Newt Gingrich’s Iowa campaign director resigned on Tuesday, after reportedly referring to Mormonism as a “cult.” Would Mormonism count as such by any scholarly definition?
No. Sociologists started using the word cult with some regularity in the 1970s, to distinguish emerging groups like the Jesus Movement, the Children of God, and Rev. Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Church from more established religions, but academics were never able to settle on a clear definition. For many at the time, the essential feature of a cult was that its ideology and structure opposed those of the larger society in which it resided. Where mainstream society is rational, for example, cults are mystical. If most members of a society are individualists, cult members practice collectivism. Other scholars argued that cult members had to be in active conflict with other religions, or that cults always had charismatic leaders who were aggressively recruiting new members. No matter which definition you prefer, no one would ever have referred to the Latter-day Saints as a cult. It has millions of members; its ideology and organizational structure are similar to those of mainstream churches; and an average Mormon’s way of life isn’t radically different from that of any other American.
Academics largely abandoned the word cult in the 1980s. Any useful definition would have included most of the world’s major religions at some point in their history. After all, Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and Buddhism each featured a charismatic leader at some point, and some sects still do so today. Many mainstream religions proselytize, and they’ve all had their fair share of conflict with their neighbors—Jesus was crucified; the Meccans persecuted Muhammad and his followers; and we all know what happened to the Jews in Egypt. At its best, the cult label would apply to a group only at certain times and places.
More importantly, the word eventually gained currency outside the ivory tower, and professors lost control of its meaning. In the early 1970s, Americans were curious about many of the emerging religious groups without fully condemning them. Mainstream magazines, for example, debated the legitimacy of the Unification Church; some even admired the enthusiasm of its members. All of that changed when 913 people committed suicide at the Jonestown colony in Guyana. Media coverage of such communities went almost uniformly negative, and all cults were lumped together. When the Rajneeshees, a communal group that followed an Indian mystic, poisoned Oregon salad bars with Salmonella in 1984, the story only reinforced the public perception of cults as dangerous groups of brainwashed sycophants. Today, those who study cults prefer to use the more neutral phrase “new religious movements.” Mormonism doesn’t fall into that category.
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Explainer thanks Marion Goldman of the University of Oregon and author of The American Soul Rush: Esalen and the Rise of Spiritual Privilege, Stephen Prothero of Boston University and author of God Is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World—and Why Their Differences Matter, James T. Richardson of the University of Nevada, Reno, and Ben Zeller of Brevard College and author of Prophets and Protons: New Religious Movements and Science in Late 20th-Century America.