Andrew Sullivan compares cults and religions and finds a lot of common ground – with one major difference:
The doctrines of Mormonism strike me as no more strange than those of most other mainstream religions, but more obviously odd simply because they are so recent. I cannot criticize the absurd and unsubstantiated notion that there were lots of strange tribes occupying America two thousand years ago when Jesus dropped by to say hi, when my own church insists as a matter of infallible teaching that the mother of Jesus was sucked up into the sky rather than dying a natural death. You cannot note that Joseph Smith was a convicted con man whose scam is retroactively obvious without noting the unsavory aspects of Muhammed’s biography or the rank anti-Semitism of, say, Martin Luther.
But one can examine the structure of the religion and its practices, to see if they are easily compatible with open government and transparency, or if they rely on intimidation, isolation and cultic practices.
I had a discussion with a friend of mine about Scientology. I argued that the popular Hollywood based religion is no crazier than any other religion when you look at its beliefs and history teachings, it’s just more recent so less ingrained in our culture. There are however, some very worrying aspects of Scientology that stem from the organization and its practice that warrant closer scrutiny – its secretiveness, the countless stories of coercion, intimidation and dangerous use of pseudo scientific medical treatments etc etc. Sullivan argues the same is true for Mormonism:
Why cannot non-Mormons come and go in Mormon Temples as they can in Cathedrals and mosques and synagogues? Why is it so hard for some to leave the LDS Church without social ostracism and peer pressure? How much money would taxpayers be automatically giving the LDS church by paying the president his salary? How much control does the LDS hierarchy have over its members? Why is missionary work compulsory? Why were Ann Romney’s non-Mormon parents barred from attending her own Temple sealing?
I think there are cultish qualities to all religions, and for that matter, all belief based organizations. I’ve studied many styles of Martial Arts and found cult like qualities in many of the organizations I’ve been a part of. I think it’s generally part of the human condition to join groups with a series of beliefs or principles, much of which can be very positive. When it starts to infringe on the rights of the individual, I think groups should be exposed to greater scrutiny from the general public as it can lead to far more dangerous behavior down the line. There is a thin line between a religion and a cult, and efforts should be made to stop the former turning into the latter.
The more secretive, the more worrying the group becomes, and the closer it is to being a full on cult. Where that puts Mormonism is hard to say.
Ben Cohen is the editor and founder of The Daily Banter. He lives in Washington DC where he does podcasts, teaches Martial Arts, and tries to be a good father. He would be extremely disturbed if you took him too seriously.