On being cultish

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.

_________________________________________________

Footnotes:

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.”

Comments

  1. The label seems to bother me less and less because the people who throw it around usually do so from a position of ignorance and often will refuse to change their minds to a reasonable argument that is contrary to their belief.

  2. If we are being PC than Mormons are not a “Cult” – We are just “Religiously Challenged”

  3. How can you point to Jeff Lindsey and Mormon Cults without linking to this?

  4. Cynthia L. says:

    Epic sign. Who/when/where is that?

  5. Blair,
    You did a great job with a touchy subject. I think people are in a position now where they mostly take what even their own pastor says with a grain of salt. After all, there are so many to choose from. But whether or not we are a cult probably isn’t the conversation you wanted to have.

    It can sometimes be tough for us to be around loved ones and truly love them unconditionally; enjoying being with them in the moment, in the here and now without a hint of pretext of hope they will be different in the future. It makes it harder if they have left the church. There is so much expectation and often disappointment. We can often feel each others motives, and it’s no fun to be with someone you want to love you if you always feel like they are always dissatisfied with your choices and who you are.

  6. Mother to child: I will love you always and forever, trusting that you will return to the faith I raised you in. BUT IF NOT, I will love you always and forever.

  7. “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.”

    Great conclusion and the valuable lesson we Mormons can take from the cult controversy.

  8. You really ought to read the post at http://bradhicks.livejournal.com/118585.html and the next four as well.

  9. My question is–is that a real sign or computer generated?

  10. The lack of punctuation makes this sign hopeless unintelligible to me. Is it a comma or a colon implicitly following “Cults”? I can’t tell. Maybe they’re just advertising a religious survey seminar and they don’t yet know which speakers they can line up (though the two missionaries in the picture are a good hint). And don’t even get me started on the missing hyphen…

  11. I find it’s worth remembering the Scientology Rule: if it would look cultish if a Scientologist were to do it, it’s cultish if you do it.

    Good post.

  12. Here is the thing, those people who call Mormonism a “Cult” aren’t doing it (mostly) because of what Mormons do. After all, Mitt Romney and by extension other Mormons are called good and moral people at the same time. The reason they are calling it a “cult,” and by their own admission is for what Mormons believe. I understand the point of this post, but it misses the mark of what is going on with the label.

  13. Jettboy: this post isn’t a direct response to the reasoning behind the pastor’s use of the term “cult.” The footnote lists a few long articles people can read if they’re interested in that angle. You’ll notice my redirect here:

    Rather than trying to change their minds [theological disagreement-type people], 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.

    In other words, I’ve seen people apply the “cult” label on other grounds, and by “people” I mean former members of the Church. I purposefully don’t provide links to those discussions, though.

    Matt W.: haha, I forgot about that site. Pretty good.

    Cynthia and Mister Mister: I’m not sure where the sign was, I found the picture in a google search. Friends who served in the Bible Belt tell me they saw such signs fairly regularly.

    mmiles and Margaret: you really got it, yes. Thanks.

  14. I don’t remember which bloggernacle participant said it (jump in and claim credit where it’s due), but the best definition of Christian I ever heard coming from an Evangelical Christian perspective is this:

    “Accepting the winning side of old ecumenical councils right up to the point where I stop accepting them.”

  15. I’d just like to say that I do not belong to a cult.

    I AM a cult!

    I wish these Southern Baptist Convention pastors, whose church used to propagate slavery and Jim Crow laws would get that right!

  16. blair:

    re- “I purposefully don’t provide links to those discussions”- Seems Ironically antithetical to “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.”

    What I mean is that we all exclude those who are other than us. It is part of our natural encoding. Failure to exclude leaves us open and vulnerable to pain and suffering and personal attacks (which may or may not be fair). I think exclusion is necessary and even beneficial. Exclusion is what establishes personal and group identity. I believe from your statement about purposefully not providing links that you feel the same way. Where is the correct place to put the line as to when exclusion is ok and when it isn’t? Is it fair to judge others on their exclusionary practices when we are not directly involved?

  17. I ditto your call here, especially in regards to doing the same thing to family members and friends who leave the church:

    “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.”

    Amen.

  18. Matt, I don’t see it as antithetical to advocate for open acceptance of, or loving interactions with, people with different beliefs on the one hand, and to address a particular audience in a particular circumstance on the other hand. I’m not advocating a mushy “everything-is-great” type of approach without recognizing or acknowledging any distinctions between what people believe or do. Such a thing actually does its own type of violence by failing to respect difference. But I do believe there are better and worse ways to handle such differences as a general principle, although individual application has to be done on a case-to-case basis. The scriptures refer to “speaking the truth in love” and to being wise as serpents yet harmless as doves.

    You ask: “Where is the correct place to put the line as to when exclusion is ok and when it isn’t?” This question can’t really be answered so generally, but an underlying ethic of charity ought to always govern how we answer it. That’s what I’m saying, and that’s what I’m constantly failing to do, myself.

  19. “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.”

    Let us not forget that this happens ALL THE TIME in Evangelical Christian churches as well. Try asking any atheist if it was easy telling their Christian family that they don’t believe in God anymore.

  20. Ben, avoiding the tu quoque defense is preferable, imo, unless done with deeper intent: finding common reasons why we react this way.

  21. My mother once said something like “I don’t worry if my children question or doubt or go to other churches. Truth is truth, and God will lead each one on his/her own path to find it.”

  22. Love this, Blair.

  23. Wendy Lou says:

    You all are better Mormons and Christians than I am. I agree with John Huntsman Jr. The pastor is a Moron on the cult issue.

    I’ve come to the place where I don’t care that they don’t believe we are Christian. I know my relationship with my Savior, and they can’t take that from me.

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