Hey guys, so as a Latter-day Saint channel we see a lot of comments claiming that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is a “cult.” Calling our faith a “cult” is an extremely loaded claim, so in this episode, we’re going to unpack this a bit and see where it leads us.
Alright, so the term “cult” is used in a variety of ways. Some definitions are more benign than others, but in general, when people call our faith a cult, it’s used rather loosely as a derogatory term aimed at discouraging people from learning more about our faith. I tend to agree with non-Latter-day Saint Guy Harrison’s analysis in Psychology Today:
“If we step back and take an honest look at how this label is applied … The application of this term is prejudice in practice … One should not have too much difficulty recognizing ‘cult’ as an unsavory stealth word with an unjust mission. This is verbalized bullying that demeans less popular groups and distances them from more popular groups.”
As the Methodist author Andrew Tevington noted, “Christianity was originally seen as a cult arising from Judaism. Islam was viewed as a cult in opposition to the then-existing pagan religion of the Arabian peninsula. Buddhism was understood as a cult coming from what today is called Hinduism.” According to the New World Encyclopedia,
“When [Christianity] began, it was a minority system of beliefs and controversial practices such as holy communion. When it was a small ‘cult’ or a minority group in the empire, it was often criticized by those who did not understand it or who were threatened by changes its adoption might mean. Rumors were spread by detractors about Christians drinking human blood and eating human flesh.”
All of that changed, though, when Christianity was adopted by the state and became more mainstream. “When a new religion becomes large or dominant in a society the ‘cult’ basically becomes ‘culture.’ In this sense, ‘cult’ may be seen as a pejorative term, something akin to calling someone a ‘barbarian.’ It represents a type of in-group/out-group terminology designed to exclude one group by calling them less human or inferior.”
If you’ve been taught that our Church is a “cult,” you may want to take a step back and analyze why you’ve been taught that. As was the case with early Christianity, It may be that your views are based on rumors, misunderstandings, or mischaracterizations of our beliefs. If you’d like, feel free to just attend some of our worship services and come to your own conclusions. I promise you will not be swept off into a dark room to be brainwashed or force-fed green jello.
Some people attempt to justify labeling us with such a loaded and derogatory term by actually pointing out parallels between our faith and characteristics of infamously harmful “cults” like Heaven’s Gate, or the Manson Family commune—groups whose leaders had such control over their followers that they were manipulated into committing mass suicide and murder. To me, the attempt to justify calling us a “cult” seems like more of an attempt to justify religious bigotry. But if you want to point out parallels, you can. For example, cults in this sense are usually led by a charismatic leader. Joseph Smith was a charismatic leader. Our current Prophet and President Russell M. Nelson is pretty charismatic for a 96-year-old. You might call Moses or even Jesus charismatic leaders, as well.
Some cults try to control your behavior by doing things like regulating your diet. Latter-day Saints don’t drink tea, coffee, or alcohol. If that sounds difficult you would not have enjoyed the Law of Moses. Cults sometimes have their own ceremonial clothing, as did the ancient Israelites; as do many religions today. We could talk about these “parallels” for hours, but I hope you’re starting to see the pattern. It’s really difficult to paint our faith as a cult in this sense in any significant way that would not also apply to Moses, or early Christians, or the Catholics, or Evangelicals, or even secular organizations like the Girl Scouts, or Microsoft. I mean, you want to talk about a charismatic leader, take a look at that Bill Gates.
And in contrast to the perceived “parallels,” there are also a lot of obvious misses. FOr example, in our faith, we don’t want you to cut off communication with your family. You will not be beaten, tortured, or kidnapped for any reason. If you want to leave our faith, you can, and you won’t even be threatened with eternal suffering in Hell, though we might bring you some cookies every once in a while. It’s true that like any religion, we have moral and ethical standards. We have rules, perhaps more than most, but whether or not you abide by those standards is up to you. When asked how Joseph Smith was able to govern so many people so well, he replied, “I teach them correct principles and they govern themselves.”
So, are we a cult? It depends on your definition. In the sense that we are “a system of religious beliefs and ritual,” certainly. Are we a cult in the more sinister sense of the word? I don’t think so, but you’re certainly free to believe as you see fit. From what I’ve observed about my own faith, it seems to me to be a family-oriented faith of service and charity, a faith of love for God and your neighbor. A faith that believes in being good citizens, and acknowledging truth wherever it can be found. If you’re still on the fence about it, if the line between doomsday cult and Christ-centered religion is a little blurry still, borrowing the words of Christ in John 1, I invite you to “Come and see.” You don’t have to take my word or anyone’s word for it. Just come hang out with us for a while and decide for yourself—if you dare.
- “Cult” in the New World Encyclopedia: https://bit.ly/3wzdd7r
- “Do Latter-day Saints belong to a cult?” by Jeff Lindsay: https://bit.ly/3g3MFph
- Methodist author Andrew Tevington responds to the question, “Is Mormonism a cult, as is widely taught in some circles?”: https://bit.ly/3s12aQZ
- “Why No One Should Ever Use the Word ‘Cult,’” by Guy Harrison in Psychology Today: https://bit.ly/3sZkT0p