Responding to Andrew Sullivan’s Continuing “Cult” Campaign

Andrew Sullivan responds to our piece in the Washington Post on the alleged “cultishness” of Mormonism here.  It’s an interesting discussion, and Sullivan is game to continue it.  But his resistance to our Mormon mind-meld techniques displeases us, so we’ll keep up the brainwashing attack.

Sullivan begins by saying that we were “offended” by his raising the question of “Mormonism’s cultish qualities.”  Let us be clear: we’re not offended. (It takes a lot more than that.) Sullivan hasn’t hurt our feelings; he has, rather, committed some errors in logic that we’re seeking to correct. Claiming that someone is offended is an easy way of discounting their arguments as subjective and emotional. We’re not seeking an apology from Sullivan for offending us; we’re hoping to see him use better logic and information in his frequent discussion of Mormonism.

Sullivan concludes his piece by proclaiming that he “won’t be intimidated” by accusation of ‘prejudice’ into not exploring aspects of Mormon doctrine and practice when debating a presidential candidate.” This is an old politician’s trick: when your opponent accuses you of negative behavior (in our case, of using sloppy logic and imprecise terms), you simply act like your opponent was accusing you of behavior that everyone agrees is positive and then refuse to apologize for that positive behavior. We are not in any way seeking to intimidate Sullivan or anyone else from exploring Mormonism or its legitimate impact on Governor Romney. We are, rather, seeking to promote fairness, accuracy, and logical consistency as they explore these topics. It saddens us to say as longtime readers and fans of Sullivan that his handling of the matter has, in our view, been disappointingly subjective and unfair. We can’t be sure just why Sullivan approaches the discussion of Mormonism with a negative bias, but thus far his writing on the matter has been decidedly one-sided and ill-informed.

More to the substance: Sullivan originally said Mormonism is a cult because it meets his own criteria for cultishness.  We responded that it’s easy to draw up any “criteria” to make a religion look cultish.  He now pivots to basically admitting we’re right.  Case in point: he argues that the Catholic Church actually is cultish, or at least has some cultish aspects to it.  But our point was not that the Catholic Church is a cult.  Quite the opposite, we feel a majority of Americans would agree that the Catholic Church is not at all a cult.  Regardless, once again Sullivan’s characterization reveals the sloppiness of the word (and any attempt to apply it fairly).  That is, for some reason, the Catholic Church displays cultish tendencies, but is not a cult, whereas the Mormon Church has other allegedly cultish tendencies, and probably is (in Sullivan’s view) a cult.  Indeed, in Sullivan’s telling, “there are cultish aspects to all religions.”

Now we’ve lost all connection to any useful concept.  If all religions suffer from cultishness, but not all are cults, is it a question of which ones are pious enough to overcome their cultishness?  Is cultishness just a sliding scale?  Or is it just all in the eye of the beholder?  Or is “cult” just synonymous with religion?  When calling Mormonism a cult, is Sullivan really just saying that it operates like hundreds of other religions, which do not typically privilege transparency and democracy over divine authority?  Does anyone have any idea what is meant by this word, which dissolves into nothingness the moment you pick it up?

Sullivan’s criteria for identifying cults are simply suspect.  He does not dispute that they have been pre-selected for specific treatment of Mormonism.  They are certainly over-inclusive (Peter collected tithing effectively; the Federal Reserve is an “authoritarian structure with no external accountability”) and under-inclusive (they do not appear to encompass the Branch Davidians or the Mansons).  In short, they’re not helpful.  Sullivan’s definitions don’t get you anywhere, except where you started, which is: Andrew Sullivan looks at Mormonism and sees a cult.

But if other religions can escape the cult label despite having some clear cultish tendencies, based on how much good they contain, Mormons should be given the same chance, right?  Wouldn’t it be impossible for Mormonism to be a cult if Mormons show signs of great social engagement and psychological health and other pro-society attributes?  How about this new academic study of volunteerism and charitable giving by University of Pennsylvania researchers, which found that “members of the [LDS Church] are the most prosocial members of American society.  Regardless of where they live, they are very generous with their time and money.”  According to the study, the average Mormon gives about 35 hours per month in volunteering, compared to 4 hours a month for other average Americans.  Is that level of service and charitable donations indicative of a cult?  What about this University of North Carolina study showing that Mormon teens cope with the challenges of adolescence better than any other religious group.  According to one UNC researcher, “[a]cross almost every category we looked at, there was a clear pattern: Mormons were first.”  There’s more: Utah (which still has a majority Mormon population) has the lowest rate of out-of-wedlock births, and as Ross Douthat notes, one of the lowest divorce rates, and a very low instance of teen pregnancy.  How can a church with some of the most sociable, charitable, well-adjusted, and demographically successful people in America be a cult?    Isn’t such a picture fundamentally inconsistent with the basic idea of what a cult is?

In the end, Sullivan can’t have it both ways.  You can’t say that most religions, despite cultish aspects, are not actually cults because of the good in them, while also ignoring the good in Mormonism on the way to condemning it as a cult.  What would be much more fair is to come up with one clear definition of the word (not pre-loaded with a single group in mind) and to see how it applies equally across all religions.  Also, if you are not a specialist in this area, you should probably select the definition that the vast majority of people already hold to.  That is, call something a cult if it is a marginal group of religious zealots who use psychological manipulation to gain and control adherents, usually in ways fundamentally out of harmony with mainstream society.

The rest of Sullivan’s article is just a repetitive list of potshots.  Sullivan refers to the Book of Mormon as “a mysterious new text” without explaining why its being new (at least relative to the Bible) is bad. He also authoritatively settles the matter of the historicity of the Book of Mormon, informing us that it was “created by what was quite obviously a scam operation.” This is perhaps the most ridiculous part of Sullivan’s piece. The debate regarding the authorship of the Book of Mormon has raged for nearly two hundred years. Professional and amateur academics have dedicated barrels of ink and reams of paper to the issue. There are many well-educated Mormon scholars well-versed in this debate who believe in the ancient origin of the Book of Mormon. Sullivan has made the mistake of many ill-informed observers, of assuming that this question lies outside the field of questions on which reasonable minds may disagree.

Regarding “extreme social pressure against apostasy,” this does apply somewhat to Mormonism, though it is an exaggeration to call it extreme.  In this Mormons are not unlike any other social group or institution with high cohesion. Parents and siblings and friends want their loved ones to see the value in the things they value; this is true of Steelers fans, AFL-CIO members, and Evangelical Christians. The key question is: are they allowed to leave?  The answer is yes.  What are the consequences when they do?  In some unfortunate cases, they are ostracized. There is no doctrinal or institutional support for such behavior.  Further, there is no threat of harm or injury, no extortion or coercion related to such pressure, as you might expect in a cult.  The worst that can happen when you leave the Mormon faith is that some of your friends and family members might take it badly and marginalize you.  While such instances are very unfortunate, it is hard to see how they make the Church a sinister place.  We happen to know many former Mormons who continue to live and work and socialize and thrive in Salt Lake City without any visible consequences of their de-conversion.

A final point.  During the great debate about Jeremiah Wright, Andrew Sullivan called Martin Marty as a character witness on the subject, noting that “there are few more distinguished, principled or decent public figures.”  The clear implication of Sullivan’s effusive praise was that Marty’s conclusions on matters of religion are to be viewed as authoritative.  Taking this position seriously, we call Martin Marty as a character witness on the issue of Mormonism.  Hopefully his trustworthy voice on this issue will persuade those minds that the Church itself can’t seem to reach.

Mr. Sullivan, ball’s in your court.  Tell us why all those religions with cultish qualities aren’t cults, but Mormonism is.  And how all those demonstrably good qualities in the Mormon faith and people can be reconciled with a definition of “cult” that anyone would recognize.  And why Martin Marty could be trusted on the strength of his bona fides alone in the case of Jeremiah Wright, and not in the case of Mormons.

Photo: LDS Conference Center in Salt Lake City, Utah

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