This is not to say that I’m entirely fond of what I’ve heard of the degree of political influence that the LDS church has had in Utah, although I don’t know whether it still goes past individual voters incorporating their beliefs in their voting consideration (perfectly reasonable IMO), into organized and organizational attempts to manipulate government not just just by expressing concern over selected issues, but on an ongoing basis.

    But I personally would not care to apply to individuals a categorization as Christian or non-Christian based only on the divergence of Mormon theology (despite being of the opinion myself that said theology _is_ incompatible or at least divergent to the point of violating some essentials and making up some oddities with no apparent historical context to justify them). More that a theological formula is involved there, and since none of us know someone else perfectly, I wouldn’t want to judge what a person _is_, but merely note the absence or presence of a pattern of incompatible _conduct_, leaving their theology as mostly an internal matter beyond my purview (since I’m not a minister or preacher and it’s not my expertise to teach a particular theology).

    As for political implication, the only relevance I see is that someone’s actions should be consistent both with what they profess and with serving the entire constituency they seek to represent, not just the ones that voted for them or somehow resemble them. The former is not only a matter of avoiding the perception of hypocrisy, but also of demonstrating trustworthiness (not that anyone aspiring to power should ever be granted more than provisional trust).

    Now, if someone’s beliefs required (or perhaps even permitted) of them action not illegal but sufficiently distasteful (and by that I don’t merely mean subscription to theology that I might differ with), I might find myself feeling less tolerant. But that’s just an academic question in any election I’ve voted in, with more obvious issues never having left it to come down to that.

    All of the above assumes some record of competence and accomplishment, preferably not all in the public sector, nor, for high office, without some prior public sector experience.

    I was _not_ pleased by the preacher and Perry supporter that regarded Romney’s Mormonism as very nearly disqualifying. Even if I tried to put myself in the shoes of someone that hopes for a leader that’s not just competent and moral but an example, I’d prefer not to take it so far, except I might not rule it out entirely as a tie-breaker after _all_ other issues were considered – another situation unlikely enough not to arise.

    I hope that’s a subtle enough balance for you between defending the right to hold certain views while not imposing them on others. 🙂

  2. Joe says:

    I think the problem is bigger: could we have an Atheist, a Taoist, a Buddhist, a Muslim, a Jewish, or a Hindu president? (ordered by the number of God(s) they believe in).

    The right-wing controversy over our current president’s faith suggests we could not… Isn’t the separation of Church and State key to democracy? (Although democracy has bigger problems right now such as one dollar one vote).

    1. R. Hamilton says:

      Given some of the prior presidents, I couldn’t rule out that we already have had people who only gave lip service to their public beliefs, and didn’t really care aside from what worked politically for them; I tend to wonder if that isn’t relatively common for most with a big enough ego to think they should have power or think they can handle the responsibility.

      Of those choices you listed, I think the Muslim and Hindu would have the most trouble; the former because the argument would be made that their first loyalty was to Allah (God, made in their image, perhaps as many other groups also do?) and to the Ummah (community of believers), and only after that to nation or anything else; and the latter because that would get an “eww, pagan” reaction from all the monotheists. Buddhists and Taoists are exotic here but at least not pushy. Although even characterizing Hinduism as polytheism isn’t entirely precise; I’d hesitate to characterize it as anything other than varied and attempting to be all-encompassing in the sense of allowing such variation of interpretation as to unify various of the deities with one or a small group senior, or to allow that deities of totally foreign cultures were equally valid.

      The loyalty issue has of course been raised before, in the case of JFK, where it clearly was a prejudice and not a real issue. I tend to think it should in fact depend on the individual and their record of conduct and expository, but in political practice, even if it was only demagoguery, the loyalty question would be fatal for any non-Christian religion to which it could be applied, more as a matter of _cultural_ than strictly religious consideration. I also think that a Muslim who in the capacity of an officeholder faithfully carried out their office with first loyalty to the country would have serious problems with many other Muslims, perhaps relatively few here, but a lot overseas. Heretics of any religion tend to get hammered harder than total disbelievers. (I don’t think the loyalty question would stick on Jews, but given that there are rabid Jew-blamers among the eclectic “Occupy Wall Street” crowd, it’s clear that Jew-bashing is far from something society has grown out of; so their chances would be slim for a long time to come.)

      But other than those points, I don’t think it’s impossible. Most of the other stereotypical limits have been broken, not necessarily by the best _qualified_ representative of any given group. I assume Hillary will still want it in 2016 if she doesn’t run in the primaries in 2012; so that limit will if not fall outright, at least be bent. I wouldn’t vote for her, but I wouldn’t vote for most people with a “D” next to their name, at least in the present mostly far left manifestation of that party; so that has absolutely nothing to do with being female. For those for whom a “D” doesn’t represent a near-absolute barrier, she’s probably one of the better of that bunch – at least not utterly removed from practical considerations in the pursuit of ideology.

      There is _certainly_ no authority or justification for religion to be a _formal_ qualification, but the Constitution does _not_ require equal outcomes nor does it require people to vote for those whose beliefs are offensive to them. And most of the groups you mentioned are tiny minorities here anyway, which means just on the odds alone, one might expect it to be decades yet even if everyone gave zero consideration to such issues.

      One consideration against atheists/agnostics/don’t cares is that there is a legitimate political advantage of consequence to a widespread belief in a higher power(s), namely that the ultimate source of rights is not the government, nor even _just_ the consent of the governed, but God or nature or something that transcends both the pursuit of limitless power and the tyranny of strict democracy, favoring limited government and a republic over an outright democracy. Even if some of the founders were generic deists of the enlightenment era rather than specific adherents of any particular religion or sect, most of them did tend to agree that a belief in something from which rights and values were derived, but which did not confer special privileges, was of value to a society in many ways. I don’t think their wisdom on that point is obsolete; without a belief or at least an affirmative tolerance for the possibility of absolutes (not to be imposed but as a starting point from which to derive everything else), consensus alone could produce any result, including many that could not survive.

      In one sense if your point is that we fall well short of an ideal of religion not mattering in politics, of course you’re right. But realistically the only way that would happen is if all religion vanished or was made purely internal and totally decoupled from civil society, and as you can see from my previous paragraph, I do _not_ think that would be a good thing.

      1. Joe says:

        If I understand you correctly, you are that in situations in which people can act in their own short-term interest or in the interest of others, religion will help them make the choice that helps others. The precise mechanism (God sends you hell, or karma whereby unvirtuous deeds will cause you suffering, in this or a next life) does not matter.

        It would be interesting to know how much this “social software” actually affects people. Do you know any stats on this subject?

        My guess would be that people who are naturally empathetic and people who are psychopaths would not be affected, but people in between might well be affected, so there may be value to a society in general to have such beliefs.

        However, I am not convinced it is better for a president to be expected to be religious. Rather than evaluating candidates on their actions, religious people are more likely to evaluate them on their “shared values”. For instance, I doubt Jesus would have opened Guantanamo Bay — the Pope certainly doesn’t think so. However “Born Again Christian George Bush” did, and was supported by many Fundamentalist Christians solely because he claimed to be “Born Again”. Because religion can serve as a fig leaf to distract people from a candidate’s actual actions, I am not convinced it is better for a president to be expected to be religious.

  3. Curtis says:

    I had similar conversations in 2004 when certain acquaintances of mine insisted that I should vote to re-elect President Bush because he was a good Christian despite actions he had taken that I found deplorable.

    For a lot of people (not just Americans) voting for a candidate is based on factors like religion or whether they feel the person would be fun to go get a beer with. As much as that drives me crazy, I’ve decided that’s just part of living in a constitutional republic.

  4. Sean says:

    Harry Reid, the senate majority leader (D-Nevada) is also a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. He has made no secret of his religion either. His views are quite a bit different than Romney’s. Of course all this shows is that even among us “Mormons” when it comes to politics we are not a monolithic voting block.

  5. Robert The Addled says:

    My SF/Fantasy and Nonfiction (archeology) derived definiton is that ANY group that holds common beliefs and rituals is a cult. SOME cults spread to the level of a mainstream religion (HELLO – EARLY Judea-christians started as a splinter sect/cult of judeaism)while others are distortions for personal power (Manson, Georgetown). BTW – rituals makes even AA a cult under that simple definition.

    Modern descriptions of cults tend toward the power grabs, thus the use of cult as a perjorative. In any case what we are seeing is a case of using the “they are not like we are” alienation attempt to discredit a rival. In this case it reminds me of the stories of the religious pogroms and/or witch-hunts of the late middle ages. Persecution of others to prevent investigation into their own doings.

  6. AMos says:

    @ r. hamilton: you say Mormonism is, “incompatible or at least divergent to the point of violating some essentials and making up some oddities with no apparent historical context to justify them.” I think the same assumptions that give rise in the more extreme end of the spectrum to people calling that faith a cult are also present in your statement.

    At first there is the claim that Mormonism is incompatible, or divergent to the point of violation; incompatible to or with what, specifically? The old and new testament? Catholicism? Evangelism? Some other -ism? This should be clearly defined so the rest of us can agree, disagree, or some combination of both.

    Perhaps more worrisome is the last part: “making up some oddities with no apparent historical context to justify them.” Specifically, “making up,” “oddities,” “apparent,” and “justify” all impose a value judgment without actually exercising analysis–in other words, you’re relegating the faith to being silly, or manipulative, or invalid, but you don’t give any reasons or evidence to support that claim. For example, what are the “oddities,” and what makes you assume they are “made up”? In what way are they lacking historical context”? That could give us more to think about.

    Rather than fall into a tu quoque trap by highlighting all the things in the old and new testaments that could be assumed to be “made up,” “odd,” or unjustified, instead I’ll just point out that leaving your above statement unqualified suggests a certain bias, which itself implies either a lack of understanding (passive ignorance) or a lack of desire to understand (active ignorance). You seem reasonable and thoughtful, so I’m assuming it is the first, which goes back to Mr. Modesitt’s original point and one that you yourself make in your second post: dismissing others because they are perceived to be different says more about those doing the dismissing than those being dismissed.

    1. R. Hamilton says:

      I didn’t really want to go there, but since you asked, the Book of Mormon reads to me very much like a poor sequel written by a different and not particularly skilled author. I don’t wish to be provocative or offensive (one of the reasons I’m reluctant to cite examples, another being that I have other things to do with my time), nor do I claim to be an expert at that kind of textual analysis, but I have read a _lot_ of books, I’ve seen sequels written by different people that were done faithfully, and I’ve seen those that betrayed a lack of understanding of the original. The book in question seems to me to fall in the latter category.

      Now…if you only take what Joseph Smith wrote and said, aside from the polygamy aspect back then (which to my mind _always_ causes problems, even if in some particular situations it purports to solve some problems), some of it is strange (the whole ancient America bit) with very little to hang it on (_maybe_ “other sheep not of this flock” or “in my Father’s house are many mansions”, but those are general enough to simply leave the door open for future inclusion of others not usually considered for inclusion, and any specific example of them – like beings on other continents or other worlds – tends towards science fiction; and it’s well understood that speculation without well-founded direction should never be treated as authoritative; so any interpretation of those beyond preparing for Christianity to extend beyond those who were first Jews is unjustified), but it’s mostly harmless. But – if my limited understanding is correct – once you get to the words of Brigham Young, things change, and the underlying theology (very different from usual Trinitarianism, although not entirely unique – the Jehovah’s Witnesses are pretty far out there in that regard also), the eternal marriage – which specifically contradicts the Bible, and the whole becoming gods of other worlds bit which is _totally_ out there, gets so odd as to not be merely a minor difference coming out of a particular context of the times or, like many prior factions, as a correction to some previous error or abuse. (There is a separate faction whose name has changed, which is considered by I think the NCC to have returned to mainstream in the essentials; but I wonder that if in giving up much of what made them different, they didn’t also give up even more than they had to.)

      On a _social_ level, Mormonism is probably harmless or even mostly constructive, with the polygamy gone.

      But on a religious level, if one accepts mainstream Christianity, one simply cannot agree with some of the most unusual aspects of Mormonism…unless of course one is a Unitarian or of a similar _all_ religions are equally true school, which seems to me to have the useful element of minimizing divisiveness, but at the cost of not really _standing_ for anything else. Now, all people that don’t forcibly inflict their beliefs on others are _certainly_ equally entitled to them, no question of that. I mean, if there _is_ a God, he/she/it could have made us robots much more easily, but didn’t; so either we’re _supposed_ to make our own choices, or there’s nobody behind the screen and it doesn’t matter. But that does not make it bigoted or discriminatory to state that some beliefs contain mutually exclusive elements; and it shouldn’t be a problem if they do. I can work with someone, or even enjoy their company socially, without listening to the same sermons they do, except maybe once as a polite (and mildly curious) response to an invitation, which I might more readily agree to if reciprocated…not that I’m a frequent attendee at anything, having little comfort with the whole social/emotional community thing. (as it happens, I have done that, and I’m not unaware that most of what I regard as incompatible is NOT emphasized on a frequent basis)

      In the case of most other denominations, differences arose out of the historical context leading to the split, with no claims of an elaborate independent revelation – more often, simply a response to some limited pattern of excess or abuse. Some differences are not irreconcilable, and should not be overstated. Even those differences which are irreconcilable should not be cause for discrimination _except_ insofar as while people should endorse one another’s _right_ to their beliefs, they’re under no obligation to endorse the _content_ of another’s beliefs.

      Again, I didn’t really want to go there. I’ve had Mormon friends in those years that I lived in places where they were more numerous, and they were on average at least as good people as anyone else, and better than many. I really don’t want to offend anybody. But there is a difference between compromise that furthers common interest, and compromise that gives up more than it should. Everyone has to decide that for themselves too.

      And as I said in an earlier post, what I say about the theology of a sect/denomination/whatever does _not_ imply that I know any individual’s heart or fate. I have no doubt that there are those closer to whatever the truth is than I even among groups whose theology is not closer to the truth. Nevertheless, it is entirely possible for there to be premises that are mutually incompatible, and if one accepts some premises, one can’t accept others, although if conduct isn’t an issue, that shouldn’t pose an obstacle to acceptance in most capacities of persons adhering to different premises.

  7. hob says:

    People are used to associating known ‘truths’ with future predictions. America became great under Protestant Christians, so to remain great or become greater…

    Stability in the mind has real outcomes in the physical world despite facts– a crowd will laugh more when they presume they are in front of a professional comedian, studies show people suspend known laws when given orders from recognized authority figures etc etc.

    Cults are seen as groups who are actively/covertly trying to usurp power from legitimate authority/faith–the real question then is not why Americans think of Mormons as a cult–why do Americans think the Mormons are hiding something, acting suspiciously etc etc?

    The deeper ‘truth’ is, like any other political/social group, the Mormons will only be recognized as a legitimate authority when they create a new form of stability/prosperity which people would want to be associated with.

  8. Peter says:

    Mr. Modesitt,

    Thanks for the words. As a Mormon myself, I find the whole argument silly. I agree with those who have said that the words spoken by this preacher in Dallas are more indicative of he and his followers than they are of my own faith.

    Personally, my favorite response was that of Dean Obeidallah, a Muslim comic who happened to be in Utah performing during the start of the uproar. At the end of his comments, he said, “In comparing the hate-filled language of Jeffress with the words and good deeds of the Mormons we met, it is clear to me who is best following the teachings of Jesus Christ and truly deserves to be called a Christian.”

  9. Jim 2 (to avoid confusion) says:

    In an elected official, especially the President, my first question is whether or not they’re a person of integrity. Are their actions consistent with their beliefs, and consistent overall? I do feel that being a person of faith is important, especially for the President, but what faith isn’t as important as that they act in consonance with that faith. If the candidate is a Catholic, but has a history of supporting abortion… that’s not consistent with their faith. Nor would a member of the LDS or a Muslim who drinks alcohol. If they act in a way that’s counter to their faith — how do I trust that they’ll be who they represent themselves to be in anything else?

    I feel that being a person of (some) faith is important, especially again for the President, only because I myself am one, and find that faith gives me support and guidance in my job, especially during difficulties — and can’t imagine that the Presidency is any easier. But that doesn’t mean that I wouldn’t vote for an atheist, either.

  10. Jason says:

    I find it odd that the people who question the religious views of Romney obviously felt, since there was no uproar from them at the time, that Sarah Palin’s witch hunter prayer incident, was nothing out of the ordinary.

    I have fairly clear idea of Mormon beliefs and practices from lifelong friendship with several Mormons. Nothing I have ever seen or heard of from them even comes close to the idea of actively hunting down witches as “Pastor” Muthee did.

  11. CM says:

    Leaving politics aside, just ask yourselves how Christian these quotes are:

    The following are quotes by Mormon founder Joseph Smith

    “God himself was once as we are now, and is an exalted Man, and sits enthroned in yonder heavens…I say, if you were to see him to-day, you would see him like a man in form — like yourselves, in all the person, image, and very form as a man….it is necessary that we should understand the character and being of God, and how he came to be so; for I am going to tell you how God came to be God. We have imagined and supposed that God was God from all eternity,  I will refute that idea, and will take away and do away the veil, so that you may see….and that he was once a man like us; yea, that God himself the Father of us all, dwelt on an earth the same as Jesus Christ himself did.” (Journal of Discourses, vol. 6, p. 3).

    “Hence, the doctrine of a plurality of Gods is as prominent in the Bible as any other doctrine. It is all over the face of the Bible . . . Paul says there are Gods many and Lords many . . . but to us there is but one God–that is pertaining to us; and he is in all and through all,” (History of the Church, vol. 6, p. 474). “In the beginning, the head of the Gods called a council of the Gods; and they came together and concocted a plan to create the world and people it,” (Journal of Discourses, vol. 6, p. 5).

    “I have always declared God to be a distinct personage, Jesus Christ a separate and distinct personage from God the Father, and the Holy Ghost was a distinct personage and a Spirit: and these three constitute three distinct personages and three Gods,” (Teachings of Prophet Joseph Smith, p. 370).

    This last gem is from from Oliver B. Huntington.

    Astronomers and philosophers have, from time almost immemorial until very recently, asserted that the moon was uninhabited, that it had n atmosphere, etc. But recent discoveries, through the means of powerful telescopes, have given scientists a doubt or two upon the old theory. Nearly all the great discoveries of men in the last half century have, in one way or another, either directly or indirectly, contributed to prove Joseph Smith to be a prophet. As far back as 1837, I know that he said the moon was inhabited by men and women the same as this earth, and that they lived to a greater age than we do, that they live generally to near the age of a 1000 years. He described the men as averaging near six feet in height, and dressing quite uniformly in something near the Quaker style. In my Patriarchal blessing, given by the father of Joseph the Prophet, in Kirtland, 1837, I was told that I should preach the gospel before I was 21 years of age; that I should preach the gospel to the inhabitants upon the islands of the sea, and–to the inhabitants of the moon, even the planet you can now behold with your eyes. Young Woman’s Journal, Volume 3, pages 263-264, 1892

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