Is Mormonism a Cult?

October 25, 2011

You might have heard that the Reverend Robert Jeffress called Mormonism a cult a couple weekends ago. It’s nothing new to us Mormons: people have been calling us cultists for generations. It’s only news because someone connected to a presidential campaign said it, giving journalists the perfect excuse to write headlines combining the words “religion” and “politics.”

With accusations of bigotry flying in from all directions, the pastor has stood by his statement and made the clarification that Mormonism is a “theological cult,” which has a different denotation than a “sociological cult” akin to the small, controlling groups led by the likes of David Koresh and Jim Jones. The way that Jeffress describes it, a “theological cult” is a religious group that deviates from traditional Christianity significantly enough that it should be excluded from the realm of Christianity.

Now, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints does deviate from traditional Christianity in some ways, so there may be some value in his assessment; it’s a question worth exploring through further research and education. My main objection to the term “cult” is its connotation: it conjures up images of brain-washing, living in barbed-wire compounds, restricting access to the outside world. Rather than opening the question, it closes the door on it. The intent of the word is to tell everyone, “DANGER! Don’t go near these loons!”

So, there’s a problem with the word “cult” itself: it’s pejorative. Rev. Jeffress’ relatively neutral definition is automatically charged by the fierce emotional context surrounding the word, and the message of that emotion is “REJECT MORMONS!” As Mormons, we feel that message unfairly replaces education with anti-Mormon propaganda.

This tactic is relatively commonplace in the public square. The well-known atheist, Christopher Hitchens recently summed up my religion as one led by “a supreme leader, known as the prophet [who can order Mormons] to turn upon and shun any members who show any signs of backsliding […] Word is that the church can be harder to leave than it was to join. Hefty donations and tithes are apparently appreciated from the membership.”

If Jeffress or Hitchens were my first introduction to Mormonism, I’d probably call the LDS church worse names than “cult.” Fortunately, I (as a Mormon) know more about my religion than these two combined.

While each of these descriptions is based on a small kernel of truth (we do have some theological differences with traditional Christianity and we do indeed have a prophet and we pay our tithing, etc.), they mislead you (we believe in the grace of Jesus Christ, we actively reach out to “backsliding” members, and we allow members to resign their membership freely). Without the necessary context it’s impossible to understand some issues the way Mormons understand them. If your goal is to feed your hatred for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints then stop right here. Just go find some anti-Mormon screeds and don’t be surprised when you develop strong feelings of disdain and disgust for us lunatic Mormons.

If you want to understand Mormonism, though, here are the main things a Mormon will focus on when introducing the Church:

  • God is our Father and He loves us,
  • Jesus Christ atoned for our sins,
  • the original Christian priesthood and apostleship have been restored, and
  • God speaks to us through His prophets and through the Holy Ghost.

I’m not sure why these don’t get the press’s attention as much, but they are the foundational principles of the Mormon religion (and my life). Start with these to better understand the frequent accusations and misleading descriptions that are thrown our way.

To get a true education on our religion, contact a Mormon friend or acquaintance; you can ask them your questions directly. We are always itching to tell our story to people who want to learn, especially if the focus is on the central themes I listed here. If you don’t know any Mormons, send me an email. I’ll gladly volunteer to be your first latter-day saint friend.

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8 Responses to “Is Mormonism a Cult?”

  1. Jason Korbus

    I take your point about the term cult.  It seems to be one of those words that, once used, ends a conversation instead of starting one.  I wonder if any religion couldn’t be called a cult for much the same reason Jeffress called Mormonism one?  
    I think I do understand the value people get from religion.  Thad, do you think people need religion to have a high quality of life that you attribute to the foundational principles of Mormonism?  Or do you think folks like me, who would be considered atheists, can also live happy, full lives?  Why or why not?
    I appreciate your time.  I now consider you my first latter-day saint friend!

  2. Sandy

    (Hi, Thaddeus. Interesting info. I saw this little item on the internet. Reactions?
           LDS a “cult”? What about the “rapture”?

                   by Bruce Rockwell

         Mitt Romney, a Mormon, is “not a Christian” and Mormonism is a “cult,” according to Rev. Robert Jeffress, pastor of the Dallas (TX) First Baptist Church.
         His “cult” remark is based on his belief that the Latter-day Saints church (which didn’t exist before 1830) is outside “the mainstream of Christianity.”
         But Jeffress hypocritically promotes the popular evangelical “rapture” (theologically the “any-moment pretribulation rapture”) which is outside mainstream Christianity (Google “Pretrib Rapture Politics”) and which also didn’t exist before 1830 (Google “Pretrib Rapture Diehards” and “Pretrib Rapture Dishonesty”)!
         And there are 50 million American rapture cultists (some of whom turn Wikipedia into “Wicked-pedia” by constantly distorting the real facts about the rapture’s bizarre, 181-year-old history) compared with only 14 million LDS members.
         The most accurate documentation on pretrib rapture history that I have found is in a nonfiction book titled “The Rapture Plot” which is carried by leading online bookstores. I know also that the same 300-page work can also be borrowed through inter-library loan at any library.
         Latter-day Saints believe in fairness, which is why I feel called to share this message.

  3. Thaddeus

    Jason, thanks for your insightful comment. You bring up another good reason not to use the word “cult”: it has a slippery definition. It’s flexible enough to include or exclude just about anyone. I bet I could even get atheism wrapped up in it if I tried.

    I know there are plenty of fulfilled and happy atheists out there; and plenty of theists with terrible outlooks on life, but I believe that religion is largely beneficial to humans. It gives us an anchor in life.

    The restored Christian gospel (Mormonism) is especially beneficial because it has the power to make bad men good and good men better.

    Take a look at this other article I wrote awhile back on why I believe in God. I think you might like it.

    I’m glad to call you friend! Thanks for visiting, Jason.

  4. Thaddeus

    Thanks for the article, Sandy.

    My reaction? Yeah, the rapture (as evangelicals understand it) is fairly modern. In fact, the evangelical movement is a relatively recent development, too.

    It’s misleading to judge the truth of something by its age, though. Some doctrines may be both new and true, or both false and old. In the case of Mormonism, sure the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was formed in 1830, but the central unique doctrine is that it’s a restoration of something that existed anciently and was lost. To a Mormon, it is the oldest religion (even though it wasn’t called ‘Mormonism’ in Noah’s day).

  5. There is one thing that I think the majority of Mormons believe that most Theists don’t; that morality is not based on faith, even if such can increase the knowledge and practice of morals. It is a topic that hasn’t been explained much.
    My point related to cults? not much other than atheists giving Mormonism a “cult” label is ironic for a religion that, theoretically anyway, is less likely to condemn someone for not believing in God.

  6. “If you want to understand Mormonism, though, here are the main things a Mormon will focus on when introducing the Church:

    God is our Father and He loves us,
    Jesus Christ atoned for our sins,
    the original Christian priesthood and apostleship have been restored, and
    God speaks to us through His prophets and through the Holy Ghost.

    I’m not sure why these don’t get the press’s attention as much, but they are the foundational principles of the Mormon religion (and my life). Start with these to better understand the frequent accusations and misleading descriptions that are thrown our way.”
    I think terming the differences between Mormon belief and conventional Christian belief as just ‘some’ is rather misleading, though, along with the quote above. What I’ve found is that Mormons use many of the same terms/words the Christians use, but you mean different things with them.
    From what you said in the quote above, a Christian would probably feel reassured that his belief isn’t so different from yours… until he somehow finds out that Mormons believe in multiple gods rather than the weird Christian triune (you believe that god-the-father/Elohim is a distinctly different god than Jesus and the holy ghost, and that the first two, at least, have fleshy body and now live on a different planet that is somehow having its light reflected onto earth via the sun. The Christians emphatically don’t believe that), or that the Mormons regard the bible as a flawed scriptures (to be superceded by the Book of Mormon, Doctrine and Covenants, and the Pearl of Great Price)… except for the version that was edited by Joseph Smith, etc.
    Mormons don’t tell the people they’re trying to convert any of that… until well after they had convinced them to baptize into the LDS church and committed 10% of their hard earned gross personal income as tithing each month. You should see the look of horror on the faces of the missionaries that have been trying to convert me when I asked them something from D&C. They had been trying to make me commit to baptize into the church without first telling me about all the scriptures and doctrines and how the church operates.
    This withholding of information in order to manipulate people into making certain decisions a certain way that the church wants is not lying per se… but neither is it honest. Just saying…

  7. Thaddeus

    Smorg, I don’t think there is as much discrepancy between Mormon and traditional Christian terms as you imply.

    For example, you point out that Mormons believe in multiple gods, which implies we are polytheists. This is at least as misleading as saying we are triune monotheists. We are monolatrists, and this makes us effectively monotheists (in praxis). I wouldn’t bother splitting this hair in the first lesson unless the investigator brings it up.

    We do believe that God the Father and Jesus Christ are distinct and have physical bodies. In my experience as a missionary, this is how many lay Christians are accustomed to thinking about them anyways. It’s mainly the theologians and pastors who cling to the triunity argument. In any case, this is an important element in the missionary lessons. It isn’t hidden.

    The “different planet-reflected light” thing isn’t even really a tenet of Mormonism. I would look at that argument more carefully before you fling it around.

    We still revere the Bible as sacred writing, but we recognize its limitations. This is also covered in the apostasy & restoration lesson.

    I would like to see the look of horror on those missionaries’ faces. Did you get a picture? What was it that you shared with them out of D&C?

    Withholding important information from converts is disingenuous, I agree. I don’t think that it’s good practice for missionaries, and it isn’t missionary policy. I also think that it’s important for investigators to act on faith when they learn the Book of Mormon is truly a work of God, instead of requiring knowledge of every detail before they will commit.

  8. Jo

    Using derogatory words like “cult” does not help open up conversations.  As your article pointed out, this just cements certain ideas in people’s heads that may not be accurate.  Plus, it makes the speaker appear ignorant.  What benefit is it to call someone’s religious group a “cult” especially in the public domain?

    BUT, to say that the differences between Mormonism and mainstream Christianity are few or “some”, is a gross misrepresentation.  Let me give you a few:

    – The Fall was a good thing
    – We can become gods
    – Temple Marriage is required to attain the highest kingdom
    – Temple endowments/covenants must be entered to get to the highest kingdom
    – You must be approved to enter the temple
    – The Temple in general
    – Baptism for the Dead
    – The Book of Mormon/D&C/Pearl of Great Price are the Word of God
    – Modern prophecy through a living prophet/president
    – Jesus Christ was not always God (He was once like us)
    – Heavenly Father is an exalted man who became God in a previous life
    – Marriage/families are forever (Note that Jesus never taught that)
    – We were all spirit children with Heavenly Father and we accepted his plan to come to earth
    – The “Atonement” was in Gethsemene and not on the cross

    These things are clearly important issues.  Mormonism is entirely different from mainstream Christianity as these issues above are key to understanding either faith.  

    I don’t believe in Mormonism, but please don’t try and make it sound like Mormonism is just a little different than mainstream Christianity (whatever that is anyway).  I find that misleading.
    I hope I’ve correctly identified the differences in the above list.  These are from my studies and discussions with Mormons.  As you can tell, I don’t believe Mormonism lines up with the Bible, but whether you agree or disagree with that, I hope we can agree that Mormonism is much more different than most “Christian” churches today.