A few months ago Franklin Graham found himself in all sort of evangelical hot water when he removed a page from the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association’s website that had labeled Mormonism as a cult. The timing of the removal—a few weeks before the presidential election and a few minutes after Billy Graham gave his presidential imprimatur to Romney—made any nuanced reasoning behind the Graham’s move impossible.
They compounded their problems when their defense of the action was “God has not called us to call other people names”—a defense which is about as thoughtful and persuasive as saying “Mormons really are nice people after all.” As Dan Phillips over at Pyromanics pointed out, how can you possibly argue with someone when they say that God has not called them to do what you think they should be doing? Doesn’t that mean you are arguing with God? Who, exactly, do you think you are?
But there remains an obvious question that bears exploring: Is Mormonism a cult? I want to put forward a nuanced answer: it depends on what you mean by Mormons, and it depends on what you mean by cult.
First the cult part:
I read dozens of blogs skewering the Grahams for their defrocking Mormonism of its cult status, but I don’t remember seeing anyone lay out what exactly it means to be a cult. Certainly there are several definitions of cult. What are they, and how does one qualify?
In Walter Martin’s classic The Kingdom of the Cults, he borrows a definition form a book published in 1955 which defines cult as “any religious group which differs significantly in one or more respects as to belief or practice from those religious groups which are regarded as the normative expressions of religion in our total culture.”
But that definition is obviously inadequate. First, it hinges on the word significantly. Second, it is way too broad. It basically defines any group which has as a different “practice” than the “normative expressions of religion in the total culture.” What does “total culture” mean in an era of immigration and satellite TV? I’m sure that was a suitable concept in the 1950’s, but I don’t see how it works today. By that definition, Hinduism could be a cult in Florida, but not in Michigan, and certainly not in India. Meanwhile, Christianity itself would be considered a cult Nepal or Rome.
Martin was aware of that weakness of the definition, and so he added his own criteria: “A group of people gathered about a specific person’s misinterpretation of the Bible.” So for Martin a cult is a religious group that:
- has significant differences in practices from normative expressions of religion in “total culture”
- is built around a specific misinterpretation of the Bible
But that definition also fails on some pretty basic levels. Do two Baptist churches that disagree on dispensationalism get to label each other as cults? It also fails because it defines cult specifically in relation to Christianity. What about Islam? Certainly there are cults in Islam—most Muslims consider The Nation of Islam a cult, for example. Yet that is not possible with Martin’s definition. [Note: Martin does not seem to follow his own definition very carefully. He considers both the Baha’i movement an d Buddhism cults, even though they don’t seem built around a specific misinterpretation of the Bible.]
So are there any better definitions of cult?
The dictionary defines cult as “any particular system of religious worship” (Webster’s Dictionary). This is why when reading OT commentaries (or NT Wright…) there are constant references to the OT temple worship as “cultic.” It doesn’t mean that it was a false religion, but simply means that it was “religious.” Obviously the dictionary definition of the word is so broad that it is not really helpful. After all, by that definition every religion is a cult.
There is a better definition of cult. Many sociology books describe a cult as being a religious group that has the following distinctions:
- Built around a charismatic leader (or his successor) who is generally infallible
- A break off of another religion, and claims that it is correct while the group they left is apostate.
- Considered on the fringe of society, and outside of social norms (often aided by a sense of secrecy to the inner workings of the religion).
This definition is repeated in many sociology text books, and is quite helpful. For example, you can see how Catholicism would fit the first two, but not the third, and thus is rightly not considered a cult. Meanwhile, it is narrow enough that it does not include all false religions, while being broad enough that it can also include groups like the Nation of Islam or Baha’i.
So that moves to the category of Mormonism. Does Mormonism fit these distinctives? They are built around a charismatic leader and their prophet is considered infallible (he has direct revelation from God, of course). It is obviously an apostate form of Christianity, so check there as well.
But are they considered on the fringe of society? That leads to the second question:
Mormons essentially fall into two categories. Latter-day Saints (LDS), and Fundamentalist LDS. For the LDS, their temples are tourist attractions, Bryce Harper is a baseball phenom, Romney ran for President without his Mormonism being as big of a deal as Kennedy’s Catholicism, and Senate Majority Leader is a LDS (to say nothing about the fact that college students idolize American Idol David Archuleta). Every year, it is becoming tougher and tougher to argue that the church of LDS is on the fringe of society.
But the FLDS is another story all together. They are the fringe groups of Mormons in Texas, the Utah Arizona boarder, and parts of Canada. They practice polygamy, have their own prophets, are break-offs from the the church of LDS , and have been anathematized by the LDS. This group seems to fit every definition of cult, and even the LDS regard them as a cult.
So when people ask me “is Mormonism a cult?” I answer with two questions: “It depends on what you mean by Mormons. If by Mormons you mean the polygamists in the hills living in isolation, then yes. If by Mormons you mean LDS, then it depends on what you mean by cult.”
The dictionary definition calls Mormonism a cult, right along with every other religion in the world. Sociological definitions, along with Martin’s own definition, all hinge on if Mormonism is considered outside the norm of our culture. It is certainly a grey area. After all, it ,would be very difficult to say in Salt Lake City or Provo that Mormonism differs from the “normative expression of religion” (Martin’s definition) in that community. When you add the concept that Martin uses of “total culture” then certainly you have to consider politics (Mitt Romney, Henry Reid), music (David Archuleta), and sports (Bryce Harper). When you consider those categories, it becomes harder and harder to be dogmatic on the word cult. Even if it is one today, how many more years does that label stick? How many stars do there need to be before something is no longer on the fringe of the culture?
What is clear is that Mormonism, whether LDS or FLDS, is a false religion. It teaches a false way to God, and leads to eternal judgment. It is built on lies, and spreads through propaganda. And the only way for Mormons to be saved is to repent from their false religion, and find refuge in the gospel of Jesus Christ. That is what God has called the Grahams to preach, and who knows? Maybe that is exactly what they said to Romney before they took their webpage down.
Regardless, it is essential for Christians if they understand the uniqueness of the gospel and how to invite those who don’t know it to believe it—whether or not they are part of a cult. The real battle is over the gospel, not over a sociological category about whose religion is more influential in the culture.