I got an email the other day asking me that question? Why I got it and how on earth I came to be on that particular mailing I have no idea. But I was intrigued so I followed the link to find out just why this particular Christian group would characterize the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints as a cult. I have a little trouble with their definition.
But what is a cult? Dr. Charles Braden, coauthor with John C. Schaffer of the book These Also Believe, said this:
By the term cult, I mean nothing derogatory to any group so classified. A cult, as I define it, is any religious group which differs significantly in one or more respects as to belief or practice from those religious groups which are regarded as the normative expressions of religion in our total culture.
The question arises, obviously, because of Mormon Mitt Romney's candidacy. And because Rick Perry supporter Robert Jeffress put the issue front and center.
Texas pastor Robert Jeffress generated headlines last week when he told reporters that Mormonism is a cult—a belief system at odds with historic Christianity.
Since then he has been accused of bigotry, called a “poster boy for hatred,” and a “moron.”
Despite those harsh charges, Jeffress, who backs Texas governor Rick Perry for the GOP presidential nomination, has made it clear that his view of Mormonism is theologically grounded and not an expression of bigotry. He made it clear that he would be willing to vote for Romney in the general election if he wins the Republican nomination and said he thinks that Romney is a “fine family person."
Romney's a good person and worth voting for. It's just so unfortunate that he has no first name. Seriously. Nowhere in the article is his entire name used. Telling, I think.
But, to my point, I have a little difficulty with their use of the term cult to define a religion just because its beliefs and doctrines differ from their own.
I'm somewhat sensitized to the issue after months of following the James Ray trial. The term cult was discussed more than a little and Ray has been observed by many cult watchers -- fairly I think. But I was alarmed at how much I read that characterized Ray's followers as a cult because their beliefs are nontraditional and "new agey." The beliefs of any group, in my opinion, are not what defines that group as a cult. It's not about what people believe but how they believe it. Any group can be a cult or have cult-like elements, including non-religious groups. Political groups, for instance, can be cults.
Admittedly, I'm defining cult somewhat narrowly in the sense of "mind control" or "negative" cults. The term cult has the same word root as cultivate and culture. It implies the shared beliefs of a community. But over time it came to be used in reference to marginalized groups.
When someone like Jeffress uses the term it's just thinly veiled sectarianism; something which has absolutely no place in the political process of a country where freedom of religion is a constitutionally protected right.
It merits mentioning that Jeffress has also characterized Catholicism as a cult -- specifically, "a Babylonian mystery religion that spread like a cult," which demonstrates "the genius of Satan." This revelation seems to have a gotten a more proactive response from Rick Perry than did the anti-Mormon statement.
Where it all gets really murky is in the conflation of these two meanings of the word cult. Again, something I saw a lot of in discussions of James Ray. The assumption seems to be: Your beliefs are weird so you must have been brainwashed to believe them.
I'm going to go on record and say that I don't define Mormonism as a cult because their beliefs are weird -- certainly not because they're not in alignment with other Christian sects. That's not to say that LDS is not a mind-control cult, however. There's actually a very strong case to be made that the Mormon Church employs enough manipulative tactics to be defined that way. That case is most often made by ex-Mormons.
Psychologist, cult expert, and cult survivor Steven Hassan has, at the behest of ex-Mormons, started to look at the cultish elements of LDS. Hassan uses what he calls the BITE model to define a cult.
- Behavioral control
- Information control
- Thought control
- Emotional control
In 2009 Hassan was invited to speak by a group of ex-Mormons in Salt Lake City. The lecture is well worth a listen. He doesn't talk a lot about LDS. He leaves that to the ex-Mormons themselves. But he shares from his own experience as a Moonie and underscores the commonality with his audience. Most interesting are the responses from audience members and how strongly they identify with Hassan's experience as a follower of Sun Myung Moon.
What struck me, though, was how much this lecture put me in mind of my fairly short-lived immersion into born-again Christianity. The thought-stopping, the use of singing and repetitive phrasing to silence challenging thoughts, the characterization of any questions with temptation by the devil, the enforced group-think, and, of course, the belief in an absolute truth. It causes me to ponder, and not for the first time, how my born-again experience was a study cult techniques, albeit not to the extreme end occupied by the Moonies. No one ever tried to come between me and my family, for instance. There was just a lot of hope that I'd convert my family so that we wouldn't be separated by death. You know, because they were all going to hell.
There's a certain sense of irony when a fundamentalist Christian group defines another group as a cult because it has the "wrong" beliefs. Believing yours is the only valid path is one of the more common features of a mind-control cult.
Rick Perry seems to have attached himself to more than a handful of Christian leaders who define themselves by this sort of elitism. Both he and Michele Bachmann have ties to dominionist groups.
Put simply, Dominionism means that Christians have a God-given right to rule all earthly institutions. Originating among some of America’s most radical theocrats, it’s long had an influence on religious-right education and political organizing. But because it seems so outré, getting ordinary people to take it seriously can be difficult. Most writers, myself included, who explore it have been called paranoid. In a contemptuous 2006 First Things review of several books, including Kevin Phillips’ American Theocracy, and my own Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism, conservative columnist Ross Douthat wrote, “the fear of theocracy has become a defining panic of the Bush era.”
Rick Perry created waves recently when was involved in a prayer rally organized by leaders of the dominionist New Apostolic Reformation. It's the NAR that is responsible for the current DC40 campaign to turn the District of Columbia into the District of Christ.
One of the things Hassan mentions in the lecture embedded above is that the various cults he's dealt with -- most especially the Unification Church of which he was a part -- are in competition with each other for control of the world. Just something to think about.