The whole issue of whether the Latter-day Saint or Mormon Church is a cult popped up in presidential campaign news again, with the resignation on Tuesday, December 13, of Newt Gingrich’s Iowa political director after he made comments about “the cult of Mormon.” This recalls the kerfuffle in October when a Texas pastor, Robert Jeffress, said that the LDS church was a cult, and that would-be Republican U.S. presidential candidate Mitt Romney, a Mormon, was not a Christian.
For the record, I am a Latter-day Saint, or Mormon, myself. We Latter-day Saints consider ourselves Christians. Lots of evangelical Christians consider us cultists. However, Latter-day Saints (“Mormons” is a nickname) are in very good company: many evangelical Christians define “cult” in such a way that a rock-bottom minimum of 29 percent of Americans are cultists.
In an interview on MSNBC’s “Hardball with Chris Matthews,” Jeffress explained that he meant that Mormonism is “a theological cult,” rather than a brain-washing “sociological cult.” But what is “a theological cult”?
As very narrowly defined, for evangelicals, a “cult of Christianity” claims to be Christian but denies, explicitly or implicitly, a central doctrine of Christianity. However, this definition begs the question of exactly what is a central doctrine of Christianity, a matter of interpretation about which Catholics, Protestants, and Orthodox have disagreed, sometimes violently, for centuries. In practice, for many evangelicals, if one is not an evangelical Christian, one is a cultist.
For example, the European-American Evangelical Crusades clearly states on its website that Roman Catholicism is a cult because of the Catholic adoration of Mary, and Catholic teachings about the papacy (see also “Clarifying Christianity”). That 1917 fundamentalist classic, The Fundamentals, contains two chapters, T. W. Medhurst’s “Is Romanism Christianity?” and J. M. Foster’s “Rome, the Antagonist of the Nation,” which take issue with Catholic teaching on the authority of tradition, the sacraments, priesthood, the practice of the Mass, and so forth. According to figures in the National Council of Churches 2011 Yearbook, there are 68.5 million Roman Catholics in the United States–and according to many evangelicals, every one of them is a cultist.
It does not stop there. In principle, the Greek Orthodox church (1.5 million Americans) and the Episcopal Church (2 million) have beliefs about priesthood and sacraments that are much closer to the Catholic than the evangelical position, so they would seem likely to be labeled as “cults” by evangelicals, as well. Evangelical websites prominently feature as cults the Latter-day Saints/”Mormons” (6.1 million), Seventh-Day Adventists (1 million), and Jehovah’s Witnesses (1.2 million). That brings the total for members of “cults of Christianity” to 80.3 million Americans.
But wait — there’s more. In practice, many evangelicals take the position that any non-Christian religion is a cult because such religions do not accept the New Testament as the word of God. Matching figures from a recent Pew Forum survey with the latest U.S. census population estimates, we can see that this adds many millions to the ranks of cultists. One can easily find evangelicals who say that modern Judaism (with 5.3 million Americans) is a cult, as well as Islam (1.9 million) and Buddhism (2.2 million). The popular evangelical handbook, Walter Martin’s The Kingdom of the Cults, has a chapter on “Eastern Religions,” including Hinduism (1.2 million Americans). This totals 90.8 million people who are cultists for many evangelical Christians, amounting to 29.3 percent of the American population.
Of course, the evangelical websites I link to above have many distortions about other religions. But it is a free country. Evangelical Christians have a Constitutionally protected right to call the LDS Church a cult. But be aware that, for evangelicals, this word has a very interesting definition, one that includes over one out of every four Americans.