Recently, several people have criticized Robert Jeffress, a Texas pastor, for calling Mormonism, the religion of GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney, a “cult.” Jeffress added, “Those of us that are evangelicals have every right to prefer and select a competent Christian over a competent non-Christian.” You might be surprised if I said that I agree with Jeffress, at least on one point: Mormonism is a cult. But then again, that’s only because all religions are.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines cult (noun) as: a system of religious veneration and devotion directed toward a particular figure or object.
Based on that definition, Christianity is the cult of Christ, Judaism is the cult of the Jews, and Buddism is the cult of Buddha. Mormonism is a cult based around the book of Mormon and Scientology is a cult based on the works of a science fiction author, L. Ron Hubbard. Jeffress uses cult in the derogatory sense of a relatively small group of people having religious beliefs or practices regarded by others as strange or sinister (definition again from the OED). But, fact is, all of today’s mainstream religions started out that way. And the only difference between Jeffress’s cult (Baptists, a subset of Christians) and Romney’s (Mormons, another subset of Christians), is that Jeffress’s cult is larger and older.
Mormonism is only 200 years old and was the subject of Sir Author Conan Doyle’s first novel featuring Sherlock Holmes. Scientology, at 60 years old, is even younger. Since they are both young and we have seen their birth and maturation, it is easy for us to recognize Scientology and Mormonism as cults — and it is easy for us to see they believe in things that are more-or-less bunk. In comparison, Baptists are only 200 years older than Mormons. But just because Baptists are older and have a larger following, it doesn’t make the beliefs of their cult truer. You can apply the same logic that tells you that Scientology is bunk to any other religion and see that they are all the same: they all started in small groups on the fringe of some larger, accepted system; all developed or co-opted specific rituals and patterns of worship; and all established a set of dogma and beliefs that, depending on the particular one, are likely false.
People join cults and religions for different reasons — some good and some bad — but age and membership don’t validate them. For that reason, I don’t agree that Christians or anyone else should choose a “competent X over a competent non-X.” Romney may not be the man for you (or me), but his religion shouldn’t the reason you reject him, so long as it doesn’t prevent him from doing his job. If we all voted based on the religious belief of our candidates, I wouldn’t choose any of them — especially not the type of hypocritical, hyperpolarizing, religious zealot that the hypocritical, hyperpolarizing, religious zealot Jeffress would like you to elect.