A Jan. 4 Huffington Post headline proclaims: “Rick Santorum called Mormonism ‘dangerous cult’ in minds of ‘some Christians’ in 2007.”
Is Mormonism really a cult? Frank K. Flinn, PhD, a professor emeritus of religious studies in Arts & Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis, argues that Republican detractors hope to do political damage by labeling Mitt Romney’s religion as a cult. However, this labeling creates a constitutional blur that threatens religious liberty, he says.
Flinn, who has served as an expert witness on the legal definition of religion in court cases in North America and abroad, says, over time religious groups evolve and fall in and out of acceptance. People may make distinctions about which religious groups are respectable or deviant, he says, but the US Constitution does not.
Flinn’s comments follow.
Mitt Romney’s Republican enemies think that they can do him political damage by labeling his Mormon religion as a “cult.” The term cult is a highly charged, ambiguous and even dangerous word. Like spy in the rhyme set “tinker, tailor, soldier, spy,” the term cult occupies the last and most dubious place in the set of religious social categories “church, denomination, sect, cult.”
After the Jonestown Massacre in 1978 the word “cult” acquired nefarious associations. To many, it now implies brainwashed followers controlled by a charismatic, deranged leader who promotes bizarre beliefs and engages in sexual perversions and financial skullduggery.
Scholars of religion like Ernst Troetsch and H. Richard Niebuhr laid the foundation for the set terms to distinguish types of religious movements and organizations. By the 1960s, the terms were arranged in a grid of mutual comparisons and contrasts.
Churches and sects claim to have the exclusive access to the truth. Roman Catholicism is put up as the classic example of a church. The classic example of a sect was the Puritans, a Protestant separatist movement that broke away from the Church of England that the Puritans believed to be corrupted by “popery.”
Denominations and cults do not claim exclusive access to religious truth. Niebuhr used the term “denomination” to describe the varieties of Protestantism in America. Here a person could be baptized a Baptist, move to a city with no Baptist churches and comfortably attend the local Methodist congregation.
The wider society deems churches and denominations respectable, while sects and cults are labeled deviant. These designations are often applied arbitrarily. The case of Mormonism proves the point.
Again, “cult” is the odd-man-out in this schema. Earlier, the term referred to the “unchurched,” those who had no religion or were alienated from traditional religion and went on a religious quest. Madame Blavatsky’s Theosophical Society is often cited as a classic example of a cult. Cults were not only pluralistic, they were multiplistic: each person sought his or her own individual path.
Actual living religious groups are dynamic and evolve in diverse and surprising ways. Terms, categories and classification are ultimately temporary tags. Living groups will display mixtures and tendencies that defy the labels. As the saying goes, yesterday’s “cult” is tomorrow’s religion. Many religions began as classic “cults” or sects and then evolved into the category of denomination. The Seventh Day Adventists and the Mormons are cases in point, although Mormonism still bears the epithet of “cult” from many of its opponents.
By calling a group a “cult,” some believe that they establish it as a pseudo-religion. The term is now such a red flag that scholars of religion have switched to descriptive phrases such as “New Religious Movement” (NRM) or “Alternative Religious Movement” (ARM). Unfortunately, the media love to use the word “cult.”
The root of the term “cult” is Latin word colere that means both to till the soil and to worship. Ancient Roman farmers offered sacrifices to the harvest deities such as Ceres at the boundaries of their field. Thus, the term took on a double meaning. Cultus refers to the external rites of worship and devotion, as in the Catholic cult of Mary. Today, the term has secular meanings. We hear of the “Elvis cult” or the “fashion cult.” Here the word means a passing fad. Obviously, the term has difficulties in ways that “church” and “denomination” do not.
Labeling a group a cult creates a constitutional blur that threatens religious liberty. The constitution uses only one word for all of the phenomena I have been discussing: religion. So, the constitutional question is: “Is this a religion or is it not a religion?” The fact that a religious group is a church, denomination, sect, cult, assembly, fellowship, meeting, synagogue, gathering, mosque, coven, society, or congregation, is constitutionally irrelevant.
Leo Pfeffer, the great scholar of religious liberty, summed up the situation best at a conference held at Washington University law school in the mid-1980s. When asked to define the word cult, he said, “I would be happy to do so. If you like a fellow, you call his religion a faith; if you are indifferent toward him, you call it a sect; but if you really hate the b—–d, you call it a cult.”
Is Mitt Romney’s Mormon faith a religion in the full sense of the term? The simple answer is, yes. It may not be my religion, or even the religion I favor or approve of, but in the eyes of the Constitution it is a religion. Those who imply the opposite are playing dirty and being irresponsibly footloose with the most precious Clause of the Amendments to the Constitution — the First.