Sects, Cults, and Mormonism

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Classification is always a dicey business, and especially if it is classification that brings with it some sort of implicit praise or blame. And if that praise and blame is connected in any significant way to eternity and the afterlife, then the task of classification is like that red wire/green wire moment in the movies. One false move, and it is farewell to your eyebrows.

So as we try to refine our use of language in this most important business, let us throw caution to the winds and use Mormonism as our test case.

I grew up in a tradition that considered Mormonism "a cult," and that was the end of the matter. It was big enough to be a small religion, but calling it that might have had the effect of making it too respectable. Mormons claim to be Christian, so ceding them the name religion might help make them a Christian religion, and we can't have that.

But calling it a denomination was also out for evangelicals because its central doctrines were so heterodox. What to do?

Obviously, Islam and Buddhism and Hinduism are all religions. Taoism is "a way," but we can still count it. There has been a tendency, among liberal Christians, to refer affectionately to the "great world religions," with Christianity included in the number. When this process first started, back when liberals were still vertebrates, Christianity was thought to be first among equals. Now we are thought to have been a world class blight, and missionaries are sent out to apologize to everybody for having been such a disease.

And of course we have to throw the course of time into the mix. What about groups that used to be one thing and are now another? The great J. Gresham Machen wrote his book Christianity and Liberalism in order to demonstrate that liberalism was another religion, quite distinct from Christianity entirely, which meant that for him, the mainline denominations, historically Christian, had been co-opted by an ecclesiastical version of the invasion of the body snatchers.

So what about the YHWH 666 Warning Lightning Assembly? Within Christendom, a sect would be a group that is basically orthodox, but they usually keep to themselves, fearing the spread of ecumenical cooties. They tend toward rigorism, like the early Donatists, but other than having their sandals strapped on too tight, they are generally orthodox at the center. A cult is a group that is isolated and small, keeping to themselves just like a sect does, but with radically heretical notions at the center.

Now a religion can be every bit as wrong about the world as a cult is, and being widely accepted just puts it in a position to do a lot more damage, and doing a lot more damage is not an upgrade. At the same time, a religion does call forth more respect somehow. After all, the apostle Paul managed to be friends with certain pagan officials, who also had priestly responsibilities (Acts 19:31). And Chesterton once observed that a courageous man ought to be willing to attack any error, no matter how ancient. But, he added, there were some errors too old to be patronized. It is frankly kind of odd when the pastor of a snake-handling church in backwoods Tennessee preaches that the Roman Catholic Church is "a cult." Whatever his point about the doctrines involved, there surely is some kind of category confusion here.

Coming back to Mormonism, the problem seems to me to be a confusion of sociology and theology. Calling something a religion says nothing one way or another about the truth claims made by that religion. To argue that by making it into the big leagues, by actually becoming "a religion," you are now exempt from criticism or opposition, is actually to show yourself a devotee of an even larger set of liberal assumptions about the world -- and the arbiter of all religions is itself intensely religious. Wouldn't it have to be?

The way to test whether or not you think that moving from a cult to a religion is somehow "a promotion" can be seen in how you regard proselytizing. If you think that cults and sects are fair game, but that religions are off-limits, this means that you are a deep friend of the status quo, which in our day means you are a secularizing liberal. Secularism doesn't mean "no religion anywhere," it means "no religion where it matters." But this anti-religious bias is itself a profoundly esoteric religion.

I would want to regard Mormonism as a particular religion, not a cult, simply on the basis of age and size. It is a religion that hived off from orthodox Christianity, but of course, that is also what Islam did -- Christian heresies can veer off into cul de sac cults, or they can grow big and become regular religions, like Islam, Marxism, and American Idol.

This only makes sense, though, if we regard the category "cult" as a sociological reality, not a theological one. And when the liberal objects to this categorization, it might only be because he is fearful that we might identify his religion next.

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