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!”