What’s So Bad About A Cult Anyway?

Commentary by Father Edward L. Beck

The recent comments of Pastor Robert Jeffress and other Christian leaders in which they referred to the Mormon religion as a cult have stirred a cauldron of reaction and denouncement.  Many have said that the term “cult” is derogatory and unfair.  While perhaps justified, those reactions may be based more on misguided perception than on astute etymology.

The dictionary definition of “cult” is: 1) a particular system of religious worship, especially with reference to its rites and ceremonies; 2) a group or sect bound together by veneration of the same thing, person, ideal, etc.

Is that so bad or ominous?  Don’t most of our religious traditions qualify?  The word comes from the Latin “ cultus,” which is a form of the verb “ colere,” meaning “to worship or give reference to a deity.” Most religions began as cult movements before expanding to the larger denominations that we now know.

It was not until the late 20th century that a narrower, derogatory understanding of cult dominated when it began to refer to a group whose beliefs and practices were considered bizarre or extreme.  It has only recently been associated with mind control, brainwashing and undue manipulation of followers

The mass suicides in Jonestown and the horrific Manson murders were both blamed on cult behavior and ritual gone awry.  Scientology has also been the target of anti-cult movements and legislation in some countries.  While Mormonism has thus far been spared that kind of damaging association, in an election climate when two candidates are Mormon, the current brouhaha was inevitable.

One cannot argue that usage determines perception. We may therefore be well beyond reclaiming a more benign understanding of cult. But perhaps Mitt Romney’s Mormonism has come under attack by some religious leaders less because of its cult-like qualities and more because of a lack of understanding as to what Romney believes about his faith and its teachings.  To say he has been closemouthed on the topic is an understatement.  His refusal to answer questions and to clarify his personal faith fans the flames of suspicion and doubt.

Is Mormonism a Christian religion? Undoubtedly, yes. Do Mormons believe all the same things that all other Christians do? Absolutely not. But then neither do Catholics or Baptists or any other Christian denomination. We all have our distinct cultish practices and rituals that from the outside might appear suspicious. Accurate information and non-defensive disclosure are the best antidotes to unfounded claims.

When running for president, John F. Kennedy had to say what he believed about his Catholicism and what influence it would have on his governance. His forthright comments quelled much fear and put the kibosh on outlandish attacks against his faith.  Mitt Romney should take a page from that open book.

Father Edward L. Beck is an ABC News contributor and the host of “The Sunday Mass” on the ABC Family Channel.