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On Faith: Some perspective about the Latter-day Saints

November 18, 2011|By Tom Thorkelson

A few years ago, my son-in-law enrolled for a master's degree at a renowned theological seminary.

Soon after, he was asked to meet with the admissions director. He was asked if he was a Mormon, to which he replied "yes." He was then informed that Mormons were not eligible for admission, and he was dis-enrolled. In that discussion the word "cult" was used pejoratively.

It came to mind again when The Rev. Robert Jeffress, an evangelical leader, recently endorsed Texas Gov. Rick Perry for the GOP presidential nomination over Mitt Romney, a Mormon.

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According to an article in the Los Angeles Times, Jeffress told reporters that he "agreed with the view of some evangelicals that Mormonism is a cult."

Bryan Fischer, of the American Family Assn., joined Jeffress in making this accusation.

Traditionally "cult" was an acceptable word, one which denoted a group or collection of people sharing the veneration of a particular person, place, practice or relic, religious or otherwise. A general definition of this kind can still be found in standard dictionaries.

More recently, the term has become somewhat distorted and popularized as a way of referring to some of the new religions from the 1970s onward that temporarily attracted large followings, especially among young people. Some of these new religions were violent, but most were not. They just seemed bizarre and frightening to the adults and clergy in conventional religions because of the devotion they elicited from new converts.

In an effort to distinguish them from the "real" religions familiar in our historical experience (such as Catholicism, Protestantism or Judaism), "cult" took on a new pejorative meaning. In time, it was bandied about as a way of referring to any relatively new or unconventional religion that was seen as objectionable to those with more traditional religious preferences.

In the meantime, events surrounding the People's Temple and the Waco/ATF affair gave the word a more ominous connotation — associating itself with psychological and sexual abuse, brainwashing, kidnapping and criminal activity. To refer today to someone's faith as a "cult" infers that someone of that faith is potentially dangerous, and the faith itself might be evil and perfidious.

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