Cult is a Four-Letter Word

October 12th, 2011

People don’t talk about politics or religion in polite company. At least that’s what an adult told me when I was in middle school. I had no idea what "polite company" meant, but I did know that I loved talking about both politics and religion, so I reasoned that perhaps impolite company was the place I preferred to be.

Recently the press has been discussing politics and religion—a lot—especially since the pastor who introduced presidential candidate Rick Perry last week told reporters that Mormonism is a cult.

Talk about your four-letter words.

Cult is one of those terms that means different things to different people. Even the dictionary gets a little confused about cults. Take these definitions from Merriam-Webster, for example:

cult: n. a system of religious beliefs and ritual; also : its body of adherents

Well according to that standard, anybody who formally believes anything is in a cult. Folks like Billy Graham, the Pope, you, me—even Mark Driscoll. (I always knew Mars Hill was a little weird.)

Considering that the guy who used the cult label is pastor of a 10,000 member megachurch that likely adheres to a belief system, this probably isn't what he meant by cult.

So let’s try another definition.

cult: n. formal religious veneration : worship

If I’m reading this correctly, Merriam-Webster considers cult and worship to be synonyms. Hmmm. How was your church’s cult service this week? Has your congregation’s cult leader released a CD yet?

I don’t think that one works either.

cult: n. a religion regarded as unorthodox or spurious; also : its body of adherents

“A religion regarded as unorthodox or spurious...” Problem is, the dictionary doesn’t tell us who’s doing the regarding. That’s an important detail to leave out. Mitt Romney doesn’t regard Mormonism as a cult. Neither do the 14 million plus Latter-day Saints worldwide. But many Christians consider Mormon beliefs to be unorthodox. (That’s a less inflammatory way of saying someone believes the wrong things.) By the way, Mormons don’t think traditional Christians are very orthodox either.

Was Robert Jeffress right? Is Mormonism a cult? It depends on whom you ask, and which definition you use.

Nowadays, when most of us think of cults, we picture small groups of people with crazy beliefs and magnetic, authoritative leaders. (Think Jim Jones and David Koresh.) With millions of members and almost 200 years under their belt, Mormons have at least made it to sect status by now.

The theology of the LDS Church differs significantly from traditional Christian beliefs, but it's not really accurate to call it a cult.


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