Defining “Cult,” Defining “Christian”

Source/Credit: Religion Dispatches

By Joseph Laycock

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.

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