Tuesday, October 11, 2011
Is Mormonism a Cult? It Depends on How You Define It
In response to the controversy surrounding Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney’s faith, let us consider the same question that sparked all the controversy. Is Mormonism really a cult? When I was much younger, I attended an Evangelical, essentially Baptist church, where this was the view of most people with whom I worshiped. I must admit that to this day, I still entertain severe doubts about some of the religion’s beliefs, seeing them as silly and incomprehensible. In a recent interview, a Baptist minister and supporter of Rick Perry disqualified Latter Day Saints from the Christian based on his own standard of purity. By this logic, any movement that does not trace its heritage back to the original First Century Christians and Jesus’ ministry before that cannot possibly be authentic. Those who do not use this starting point as their own cannot be authentic believers. However, this interpretation entirely depends upon whose standard and definition we use as we make our judgments.
I can think of any number of odd practices and customs that Mormons hold. Baptism of the dead, for example, is a big one. Having one’s family retroactively converted without their consent is another. Mormon men wear sacred undergarments beneath their clothes to protect them from evil. Still, I would call it a Christian sect sooner than I would call it a cult. Some of its basic premises are somewhat suspect in my eyes, like the presence of gold plates bearing a strange language found in a hillside in Western New York, plates that have never been found since. The Mormon kids I grew up with always had a mysterious quality to them, as though they were all hiding something. This sort of secrecy did not do much to dispel the “cult” label.
Three hundred and fifty years ago, I’m sure there were many in England who saw Quakers as cultists. To most, our ways were idiosyncratic and bizarre. Like Joseph Smith, our own founder, George Fox, received a vision on a hilltop, this being Pendle Hill in England. “From the top of this hill the Lord let me see in what places he had a great people to be gathered,” Fox wrote. Quakers did not make a neutral impression upon 17th Century English society. Many took great offense to the fact that women were allowed and encouraged to preach, but others viewed the practice as merely sensational and quite harmless. Believing they were privy to something intriguingly eccentric, if not altogether disastrous, the spectacle of women’s voices in worship was entertainment for many. An observer of the time, the author and learned man of letters Samuel Johnson said that it was like watching a dog walk on his hind legs. It was not done well, but one was nevertheless surprised to see it done at all.
A few other commonalities exist between Quakers and LDS. George Fox dashed off Epistle after Epistle, letter after letter to forcefully push back against those who claimed that Quakers were not really Christians. Religious movements are, to this day, trusted based on their own age first, and then measured by their adoption of even older theological beliefs. The Religious Society of Friends, often known as those people named Quakers, sought to return to the roots of Christianity in its pre-Nicene form. Some forms of tradition were retained, but others were replaced altogether. A Worship based in silence, not in spoken or sung liturgy already separated Friends from most other Protestant groups. This was Primitive Christianity revisited, designed to mimic the times when small groups of believers conducted worship without hymnals, readings, or even basic literacy.
But what both groups do very much have in common is a history of violent persecution, leading to a mass migration. The first generation of Quakers were jailed and sometimes killed for practicing their religious beliefs. The colony of Pennsylvania in the New World was designed to be notable convert William Penn’s Holy Experiment and Quaker homeland. Mormons were killed by the intolerant and fearful around them and its casualties included Joseph Smith himself. This sort of bigotry necessitated the migration of the entire flock out to Utah. And, if I am to be fully honest, both Mormonism and Quakerism were founded by charismatic young men of modest birth who saw faith very differently. But then again, the same is true for Christianity.
In the beginning, Christianity itself was said to be a cult, an offshoot of Judaism. In the early days, it fought for its legitimacy against heavy odds. Many Jews found the new religion threatening, and there were even some believers who chose to preserve certain Jewish traditions by mingling them with newer Christian ones. They were known as Judaizers and sometimes Jewish Christians. What separate the early Christians from the Judaizers was the latter’s reliance on salvation by works. And it is a works-based philosophy that drives Mormonism. Quakerism, by contrast, stresses individual guidance between Holy Spirit and believer. While it does include a handful of Testimonies to be followed, these are to be individually applied, in place of dogma or doctrine. One person’s interpretation of the Peace Testimony, for example, might be very different from that of another Friend.
No single standard of religious faith and belief exists in all the land, despite those who argue to the contrary. Some Baptists I have met act as though they are the only people who will ever get to heaven. In any purity battle like this one, the determining issues become those of metrics. Whose qualifying factors do we use as a divining rod? Mormonism is at times a peculiar faith, but it is worth saying that Quakers define themselves even now as a peculiar people.
When I first joined, years ago, a long-time Friend asked me a particularly blunt question. “How did you ever find such strange people?” He meant it as a critique of himself as well, but I will say in response to the question that any space dominated by introversion rarely takes the form of society’s definition of normal. The lack of transparency that Mormonism seems to insist upon seems to be its primary problem. If you assume you will always be misunderstood, you likely always will. And even if it were to define itself more readily, it still may never be considered kosher to Evangelical Christians. Even so, what is often viewed as an odd and perhaps remote faith group might wish to reward its favorite son by beginning a campaign towards greater outreach, should he be a serious candidate for the highest office in the land.