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

D.T. Bell and Ryan Bell, authors of MormonAmerican.com, were offended by my exploration of Mormonism’s cultish qualities. They argue that “calling a religion a cult is a cowardly act, because the vagueness of the word provides plausible deniability to any who use it”:

Sullivan’s argument is illustrative, as it follows the approach of so many others who have pushed the “cult” line of attack. These attacks inevitably abandon any definitional rigor and load the dice to reach the desired result. Thus, Sullivan adopts a handful of suspiciously on-the-nose criteria for cultishness— secret places sealed off from outsiders, pressure not to leave, and effective “enforcement” of tithing. In other words, Sullivan looked at some elements in the Mormon tradition that he finds unsettling, exaggerated them for effect, and decided that those are the characteristics of a cult. It’s an easy game to play. Here is another reasonable-sounding list of cultish characteristics: belief in the infallibility of a supreme leader, a system prohibiting clergy from normal family life, and a network of the especially devout who vow to totally remove themselves from society. No one believes Sullivan’s own Catholic Church—a global faith that has inspired some of the world’s greatest art, thought, and philanthropy — is a cult. But using Sullivan’s tactics, it isn’t hard to cast it in a dark, suspicious light.

And those aspects of Catholicism should indeed be cast in a dark, suspicious light. The very deference and obedience required in an authoritarian structure with no external accountability is a real cultish danger: and in the Catholic church it led to the rape of thousands of innocents and a cover-up that went right to the top of the church. The same goes for the opaque finances of the Vatican. I also favor ending mandatory celibacy for priests because, again, it creates a separate caste that can easily be corrupted by its own self-interest. I also favor women priests to air out the fetid closet of the Catholic hierarchy. As to the “network of the especially devout who vow to totally 52remove themselves from society”, I’m not sure what they mean, but if they are referring to Opus Dei, they are indeed right. That is a cult – and like all such cults, it led to abuse. If they mean religious orders, I see no reasonable objection. I can see why Mormons would regard the vita contemplativa as somehow spiritually suspect, because their ethic is one of being “deseret” – or capitalist like a honeybee. But Christians have always revered monastic spirituality. Christianity is, as Oakeshott put it, the “religion of unachievement.” Nothing could be further from Mormonism.

There are cultish aspects to all religions, including my own. I specified some criteria and began a discussion. Reader pushback on the question can be found herehere, and here. But there is no mandatory tithing in Catholicism for full access to the sacraments; there is no mysterious new text like the Book Of Mormon, created by what was quite obviously a scam operation and written in excruciating faux King James Bible English; there are no cathedrals where non-believers are excluded and believers have to open their bank accounts to enter. There is no extreme social pressure against apostasy. In many ways, the current Pontiff appears to want many Catholics to leave the church, because we openly disagree on some aspects of moral teaching. Mormonism, in contrast, is always seeking expansion, converts and new missions and if these new markets for their religion reject some aspects of it, the doctrines are changed in a process of continued revelation. Hence the evaporation of the racial doctrines as the LDS church was expanding into South America and Africa.

On the broader point, I am not going to be intimidated by accusations of “prejudice” into not exploring aspects of Mormon doctrine and practice when debating a presidential candidate whose entire identity has been forged by the LDS church and is one of the most prominent former church officials ever to run for president. This is a legitimate question about the identity and character and beliefs of a man running for the highest office in the land. Everything has to be on the table – for both him and Obama. And if Fox could run a loop of Jeremiah Wright endlessly against Obama, I sure can explore and question a candidate whose religious life is far more central to his identity.

(Painting: Saint Peter, Saint James and Saint John the Baptist bestow on Joseph Smith the apostolic succession of the Melchizedek priesthood. Full context here.)