Jesus Christ: Cult Leader

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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.)
3. N/A.
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.

BYU’s Imaginary Unfair Advantage

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Departing from religion and politics, I would like to talk briefly about something truly controversial: College football. Specifically, BYU football.

It’s happening again. With BYU’s second-in-a-row trouncing of the Texas Longhorns – this time in Texas – folks are bringing up the old accusation that BYU has an unfair advantage given the fact that its players are older than other college football players, mostly due to their tendency to take two years off to go serve full-time missions for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. “It’s not fair!” the haters say. “Their bellies are bigger! They are more mature! They have less of a tendency to get arrested! They have wives and children rooting for them instead of just girlfriends!” And so, the haters allege that this is some sort of grand scheme by the Church to squeeze a little better performance out of a team that would not be so good otherwise. But for those who make this argument, I have a few points that I would like for you to consider:

  1. It’s not that much of an advantage. Going on a mission is not like being redshirted. These guys are not going to Brazil, Ecuador, Taiwan, and Zimbabwe to secretly hold two-a-days for two years. Most of them actually will not even touch a pigskin during that time, as LDS missionaries are not allowed to play contact sports like football, rugby, and hockey. (They aren’t even allowed to play full-court basketball. I think it’s mostly an insurance thing.) While missionaries are now expected to exercise each morning, we are not talking about what they are accustomed to doing in multi-million-dollar athletic complexes. We are talking about something more along the lines of some push-ups and sit-ups before morning study. Half an hour, max. (That’s actually a rule too.) Some missionaries come back in satisfactory physical condition because they walked or rode bikes during their ten hours of proselyting each day over their two-year stint, but that varies from place to place. In short, the idea that these guys get back from their missions in the same competitive physical condition they were in when they left is absolutely ludicrous.
  2. If it were such an advantage, other schools would do it. What is stopping the University of Texas from requiring its players to go volunteer for the Red Cross or the Peace Corps for two years? Nothing. Why don’t they do it? See Point #1. Then there is also the fact that their players simply may not be willing to do it. In that case, why are we going to punish one school for having more dedicated athletes than all the rest? Even if that were the issue – even if it brings an unfair advantage but only LDS athletes are willing to do it – one would think that schools would be eager to recruit all of these Mormon super-athletes who plan on being missionaries, as not all of them go to BYU. In reality, though, other schools have more of a tendency to just cancel their scholarships and forget about them. Why? Again, see Point #1.
  3. Asking BYU to stop this would be the same as asking BYU to not have an athletics program. You know how much you love your team? Yeah, that’s how BYU players feel about their actual religion. Most of them are not going to choose a game over God. The only alternatives to making BYU cancel its athletics program would be to request that the school do away with its strict Honor Code to attract more non-LDS talent, make an exception such that athletes are not required to abide by the Honor Code (again, to attract more non-LDS talent), or tell its players that God has commanded them to play football instead of being missionaries. None of these are reasonable options.

The truth is that BYU football players are older because they are willing to give up two years of their lives (and a lot of their money and opportunities) to do something they believe in and to make the world a better place. They do not do it to be better football players, and the idea that it gives them an unfair advantage on the field is just plain silly. (As any Ute will tell you, it’s not like BYU consistently has the best team in the nation or anything.) So, in response to the haters’ unreasonable requests that BYU players stop being so old, I have a very reasonable request:

Perhaps you should just try losing gracefully.