I recently listened to a few minutes of a podcast that interviews people who leave cults. The interviewer gave an odd introduction saying that normally they don’t interview people who’ve left “mainstream” religious groups because they don’t normally qualify as a cult, but in this case, they were going to go ahead. The woman being interviewed was an ex-Mormon. As the interview began, the woman who left the Church–perhaps through nervousness–made several very flippant comments about the origin of the Church and its doctrines that (to me at least) demonstrated that she really didn’t know much about the Church she was petulantly trashing. If you’re going to trash it as a cult, maybe use the correct name and don’t ridicule it in the first 30 seconds of your explanation. I’ve heard and read many exit stories that fill me with empathy and that don’t leave me disgusted and skeptical of the storyteller’s version. This wasn’t one.
I’ve been reading The Cult of Trump, written by former Moonie Steven Hassan. He talks about what attracted him to the Moonies in the 1970s: he was at a low point, emotionally vulnerable, feeling socially isolated. He adopted the Moonie worldview because he didn’t have a lot of friends at the time and he needed social support. The worldview and fellowshipping made him feel important and special, one of the chosen ones, and he admired Rev. Moon who was charismatic and confident. They taught members mental techniques to stop doubts, and eventually, after years of following Rev. Moon, he realized that his mind had split into two voices: the Moonie voice that dominated, and his real views that he stuffed down because they were unacceptable in the Moonie cult. The cult controlled all aspects of his life, to the alarm of his family and former friends. There was also a strong emphasis on recruiting new cult members, targeting individuals who were vulnerable and on the fringes like he was.
Hassan’s book covers several of the techniques that Trump uses to create his own cult of followers: a dynamic, confident personality, fear-based propaganda that includes misinformation and a stilted worldview, hatred of an enemy (liberals), repetition of simple slogans that are chanted at rallies to unite his followers, the use of physical intimidation, and so on. Trump also uses “mind control” techniques he learned from Normal Vincent Peale, with whom he had an early connection. One technique is expanded on in the popular book The Secret, which instructs readers to tell the universe what they want (as if it’s a sure thing), and it will happen. In this technique, the power of positive statements is supposed to attract those things to the practitioner. I encountered this once on a business trip. One of the women at the local office had agreed to drive me to the airport after my office visit. While we were in the car, she started saying adamantly while staring at the dashboard “I will be the next site director. I will be the next site director.” If not for the fact that I had recently read The Secret, I would have thought she was kidnapping me. It was very disconcerting. It also didn’t work. Saying what you want to be true rather than what is true is an interesting technique to try to control the uncontrollable; it can have a placebo effect like when Stuart Smalley tells the mirror “I’m good enough. I’m smart enough. And doggone it, people like me!” It works better for Trump than it did for her.
Hassan has created what he calls the BITE model to identify a cult. Here are the elements he says are present in cults:
- Promote dependence and obedience
- Modify behavior with rewards and punishments
- Dictate where and with whom you live
- Restrict or control sexuality
- Control clothing and hairstyle
- Regulate what and how much you eat and drink
- Deprive you of seven to nine hours of sleep
- Exploit you financially
- Restrict leisure time and activities
- Require you to seek permission for major decisions
- Deliberately withhold and distort information
- Forbid you from speaking with ex-members and critics
- Discourage access to non-cult sources of information
- Divide information into Insider vs. Outsider doctrine
- Generate and use propaganda extensively
- Use information gained in confession sessions against you
- Gaslight to make you doubt your own memory
- Require you to report thoughts, feelings, & activities to superiors
- Encourage you to spy and report on others’ “misconduct”
- Instill Black vs. White, Us vs. Them, & Good vs. Evil thinking
- Change your identity, possibly even your name
- Use loaded language and cliches to stop complex thought
- Induce hypnotic or trance states to indoctrinate
- Teach thought-stopping techniques to prevent critical thoughts
- Allow only positive thoughts
- Use excessive meditation, singing, prayer, & chanting to block thoughts
- Reject rational analysis, critical thinking, & doubt
- Instill irrational fears (phobias) of questioning or leaving the group
- Label some emotions as evil, worldly, sinful, or wrong
- Teach emotion-stopping techniques to prevent anger, homesickness
- Promote feelings of guilt, shame, & unworthiness
- Shower you with praise and attention (“love bombing”)
- Threaten your friends and family
- Shun you if you disobey or disbelieve
- Teach that there is no happiness or peace outside the group
He admits that many of these are present in other organizations, as well, and his definition of a cult is somewhat broadly applied. He would likely consider The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to qualify (and many other mainstream religions). He also believes that anyone can become a cult member in the right (or wrong) circumstances, which may be true. However, it seems to me that there are personality traits that make one more susceptible. Even if the Church or some of its leaders wanted to instill cult-like devotion, some would resist . Right? There are some people who to me seem more primed to act like a cult, at least when I hear their views expressed at Church. So, is the Church cult-like, or are some of its members prone to make it a cult? As a former cult member, Hassan describes his embarrassment when he realized he had been deceived. Doubtless, this colors his view that the cult bears most of the blame for exerting pressure on its members rather than its members for being too willing to comply, but he acknowledges that being at an emotionally vulnerable time contributed to his willingness to believe what the cult told him.
Hassan’s self-description reminded me of some of the people I taught on my mission, people at the fringe of society. But unlike the Moonies, these weren’t the people local members were jazzed about. There wasn’t a “convert at all costs” mentality among local congregations (unlike among many of the missionaries). They wanted members who were comfortably middle class with jobs and friends, people like themselves. While we know missionary converts are a big push for the Church, without member fellowshipping, these converts are unlikely to stay in the Church for long. So while all Churches seek converts, are they really targeting people who are vulnerable to exploit them? To me, that seems like one area where the cult label fails for mainstream churches. Those on the fringes aren’t our bread and butter converts.
Perhaps cults are like narcissism, another over-diagnosed problem. At this point, it feels like everyone who acts like a selfish jerk is labeled a narcissist. Maybe they are. The psychological definition says that one is only a narcissist when it impedes function, creating negative outcomes in one’s life. The funny thing is that narcissism often gets a desired result for the one who has it (Example A: Trump, Example B: a lot of people’s exes). It’s only harmful to others. Perhaps religious devotion is the same. It works for the devotee, and it obviously works for the Church; it’s only other family members and friends it doesn’t work for (those not similarly devoted or convinced), and possibly society at large (if those beliefs create enemies or anti-social behaviors).
Another area that the Church fails the “cult” test to me is one Bishop Bill pointed out in his recent post. We don’t (currently) have a single charismatic leader who is the focus of cult-like devotion and worship. There are Church members who sound like they are engaging in leader- or prophet-worship, for sure, but they are gushing over something that is relatively mundane and interchangeable, the office more than the man. It feels like a cliche to me, just something people say, more than actual cult-like leader-worship. If you were to ask the average member what that leader said or did that was so wonderful, they would be hard-pressed to attribute something special to a specific leader. Also, our leaders are both an oligarchy and also have very short-term roles in the top job, often well past their prime. They are chosen based on bureaucracy and longevity, not for their personal attractiveness or dynamic speaking. They are pretty dull on the charisma scale. (Steady? Is that a better word than dull? Cult leaders aren’t dull or steady.)
So, is the Mormon Church a cult? If I look back at Hassan’s list, a few things immediately jump out at me. For one, BYU is more of a cult than the Church at large because of the almighty Honor Code Office designed to control things like hairstyle, clothing, and to encourage tattling on others. So here’s my view of these four areas and how the Church stacks up:
Behavior Control (4.5 out of 10):
- Promote dependence and obedience. Some Church leaders are very prone to promote obedience, while also promoting self-reliance (rather than dependence on the organization). I’m not sure how remarkable a focus on obedience is, though, given that most Christian churches promote obedience to commandments (and insert their own authoritative interpretation of what those are). The majority of Church members and some leaders are comfortable substituting Church authority for the gospel and assuming that the Church’s interpretation of doctrine as they understand it is correct.
- Modify behavior with rewards and punishments. Generally speaking, the punishments and rewards for behavior are mild, things like not getting certain church callings (boo hoo). This was much worse when the Church barred family members from temple weddings to encourage them to pay tithing so they could go to their child’s wedding, and not allowing civil marriages without a year waiting period. That particular policy reeked of cult-like coercion.
- Dictate where and with whom you live. The church doesn’t dictate where we live or with whom (except applying some assumptions to unmarried people who cohabitate). This is literally something cults do, relocating members to Jonestown, Waco or the Spahn Ranch.
- Restrict or control sexuality. The church can’t directly control sexuality, although I don’t doubt it would like to! Aside from having a law of chastity and being opposed to adultery (both of which are common to many religions), there’s very little intrusion into sexuality. Bear in mind that Charles Manson literally orchestrated orgies among his followers, assigning sexual partners and dictating their sexual activities as a way to break down their free will. You’d have to go back to the early days of polygamy to see pressure to marry specific people which would be more cult-like for sure.
- Control clothing and hairstyle. This one is a partial yes for me. It’s a soft maybe on social norms like no facial hair or colored shirts for men in leadership and dresses as a norm for women at Church (even though that’s not what our written guidelines say). But if you include garments, I have to go to a full yes. You must buy them from the Church, and they are worn daily, pretty intrusive, and you have to discuss them every two years with your bishop. That’s totally in cult territory on Hassan’s scale and goes much further than any other mainstream churches except Islam.
- Regulate what and how much you eat and drink. I’m not counting Fast Sunday as it’s very flexible and there’s no real oversight. If you include the Word of Wisdom, though, we get a little closer to cult-like. However, we are less severe than vegans in terms of how restrictive it is. But it’s discussed every two years in a personal interview, so this probably flips it to a yep.
- Deprive you of seven to nine hours of sleep. Only if you consider Early Morning Seminary, so this one’s a no.
- Exploit you financially. Tough to say. Tithing is absolutely a regressive tax, but the Church also gives direct aid to those in need. It feels a bit coercive that you must pay to enter temples and hold callings, so in that regard, partial credit on this one. I believe that happened sort of accidentally when the Church was struggling to stay afloat, and now there’s no way to dial back on it.
- Restrict leisure time and activities. Only because of the number of meetings, but again, I don’t think this is intentional. Nobody is deliberately trying to prevent people from leisure.
- Require you to seek permission for major decisions. Probably not, although there are plenty of members who want to go to the bishop for every little thing.
Information Control (7 out of 9*): To me, this is the area the Church does the worst.
- Deliberately withhold and distort information. This has certainly been a problem in the past, but they are making improvements and trying to do better. I’m giving this at least a partial yes.
- Forbid you from speaking with ex-members and critics. This isn’t expressly forbidden, but certainly discouraged, and critics and ex-members are painted in the worst light possible to make it easier to dismiss their concerns.
- Discourage access to non-cult sources of information. There is a strong tendency to discourage non-Church sources of information in teaching classes, but by the same token, we don’t expressly forbid it either (try telling this to a few Church members, though!).
- Divide information into Insider vs. Outsider doctrine. There is a strong tendency to discourage non-Church sources of information in teaching classes, but by the same token, we don’t expressly forbid it either (try telling this to a few Church members, though!).
- Generate and use propaganda extensively. I’m not sure apologetics and other Church sources count as propaganda, but they often lack nuance and accuracy unless you really want to search. Even the Church’s essays are difficult to find and often paint a rosier picture than you might find if you dig into the footnotes directly.
- Use information gained in confession sessions against you. As for using information people confess against them, there are rape victims who have been treated as seductresses as a byproduct of leader roulette, and the Church apparently doesn’t care enough about the problem to fix it, but I think that’s a patriarchal blind spot rather than an attempt to control people through confessions. However, many BYU bishops absolutely do this to students, forcing them to confess to the HCO which can put their academic standing in jeopardy.
- Gaslight to make you doubt your own memory. I think this one is mixed, so a qualified yes. It’s a PR tactic to claim that nothing has changed when in fact it has. For example, the priesthood race ban was taught as doctrine until it was downgraded to policy and “we don’t know why it happened” and “we don’t allow racist attitudes.” When E. Oaks said that women secretly had the priesthood in their callings without being ordained and that it’s always been like that, well, that’s the first time anybody ever said that, but suddenly members were claiming they knew it all along. Right.
- Require you to report thoughts, feelings, & activities to superiors. Kind of a yes, particularly with the youth interviews. We establish the bishop as the arbiter of worthiness (a Judge in Israel) and allow him to ask all sorts of questions, although there is a guide that bishops are told to follow rather than freewheeling and fishing. It’s not as controlling as Picard being interrogated by the Cardassians (“There are 4 lights!”), but it’s not zero either.
- Encourage you to spy and report on others’ “misconduct.” As far as encouraging people to tattle on others, that’s one that certain members simply eat up with a spoon, whether the Church is encouraging it or not. In a Facebook group I’m in for Relief Society Presidencies, so many of the comments are “Tell the bishop! He needs to know about that!” or “That’s the bishop’s decision. Not your problem!” On that point, though, I can’t tell whether that’s the Church, or just awful people. I suspect the latter. Any bishop who really wants you in his office reporting every little thing and requiring every mundane decision to cross his desk is not a good bishop. From such flee.
Thought Control (2 out of 8): This one is the least culty area for the Church, IMO.
- Instill Black vs. White, Us vs. Them, & Good vs. Evil thinking. The Church, like most conservative Christian faiths, is certainly prone to black & white thinking and putting things in terms of good vs. evil, but so many members also find this appealing, I’m not sure which is the cause: the members’ desire for easy answers, or the Church’s desire to reduce decisions to polar opposites (either it’s all true or it’s all false!).
- Change your identity, possibly even your name. Nah. I don’t think the “new name” from the temple qualifies as a real identity or name change because it’s not used in this way, in case anyone’s considering going there.
- Use loaded language and cliches to stop complex thought. No. (BTW, Trump is a master at this one). The only thing I can think of is the Primary song “Follow the prophet,” which is one culty-ass song for sure, but still, the issue is the catchiness, like a jingle.
- Induce hypnotic or trance states to indoctrinate. Definite no. General Conference is hardly hypnotic, perhaps boring. If you go back to the Kirtland Temple rites, some of that stuff really qualifies on this one, though. We just don’t do any of that stuff anymore.
- Teach thought-stopping techniques to prevent critical thoughts. Not really. The only thought-stopping technique I could think of was singing a hymn to avoid sexual impulses, or possibly being encouraged to read scripture and pray when faced with doubts. Still, those are standard Christian tropes, not particularly intrusive in one’s mental processes. Individual members prone to scrupulosity will doubtless have bigger issues with this, but I’m not sure it’s intentional on the Church’s part.
- Allow only positive thoughts. I don’t see this. There is a focus on the positive in the Church, but not as extreme as the mind-control techniques used in cults; people are allowed to grieve or be sad, and we talk about depression as a real thing that might require professional help (not just happy thoughts). There are some issues culturally in all Christian faiths to show others how happy people are (even if they aren’t), but that feels like normal social pressure and not the requirement of a cult. The fact that people call Utah County “Happy Valley” does sound a bit culty in light of this one, but I don’t think that’s an overall church culture thing.
- Use excessive meditation, singing, prayer, & chanting to block thoughts. Nope.
- Reject rational analysis, critical thinking, & doubt. Somewhat yes. There is less trust in intellectual and scholarly sources than I’d like to see, but still, that’s not to the level of cult-like control, just intellectual laziness justified by a belief that an unscholarly lay clergy is somehow better. The Church even runs accredited universities which is only possible when non-church scholarship standards prevail.
Emotional Control (6 out of 8): This particular area is one where the Church doesn’t seem to stack up that well, but some of it is doubtless on the members. Do the members create the culture, or does the culture create the members?
- Instill irrational fears (phobias) of questioning or leaving the group. This one really stands out as a yes, and while that’s true of all religious groups, Mormonism creates a bigger sunk cost and has a higher bar to exit than most, since our rites and ordinances don’t convey between sects like many Christian rites do in other faiths. (Parenthetically, this is another way BYU is like a cult, because the CES-taught required religion classes don’t count toward theology degrees at other universities, and the grades still follow you on your transcripts, creating a greater sunk cost, 14 wasted credit hours’ worth, to leave).
- Label some emotions as evil, worldly, sinful, or wrong. Probably a yes, but really just on par with other churches. Churches are in the anti-sin business, so calling things sins is kind of par for the course.
- Teach emotion-stopping techniques to prevent anger, homesickness. No. I don’t think we really do this at all in any organized intentional way. If so, Holland wouldn’t have been ranting on about taffy-pulling.
- Promote feelings of guilt, shame, & unworthiness. I would say yes, but on par with other Christian churches. After all, this is kind of the gist of the atonement, that we aren’t worthy, that we need a savior.
- Shower you with praise and attention (“love bombing”). Yep. This is definitely a technique used for those who are “inactive” in the church, and there’s a real concerted effort. It’s utterly transparent when someone has been deemed a “project.” I suspect this is a technique used by most Evangelical churches, and used less by churches that don’t track attendance or participation as closely.
- Threaten your friends and family. Not in any real menacing way, certainly not temporally threatening them. Like all churches, there’s the ever-present worry about the salvation of non-adherents. Most cults deal in real live threats against those who leave and against their family and friends. There is nothing on par with that in the current Church. You’d have to go back to the Danites to find that type of behavior. Nobody is going to threaten violence to your family if you don’t pay tithing, for example. If you were in the Manson Family, totally different ball of wax.
- Shun you if you disobey or disbelieve. I think this is a mostly yes, once they quit love-bombing you, that is. However, it’s certainly to a lesser degree than in full-throated cults. People acknowledge you exist. There’s not a norm of kicking people out of our lives over it, although some families are over the top.
- Teach that there is no happiness or peace outside the group. A big time yes to this.
Perhaps no group is a perfect 100% match against Hassan’s BITE model (well, except the Moonies which was his first and most intimate encounter with a cult), but from what I can see the Church isn’t much cultier than most other churches, although in its early days it would have been a lot closer. The bigger danger I see is when we intentionally foster a cult-like culture among the membership or when we don’t counter these attitudes as they emerge among our fellow Church members. The attitudes in the Church that really need an anti-cult gut check are:
- Black & white thinking
- Promoting blind obedience to leader or Church commands as opposed to moral reasoning or personal revelation (that can vary by individual)
- Policing others’ behavior, either through social disapproval or tattling to bishops
- Caving in to dress and grooming norms
- Not considering outside sources; deriding non-LDS sources as foolish or wrong
- Deferring to bishops in making personal life decisions
- Not paying attention when changes occur in doctrine or the Church’s party line, allowing PR to claim that nothing has changed when it actually has
- Speaking ill of those who have left or considering them foolish, unhappy or having lost the spirit
- Love-bombing those considered “inactive” to bring them back
- Using testimony bearing to “argue” with critical thinking or thinking this is normal, effective behavior
- Ignoring the validity of people’s feelings and thoughts or labeling doubts as wrong or sinful
In short, any group can become a cult under the right conditions. The more we lean into the above list, the more we act like a cult. People who naturally do these things (or are more autocratic) also promote these types of things within the Church. We should be able to recognize and resist those impulses. The Church should stand or fall on the merits of its doctrines, not through compulsion, emotional manipulation, and exploitation of people’s vulnerabilities.
- Do you think the Church qualifies as a cult using the BITE model? Do you think it is similar to other churches? Do you think the model is useful? How would you rate the Church?
- Do Church members create the culture or does the Church create the culture? (If the answer is both, which holds more sway?)
- Is the term cult overused in your experience? Do you think people are referring to specific people’s behaviors (and applying them to the whole) or are they accurately reflecting how the Church is?
*Coincidental Borg reference, but in this particular case it is totally on point!