Last weekend at a "family values" conference in Washington D.C., Robert Jeffress, a conservative Baptist minister called Mormonism a cult, and then subsequently attempted to dissuade attendees from voting for Mormon practitioner and presidential candidate Mitt Romney. The bigoted comment sparked a great deal of media attention, but much of the real news, since no one really cares what one fundamentalist Baptist pastor says, turned out to be the reaction to the comment, or lack thereof, from other GOP candidates.
According to politicos like Slate's William Saletan, Herman Cain and Rick Perry, who were so quick to jump on the prior week's "N-----head" controversy, should have been stronger in their repudiation of the "cult" comment. Saletan argues that the reason for the lack of a more vociferous renunciation is that it is still generally acceptable to discriminate against Mormonism - that the idea of being repulsed by anti-Mormon bias has yet to be cemented in our collective conscience in the way that racial discrimination has been. Saletan rightly takes his criticism of Cain and Perry a step further by advising us all on the deeper and more profound ethical lesson of this incident.
"The prejudices you need to work on aren’t the ones you recognize in your grandparents’ generation. They’re the one you don’t recognize in your own generation, and in yourself."
|Joseph Smith's Last Dream - painted by Jon McNaughton|
Let me reiterate that I totally agree with Saletan's conclusion, although....
...while it is important to consider our obligation to facing down bigotry, there is an even more fundamental question raised by Pastor Jeffress' comments.
What is the real difference between a religion and a cult anyway?
Cults have charismatic leaders, who often claim to possess special powers and unparalleled wisdom.
Sort of like a revered Jewish carpenter, an Arab merchant turned prophet from Mecca, or a certain son-sacrificing father.
Cults attempt to control the behaviors of their followers.
Most widely accepted faiths have tenets, values, and rituals to which their disciples are expected to adhere.
Cults often make fantastical claims about their origins and history.
How about parting the Red Sea, loading two of every animal on an ark, or raising the dead?
Cults advocate violence against others, particularly non-followers.
History is rife with corpses produced in the name of the major religions.
So what is the real difference? For those of us who primarily view all religions from the outside, the distinction between a religion like Christianity, and a "cult" like Mormonism is simple: about 2 billion adherents and an extra 1800 years to become normalized in the mainstream.