There is much debate on whether Joseph Smith—the man who founded the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, often known as the Mormon Church—was truly a prophet called of God, but one of his prophecies has undoubtedly come to pass. According to Smith, an angel visited him in the autumn of 1823, telling him that his name “should be had for good and evil among all nations, kindreds, and tongues, or that it should be both good and evil spoken of among all people.”
As Mitt Romney has taken the national stage as the presumptive presidential nominee of the Republican Party this year, his Mormon faith has garnered unprecedented interest. The resulting discussion has borne out the truth of Moroni’s prophesy, as genuine admiration and bitter criticism have been leveled not only at the prophet, but at the church he founded nearly 200 years ago. Animating this discussion is a basic question that often goes unstated: Are Mormons normal enough to belong in mainstream America? Normal enough that one of them could be trusted to be president?
One way of approaching this topic is to ask whether Mormonism is a legitimate religion, in the way Catholicism and Judaism are, or whether it is something altogether different and perhaps more sinister. Though Southern Baptist pastor Robert Jeffress was among the in this campaign to use the word, the term “cult” has now become a popular way of marginalizing Mormons. Bill Maher— who strongly doubts the existence of any omniscient being not named Bill Maher— branded Mormonism a cult via Twitter, and Andrew Sullivan recently argued that “the question of the cultish qualities of Mormonism [is] worth exploring.”
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.
Deciding who is a cultist and who is a legitimate believer is more often a matter of politics than of theology or psychology. This is what the writer Thomas Wolfe meant in saying that “a cult is a religion with no political power.” Witness the vehement denunciations of Mormonism during the 2008 election from the religious right, which all but disappeared during this cycle, when a Romney victory appeared much more likely. The fact that Jeffress ultimately endorsed Romney after labeling him a cultist perfectly illustrates the political nature of the slur, as does the sudden interest in the issue exhibited by Sullivan, who happens to be a staunch supporter of President Obama.
Ultimately, calling a religion a cult is a cowardly act, because the vagueness of the word provides plausible deniability to any who use it. While Sullivan or Jeffress may say they use the word in a specialized, limited sense, for the average person it evokes images of federal agents surrounding the Branch Davidians in Waco, not of a vibrant, growing religion some 14 million strong. If Sullivan does not intend to equate Mormons with brainwashed sycophants in a suicide pact, he should choose a less inflammatory word—one that actually means what he is trying to say.
While Joseph Smith still has his critics today, the teachings he left the LDS Church are fundamentally inconsistent with mind control or religious coercion. One of his more enduring revelations remains at the heart of LDS teaching on leading in the Church, warning that “[n]o power or influence can or ought to be maintained by virtue of the priesthood, only by persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned.” There are easier ways to brainwash people than through long-suffering and meekness.
In late June, Mormons around the world commemorated the murder of their prophet 168 years ago, by a bloodthirsty mob infuriated by the life and teachings of this complex, thoughtful man. This week, they still contemplate whether the years since then have been sufficient to cure the American people of one of the last acceptable prejudices.
D.T. Bell is a businessman living in Provo, Utah. Ryan Bell is an attorney living in Salt Lake City. They both co-authorMormonAmerican.com, a blog that responds to inaccurate information about Mormonism..