This weekend’s flap between a pastor and a political candidate has resurrected the zombie-like discussion of Mormonism and cults. Much could be said about the propriety of the label in today’s religious landscape. It seems to me that objections are more often raised regarding what the word connotes (mind control, creepy hooded figures burning candles in dark corridors?), than regarding what it is supposed to denote (an unorthodox religious group?). Historical usage of the term in regards to Mormonism aside,1 I’m inclined to agree with Martin E. Marty (a distinguished religious historian, author, and professor) who said that the label serves “few clarifying purposes” aside from excluding another group from respectable society. You are weird, we are normal. Because we said so, and a lot of people agree.
Those most likely to use the “cult” word are probably least likely to be convinced by a scholar like Marty, though. Rather than trying to change their minds it might be well to look inside ourselves. In reaction to the pastor’s use of “cult,” I’ve seen a few people point to a list of “cult characteristics” backed by some impressive credentials. Here’s one example:
Subservience to the leader or group requires members to cut ties with family and friends, and radically alter the personal goals and activities they had before joining the group…Members are encouraged or required to live and/or socialize only with other group members.
Of course, this implicates Jesus himself, and any Christian group which affirms the principle outlined in Mark 10:29-31. Some might read this selection as justifying the shunning of a loved one who leaves the faith. Unfortunately, a lot of us can probably point to an example of someone who felt ostracized after leaving the Church. Jeff Lindsay creatively called such behavior “Honor Chilling.” This may lead some to charge the Church with being a cult.
But something whispers to us that it would be wrong to forsake a loved one on the basis that the loved one lost their faith, or left the Church for whatever reason. Strained relations amongst family members with shifting allegiances is hardly unique to Mormonism, or even religion for that matter. Parents and children who part ways over political issues may be the best example of the latter contention. Further, people who have been treated poorly by their families for leaving Mormonism might recall that there are also people who leave the Church and maintain fine relationships. (I personally know of many. My anecdotes *at least* neutralize counter-anecdotes to show something more complex is going on, and the label “cult” is not up to the task of analyzing what is going on.) Responding to ostracism by labeling former loved ones “cultists” is understandable, but not likely to help patch up relationships anytime soon. It contributes to the cycle of violence.
At the same time, this “cult” name-calling may be another reminder of something we need to be continuously aware of, something we may need to repent of. Sometimes, by our own insularity or insecurities, we might give the impression of being cult-like according to the (albeit heavily questionable) rubric I linked to above. I believe it’s important to be supportive of and loving towards family members and friends without making that love and support conditional upon whether a person remains active or believing in the Church. Jeff Lindsay’s reference to 3 Nephi 18 in this context bears repeating.
30. Nevertheless, ye shall not cast him out from among you, but ye shall minister unto him and shall pray for him unto the Father, in my name; and if it so be that he repenteth and is baptized in my name, then shall ye receive him, and shall minister unto him of my flesh and blood.
31. But if he repent not he shall not be numbered among my people, that he may not destroy my people, for behold I know my sheep, and they are numbered.
32. Nevertheless, ye shall not cast him out of your synagogues, or your places of worship, for unto such shall ye continue to minister; for ye know not but what they will return and repent, and come unto me with full purpose of heart, and I shall heal them; and ye shall be the means of bringing salvation unto them.
Admittedly, continuing to minister ought to be done with prudence, continuing to love need not be conditional on a future return, but that’s a conversation for another day.
Being called a cult member reminds me how it feels to be excluded on the basis of my beliefs. I suggest we refrain from doing the same thing to family members and friends who leave the Church, or even to folks who have general theological disagreements with us. “You are weird, we are normal. Because we said so, and a lot of people agree.” This ought not to be.
1. The label has been used increasingly amongst a small subset of evangelical Christians intent on protecting their flocks from LDS missionaries. The pastor, Robert Jeffress, cited the Southern Baptist Convention as the legitimate cult identifier. Louis C. Midgley has spent many pages of the FARMS Review outlining the rise of the evangelical “counter-cult” movement, if you’re interested in how the label has come to the fore yet again, and if you don’t mind Midgley’s feisty style. See his articles: “Anti-Mormonism and the Newfangled Countercult Culture,” and “Orders of Submission.”