Rick Perry’s pastor, Robert Jeffress, the senior pastor at First Baptist Dallas, called Mormonism a “cult” and said Mitt Romney and other Mormons are not Christians. If you didn’t know that already, well, you’ve been living under a rock for the last month. My goal with this post is to tease out two issues: (1) Is Mormonism a cult? (2) Are Mormons Christians?
(1) Is Mormonism a cult?
This question hinges upon definitions of the word “cult.” The word comes from the French or Latin “culte” which means “adoration.” Basically, “cult” was synonymous with “religion.”Over time, three somewhat prominent definitions of the word have arisen.
(A) The first, and the one with which I am the most familiar as a sociologist, is the sociological definition. The use of “cult” in sociology started in the 1930s and slowly evolved into the understanding we have today. A cult is a new religious movement that does not claim to have branched off an existing religious movement, is somewhat novel in terms of its beliefs, organization, and structure, and typically has a charismatic leader or leadership structure. This understanding of cult is not meant to be pejorative but rather descriptive. It describes a “type” of religion and is often contrasted with “churches,” “sects,” “denominations,” and/or “ecclesia.”
(B) The second definition is the popular use of the term cult. While this definition isn’t perfectly clear, calling something a cult is typically pejorative and an indication that the group so labeled is abnormal or bizarre. This usage of the term is likely a consequence of the intentional efforts of the anti-cult movement, which started as a Christian movement and focused its efforts on non-Christian religions. Any religion deemed heretical or non-Christian was considered a “cult” andframed negatively. Over time, the word “cult” has come to be used in popular language as a descriptor for any organization that people find disturbing. While it is typically used to describe religions, it does not have to be; any organization that exhibits “abnormal” or “strange” behavior, particularly what is considered “mind control” of members, can be called a “cult” in popular terminology. Stemming from this definition is the characterization of cults in the anti-cult movement as falling into one of two categories – “destructive cults” or “benign cults.” The greatest concern is obviously placed on “destructive cults,” but that does not suggest that “benign cults” are positive or good institutions, only that they are not as bad as “destructive cults.” (Think “benign” tumor; that doesn’t suggest a “good” tumor, just not a particularly bad one.)
(C) The third definition is the one used by Robert Jeffress – “theological cult.” This is the term preferred by the countercult movement, which is claimed to be distinct from the anticult movement in that they oppose cults on religious grounds not on other grounds (see here). A “cult of Christianity” is any religion that claims to be Christian but holds as doctrine any teachings outside an “orthodox, evangelical Christian” perspective. In other words, if you belong to any religion that is not an orthodox evangelical, Protestant religion (as Jeffress describes it) but claims to be Christian, then you’re a member of a Christian cult.
I will give some credit to Robert Jeffress in that he did specifically state that he was describing Mormonism as a “theological cult.” Okay. Good on him for being specific. But let’s contemplate these definitions for a minute to consider whether we should bother listening to Robert Jeffress or if we should chalk up his comments to bigotry.
If we accept the above three definitions as outlined above, then Mormonism would definitely qualify as a cult using definition C, which is Jeffress’s definition. While some individuals might argue that Mormonism qualifies as a cult based on definition B, that is debatable. Certainly many members find a great deal of benefit from belonging to the religion, even if others find the religion bizarre, abnormal, and potentially even destructive. But I think it could largely be argued today that Mormonism does not qualify as a cult using the popular understanding of the word as outlined in definition B (feel free to debate this in the comments). What about definition A? One thing I did not note in definition A is that religions are not static; they do not come into existence and then never change. Religions evolve and change, continuously. When Mormonism was first founded, it met the criteria of a sociological cult – it was novel, did not, arguably, split off existing religions, and the leadership was charisma-based. Today, over 180 years since it’s founding, Mormonism is no more a sociological cult than is Catholicism. The charismatic leadership structure is now institutionalized. Leaders of the religion can personally be as lacking in charisma as are tree sloths, but by the sake of their position in the hierarchy, the members endow them with charisma. Thus, members of the religion are quickened when they meet leaders of the religion. The same is true of Catholics meeting the leadership of the religion. Certainly Mormonism is no longer “new” in the sense that none of the people around when it was founded are still alive, nor are any of their children, and most of their grandchildren have likely passed away at this point. Thus, while Mormonism is not “old”, per se, it’s definitely not new. While Mormonism is arguably novel in its doctrine, teachings, and rituals, substantial research on the religion today shows that Joseph Smith did, in fact, draw heavily on surrounding religions. It was not a “sect”, but it was less novel than was perhaps originally thought to be the case. Mormonism would arguably qualify today as a denomination. Mormons are really no stranger than are Pentecostals or Catholics, particularly charismatic Catholics.
In sum: Mormonism is only a cult by Jeffress’s definition, definition C.
But, and this is a point I want to make clearly here, I don’t think Jeffress’s definition of a cult should be accepted uncritically. Jeffress’s definition, while obviously not his own (I don’t want to give him credit for it), is a completely self-serving, claims-making, legitimizing definition. Definition C exists solely to set orthodox evangelical Christianity as the default form of Christianity. Anything that deviates from their decontextualized, biased, and bigoted interpretations of their versions of scripture is therefore deviant. And, unlike sociologists who, when describing something as deviant do not mean to suggest that it is negative but rather that people see it as not in-line with social norms, countercultists use the term specifically to denigrate any religion not their own. In other words, Jeffress’s definition was created and is reiterated only to set as the standard of Christianity his version; all other versions of Christianity are impure and inferior.
That the media did not immediately jump on this fact and instead relatively uncritically parroted Jeffress’s claim is unfortunate. What the media should have done is called his self-serving definition into question and laid it bare for everyone to see: Jeffress is calling Mormonism a “cult” in order to make evangelical Protestantism seem normal. I reject his premise and his definition.
(2) Are Mormons Christians?
This leads to the second point raised by Robert Jeffress’s claim that Mormonism is a cult. By claiming Mormons are a cult, Jeffress reintroduced the issue of whether or not Mormons are Christians. I and others have written extensively about the efforts of the LDS Church to frame itself as Christian in a professional context. But I think this question needs to be unpacked one more time in light of Jeffress’s claim.
What this question really boils down to is: Who gets to define someone’s religion? Countercultists, like Robert Jeffress, believe they have the authority to define religions, as illustrated by the efforts laid out here to show how Mormonism falls outside of orthodox evangelical Christianity. But, once again, I reject this premise. By what authority does Robert Jeffress claim he has the right to define which religions qualify as “Christian” and which don’t? There is no “accreditation agency” that gives licenses to people so they can delineate which religions are Christian and which are not. How religions and religious people choose to classify themselves is up to them. However, how academics choose to classify religions is, also, up to them. And how religious bigots like Robert Jeffress claim to classify religions is up to them. There are no universally agreed upon criteria by which all people – academics, religious people, nonreligious, people, etc – can classify someone or some institution as “Christian.”
In fact, unpacking how this is done sociologically may be of some interest here. Sociologists of religion have debated classification systems for religions, particularly religion in the U.S., for quite some time. In the mid 1980s the most prominent approach was that of Roof and McKinney. Since then, numerous approaches for classifying religions in the U.S. have been proposed (c.f. Tom Smith at the GSS, Brian Steensland et al., and by the researchers who fielded the Baylor Survey of Religion). Each system varies just a little bit, but what all of these systems of classification have in common is that it is scholars forcing religions into a structure developed by scholars. These systems are useful tools for thinking about religions and they tell us a fair amount about religion, but they are just tools. They are artificial constructs that exist to help us think about religions. They are not designed to denigrate some religions and favor others.
What’s more, sociologists of religion actually run into a different problem based on these systems of classification. The problem is that we allow respondents in our surveys to identify their religions themselves. While more recent classification systems (like that of Smith and the Baylor Survey scholars) take more than just self-identification into consideration for their classification systems, it is virtually impossible to get around the fact that we are largely and heavily dependent on how people choose to classify themselves when it comes to their religion. Take, for instance, the two largest surveys of religiosity in the U.S. – Pew and ARIS. Both rely exclusively on self-identified religion as the basis for religiosity in the U.S. They then use that identification to group people together. And, frankly, people are not all that knowledgeable about religion, including their own. In short, even those who know the most about how to classify religions are reliant upon peoples’ self-classification. To what extent that is a problem isn’t clear, but it is noteworthy regarding Jeffress’s claims.
What’s my point here? I have two. First, people can self-identify as whatever they want. If an atheist wants to identify as a Christian, which is pretty common in Western Europe (see recent work by Abby Day and Phil Zuckerman), there is nothing to prevent them from doing so. And as far as our data goes, we can only go off what is reported to us. Second, I highly doubt Robert Jeffress rejects the efforts of social scientists and other polling groups to delineate the religious makeup of the U.S. He is unlikely to say something like, “Well, technically, the U.S. is not really a majority Christian nation because a minority of people actually adhere to my version of orthodox, evangelical Christianity.” Robert Jeffress and others of his ilk love to claim that the U.S. is a “Christian nation”. But, by their own definition, that is highly unlikely to be true, as Conrad Hackett and Michael Emerson illustrated in a recent paper – Evangelicals are not more than 50% of Americans. In other words, Jeffress uses multiple definitions of the word “Christian” based on expediency. When he wants to denigrate a religious group, he uses an exclusive definition. When he wants to claim a Christian majority, he uses an expansive definition. And, particularly with the latter definition, he is relying on social scientific data which is largely based on self-reporting. Thus, Jeffress’s claim that Mormons are not Christian is a beautiful example of an effort to delegitimize a religion for self-serving reasons.
Returning to my earlier point – Robert Jeffress has no authority to determine who qualifies as a Christian, except, perhaps, in the case where he is trying to say something very specific like, “Mormons are not Christians like I am.” Okay. Fine. Mormons are not Christians like Robert Jeffress is. But who the f*$k cares? If Mormons want to claim they are Christians, which they certainly do, they have just as much right to that label as do orthodox evangelical Protestants. While social scientists may continue to group them with sectarian branches of Protestantism or “other” religions for academic reasons, that is not done in order to denigrate Mormons. Jeffress wants to single them out to denigrate them because Jeffress is a religious bigot.
If the media want to get this story right, here’s what the response to Jeffress should have been:
Robert Jeffress, an orthodox evangelical Protestant pastor, has claimed that Mormonism is a cult and that Mormons are not Christians. However, Jeffress is using a self-serving definition of “cult” that is not accepted by scientists. Using a scientific definition of the term, Mormonism is not a cult. As far as the claim that Mormons are not Christian goes, Jeffress is on equally shaky ground. There are no universal criteria by which religions are recognized as Christian in the scientific community. While it is the case that claims can be made that some religions adhere more closely to certain forms of Christian orthodoxy, doing so does not make a religion more or less Christian. Jeffress’s claims are largely driven by his bigotry against everyone who does not share his very specific and peculiar perspective on religion. Jeffress is trying to delegitimize Mormonism in an effort to help one of his flock win the Republican nomination for President, and to discourage people from accepting Mormonism, generally. As a member of a religion other than Mormonism, Jeffress obviously has a vested interest in painting Mormonism in the most negative way possible. His claims should be viewed in light of that fact.
There. That’s my take on it. Media outlets, if you want to quote the above, verbatim, feel free. I’m declaring the above paragraph to be under a Creative Commons license (see below). Just give attribution and it is yours for the taking. (Alternatively, if you want to talk to me as an academic on the record, comment to that effect below with your contact information and I’ll get back to you.)
And MSP readers, please comment. Did I get it right?
Mormons, Christians, and Cults – let’s figure it out by ProfXM is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.