“A cult is a church down the street from your church.” Anonymous.
Riding along with the allegation that Mormons aren’t Christians is the nastier charge that Mormonism is a “cult.” I’ve found that when that assertion is made, the critic usually isn’t concerned about defining his terms, but instead merely wants to frighten people with images of Jim Jones and Branch Davidians. Such critics usually share one common characteristic: They know virtually nothing about Mormons except that they should fear them.
The term “cult” is defined in any multitude of ways, depending upon the context and intent of the user. Until the 1970s the word was not nearly as emotionally charged as it is now. Depending upon your definition, Christianity itself properly can be referred to as a cult, as can virtually any Christian denomination. But since the Jonestown massacre, the general public generally uses the term as shorthand for secretive, dangerous religious organizations. That is how the term is used by critics of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
But is that label fair?
First, we need to have some working definition of a cult, or at least some characteristics that we can identify. For this post, I am going to borrow eleven traits set out in a short, useful article I found on About.com. I have no idea about the religious leanings of the author, but I think her approach is fair. (Thankfully, the consumption of punch is not one of the telling characteristics. Anyone who has attended a Mormon wedding reception would have been nervous about that one.) A link to the full article appears at the end of this post.
I will not deal with any of these issues at length, for two reasons. First, it would just take too much space. Some of these issues are or will be discussed in more detail in other posts. Second, it doesn’t take too long to see just how silly it would be to claim that these traits apply to Mormonism.
1. Central Authority in a Single, Charismatic Leader
This is something televangelists should be more worried about than Mormons. Yes, we have a central leader who we consider to be a prophet. However, he plays only a marginal role in our day-to-day lives. We hear from him a few times a year, either in General Conference or in letters to the congregations, but our daily interaction with the Church is with lay clergy, and it would be a stretch to refer to many of them as “charismatic leaders.” Local leaders are changed frequently (usually a bishop..the leader of a local congregation…serves not more than five years), with little fanfare. Today’s bishop is tomorrow’s Cub Scout leader. Even when the President of the Church dies, there is no disruption in how the Church operates. It is an event that is met with sadness, but also a collective shrug, because we know there will be no broad changes to the Church. This derives from our belief that the Church is led by God and not by man.
2. Control Over Life or Death
Christianity has a long history of martyrs, where persecution leads to the death of the faithful. This is different from a dangerous cult, in which the leader of the cult often prepares his people for mass suicide. There are no such incidents in the history of the LDS Church.
3. Commission of Felonies
Please. When it comes to breaking the law, Mormons are the most boring people on earth. Even on the issue of polygamy, we relented in order to comply with Federal law. As a matter of fact, a felony conviction usually will lead to Church discipline, such as disfellowshipment or excommunication.
4. Strict Control Over the Lives of Their Members
Former members of the Church regularly claim this, and I can speculate as to why, but my experience is the opposite. If I’ve asked for advice, I’ve received it, but the Church has steered clear of my business. Yes,there are standards we are expected to live by, but that’s religion for you.
5. Separation from Contacts Outside the Group
This is a hard thing to allege about a missionary-minded church that keeps interrupting your dinner by banging on your door. Mormons actually are counseled not to withdraw from the world, but to broaden their circle of friends and actively participate in their communities. Sure, we still have more home schoolers than makes me comfortable, but any religious denomination is going to have members who have a hard time functioning away from people who look and act like them. The question is what the church teaches people to do, and the Mormons are strongly discouraged against withdrawing from the world.
6. Polarized Worldview
This means believing that you are right and everyone else is dangerous. You know you have a polarized view, for example, if you spend a lot of your time screaming about how other churches are cults. Sure, Mormons believe that our church is true, just like Catholics believe that their church is true. But we also believe that all Christian churches have some truth within them, and we certainly don’t see other denominations as dangerous. The LDS Church’s active participation in ecumenical projects with people of other faiths demonstrates this. Granted, in taking the position that we are the “only true and living Church” Mormons sometimes use language that is unnecessarily polarizing, but really our message is more about what we have to offer rather than what other churches lack. Even though we often are the subject of sermons by other Christians about the evils of Mormonism, we don’t spend time putting on such programs ourselves about other people.
7. Living in Communal Isolation
There was a time in the early history of the Church when you would have an argument on this one. For several reasons, the Mormons stayed close together during the first 50 or so years of our history, not the least of which were the very real physical dangers posed by the general community. But I live in the ‘burbs.
8. Large Required Donations
Mormons are asked to tithe, giving 10% of our income to the Church. Since tithes were common in the Old and New Testament, and tithing has been adopted by other Christian churches as well, I don’t see that as something to get too worked up about. It is true that Mormons who do not pay their tithing cannot receive recommends to attend the temple, but that is the only consequence. And it is all on the honor system. Nobody checks your W-2. In fact, one of the first things that attracted my dad to the Church was that Mormons talked less about money than any other Christian church he ever had attended.
9. Conformity: Subjection of Individual Desires and Thoughts
Again, former Mormons like to talk a lot about how individuality is repressed and everyone is told what to say, think, or do. Certainly, if you decide to teach doctrines or advocate practices that are directly contrary to the Church, there are going to be problems, as is true in any denomination. Paraphrasing Willie Nelson, “You should always say what you think. Unless you think some crazy stuff, and then you might want to keep your trap shut.” But spend some time in a Sunday School class or Priesthood or Relief Society lesson, and you will see a free exchange of ideas. Sometimes it borders on chaos; other times it jumps the border and parties in downtown goofyville. And a dangerous cult would have little patience for a blog like mine. The upshot of it is that some of the most independent thinkers I have known are Mormons.
10. Punishment for Defection or Criticism
As in some other denominations, Mormons can be excommunicated for serious sins or for openly teaching things contrary to the established doctrines of the Church. However, such excommunications are rare and are not publicized, meaning that the general membership of the Church will not officially be advised of the disciplinary action, nor will they know the reasons for it unless the person affected makes it public himself or herself. If a member simply “falls away” and stops coming to Church, that person is rarely if ever officially removed from the Church. If they ask the Church not to have further contact with them, every effort is made to comply with that request.
11. Group is Small
Dangerous cults are about control, and the ability to control an organization’s members decreases as the organization’s size increases. As the fastest growing Christian denomination in the U.S., with 14 million members worldwide, you can call us a lot of things. Small isn’t one of them.
Look, I’ve been a Mormon for 38 years. You will have to search long and hard to find someone more skeptical and less inclined to play follow-the-leader than me. My experience is that if Mormonism is a cult, it’s the sorriest excuse for a cult that I’ve ever seen. As you can see from the eleven factors above, we just can’t get it right.
For the article on About.com: