Whenever possible, I try to avoid hostile religious discussions. They usually don’t end well for anyone involved. But sometimes, these discussions are unavoidable, like selfies on Instagram or heartbreak in Downton Abbey (I’ve got a serious love/hate relationship with those writers . . .). Anyway. A few years ago, I was forced into a discussion like this when a friend demanded that I “stop lying and just admit it: Mormonism is a cult!” Well, I didn’t admit anything of the sort cause I’m not a liar.
“Dude, if I walk into a Christian bookstore, you know where I’d find the books about Mormonism? In the cult section. That’s right. The CULT SECTION!” Dun-Dun-Dun! As far as he was concerned, he had boxed me into Ivan Drago’s losing corner; his logic was impenetrable. Much to his surprise, I was hesitant to embrace a definition of “cult” that correlated with how Christian bookstores stack their shelves.
So are Mormons part of a cult? Well, no. But I guess it technically depends on how we define “cult.”
You see, when most people hear the word “cult,” they picture a bunch of fanatical, crazy, irrational zealots. In fact, the word often conjures up images of the Jonestown group and the 909 people who, at the command of their leader Jim Jones, committed suicide by drinking cyanide-filled Kool-Aid (some say this was where the phrase “drinking the Kool-Aid” came from). No wonder cults are normally shunned and written off as illegitimate.
At the same time, many religious leaders insist that their definition of “cult” (what they call a “theological cult,” as opposed to a sociological one) is not pejorative at all. They say it’s just a technical word they use to describe religious groups that worship God differently than they do. Essentially, their definition of “cult” comes down to a set of criteria that includes relatively small membership, weird beliefs (and what’s considered “weird” is, of course, up to them) and strict rules. It’s worth noting that even my friend’s nondenominational church could be labeled a cult under these vague criteria. This technical definition seems to pretend that the other, scarier one doesn’t exist. (Here’s Pastor Robert Jeffress making this exact distinction between theological and sociological cults – even he won’t say Mormons are the latter.)
All of this raises the question: if these religious leaders are just trying to label different religious groups, why use the label “cult,” a term packed with negativity? Wouldn’t a term like “unorthodox” or “nontraditional” be simultaneously more accurate and less judgmental?
I won’t attempt to answer this question for them. But using the theological definition doesn’t change the fact that when most people hear “cult”, visions of Kool-Aid-drinking, religious zealots dance in their heads. Imagine if I took the word Anti-Semite, defined it as any “non-Jewish based religious tradition,” and then said, “Buddhists are Anti-Semites!” I guess I’d be technically correct, but I’m likely to anger plenty of Jews and Buddhists along the way.
To put it another way, it’s like calling immigrants “aliens”—sure, our legal systems have used the term since before we can remember, but just because we technically define “alien” a certain way doesn’t stop us from imagining a bunch of little green men moving into our neighborhoods.
So why do people think Mormonism is a cult? It really boils down to the fact that while Mormons worship Christ, we worship a little differently than some of our evangelical friends. But you already knew that. Heck, this site is called “Normons” because we readily admit that there’s a need to explain some of our “weird”-ness! But while some of our beliefs and methods of worship differ from those of other Christians, one thing is for sure: we love and revere Jesus Christ as the head of our Church, and we earnestly strive to incorporate his teachings of mercy, love, and salvation into our daily lives. Here’s what some other regular Mormons have to say about the “cult” label.
During the 2012 election, the Reverend Billy Graham’s Evangelical Association (BGEA) removed Mormonism from its list of cults. (WOOHOO!) Later, Rev. Franklin Graham said, “If I want to win a person to Christ, how can I call that person a name? That’s what shocked me, that we were calling people names.” I appreciate that. Makes me think . . . if I take my friend to a BGEA bookstore, I might just win our debate once and for all!
Sticks and stones may break my bones, but calling Mormonism a cult gets us nowhere . . . fast.
Still think Mormonism is a cult? Tell us why and we’d be happy to explain.