Even if you try to avoid the news (or just the political news, like I do), chances are that if you have even an inkling of a Mormon news radar, you definitely have heard the latest drama: supporter of Republican presidential candidate Rick Perry and mega-church pastor Robert Jeffress called Mormonism a cult. Here’s a video with Jeffress’s comments followed by an interview with Anderson Cooper:

(The first thing I’d like to note is that it always tickles me when someone who isn’t claiming to speak from a restorationist background claims that Catholicism diverges from historic Christianity.)

Robert Jeffress…but this really is just the beginning of the problems with Jeffress’s labeling. Over at By Common Consent, Kristine put a lot of time and effort into diagramming the reasons why many Evangelicals view Mormonism as a so-called “theological cult.” While I think she makes a good point — that Mormons need to be more aware and educated about the very real differences between Evangelical assumptions and Mormon assumptions so that they can address the “principled religious and theological objections” that other Christians may have — the one thing that is really striking about Jeffress’s original comments or his interview with Anderson Cooper is that he is not really arguing based on principled religious or theological objections.

Even actual evangelicals recognize that Jeffress’s definition and usage of the term “cult” is so broad as to be meaningless…except as use as a pejorative. Others point out the value in standing up against anti-Mormon bigotry. But everything really drills down to a few things: what distinguishes a “cult” from a “denomination” from a “religion”?

Christian Cult

In his interview, Jeffress defines a cult (at least, a theological cult) as a “religion that has a human founder as opposed to a divine founder.”) In his definition, cults are by definition separate religions from Christianity (and so he later labels Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam all as cults. While he notes that Catholicism diverges from “historical Christianity,” he doesn’t call the Catholic church a cult.)

This definition of a “cult” has many problems (if he can assert that Joseph Smith is the founder of Mormonism and thus it does not derive from Jesus, then do groups like Lutherans face the same problem with Martin Luther? What makes the difference? How can a restoration or reformation legitimize itself as the recovery of something original?), but the worst is that it begs the question of Christianity’s truth. Because Jeffress doesn’t believe any other religion has a divine founder (and he believes that that is a crucial characteristic of a religion), they are therefore all theological cults.

I’m trying to spend more time trying to work with this theological cult idea, but I’m not able to get anywhere. There are two ways I think that the discussion can go to address something of substance with respect to the “cult” concept…the first would be a discussion of alternative connotations to the word. When people think of “cult,” do they really even think about theological differences? Or do they think about sociological and behavioral differences?

Heaven's Gate CultReally, I think most people think of mass suicides. They think of insular groups, of brainwashing, of shunning. Of emotional abuse.

Unfortunately, this is a place where Mormons aren’t completely in the clear…You have people who would claim some of these things about Mormons: you have people who find themselves estranged from the community, their families and friends, because they believe differently than others. That’s what gives bhodges the opportunity to encourage others not to exclude friends and family members based on theological differences, and gives Tracy M a tragic story for her friend who is experiencing ostracization.

There are aspects about church culture that could be changed, for sure. Even if we’re not at the level of mass suicides or of doctrinally asserting that apostates are “mentally diseased,” the fact is that there are these pain points.

…The problem is that an (outsider) evangelical pastor like Robert Jeffress is not at all basing his critique of the church on any evaluation of Mormon cultural and social behaviors.

Coming back to discussion of theology might be a discussion of whether Mormonism is a heretical Christian group. With this discussion, Mormonism can be brought in the Christian fold, but then the theological differences become such that Mormonism significantly differs with respect to some other benchmark within the Christian superset. Then, the questions are…who decides what the benchmark is? What authority do they have?

A Different Denomination

In most of the discussions surrounding the “are Mormons Christian?” debate, at least some people will recognize the important theological differences between Mormonism and other denominations of Christianity, but they will not concede that the other denominations have any authority to deem Mormonism heretical or a different religion.

For example, if someone claims that Mormons are not creedal Christians, then we can say that that’s true…we aren’t creedal Christians. So what?

This gets stuck back into questions of authority over the name and brand, and the difference between acceptable variations between denominations and unacceptable variations that become heresies. Consider this quotation from the LDS Newsroom written last election cycle over a different issue:

Some members of polygamous groups have suggested that because they may use the Book of Mormon or revere Joseph Smith as a prophet, it entitles them to be included in a broader definition of “Mormons.” Many religions share cultural, historical and theological origins. For example, Christianity, Islam and Judaism all share the heritage of Abraham. Furthermore, all Christian denominations have some historical and theological connection to Catholicism. Nevertheless, this does not authorize them to use the word “Catholic” in their official name. Lutherans and Methodists do not call themselves “Catholic fundamentalists.” Nor did the early Christians call themselves “reformed Jews.”

Likewise, it just doesn’t seem right that the FLDS can overturn more than a century and a half of common usage simply by virtue of the fact that it established itself a century and a half after the Mormon faith was born, and adopted many of its early principles. By declaring that any group professing Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon can rightly be called Mormon is akin to declaring that any Christian group that professes the Bible can rightly call itself Catholic.

I don’t want to be that guy that has to spell everything out, but how difficult would it be to modify the church’s own argument to say, “By declaring that any group professing Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon can rightly be called Mormon is akin to declaring that any group that professes Jesus Christs and the Bible can rightly call itself Christian“..? How difficult would it be for other Christian denominations to say that “it just doesn’t seem right that Mormons can overturn more than a millennium and a half of common usage simply by virtue of the fact that it established itself a millennium and a half after the Christian faith was born, and adopted many of its early principles”..?

Radical(ly Distinct) Religion

In all of the discussions where some Mormons concede that they are not like “traditional” or “creedal” or “historic” Christians (see the problem with assuming one unified historical Christianity here), there almost always will also be someone who will chime in with the statement that Mormonism is a different religion. That Christianity has become something so different that Mormons shouldn’t try to lump in with it.

The problem with this approach is that, like the non-Christian cult label, it relies upon theological nuances (when it actually relies on theology at all) that just don’t mesh with a lot of people of legitimate non-Christian backgrounds. In other words, if you tell a non-Christian that Mormons worship Jesus as their lord and Savior, then it’s not going to matter to them that Mormons disagree with creatio ex nihilo and the ontological issues that come along with that…those things pale in comparison to the centrality of Jesus Christ.

Yet, the flip side of that is what Tim at LDS & Evangelical Conversations invokes to argue that Mormonism is a different religion: that non-Christians would only make the most cursory comparisons, but all the devils are precisely in the details whose significance non-Christians simply wouldn’t get.

And even from a Mormon level, maybe Mormons should emphasize uniqueness of doctrines over trying to build bridges with other Christian groups who nevertheless will probably never come to see eye to eye theologically.

The questions for today are:

  • Is there a relevant use to the term “cult” — either theologically or sociologically — or has it simply become pejorative?
  • Can a critic of the church responsibly decry some practices of the church while also denouncing the political tactics of those like Rev. Jeffress?
  • Is Mormonism its own denomination or its own religion? Is it heretical? Who has the authority to say?
  • Is there any relationship between the church’s efforts to be recognized as Christian and the fundamentalists’ efforts to be recognized as Mormon?