Saturday, October 08, 2011

Dept. of No Surprise: Mormonism is a "Cult"

"Mormonism is a cult!" Or rather, "Evangelical Pastor Calls Mormonism a Cult." Or, in detail, "Rick Perry Supporter Calls Mormonism a Cult." Those are the variations on a story which is making the rounds this week, and which bears a moment's reflection.

Let's handle them in reverse order.

#3: "Rick Perry Supporter Calls Mormonism a Cult": Per the Times, a Southern Baptist minister named Robert Jeffress introduced Gov. Perry at a shindig called the Values Voter Summit, held in Washington. (The summit -- remember when that word meant Reagan meeting Gorbachev? -- was organized by groups like the Family Research Council, and we gather that its values didn't include, say, the right of labor to organize, or the occupation of Wall Street.)

So, Jeffress introduced Perry as "a genuine follower of Jesus Christ," and then -- in separate statements to the press -- used the "c" word to describe the faith of another Republican candidate. As the Times says, "injected a potentially explosive issue into the presidential campaign," and "raised immediate suspicions that the attack may have been a way for surrogates or supporters of Mr. Perry ... to gain ground by raising religious concerns."

For the record, when Perry himself was asked, he said that he does not consider Mormonism a cult. Still, since he (like Michelle Bachmann) makes much of his faith on the campaign trail, it is likely that a bit of religious furor will help him. In that sense, the papers are justified in making a fuss about this, and even is suspecting a bit of campaign opportunism. (Here's Sarah Posner's take on "anti-Mormonism" at the VVS).

But let's consider #2: Evangelical Pastor Calls Mormonism a Cult. Well, duh. This version of the story is dog-bites-man, as they say, meaning utterly unremarkable. Somewhere in America, some evangelical pastor probably does this every few minutes.

The mistake that the Times makes, and which we suspect some other news organs will as well, is to restrict the story to "Evangelicals," in the American news-media sense of that word. The fact is that no Christian community, so far as we are aware, recognizes in the Latter-Day Saints as sharing a faith compatible with its own. In other words, none of us consider them Christian. (Think about that: Southern Baptists, Roman Catholics, and the Metropolitan Community Church can see in one another the same essential faith, and yet none of them can see it in the LDS).

The Mormons are understandably peeved by this. By their own lights, "followers of Jesus" is precisely what they are; they simply have access to more information about him than the rest of us.

But the Jeffress story has an added complication, since he didn't merely make a distinction between Mormons and Christians-as-conventionally-defined. This brings us to variation #1: Mormonism is a Cult! In the current cultural climate, these are fighting words. No wonder, since to be called a "cult" is to be lumped in with Jim Jones and David Koresh, with Jack Hickman and the Raelians. It is to be classified as a brain-washing, child-abusing, apocalypse-mongering collector of guns, concubines and federal warrants. And few people familiar with Mormonism would seriously mean to do that.

Of course, the word "cult" is tricky. It can be used sociologically, to describe manipulative and authoritarian patterns of leadership and behavior, but its earliest use was religious. Some modern Christian apologists use it to describe heretical movements -- not just within Christianity, but within other religions. This is the standard by which most Christians unhesitatingly identify the LDS as a cult. Like Elijah Muhammad's renegade creator scientist Yakub, Joseph Smith's visit of Jesus to the New World is a critical bit of mythological history unacceptable (and a bit comical) to more conventional believers.

But underneath even this use lies an older non-pejorative use of the word "cult": to mean a particular religious movement, especially when regarded as a system of worship. This is the sense of the Latin cultus, which at its root is about agriculture, whence nurture and reverence, whence finally worship. When Peter Brown writes (brilliantly) about "the cult of the saints" in Latin Christianity, he offers no judgment, either theological or sociological. And in that sense, we're all cultists. (Ooops.)

What, then, should we make of the Jeffress story, and of Gov. Perry's putative involvement?

On one hand, we at the Egg can affirm that Mormonism is indeed a cult, in both less and more pejorative senses of that word: it is a system of divine worship, and from any Christian perspective an heretical one. Yet we have to reject the most pejorative sense; Mormons may be odd ducks, but they are not, as a group, the brain-washed Kool-Aid drinking automata that many people associate with the word. Quite the contrary.

So when, in the midst of a heated (and in Perry's case, floundering) contest, one candidate's supporters start declaring that another candidate is a cult-member, we do indeed think it is a cheap shot, intended to stir the coals of religious bigotry. Needless to say, that sort of thing has no place in a secular democracy, not to mention no place among civilized people. Or, to put it more bluntly: Hey, Jeffress -- leave it for the ayatollahs, okay?


PS (PSanafter-thought) said...

If a "cult" is any group that puts such heavy expectations on its members that they follow certain practices, cultural activities, rituals, and life style practices, then sure, there are at least aspects of Mormonism that seems to be a cult. I'm thinking here especially of the expectation that young men, around age 18, go off on a mission and the expectation that the young women will marry a returned missionary. This definition doesn't even get into the core of the beliefs.

But certainly, there are very strong expectations present in a number of sub branches of "Christianity." For example, there are those branches that preach "quiver-full;" and male domination, no questions asked; and homeschooling groups that have the children all dressed alike. Just saying. Or how about some traditional types of monasteries or convents?

I guess I'm coming at this from a different direction than you are. One could say, "I'm free in Christ (in my denomination) but Those People are bound by law and rules." And of course, They see our failings as well.

Anonymous said...

If your underwear is regulated by your religion, you may not be a cult but you've got to expect that people are going to laugh at you and call you stupid names.
As an atheist, I don't have weird clothes, weird dietary rules, weird seasons, or weird music or a very strange cosmology (Kolob and Zenu and the like). If it makes you feel any better, you're all cultists to me.

Mariano said...

Romney, and any Mormon offended by being referred to as cultists, need to be asked why they adhere to a religion whose prophet, Joseph Smith, referred to Christianity, in general, as being cultic.
He actually, claimed that God Himself referred to Christianity as “all wrong,” an “abomination,” “all corrupt” and “far from me”—this is the very foundation of the Mormon religion.
Pardon the spam-like URL but, see:

Father Anonymous said...

Do you guys even read the actual posts?

Nixon: I just *said* that, about "all cultists." So here you are, doing your usual "I'm an atheist so I'm smarter than Christians" thing, and you're copying something that a Christian just wrote about himself.

Mariano: It's not that I disagree with you, but you're one of those people who leaves the same cut-and-paste comment on blogs and news articles all over the internet. I've seen this one in about fice places today. If you want to leave a comment here -- and I love comments -- could you at least try to comment on *the actual post*? Otherwise, the common sense approach is to say something in your own blog.

Anonymous said...

Not smarter than all but certainly less expensive and much less trouble to my neighbors since I don't ask them for money or to vote certain ways or arrange their lives in ways they either do already or don't want to.
Religion is either irrelevant (we already know what to do) or pointless (we get asked to behave in strange and completely pointless ways-don't eat pig, cover your head, sing these songs, eat this wafer, pour water over your head or dip yourself in this pool.

Father Anonymous said...

"Less expensive," eh? Maybe. But since you spend a fair amount of time knocking church's tax-exempt status, I do ask you to remember that there are other organizations that own a lot more property and generate a lot more income than the average parish church, but pay little or no tax either. Country clubs, for example. College fraternities. Homeowners associations. Not to mention some farms and multinational corporations.

So, really, there are a lot of people out there costing you money. I hope you go to their blogs and complain, too.

Anonymous said...

All the time.
Golf and religion are both pretty boring, but at least with golf you get some exercise and fresh air.
College fraternities/sororities are withering away from law suits due to date rape and underage drinking; they're killing themselves off.