I’ve heard it too many times:
“Your church is a cult!”
“Joseph Smith was a cult leader!”
“Cult! Cult! Cult!”
This accusation came to a head when right-wing religious leaders accused Mitt Romney of being a cult member when he was running for POTUS in 2012. One of the clearest examples of this was when the comments of Baptist pastor Robert Jeffress made national news. From his initial comments and clarifications he gave afterward, we can boil down his message to three essential points:
- Mitt Romney is a good man who abides by Christian principles, but he is a cult member and not a Christian.
- Barack Obama is a bad man who does not abide by Christian principles, but he is a Christian and not a cult member.
- Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims…pretty much all other religious groups are cults because they do not teach Christian principles.
The reasoning here is truly staggering. Not only is Jeffress clearly ignorant to the true definition of the word “cult”, but he does not seem to even know what his private definition of the word is, as there is no consistency in its application here. It would seem that he is saying that anyone who does not agree with and believe in his interpretations of Christian doctrine is a cultist, but if that is the case, it makes no sense to say that Barack Obama departs from Christian principles and then say that he is not a cultist.
So what is a cult? According to Dictionary.com, a cult is:
1. a particular system of religious worship, especially with reference to its rites and ceremonies.
2. an instance of great veneration of a person, ideal, or thing, especially as manifested by a body of admirers: the physical fitness cult.
3. the object of such devotion.
4. a group or sect bound together by veneration of the same thing, person, ideal, etc.
5. Sociology. a group having a sacred ideology and a set of rites centering around their sacred symbols.
6. a religion or sect considered to be false, unorthodox, or extremist, with members often living outside of conventional society under the direction of a charismatic leader.
7. the members of such a religion or sect.
In pointing the cult stick at others, Jeffress and those like him may encounter the accusation that they are actually being hypocritical, and that they too belong to a cult. So let’s see if these definitions for “cult” apply to Jeffress’s Baptist faith:
1. Yes. Baptists certainly are religious, and they do worship. As for rites and ceremonies, the very name of their denomination is a reference to what could be termed the most important rite or ceremony of Christian worship.
2. Yes. Certainly, Baptists tend to proudly proclaim that they venerate Jesus Christ. (One might also say that, in specific circumstances, they venerate the Bible or various ministers in the same way, though that would be a matter of debate.)
4. Yes. Again: Jesus Christ, the Gospel, etc.
5. Yes. Baptists are clearly bound together by common ideologies (though they still differ substantially from place to place), and they have sacred symbols such as the cross, the “Jesus fish”, WWJD bands, etc.
6. No. Congratulations, Reverend Jeffress: there is one sense in which you could not be termed a cult member.
7. Yes or no, depending on the sense to which we are referring.
For the one sense in which Jeffress’s denomination could not be termed a cult, it is true that Latter-day Saints could be termed a cult. After all, while Baptists are often called “mainstream”, Latter-day Saints and other Restorationists are generally considered to be “unorthodox” or “heterodox” by the general population – that is, in the United States, at least. It seems, then, that Jeffress identifies cults according to the sixth definition. However, that being the case, Jeffress’s claim that Hinduism is a cult is truly confusing, as the 800 million Hindus in India are hardly “living outside of conventional society”. Clearly, the Christians of India would be more cult-like in that sense. The only way around this conclusion would be to say that what the Hindus of India have is not a society, which would be an interesting claim indeed.
But this is all tangential. Back to the central question: Are Latter-day Saints members of a cult?
As a Latter-day Saint, let me answer that question with the utmost clarity: Yes, I am a member of a cult. That cult is the one founded by Jesus Christ, who was widely ridiculed and persecuted for teaching unorthodox principles and establishing a kingdom “not of this world” – that is, outside of conventional society. Just as Jesus Christ’s cult was persecuted by the ecumenical establishment of His day, so is it persecuted today. In such a world as this, I would consider it foolishness, blasphemy, and rebellion against God to be termed orthodox and “mainstream”. Therefore, I am not at all outraged when the sophists, simonists, and pharisees of the world object to my beliefs. Especially when they apparently do not even know how to use a dictionary.