I originally wrote this essay with the idea of submitting it to Sunstone. Thanks to an email exchange with some of the people at Sunstone I’ve come to realize that I don’t belong there… nor does any of my writing (they have quietly become very pro-Mormon over the last few years). As this essay doesn’t really have a good home elsewhere I figured I’d share it with the people on here.
On the Verge of Becoming a Denomination…: Resolving the Cult/Sect/Denomination Issue Once and For All
In a relatively recent Sunstone podcast Jana Riess noted how the labeling of Mormonism as a “cult” by her husband’s congregation caused both her and her husband extreme duress. Mormons seem to be unaware that it is common within the ex-Mormon and anti-Mormon communities to label Mormonism a “cult,” though clearly there is an agenda involved in such a labeling effort.1 In contrast, within faithful Mormon circles the LDS religion is regularly referred to as a “church” or “the church.” In every one of the above situations the language used is used incorrectly, at least insofar as religious bodies are classified within the sociology of religion. As a sociologist of religion, I am hyper-sensitive to church/sect designations as the labels imply important distinctions that are part and parcel of sociological theory. In this essay I intend to outline what those distinctions are and then propose a classification for Mormonism. I invite rebuttals and reclassifications, but I would prefer that any such responses respect the classification system presented.
Within the sociology of religion there exists a classification scheme often referred to as the church-sect typology that presents a series of “ideal types” or hypothetically perfect examples of the different types of religions that can exist.2 Because the classification scheme is built upon ideal types it is important to understand that the scheme is not a collection of rigid categories but rather a continuum, with different religious groups falling in different places along the axis. The classic categories of the continuum include the following, each of which will be discussed in greater detail below: church, sect, cult (or New Religious Movement/NRM), and denomination.
Churches are defined as bodies that encompass the entire spectrum of religious expression in a society. Churches are monopolistic and tend to be closely allied with the government and secular powers in their respective nation-state. Membership in the religion comes about primarily through reproduction rather than proselytizing and citizens of a nation-state are either by requirement or default members of the religion. Churches tend to be highly organized and bureaucratized, with paid clergy and a clear division of labor. Examples of churches include: the historic Roman Catholic Church in many countries prior to the Protestant Reformation, the remnant state churches of much of Northern Europe, and many Islamic nations today, wherein the government is either a theocracy of sorts or closely allied with the religious leaders and/or based upon Sharia law.
A sect is a newly formed group that generally develops as a form of protest toward a parent religion. Sects often begin as an internal push within an existing religion toward some idyllic past in which the parent religion’s beliefs and/or practices were more orthodox. While sects may have among their early ranks some charismatic leaders, such leaders are not the primary motivators suggesting a split with the parent religion. It is often the case that the leaders of sectarian movements come from a lower socioeconomic status than the leaders of the parent religion, a factor that seems to play a role in sect formation. It is also noteworthy that there are only three paths sects can take: dissolution, institutionalization, or development into a denomination. Examples of sects include many of the well-known religious groups in the U.S. today: Episcopalians, Methodists, Presbyterians, Baptists, etc.
Cults, like sects, are newly formed religious groups, but unlike sects they tend to have very little connection with existing religious groups.3 Cults are also distinguished from sects in that they seldom advocate a return to an idyllic religious past of an existing religious group but rather are encouraging the embracing of a new philosophy or a philosophy that is alleged to have been forgotten in the past. Additionally, cults are usually led by a charismatic leader, an individual who derives his or her power from the force of their character rather than through legal-rational or traditional means.4 Like sects, cults seldom remain in their original organizational format – they either dissolve, institutionalize, or become denominations. It should be noted that there is an active effort within the sociology of religion to relabel cults New Religious Movements (NRMs) because of the negative connotation associated with cults in popular parlance. Both Christianity and Islam arguably originated as cults.
Denominations are institutions that lie somewhere in the middle of the church-sect continuum. Cults and sects fall on one end, representing recency and lack of bureaucratization; churches fall along the other, with their highly developed bureaucracies, long-standing tradition, and monopolistic tendencies. While similar in many regards to churches, several things make denominations different from churches. First and foremost they are not monopolistic; they co-exist peacefully in nation-states with other religious bodies.5 Additionally, they maintain tolerant and sometimes friendly relationships with other denominations (though they tend to frown upon sects and cults). Their membership is derived from both reproduction and conversion. They also often have professional clergy and well-organized worship services and rituals. All of the above named religions that originated as sects are considered denominations today, as is the Roman Catholic Church in the U.S. and the variants of Judaism (Reformed, Orthodox, Hasidic).
Turning to Mormonism… What can the church-sect typology tell us about Mormonism and what language should be used in describing the religion? While the influence of Methodism on Joseph Smith is still debated,6 it is apparent that the religion began under the direction of a charismatic leader and had many of the characteristics of a cult or New Religious Movement. In fact, most sociologists of religion view Mormonism as a very close approximation of the ideal type for a cult. But in keeping with my earlier statement that these labels should be understood as continua rather than rigid categories, I think it is also fair to say that the early Mormon religion had some characteristics of a sect as well. If I had to put percentages on it, I would probably classify it as 80% cult, 20% sect.
That said, 1830 was a long time ago and clearly the religion has changed. The transfer of leadership crisis from the first charismatic leader (Joseph Smith) to the second (Brigham Young) passed and has now been institutionalized as the formal means of transferring the mantle of authority from one leader to the next. Yet the very idea that there is a transfer of authority and charisma from one leader to the next is part of what lends toward the classification of Mormonism as something other than a denomination. Arguably, the current leaders of the religion would not qualify as ideal types of charismatic leaders. But their positions have been imbued with power and charisma, regardless of the actual personalities of those who hold them. Thus, while apostles can give relatively lackluster speeches that leave listeners dull-minded, when sighted or greeted with a handshake, everyday “Joe Mormons” often feel a special sense of awe.7 In short, the charisma that is often associated with cults remains.
Another important consideration in this debate is the level of tolerance of other religious groups. While Mormonism remains an exclusive religion,8 it does appear to be more willing to work with other religious groups to achieve its goals these days.9 The balancing act between exclusivism (i.e., the claim that it is the only true church) and tolerance places Mormonism in an awkward position along the continuum. Clearly it is moving toward denominational status, but it is not there yet.
When I have been asked whether I would consider Mormonism a cult or not, I respond that it has some vestiges of its cultic past that are keeping it from being considered a full-blown denomination in the U.S. today.10 I place Mormonism somewhere between “institutionalized cult” and “denomination” along the church-sect continuum.11 So, there you have it – Mormonism is increasingly more like a denomination, but has not lost all of its similarity to cults.
There is still one last issue that warrants further consideration – the use of the term “church” to refer to the LDS religion. This is often done by Mormons who, like those calling Mormonism a “cult,” are unfamiliar with the sociological significance of such a term. It is true, in a certain sense, that at one time in Mormonism’s history it was a “church” of sorts. Shortly after Joseph Smith died and the charismatic leadership passed to Brigham Young, the Mormons left the United States and moved into Utah, which, at the time, was not U.S. territory. Prior to becoming a U.S. territory, Utah was basically ruled under a theocracy. During that time, for Mormons at least, Mormonism would have been both a “church” and “the church,” though to outsiders it remained a cult (though this terminology wasn’t developed until the early part of the 20th century, so it would not likely have been used in this sense). I believe Mormonism’s theocracy days (which some would argue are still around thanks to temple oaths) have carried over in the common, everyday language of its adherents, especially in Utah. By referring to Mormonism as “the church,” Mormons are wrongly describing their religion (though I don’t mean to dictate to laypersons what language they should use to describe their religion). I have, since writing this essay, made a conscious effort to refer to Mormonism as a religion and never refer to it as the “LDS Church” or the “Mormon Church.” It is the “LDS religion” and the “Mormon religion.” But, admittedly, I do that because I usually refer to it in the sociological framework and not in the atmosphere of discussing Mormonism with a lay audience.
In summary, when sociological terminology is used to describe Mormonism, the most accurate way to describe the religion would be to call it an “institutionalized cult” or maybe even a “soon to be denomination.” Additionally, referring to Mormonism as a “church” is not an accurate usage of the term, sociologically, except, perhaps, in the eyes of the religion’s adherents who may, in fact, view it as one.
All that said, very few people outside of sociology use the terminology of sociology in their everyday language. The term “cult” outside of sociology has a very different meaning (see Wikipedia’s decent treatise of these differences). If you think of Mormonism as a “cult” in the popular usage of the term, so be it. That classification is open to debate. But the sociological understanding of “cult” no longer really fits for Mormonism.
1. The goal is to associate Mormonism with a label that has gained a negative connotation, thereby painting Mormonism in a negative light.
2. For a thorough treatment of this please see: Johnstone, Ronald L. Religion in Society: A Sociology of Religion. Fifth ed. Upper Sadle River, New Jersey: Prentice Hall; 1997.
3. Though it is generally the case that they draw heavily upon existing religions in the development of their beliefs and or rituals even if doing so is not readily admitted.
4. Bendix, Reinhard. Max Weber: An Intellectual Portrait. California: University of California Press; 1978.
5. p. 34 “Pluralism encourages, indeed it requires, norms of tolerance and acceptance—what John Murray Cuddihy calls the “religion of civility,” a stance of being religiously inoffensive, of being sensitive to religious differences in a pluralist context. An emphasis upon “good taste” and tolerance is essential to the larger religious unity. Pluralism forces upon each group, no matter what its heritage, the status of “denomination”—that is, each group has to accept coexistence with others and must give up claims of authority over them. Catholics and Jews thus have become “denominationalized” as they have accepted norms of freedom and tolerance in keeping with pluralism, and have modified their teachings and practices. Over time they have adjusted to the realities of voluntarism, though not always without theological ordeal or institutional trauma. As Cuddihy says: Immigrants arrive with their sects, shuls, and churches. America then teaches them to be discreet. It does so by means of its unique creation: the denomination, or better many denominations. This is known as “pluralism.” America tames religious sects up into denominations bringing them into the respectable middle class. America also tames churches down into denominations (The American Catholic Church is one of its recent converts and now bears the humble civil demeanor of an American denomination.). The point is that centripetal forces in American religion propel —”taming” up or down—toward some inclusive culture of non-offensiveness.” (Roof, W. C. and McKinney, W. American Mainline Religion: Its Changing Shape and Future. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press; 1987.)
6. O’Dea, Thomas F. The Mormons. University of Chicago Press; 1957.
7. I witnessed this not to long ago when, during a visit to Utah I was walking through the ZCMI center with my in-laws and we ran into Russell M. Nelson. My in-laws, faithful Mormons, couldn’t help but stare. Even though I am now an apostate, I was surprised to see Mr. Nelson as well (though it probably had more to do with the fact that he wasn’t surrounded by an entourage of bodyguards than anything else – I was amazed he wasn’t mobbed by members wanting to shake his hand).
8. Within the sociology of religion, “exclusive” refers to religions that hold the belief that the only way to gain salvation is through membership in their religion. Technically, Roman Catholicism is also an exclusive religion.
9. For example, the Mormon leadership has worked with Catholics and conservative Protestants on political issues they oppose, including homosexuality and the Equal Rights Amendment.
10. Armand Mauss has argued (1994) that every time the LDS religion enters a new nation it starts over in a sense as a cult.
11. I’m not alone in that sentiment, “Tracking the salience of numerous themes across the five “generations” that span Mormon history, Gordon and Gary Shepherd have observed a broad pattern of continuing but limited Mormon accommodation. They conclude that “while modern Mormonism has become less exclusive and more conciliatory toward the world, it continues to maintain enough of its original sectarian character to be regarded as an established sect’ rather than a fully accommodated denomination” (Shepherd & Shepherd 1984a:175).” (Iannaccone, Laurence R. and Miles, Carrie A. Dealing with Social Change: The Mormon Church’s Response to Change in Women’s Roles. Social Forces. 1990; 68(4):1231-1250.)