Why do you care? On the “cult” of Mormonism

Despite my best efforts, it has proven impossible to avoid learning of events in the Republican presidential nomination process. This is particularly true of the revelation that a supporter of Rick Perry has called Mormonism a “cult.” I could swear that Religion Dispatches is doing 40 stories on this issue every day, each one of which gets retweeted into my Twitter feed at least a dozen times.

I find the response to this event extremely, extremely annoying. First, there’s the question of the word “cult.” Suddenly we learn that the term “cult” is nothing but a slur for a religious group you think is bad. But is it really? I’m pretty sure that the term “cult” in most contemporary usage refers to insular groups like the Branch Davidians, which most of us would agree are not healthy or beneficial groups. To call a major religious group by that name is to metaphorically transfer some of that “badness” to the major religious group. For instance, one might call Mormonism a cult because of their strange and seemingly delusional beliefs. One might call Catholicism a cult because of the charismatic leadership of the pope (though it’s admittedly been a bit less “charismatic” lately). One might call Islam a cult because of the stereotypes of Muslims’ excessive conviction.

None of these are nice things to say, obviously. All of them miss a major part of what is generally recognized as a cult, i.e., its relatively recent origin and its small, insular nature. Yet this is what’s known as using language. Words can be transfered from one context to another through metaphor. Further, the fact that a word is generally used as a slur does not make it contentless or useless. Indeed, it’s kind of tautological that the use of the word “cult” to describe Mormonism in the case of the Perry-supporting preacher was a slur — if it wasn’t a slur, he wouldn’t have used it! He thinks Mormonism is bad, and he’s saying so. There’s no need for complex, nuanced analysis here.

The deeper issue here seems to be a discomfort with strongly-stated disagreements among religious people in a secular liberal state. It seems contradictory to the idea of secular democracy for a preacher to say, essentially, that we shouldn’t trust someone who belongs to a bad religion as a political leader. I personally think a more salient reason to distrust Mitt Romney is his nihilistic opportunism and his willingness to renounce seemingly any belief in his pursuit of power, which is probably not connected to his Mormonism in any direct way. Yet is it really implausible that a particular religious faith, at least if strongly embraced, might reflect poorly on one’s character? Does anyone admire Tom Cruise’s firm Scientologist convictions, for instance? Does anyone think that membership in Opus Dei is a neutral fact that should not reflect on our political judgment of a person?

Obviously it would be bad for the government to start making such determinations, but why shouldn’t private citizens do so? Why is it problematic for religious people to think other religions are bad, or at least less good than their own? Why is it problematic for members of a particular religion to have disputes over the boundaries of their religion, for instance for mainstream Christians to view Mormonism as falling outside historical Christianity? Certainly there’s a case to be made, isn’t there? I think it’s more interesting to view Mormonism as a bona fide version of Christianity because of the way it brings out latent (and not-so-latent) possibilities that had been part of Christianity all along — but can’t you kind of see someone’s point when they doubt whether a completely new sect based on a supposedly newly discovered scriptural text is in continuity with the historic Christian tradition?

To acknowledge these points, however, would be to acknowledge the basic legitimacy of religious debate. It would be to acknowledge that religion can actually matter to people as something other than a purely private and mostly ironic gesture toward one’s cultural heritage. And that’s impossible, because the only “religion” that can rightly claim superiority is secularism. Secularism is the only beneficial religion, the religion that brings peace to the world and that transforms other historical religions by gradually rubbing off their rough, violent edges.

Until all historical religions are absorbed into secularism, our vulgarly religious fellow citizens need the tutelage of wise, tolerant, secular liberals — above all in basic manners. Don’t use mean words! Don’t get into arguments at the dinner table! Don’t hold any conviction too tightly — be open-minded above all! Make vague gestures in praise of the deep spiritual truths of other faiths, truths so deep that they have no actual content!

The effective tutor will of course avoid anything so gauche as engaging with the actual claims of the vulgarly religious. The response to an anti-Mormon slur is not to say, “Mormons share your deepest moral convictions and are your stalwart allies in pursuing those causes — for strategic reasons, you should probably shut up about your theological misgivings.” Nor is it to say, “Mormons believe in salvation through Christ just as much as you do — surely that’s more important in determining who is a Christian than any other details!” No, the only possible response is: “No! Bad boy!”

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7 Responses to “Why do you care? On the “cult” of Mormonism”

  1. Chris Rodkey Says:

    Thinking about this some more, I wonder if the obsession from both the “base” and the media speaks to a sense that Romney’s Mormonism conflicts with an implicit desire for some sense of “purity” among Tea Party folks, who have so far controlled the parameters of the Republican debate as far as I can tell (though I will confess as to not paying complete attention to the Republican primary thus far).

  2. Michael Schaefer Says:

    I find this post baffling–“Why is it problematic for religious people to think other religions are bad, or at least less good than their own?” Perhaps because we have ample historical evidence that vigorous public debate about the merits of various religious faiths tends to, you know, not end very well? How far do you want to go? Doesn’t the whole concept of a pluralistic society require us to “take the edge off” certain convictions? Public debate educates, it informs, it convinces, it changes people’s minds. How does one have a public debate about things that, at their core, aren’t especially amenable to change? Do we really gain anything from debating, say, whether Islam is worthwhile?

    And to be fair, it’s almost universally agreed that Scientology is a “bad” religion. People say this literally all the time with no public censure whatsoever–quite the contrary! In other words, we’re well on our way to the society of hard convictions and manly debate you would like to see.

  3. Adam Kotsko Says:

    Religious debate does not generally erupt into violence unless the religious affiliation of state institutions is at stake. That’s kind of the knee-jerk post-Enlightenment reaction, but it’s pretty closely parallel to people who think 70s-style stagflation or Weimar hyperinflation are always right around the corner — i.e., unless the unique confluence of the Protestant Reformation and the emergence of the modern nation-state somehow arise again, I don’t think we’re going to get a reprise of the Wars of Religion that are supposed to be paradigmatic of the inherently violent nature of religion.

    As for the rest of what you say, religious debate does happen. It does take evidence into account, and it does change people’s minds. I have actually seen this happen. It’s not like people just role a dice to see what forms of arbitrary dogmatism they’re going to unquestioningly sign up for.

  4. Adam Kotsko Says:

    From another angle: a pluralistic society also presupposes a plurality of views. The base-level “edge” we need people to give up is the notion of using coersive force to impose their religion upon others — and even from the evangelicals, we seem to have agreement on that point, though it may seem grudging in certain cases. (Indeed, their very paranoid fantasies show how much they buy into that notion, as when they imagine that Muslims are somehow going to violently impose Sharia Law on the innocent Christians of Oklahoma.)

  5. Daniel Silliman Says:

    I’m one of the twitter-feed-fillers and stand corrected. I imagined my comments in a different context than you did (i.e., my students think “Mormonism is a cult” is a sociological statement, not a theological or political one), but, yeah, my tweet was kind of stupid in retrospect.

  6. Sean Beeg Says:

    Religion and politics rarely work together well in the United States IMHO. I have several good friends who are Mormons, and they are wonderful people. However I make it a point NOT to discuss religion with them unless they bring it up, especially if we are already discussing politics! :> Also I don’t have any evidence to backup my next statement except for an eyewitness account from someone I counseled years ago, but it appears as though there are ‘cultish’ elements to the Church of LDS. I am not calling LDS a cult, but it does have certain leanings. Keep in mind that I am not talking about your usual brick and mortor LDS building around the corner, I am talking about LDS H.Q… Apparently there’s the LDS we know of (you know in the commercials, or the folks who knock on your door, missonaires, etc), and then there’s the ‘secret’ part of LDS no one is permitted to know about. This young man apparently ran afoul of that’ secret’ group. That information, and their elevation of the writings of Joseph Smith to the level of scripture are a clear indication to me that LDS could bear further scrutnity. Open your eyes and investigate. Apparently the Book of Mormon is ‘revised’ from time to time to move with the times. Also consider the point that the church of LDS insists that its members pay their tithes, it is not optional, it is compulsory. They are not the only ones who do this, and so this leads me into my final point. I don’t want to single out LDS as other large religious institutions have done some very evil things in history (the crusades, or the inquisition, anyone?) They also had the power to do it because it was given to them by the state, or in some cases, THEY WERE THE STATE. So YES I do think it is ok for us to question religion, especially our own. We must question whether or not this man’s religion will influence his policy making should he become our commander in chief. To do that we must understand his religion, and that means ASKING questions. Slandering his regligion is not the answer, understanding it, and the understanding if he is kind of man he portends to me, is.


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