So, we're gearing up for the 2012 election season by watching the Republican front-runner change every couple of weeks. Because Mitt Romney is in the running, this means that, every now and again, we get to hear some new claim or fact about his religion. He is a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, better known as the Mormons. While much is said about the Mormon church in general and Mitt Romney's involvement (or, more often, his supposed and/or feared type of involvement) in particular, one common claim that is made, over and over again, is that the Mormon church is a cult.
Interesting word, "cult."
Interesting, largely meaningless as used in general conversation word. A term of abuse with no real meaning other than "they believe stuff that I don't" or "I don't know what they believe, but they give me the willies."
The problem is that there is no real generally agreed-upon definition for the word outside of research circles. Within the research community, the word "cult" lacks pejorative meaning and refers instead to any particular form of supernatural belief and/or the rituals engaged in by people who follow a belief system. Using this definition, all forms of Christianity are cults, as are all forms of Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, Judaism, and many forms of nationalism, where one venerates a symbol of the nation rather than a supernatural being, but does so with the types of rituals and beliefs with which one venerates supernatural beings. Broadly speaking, the term "cult" and the term "religion" are almost interchangeable within the social sciences*. So, in this sense, Mormonism is a cult, but your local Baptist, Methodist, and Episcopalian churches also represent cults.
In broader colloquial English, the term "cult" generally means a shady, destructive group that hides its members away from the rest of society, holds strange beliefs, and has predatory recruitment patterns.
Does this describe Mormonism? Well, if we get away from the absolutely arbitrary ideas that most religious people have regarding what is destructive to one's soul (and, really, considering that no two denominations of even the same religion will agree on this, it seems an absurd thing to focus on) and look solely at verifiable harm and destruction that a group can do, it's hard to think that Mormonism is a cult. Certainly, there is no shortage of stories of members who are secretly homosexual or who have some doubt about the teachings of the church being done harm by the indoctrination, but that's true of the vast majority of religious traditions and is not in any way unique to Mormonism. So, if Mormonism is destructive in any meaningful way, it is no more so than any other religion, so if you are reluctant to call the local Southern Baptist denomination a cult on these grounds, you probably shouldn't call Mormonism a cult, either. In fact, given the general focus on self-improvement and social responsibility within the church, the Mormon Church may be healthier on average than many other denominations.
As for hiding members away from society, Mormonism is pretty damn innocent there. Unlike groups such as the Jehovah's Witnesses and many Protestant denominations, Mormons are generally encouraged to be members of the broader community through social functions, charity work, and political activity. While I take serious issue with some of the ways in which this occurs (such as a general - though by no means universal - support of Proposition 8 ihere in California), it nonetheless demonstrates that members are not being held away from society at large. While the Church has been known to discourage the reading of certain books and viewing of certain films, television shows, etc., it doesn't seek to prohibit this in the same way that many Protestant churches and the Catholic church have historically (and currently) sought. What's more, the Mormon Church encourages education and general social engagement, which is more than can be said for many "main line" denominations**. So, again, while I often have problems with the Church's official and unofficial stances on issues related to this point, there is not the prohibition of interaction with the outside world that I have seen in many a "main line" Protestant church. So, once again, not really cult-like.
How about holding strange beliefs? Well, I've described some of the Mormon Church's teachings before, and they are pretty weird. You know what else is pretty weird? The idea that the world was created in six days by a strange all-powerful being that seemingly was just always there, a belief held by many a "main line" church in the U.S. The idea that a man in Italy who wears a funny hat communicates with this creator and is infallible in his decisions is also pretty damn weird, but that's Catholicism for ya'. While we're at it, the entire idea of the Holy Trinity really only makes sense if you think of it as mythology and not reality. The idea that a religious group that has been abused throughout the course of western civilization is the special chosen people of an all-powerful deity is pretty odd, come to think about it. And don't even get me started on talking snakes. And yet, these really bizarre beliefs are considered mainstream and respectable by people who think that Romney is a member of a cult.
Some people will respond that the Mormon Church hides many of their beliefs from the public, holding secret closed ceremonies in the Temples. This is true, and I can easily understand where this would unnerve many people. Hell, I find it a bit creepy, myself. However, I also know enough about human religion to know that this is pretty damn common amongst religions. I don't like it, but it's an aberration within Christianity, not within religion in general. So, unless you want to dismiss the majority of religious systems the world over as "cults", you'd be hard pressed to explain why this makes Mormonism a cult.
How about predatory recruitment? Well, first off, it's really hard to think of anything less threatening than the tie-wearing bicycle-riding missionaries. Have they been known to take advantage of people's moments of weakness to get them to join the church? Yep. Does this separate them from the "main line" denominations? Nope. In fact, the use of missionaries, who are very clear about their purpose, means that the Mormon church is arguably less predatory than many, perhaps most, other expansionist religious movements. My own personal experience is that, as a child, many different churches made an effort to persuade myself and my school-mates to join their ranks, whether our parents approved or not. This included the usual Protestant sects (Baptist, Methodist, Calvinist, etc.) and even a couple of Catholic churches. However, the local Mormon Church never invited the children to any religious functions - it would often invite the adults and suggest that they bring their children with them, but it was always an invitation at the adults first. While I haven't done any serious research into the matter, my own experience and that of others with whom I have spoken has been that this is the common way that the church works. So, whereas on everything else, the Mormon Church is no more cult-like than most churches, on this point it actually is much less cult-like than most other churches.
Now, I do take issue with the Mormon Church on many points - note, though, that I don't take issue with specific Mormons except where they require me to do so. Like any church, the Mormons are not a monolithic whole, but rather there is a range of ideas, beliefs, and attitudes on many issues, and it is wise to keep this in mind, because you will find yourself dealing with individuals (many of them both bright and articulate) and not mindless automatons. Moreover, what issues I have with the Mormon Church, I also have with many, probably most, other religious groups. But as to the question of whether or not the Mormons constitute a cult, well, that idea is absurd and reveals a large degree of bigotry on the part of the populace of the United States.
*The terms do have different meanings, but are intertwined enough that for our purposes here, they can be thought of as essentially the same thing.
**Many people will say that the Mormon church encourages this for it's own reasons. This is probably true. It is also true of pretty much every large national and international church organization, so, again, if you're not going to consider the local Baptists a cult on these grounds, it's pretty damn hypocritical to consider the Mormons a cult.