Is Mormonism a Cult?
First, we must ask, what is a cult? The American Heritage Dictionary provides a nice, quick reference. One definition of a cult: A system or community of religious worship and ritual. Here’s another: A religion or religious sect generally considered to be extremist or false, with its followers often living in an unconventional manner under the guidance of an authoritarian, charismatic leader.
When people call Mormonism a cult, they’re usually referring to that second definition. After all, by the first definition, any church, any religion, be it Baptist or Catholic, Jewish or Buddhist, is a cult. To call a religion a cult, by that definition, would be like calling a person a person.
But that definition is no longer the primary one in the minds of most people. When they think of cults, or cultists, they think of that second definition – and they may think of brainwashed groups that live in well-armed compounds and don’t interact with the rest of society. The Mormon religion, obviously, does not segregate itself into compounds. But does it fit the definition?
Many people do see Mormonism as false, even as extremist. It is certainly different from most faiths. One could argue that, because Mormons don’t drink, smoke, have sex outside of marriage, watch R-rated movies, and participate in uniquely Mormon temple worship, they live unconventionally. And the Church president, Gordon B. Hinckley, is certainly a charismatic leader, as was the founder of Mormonism, Joseph Smith.
So is Mormonism a cult by the second definition? Perhaps. But Stephen R. Robinson, in his book Are Mormons Christian? brings up an interesting point. Was original Christianity a cult by that second definition?
Think about it. Christianity was widely seen as false – why would Christians have been persecuted so violently if people thought Christianity was true? Why would Christ have been crucified if His word was appealing to everyone? Early Christians certainly lived unconventionally – they followed different moral laws and performed miracles, to name a few examples. And no one would dare deny Christ was charismatic, or that His Word was the Word of the Church.
So, even by that unfriendly second definition, early Christianity could be called a cult, but I think very few people would want to call it that. Why do some people call Mormonism a cult and original Christianity not? The Mormon Church is still viewed with wariness, albeit far less wariness than when it first appeared. Although it’s proved to have the staying power that the self-destructive personality cults don’t, people still don’t like it. Original Christianity has had some number of centuries to be accepted.
Stephen R. Robinson brings up another point – that calling any religion a “cult,” is largely a matter of name-calling. Like calling Mormons unchristian, a conspiracy, evil, or, well, anything at all, calling the Mormon Church a cult is a way to dismiss it without thinking about what it is, or what it teaches. Calling Mormonism a cult is a way to say “this religion is different from my own/from what I’m comfortable with/from what I know.”
We don’t always like things that are different, especially if they challenge what we believe or do. We can see things and beliefs that are different as a threat, and it has always been a practice to defend ourselves against these things by giving them names that make them seem ridiculous – or even more dangerous than they are. Sometimes, we defend ourselves against the different by justifying our dislike of it.
By calling Mormonism a cult, people who dislike or fear the Mormon Church, justify their fear. Look – look at what Mormonism is. Of course we dislike it. Any sane person would.
But, in reality, Mormonism is a lot more complex than name-callers would like it to be, and a lot more moral. The way to learn more about Mormonism is not to listen to name-callers who would define it in a word or to, but to know Mormons and what they believe they believe (not what others think they do).