Why Do Southerners Call Mormonism a Cult?

Patrick Mason is the Howard W. Hunter Chair of Mormon Studies at Claremont Graduate University and author of The Mormon Menace: Violence and Anti-Mormonism in the Postbellum South (Oxford University Press, 2011). He is the nation’s leading scholarly expert on anti-Mormonism. I spoke with him this morning about the controversy surrounding Mormonism at last weekend’s Values Voter Summit.

RD: Last weekend at the Values Voter Summit, Robert Jeffress, Senior Pastor at First Baptist Church of Dallas, introduced Rick Perry as a “genuine follower of Jesus Christ” and later characterized Mormonism as a “cult” to reporters. Help us understand the history behind anti-Mormon sentiment in the American South.

PM: Mormon missionaries were proselytizing in the American South from before the Civil War, and wherever Mormonism went, anti-Mormonism followed. Some of it was basic theological opposition to Mormon doctrine presented in tracts, books, pamphlets, and so forth. That’s reasonable in a free marketplace of ideas, and Mormons have certainly said that other churches were wrong. Theology is fair play.

But something changed around the Civil War. In 1857, LDS Apostle Parley P. Pratt was killed as retribution for alleged polygamy. And that’s the spark that motivated the rise of violent anti-Mormonism: the perception that Mormons were coming to steal women and corrupt Southern womanhood. After the Civil War especially, Southern manhood was defined in large part through the protection of Southern womanhood. This rationale helped whites in the South justify the lynching of African-Americans. It drove anti-Mormonism as well: not just theological difference, but the fear that they’re coming for our women.

That helps me understand the edge I hear in the contemporary caricaturing of Mormonism as a “cult.” It’s not just theological differentiation. There’s an edge to the accusation. It’s a residue of the anti-Mormon violence of the nineteenth century.

Yes. Once Mormons drop polygamy in the late nineteenth century, anti-Mormon violence stops. Violent anti-Mormonism disappears, whereas African-American lynching does not. But latent ideas of Mormons as polygamists continue to dominate the Southern imagination.

Usage of the word “cult” as a descriptor for Mormonism picks up steam in the 1960s as a reaction to new religious movements like the Moonies, Jonestown, Scientology, and so forth. It also indexes a feeling of eroding religious authority on the part of mainline and evangelical Protestants who have had a custodial relationship to culture in the American South. Beginning in the 1960s, with greater secularism, there comes a sense that this Protestant custodial relationship is under threat. “Cult” becomes a catch-all phrase to catch new and unrecognizable religious movements.

And then in the 1970s and 1980s comes the rise of what I describe as “organized anti-Mormonism”: people who make careers producing anti-Mormon print and video content and networking distribution of anti-Mormon content with other pastors and media figures.

In the early 1980s, Ed Decker produces a book and a video titled The Godmakers. In Salt Lake City, Jerald and Sandra Tanner in establish Lighthouse Ministries and produce sophisticated anti-Mormon literature based in historical research. Interestingly, it parallels the rise of the new Mormon history and new historical consciousness among Mormons, giving a historical gravitas to the anti-Mormon movement. People like the Tanners go back and look at nineteenth-century sources and find esoteric aspects of Mormon tradition—Anglo-American folk magic, temple ceremonies, esoteric teachings of Brigham Young—and they say, “That’s not recognizably Christian.” That’s where Jeffress is coming from. He comes out of a tradition that says there are so many things coming out of Mormonism that do not seem to fit within Christianity as it has been constructed over the past hundreds of years. Then, the LDS Church counters by asserting that we are, of course, Christian. The two camps largely talk past each other.

It’s comparable in some respects to what Catholics have experienced, then? The word “Christian” has been instrumentalized to mean Protestant, or perhaps even more specifically evangelical Protestant, and then used to convey or withhold legitimacy.

This was the language that was used against John F. Kennedy, too. And Mormons have a bit of an uphill climb. But there are people out there like Richard Mouw, who wrote a very nice post at CNN this weekend. Mouw is very careful in how he uses theological language. He says, effectively, let’s be rigorous and not just throw words at one another.

It should be noted that anti-Mormonism is also a term that gets used carelessly in Mormon communities. Folks who differ on one point or another, or criticize the tradition at all, sometimes get called “anti-Mormons” by very rigid LDS Church members, and the term has edge.

Yes, among Mormons, anyone that says anything a little different is subject to being called an “anti-Mormon.”

Final question. Jon Huntsman called the weekend’s controversy a “sideshow.” Mitt Romney responded to it all by maintaining his dignity and criticizing Bryan Fischer. Both candidates seem to be determined to avoid getting caught up in a century-old mess of misunderstanding. What advice would you have for Mitt Romney?

I think Romney is handling it about as well as he can. He learned lessons from 2008. He knows he can’t win by making religious arguments or trying to get up there and defend his faith as an apologist. What he’s doing is defending himself personally as a believer. He’s saying he believes in Jesus Christ and that his faith is central to his identity. That’s a message that people on the Christian right should be able to hear. For him to even attempt to get into an educated conversation about how Mormonism fits within historical Christianity—that’s not his job, and no one should expect him to do that. A certain hardcore element on the right is never going to accept him. He knows that. He needs to write those people off. There’s nothing he can say or do to convince them. Shrug it off. There are bigger issues that need attention.

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Joanna Brooks is the author of The Book of Mormon Girl: A Memoir of an American Faith (Free Press / Simon & Schuster, 2012) and a senior correspondent for Religion Dispatches.