Where’s The Line Between A Religion And A Cult?

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A reader quotes me:

"I have a few non-doctrinal yardsticks to think about the question of how legitimate a religion is. 1. Does it have secret, sacred places that are sealed off from outsiders? 2. Is there some kind of esoteric teaching involved known only to those high up in the faith? 3. Is it easy to leave the church, i.e. is apostasy without serious consequences? 4. Does it enforce tithing effectively?"

You came as close as you ever have to questioning Mormonism’s legitimacy as a religion that's truly parallel to "established" ones. It's for the reasons you listed, which were clearly meant to be descriptive of Mormonism, and NOT because of magic plates in Missouri, that I believe we need to seriously raise this question: are we about to elect a man who just belongs to a fringe religion, or are we placing in power a man who closely follows the tenets of a secret society disguised as a legitimate religion?

John F. Kennedy famously stated that secret societies were anathema to America’s principles: "The very word 'secrecy' is repugnant in a free and open society; and we are as a people inherently and historically opposed to secret societies, to secret oaths and to secret proceedings." I want a president who’s an open book, not one who revels in secrecy and exclusivity. You are the person to ask this question, as you have other unpopular ones, and it’s time to do so explicitly.

I do think the question of the cultish qualities of Mormonism are worth exploring. Why cannot non-Mormons come and go in Mormon Temples as they can in Cathedrals and mosques and synagogues? Why is it so hard for some to leave the LDS Church without social ostracism and peer pressure? How much money would taxpayers be automatically giving the LDS church by paying the president his salary? How much control does the LDS hierarchy have over its members? Why is missionary work compulsory? Why were Ann Romney's non-Mormon parents barred from attending her own Temple sealing?

Why did Romney go to Salt Lake City to consult with the big machers in the church before running as a pro-choice candidate in Massachusetts? What transpired at that meeting? (Can you imagine John Kerry going to the Vatican to inform the Pope that he was going to run as a pro-choice candidate – and getting the Pope's silence as a result?) The only explanation that makes sense to me is that they believed that getting a Mormon into the governor's office was more important than adhering to church teaching, which, given the church's absolute stricture against abortion, is revealing about a church's understanding of truth's relationship to power. The LDS church is not the only religion that has these tendencies. But in other faiths, the institutions that most resemble it – like, say, Opus Dei or the Legion of Christ – are more cults within churches than churches themselves.

The doctrines of  Mormonism strike me as no more strange than those of most other mainstream religions, but more obviously odd simply because they are so recent. I cannot criticize the absurd and unsubstantiated notion that there were lots of strange tribes occupying America two thousand years ago when Jesus dropped by to say hi, when my own church insists as a matter of infallible teaching that the mother of Jesus was sucked up into the sky rather than dying a natural death. You cannot note that Joseph Smith was a convicted con man whose scam is retroactively obvious without noting the unsavory aspects of Muhammed's biography or the rank anti-Semitism of, say, Martin Luther.

But one can examine the structure of the religion and its practices, to see if they are easily compatible with open government and transparency, or if they rely on intimidation, isolation and cultic practices. Perhaps this can be ignored with lesser offices. But a president is different. If he has been part of a church hierarchy, has had secret meetings with them, has a social life revolving almost entirely around fellow Mormons, and practices his faith in places that no one can see or talk about … then we have some questions. If a candidate's best friends say that Mormonism is at the very core of who Romney is, then his refusal to answer any questions about it or discuss it at all is already disturbing.

And, sure, if not the Dish, who? Have at it.