Hey, Who Are You Calling a Cult?

The LDS Church is less of a cult than many of the religions that accuse it of being one.

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The gathering of money to help the poor or pay for meetinghouses or publications can be called "exploitation." The natural desire of converts to live according to the teachings of their leader can look like lockstep blind obedience to those who live a different way. And if outsiders persecute the new religion, it is only natural that adherents will want to band together and get away, if only for a few hours at a time, to be able to practice their religion in peace.

All religions have a body of teachings that becomes a lens through which the believers see the world around them. To those who don't believe, the lens seems to be a distortion of reality--though of course, those unbelievers are merely distorting reality their own way, through their own lens. No one sees reality without passing the data through the lens of their own preconceptions.

All religions also form a community, however loosely organized, of like-minded believers who set the standard of correctness. Whether that standard is rigid or relaxed, those who cross it are expelled from the community and are treated as heretics, apostates, or infidels. Severe treatment of heretics can be found from the lowliest cult to the largest church, from the most rigid sect to "open"-minded, post-religious academia.

You have to get fairly close to a new religion in order to see whether it is acting like a cult or like a religion. Most of those who hurl the word "cult," however, do not bother to get close. And those who do are often so grimly determined to attack that they distort all evidence in order to support the charge.

How Does Mormonism Measure Up?

Joseph Smith was a charismatic leader, but he was murdered 156 years ago. Nowadays, we have leaders who, while sometimes gifted at communication, are rarely of the dramatic, movement-founding type. Indeed, I feel safe in saying that the majority in my lifetime have been rather dull and gray, and they are followed far more because of their office than because of any personal charisma.

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Exploitation? As for exploitative leadership, this charge is absolutely false and always has been. Joseph Smith passed the money test with flying colors: He died poor and in debt, not because of profligate spending, but because any money that flowed into his hands flowed right back out again in attempts to benefit the saints and build the church.

In the years since, a handful of church offices have become salaried, but the salaries are merely enough to sustain normal family life. The perks of wealth are shunned even by those church leaders who were rich before being called to one of those rare salaried offices. And church leaders constantly struggle to eliminate the sycophancy, the cult of personality, and the general "sucking up" that are bound to arise in any hierarchical organization.

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Orson Scott Card
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