Defining “Cult,” Defining “Christian”

Last weekend, pastor Robert Jeffress found himself in political quicksand when he called Mormonism a “cult.” Scholars of Mormonism along with evangelicals and progressive Christians responded that Mormonism is a legitimate faith and not a cult. But by debating whether Mormonism is a cult, we are still giving legitimacy to a word that has been used to repress religious minorities. Jeffress’ defense of this term on MSNBC’s Hardball is an interesting window into the power of words in American religious discourse.

Jeffress explained, “I was talking not about a sociological cult, like David Koresh or Jim Jones. I’m talking about a theological cult.” This is a false distinction. Generally, sociologists do not use the word “cult.” Those that do, such as William Bainbridge and Rodney Stark, use it in a highly specialized way to indicate groups that are innovative (unlike churches) but open to everyone (unlike sects). Religion scholars who study “new religious movements” (or NRMs) are the first to admit that “cult,” in its modern usage, has always been a theological term used by Protestants to label religions they do not like.

This term is never defined in a coherent way. Instead, it is invoked to link unpopular groups to figures such as Charles Manson, Jim Jones, and David Koresh. Richard J. Muow, an evangelical theologian who defended Mormons, offered a typically vague definition of cults in which he seems to include Jehovah’s Witnesses, but not Mormons. As Patrick Mason observes, the power to label something a cult relates to the role Protestants have historically assigned themselves as “cultural custodians.”

What was so interesting about Jeffress’ interview with Chris Matthews was his refusal to give any definition—either for the word “cult” or the word “Christian.” When Matthews recited Webster’s definition of a cult, Jeffress responded, “I believe more in a theological cult.” “Theological” in this case, appears to mean that it is entirely the prerogative of Protestant leaders what is and is not a cult. The power of this category lies solely in the fact that it is never defined.

Curiously, Jeffress was equally evasive when Matthews asked him whether Mormons regard Jesus Christ as God. Jeffress eventually responded, “Well, I don’t believe all Baptists are Christians and I’m a Baptist… Nobody goes to heaven in a group, Chris.” This line of thought essentially negates theology: No creed or canon can determine whether someone is a Christian—only Robert Jeffress has that ability. He added, “Not all Mormons believe what Mormons believe,” implying that a Mormon could be a Christian if Jeffress deigned to bestow that title.

The historian Robert Orsi observed that there is a “hidden moral structure” in American religious discourse that implicitly privileges Protestant notions of acceptable religion. Jeffress’ interview was a stark example of how this hidden moral structure operates in American culture. The power of this structure lies entirely in the fact that it is hidden. If there is no rational definition for words like “cult,” then no one can prove their religion is not a cult. By perpetuating this term, we yield to demagogues the power to define what legitimate religion is.