Wednesday, November 01, 2006


Mormons And The Word "Cult" - The Common View

I continue to wonder about the usefulness of the term "cult" in common conversation. I started by pointing out that the term has multiple definitions, not distinguishable in general context or grammatical methods and was therefore an impediment to communication, not an aid. I then looked at the most common religious/academic defintion. That definition is innocuous enough, being purely descriptive, but it is not in common use. Most people do not restirct themselves in conversation to such precise terminology.

As I have stated plainly, I am examining this issue in particular when it comes to Mormons because of my interest in the potential presidential candidacy of Mitt Romney, a Mormon, and how derisivly that term is thrown about as concerns that particular religion.

The problems arise with what is called in one Wikipedia piece, the "Definition by Secular Cult Opposition."
Secular cult opponents define a "cult" as a religious or non-religious group that tends to manipulate, exploit, and control its members.
  • The common anti-cult definition summarised,
  • Manipulative and authoritarian mind control over members
  • Communal and totalistic in their organisation
  • Aggressive in proselytizing
  • Systematic program of indoctrination
  • New membership of cults by middle class
Note, the Wikipedia piece calls this a "secular" definition, and secularists certainly apply it to most religions. I have heard the diehard secularists apply it to the Roman Catholic church.

Worse yet, this definition does in fact apply to some groups that maintain a more traditional Christian theology. Many Pentecostal churches will manifest aspects of this definition, and some of them sink deeply into it.

It is this image of the coercive, mind-bending, hard to leave group that comes to most people's minds when they hear the word "cult," and therein lies problem when it comes to using it associated with Mormons.

Much like there are traditional, orthodox Christian groups that meet this definition to one extent or the other, the same can be said about Mormons. There are a number of break away "Mormon" sects, many still practicing polygamy, that are very ugly and coercive in this fashion. I use the word "Mormon" in quotations because the large, readily identified Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, you know the Salt Lake City group, denies that such groups are Mormon. But the CJCLDS certainly does not fit that definition of coercive or mind-bending in any way. I know far too many "Jack Mormons" for there to be legitimate claims of coercion or "hard to leave," and almost all of them have no real animous.

Now, of course, there are those that have left the CJCLDS quite bitterly, and make all sorts of outrageous claims, but again all that does is say that at worst there are some congregations in the CJCLDS that are not functioning in accordance with church doctrine - I can find that in almost all traditional Christian denominations.

The term cult as discussed in this post is certainly derogatory, typically perjorative, and when applied to the CJCLDS labels as evil that which is simply wrong. As Christians, I do not think we help matters by applying such a term and all its standard implications, to people that we are called to love and hope to encourage towards the truth.

When you have a word that has multiple meanings, indistinguishable without explaination, applied to a church that requires much further explaination, it sure looks to me like we have to find a better way to have the discussion.

Part IV of this seris is here.

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