Cults and Religions-1: Should a Mormon be President?

I was involved in a discussion recently about what differences, if any, existed between those beliefs that we label as religion and those we label as cults. The formal definition of the word cult (as given by Merriam-Webster) seems to cover religion as well since it says: “1: formal religious veneration, 2: a system of religious beliefs and ritual; 3: a religion regarded as unorthodox or spurious; 4: a system for the cure of disease based on dogma set forth by its promulgator, 5 a: great devotion to a person, idea, object, movement, or work (as a film or book); especially: such devotion regarded as a literary or intellectual fad b: the object of such devotion c: a usually small group of people characterized by such devotion.”

Apart from definition 4, which struck me as a rarely-used meaning of the word, the rest of the definitions seemed to cover religions as well, with the only possible distinctions arising from the words ‘usually small’ in 5c and ‘unorthodox or spurious’ in 3. Is a cult then merely a religion that has not (yet) attracted a large number of followers or something that is simply looked down upon for no objective reason?

But while there may not be a clear dictionary distinction between a cult and a religion, it is clear that the words have a different emotional impact, with the word religion having a neutral flavor to it, while the word cult definitely has pejorative connotations.

The question of cults versus religions came up in the context of speculations about Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney seeking the Republican nomination for president in 2008. It turns out that he is a Mormon and some have suggested that the country is not ready for a Mormon president, alleging that the Church of the Latter Day Saints is a cult.

Take, for example, this exchange between Hugh Hewitt and Christopher Hitchens. Hewitt asked Hitchens his opinion of the incoming senate majority leader Harry Reid, who is also a Mormon.

CH: A Mormon mediocrity, and extraordinary, sort of reactionary, nullity.

HH: Now isn’t that bigoted to say a Mormon mediocrity, Christopher Hitchens?

CH: No, no. I’m always in favor of pointing out which cult people belong to.

HH: You see, I think that is very, very harsh and offensive, but I will allow the Mormon listeners to call you on that.

CH: No, he’s a Smithite, for Heaven’s sake. I mean, he believes that some idiot found gold plates buried in the ground.

HH: But it is religious bigotry to call that out. And do you make similar comments…

CH: No, it’s not me who says he’s a Mormon. Excuse me, it’s he who says it.

HH: I know that, but I still think…

CH: I say that anyone who believes that stuff is an idiot.

HH: I know you believe that, but isn’t it sort of randomly bigoted to bring that out and throw it onto the table?

CH: Not at all, no. It’s essential to point out…

HH: I disagree.

CH: Especially at a time when people are always saying it’s the Republican Party that’s run by religious crackpots and nutbags. And it’s very important to point out these people have a big foothold in the Democratic Party, too.

HH: I think that’s terribly religiously bigoted. I think that is up there with, like, saying about Jesse Jackson that he’s African-American in the course of commenting on him.

CH: Well, I don’t really see how he could keep that a secret, how one could…

HH: Well, it’s not a secret that he’s a Mormon. It’s just sort of a random attack on a guy’s faith. I don’t like Reid at all, but…

CH: No, I think less of him because of the stupid cult of which he’s a member. I would say the same if he was a Scientologist.

As another example of the strong feelings against Mormonism that some have, take Jacob Weisberg writing in Slate:

There are millions of religious Americans who would never vote for an atheist for president, because they believe that faith is necessary to lead the country. Others, myself included, would not, under most imaginable circumstances, vote for a fanatic or fundamentalist—a Hassidic Jew who regards Rabbi Menachem Schneerson as the Messiah, a Christian literalist who thinks that the Earth is less than 7,000 years old, or a Scientologist who thinks it is haunted by the souls of space aliens sent by the evil lord Xenu. Such views are disqualifying because they’re dogmatic, irrational, and absurd. By holding them, someone indicates a basic failure to think for himself or see the world as it is.

By the same token, I wouldn’t vote for someone who truly believed in the founding whoppers of Mormonism. The LDS church holds that Joseph Smith, directed by the angel Moroni, unearthed a book of golden plates buried in a hillside in Western New York in 1827. The plates were inscribed in “reformed” Egyptian hieroglyphics—a nonexistent version of the ancient language that had yet to be decoded. If you don’t know the story, it’s worth spending some time with Fawn Brodie’s wonderful biography No Man Knows My History. Smith was able to dictate his “translation” of the Book of Mormon first by looking through diamond-encrusted decoder glasses and then by burying his face in a hat with a brown rock at the bottom of it. He was an obvious con man. Romney has every right to believe in con men, but I want to know if he does, and if so, I don’t want him running the country.

The attitudes of Hitchens and Weisberg that Mormonism and scientology are beyond the pale of ‘respectable’ beliefs are apparently shared by many people and in the next post we will see how well they withstand close scrutiny.


  1. says

    Happy New Year Mano!
    As Richard Dawkins might say, this all seems to speak to selective atheism. Most religions include ideas that seem ludicrous to non-believers. Zeus impregnating Leda doesn’t sound any more or less zany than the conception of Christ unless the latter is what one believes.

    Given that Mr. Hitchens doesn’t seem to be partial to any of the religions I’m not sure how he can conclude that Mormonism and Scientology are particularly nuttier than some of the others. Are they inherently wackier or do they merely seem so in contrast to the majority view? I suspect it is the latter, in which case his view of “cult” must be relativist.

    Rather than judging a politician based on the religion with which he or she affiliates, I’d rather worry about policy and what impact if any that belief will have upon it.

    On a related note I had 1 Mormon, 1 former Mormon, 2 agnostic Jews (one of whom is a carpenter), and a former Anglican over for dinner on Dec. 24th and we all got along just fine. Having common ground in many other areas made such religious differences seem pretty trivial.

  2. says


    “Selective atheism” is a very apt term. I will use it more often.

    I totally agree with you that what is mor eimportant are the policies that people espuse, rather than what they say they believe.



  3. HiveRadical says

    My difficulty extends to those who will claim total atheism and/or agnosticism, like Jacob Weisberg seems to be, and ignore the ‘selective’ nature of their rejection of dogma. A dogma of anti-dogmatism, if you will.

    To, hopefully, better illucidate what I mean I will point out that any human mind has to, of necesity, create substantial swaths of foundational assumptions to apply any construct of logic or reason. Yes these constructs may shift, but they are omnipresent. Like blinders on the side of a horse a shifting of the head can alter what is being abstructed but, since something is always abstructed, the capacity to properly fathom or come to any ultimately usefull conclusions with our constructs and limited perceptions ALL humans are, at there core, condemned to subjectivity and the possibility of irrational and erroneous conclusions. I have a feeling that if Mr Weisberg’s whole set of assumptions about the world were made bare that not a few could be discerned to be erroneous by the minds of us mere mortals. What then is the effective difference between a chosen dogma and an inherent, unperceived one?

    Well the difference, as I see it, is that it’s more honest ultimately.

    But when it comes to effective application, and our interplay on the stage of humanity, irrational beliefs (be they known to the individual or not) tend to result in the same average outcome. Namely an ultimately subjective and irrational being in the mass of a collectively irrational humanity.

  4. Paul Jarc says

    What then is the effective difference between a chosen dogma and an inherent, unperceived one?

    Well the difference, as I see it, is that it’s more honest ultimately.

    I don’t think it’s a simple either/or proposition. I agree with you that discarding a known dogma does not guarantee freedom from unknown dogma. But conversely, holding to a known dogma also does not guarantee freedom from unknown dogma. I’d rather discard the known dogma, knowing that this leaves me with merely less, not none, and I’ll keep an eye out for whatever dogma may remain that I haven’t noticed yet.

  5. Greg Lowell says

    My personal opinion is that anybody can be president as long as they don’t let their religious beliefs, whatever they are, define their decisions. If we have a Mormon president, fine, just so long as the entire country doesn’t have to conform to Mormon beliefs. And I think Weisberg is a moron here. Try this on for size:

    By the same token, I wouldn’t vote for someone who truly believed in the founding whoppers of Christianity. The Christian church holds that Jesus, a man-god somehow born to a virgin in a barn, was publicly executed and then came back to life a few days later. Then he worked magic for a few weeks and floated up to a kingdom in the sky on a cloud. If you don’t know the story, there are some versions of it written by his followers (of course, they contradict each other sometimes). This kind of belief is irrational and absurd; it’s obviously a sham. People have every right to believe in sham “religions”, but I want to know if they do and if so, I don’t want them running the country.

    This can be done with any religious belief, not just the one I subscribe to. His argument doesn’t hold.

  6. HiveRadical says

    Paul Jarc,

    Why is dismissing something simply because it has a known status of “dogma” a correct stance? That seems absured. Because something can’t be known you reject it as a possibility or as a potential truth? I can’t prove my parents love me, just because my belief that they love me is a dogma doesn’t mean I reject it, or that holding it should disqualify me from being sufficiently suitable for public office. This is my issue with agnostic takes. How the hell do you know that you can’t know something???

    Dogma is inherent to the human condition, to pretend we can effectively distance ourselves from anyone who openly claims a dogma is inane. It simply defies logic.

  7. Anonymous says

    Mormons also believe some other really weird stuff. For instance, that following the Jesus story, after said ‘son of god’, result of something called ‘virgin’ birth and the like, that after said son of God has been crucified good old Jesus decides to take a trip to visit the long lost tribe in north america on his way to heaven!! Isn’t that a hoot.

    They also believe that there was this horrific battle between these two different cultures — the red men and the white men, or maybe they were some other color — and it also occured where J. Smith happened to live when he was a yung un, and the one civilization wiped out the other -- but there’s no archeological evidence of such a massive battle ever occuring — weird huh? Plus, there’s no remains of the one side, and no casualties on the other.

    They also baptise dead people.

    Really, the only difference between Scientology and Mormonism is, what, a hundred and twenty years or so? Or the Hail Bopp commet people for that matter…..

  8. Tony Fennell says

    You shoud check his stand on drinking which he voted to allow on sundays.I think that is buying on sundays… also abortion and even gay marriage. he does nto force anything, but gives people he has been elected by the right to choose.

    ok, in response to the last post. What’s so strange about Jesus taking a sec to talk to people who needed to be spoken to before departing the world. Oh, apparently he’s not allowed to say good bye to anyone. I runa business here is the usa… that’s like saying because I am headed for the Ukraine to live and have spoken with one group in northern cali tha you are going to call it crazy that I would go visit the group in southern cali (OR HELL FLORDIA) before I go home to Ukraine (OR HELL BLAST TO THE MOON IF I WAS GOING THERE?) Apparently Jesus is not allowed to make sure everyone is given instruction. So… hmm I suppose you would say being organized is a hoot?

    Also as for the battle. The lamanites were dark skinned and the nephites were white. DOn;t see how that is really important to being elected, but ok. Also, there are thousands of burial mounds in that area and mounds that actually were used as foundations for structure of massive civilization sizes. They used mainly wood as they moved quite often (AS DID THE SURVIVING NATIVE AMERICANS AND I AM CHERKOKEE) and as you know. Wood rots, but the foundations of earth stay. This is dated back to thsoe times and they are to perfectly leveled to be done naturally.

    Baptisms for the dead are not done with corpses. It is a beleif that there are certain deeds that must be done on earth and they are done in proxy by living people. If you think that is strange and cause for calling them kooks then you have just called Jesus christ a kook. What did he do on the cross for everyone. Died for our sins in proxy. Seems quite logicaly to me even if I am not mormon… I am LDS and there is a difference. Mormons are a clubish kinda group. LDS people follow the church while respecting everyone. I would put romney in our group by his choices.

    With that our of the way you need to also look at the fact that romeny has a history of saving busnesses going out of business. He pulled a profit on the olympics by cutting spending without cutting the show. He has created his own fortune and made fortunes for others. he is honest and considers all other’s views. He has done nothing worthy of rejection and may very well be the right person for our people due to the fact he forces nothing. He openly rejects abortion and gay marriage, but does not force his powers.

    I beleive he could balance the economy while giving us back our civil liberties that are being stomped on every day.

  9. Spencer/Jordan says

    What is the point of disliking a person for the religion that he believes in. It’s not like the goal of the president to convert the country. He simply has goals for the future, for our nation, and doesn’t plan to try and force a religious belief on America.

    Look at John F. Kennedy. He was catholic, and was looked down upon by society. But he won presidency and did many great things for America, up until he was assassinated of course.

  10. says

    I agree, there is a difference between a cult and a religion. I also agree that there are differing emotional ties to each of these words, but I would hope that people would not intertwine these two words. I think Mano’s use of examples in the post clearly helps establish a difference in the two words.

  11. says

    I can see how silly the Mormon story is to a person that does not believe in Jesus Christ. But, if you do believe in Christ it is no more unreasonable then say, Moses and the burning bush, where he spoke to god, or Noah and the ark. then Mormons main belief is that the organization that Jesus set up was perverted and changed 100-1800 years after his death. Kinda like the constitution has been changed in just 200+ years.

  12. Agha Ata says

    Any member of any cult, no matter how wise or stupid he maybe can become a president if elected by majority votes; let me repeat it . . . if elected by majority votes!(period)

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