Christian Cult Confusion: examining the Robert Jeffress accusation that Mormonism is a cult
Joe Szimhart October 10, 2011
Cult and occult are two words that regularly turn up in my work with controversial leaders and groups and their effects on individuals.
Currently in the political news, Baptist preacher Robert Jeffress, who endorsed Gov. Rick Perry for president, said that Mormonism is a cult and not Christian regarding the religion of another presidential candidate Mitt Romney, a Latter Day Saint. Jeffress later defended and clarified his use of cult saying he was not using the “c” word in its sociological sense but in a theological one. In other words, Mormonism is a “theological cult.” In my work as a cult exit counselor I favor the sociological definition and find the theological one used by Jeffress to be both narrow and flawed. The sociological definition merely indicates cult as devotion directed to a person, idea, or object; also a magical healing process. But what does Jeffress really mean?
The implication is that anyone not in the framework of mainstream Reformation Christianity risks losing their salvation because of heretical or false interpretations of the Gospel tradition. This has nothing to do with civil or moral behavior. Moreover, it has everything to do with faith in a specific construct formed out of a reactionary Biblical exegesis, especially in the last century. Following that construct, most Evangelical, Baptist and “Bible Belt” Christians in local churches follow the Jeffress definition of cult. Roman Catholicism easily falls into that “theological” category of a cult along with Mayahana Buddhism, for example. Now Jeffress is careful to state, with a smile on Fox News, that only God knows who will be saved among Mormons, Catholics and non-Christians. Well, we can all be relieved that Jeffress is not playing God with our salvations, at least not in public.
This rubric of cult in Fundamentalist theology received a mid-century boost from The Rise of the Cults (1955) and Kingdom of the Cults (1965) by Walter Martin (1928-89). Martin stopped short of calling Roman Catholicism a cult much to the dismay of some of his colleagues. He did however place Mormonism and Seventh Day Adventism firmly under that rubric. His influential books underscored the concept of a theological cult as opposed to mainstream Christianity.
Jeffress preaches within a relatively new form of populist Christianity that not only found itself in an academic pickle jar with advances in science (significantly with Darwin and evolutionism) but also in an identity crisis with the appearance of scientific approaches to scripture and higher criticism in theology. In short, fundamentalism in Christianity and other world religions found an enemy in Modernism. Modernism to the Fundamentalist mind is related to liberalism in art, theology, science and politics. A popular anti-liberal view somehow got mixed up with anti-communism, anti-drugs, and anti anything remotely “progressive” including forms of socialism. The liberal umbrella label came to include big government as well as individual expression regarding sexual orientation or smoking cannabis, Harvard, the New York Times, Hollywood, and any number of disparate things not strictly in line with a right wing agenda. Thus by extension, liberal has become a dirty, seven-letter word among many right-wing pundits like Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter.
This reactionary Christian social movement reached an apex in the 1920s and 1930s during sensational events like the Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925. This cartoon from 1922 depicts Modernism as a descent into Atheism:
For historical and social reasons that I will not go into here, the Party of Lincoln or the GOP has inherited the winds of Fundamentalism among its party planks. But there is more to this than a mere religious conditioning of the Republican Party. The right wing in politics struggles to conserve what it perceives as moral, established, and Constitutional. Thus we often find a weird mix of religious fundamentalists, fiscal conservatives and strict constitutionalists flocking to the right, however, not all Republicans are happy with this.
The following is from an October 22, 2001 issue of The New American, a right-wing magazine published corporately under the John Birch Society regarding the United Nations:
“The UN and the Occult”
“The UN's "Meditation Room" (left) is a sort of New Age monument to the many UN-affiliated New Age and occultic groups like the Lucis Trust and the UN's Society for Enlightenment and Transformation. Stained glass near the entrance to the Meditation Room displays pagan symbolism like the god Pan (right). To those unfamiliar with the UN, such symbolism may seem out of place. But the UN sees religion and mysticism as integral to its plans. Building "a new world order requires a sense of moral obligation.... We need a spiritual catalyst to bring about change," said Samuel Insanally, a former president of the UN General Assembly.
Former UN Assistant Secretary-General Robert Muller believes that the UN represents the "body of Christ" and that "divine or cosmic government" is the real goal of the United Nations. "If Christ came back to earth," enthused Muller, "his first visit would be to the United Nations to see if his dream of human oneness and brotherhood had come true." One wonders what Christ would have to say about the UN's support of Communists and mass murderers generally, its contempt for traditional Christian morality, and its substitution of the Almighty State for limited sovereign republican government under God.”
COPYRIGHT 2001 American Opinion Publishing, Inc.
COPYRIGHT 2008 Gale, Cengage Learning
Calling the UN “Meditation Room” a harbor of the “occult” may be somewhat accurate but when a Christian Fundamentalist or a Bircher labels something as “occult” it means something entirely different than the dictionary definition.
Occult simply means hidden, but my Heritage defines it as: of or relating to supernatural influences, agencies, or phenomena. Christianity claims to be open and revealed, even “shouted from the rooftops,” and a light not hidden under a basket. For this reason traditional Christians have eschewed any secret or hidden teaching that only the elite few can grasp with gnosis and initiation. Fair enough. But to the Fundamentalist, occult means evil, sneaky, demonic, and anti-Christ. Here again, as with cult, a narrow theological definition rules over a sociological one. Of course, any sect in Christianity has a right to define terms within its milieu, but this has social implications outside the milieu as well.
In the article above, the writer mentions Lucis Trust which is an incorporated form of Theosophy initiated by psychic channel Alice A. Bailey (died 1949). Bailey channeled around twenty books of dictation by a “master” called The Tibetan, a.k.a. Djual Khul (an imaginary entity) also claimed by the Theosophical Society as one of the Mahatmas (or imaginary beings to outsiders) that inspired Madame Helena P. Blavatsky (1831-1891). The outrageous psychic Blavatsky was infamous for not only railing against Darwinism but also for stringing all major religious, occult, and philosophical ideas like so many beads or “pearls” into one source called Ancient Wisdom (Perennial Philosophy to some) in her tome The Secret Doctrine. If that were not bad enough, Christians were most incensed by Blavatsky’s bold if unoriginal Gnostic revelation that the serpent in the Garden of Eden was actually the real Christ that freed human kind from the despotism of a false creator god, the God of the Jews. In other words, Bailey's Lucis Trust reflects a "Luciferian" god to Christian fundamentalists. Bailey’s work influenced a host of supporters of the UN including Eleanor Roosevelt who once read “The Great Invocation,” a prayer to the Light composed by Bailey.
Christians aligned with radical political and religious conservatives tend to have a paranoid style when it comes to the occult. Alice Bailey’s influence coupled with Freemasonry (Foster Bailey, her second husband, was a Freemason) drives many fundamentalist Christians nuts with certainty that a New Age with a One World Government led by the Anti-Christ actually is in the works. The entire conspiracy is outlined in something Bailey called “The Plan” which Fundamentalists believe is demon driven.
I find all this heavy breathing by New Agers on one side and Fundamentalist Christians on the other as almost comical. Fundamentalists are just as occultic as New Agers. The occult pervades every Christian church I have ever observed from within, including my own Catholic tradition. Prayer to an occulted deity that one cannot see, hear, or touch is an occult activity notwithstanding all the claims to feeling or discerning the Spirit of God. The scriptures used by Christians vibrate with occult notions from the Ark of the Covenant to Jesus casting demons into swine to his resurrection and ascension and to Apostles casting out demons and healing through prayer.
There were hidden meanings within all those Gospel stories that even the purported witnesses did not immediately grasp. It took centuries of mulling these things over by the greatest minds in the proto-orthodox church to finally clarify a statement of belief and to define a Bible. The Apostle Paul him self wrote that for now “we see through a glass darkly” meaning divine things are occulted even to Paul, the greatest evangelist in the primitive church. To outsiders many Christian beliefs seem bizarre and totally occultist: for example, the virgin birth and the angel Gabriel talking to Mary. The Christian needs faith as much as the New Ager to sustain devotion to these hidden things. So please, do not equate occult with evil.
The bottom line for me is that the entities celebrated by Theosophists as "Mahatmas" and the angel Moroni that Joseph Smith claimed to meet, are better explained as either delusions or sacred experiences that cannot be proven as real in any way. It is disingenuous for a Christian to dismiss Moroni and Djual Khul if that Christian does not place Gabriel in the same occult category. The question about the quality and fruits of these apparitions is another question altogether that I will not go into here. My point is that the occult label is morally and theologically neutral and should not be used as a value judgement for sanctity or authenticity.
Cults pervade all Christian churches. Catholics have the cult of the Eucharist and the sacraments and the cults of Mary and the saints that distinguishes them from most Protestants that feature the cult of the book or scripture as “inerrant,” the cult of prayer (often with raised hands in a magical trance), the cult of the preacher, and a cult of adult baptism. Cult cannot be equated with evil, false, or demonic if a Christian would avoid the finger pointing back at him or her. All religions form around some sort of cult if only the cult of personality surrounding their founder or devotion to a mysterious foundation myth like a virgin birth "fathered" by the deity.
The issue here then is not about cult but about honesty and accuracy. Jeffress should have said "unorthodox" regarding Mormonism if he wanted to talk about theology--cult has nothing to do with theology. Jeffress should have said what he believes: that Romney is being deceived by his Mormon faith, that Romney does not know Jesus as the Gospel teaches, and that Romney is in danger of going to hell because of it. If he is the average Fundamentalist, he should also have said that the occult forces that guide Mormonism will drive the United States closer into the arms of the Ant-Christ no less than Alice Bailey’s Great Invocation brings the devil closer into the United Nations. At least then we would have a clearer idea of just how paranoid preacher Jeffress really is and if he really believes that he can identify actual demons.
No, we do not need mere certainty in faith from preachers and gurus. We do not need someone’s idiosyncratic idea of Jesus running our government. The living God is not any one person’s idea. We need to rationally examine specific behaviors, ideas, and statements to determine whether someone will succeed or be harmful as a president. If we wish to sustain a just polity, to promote creative solutions, and to remedy harms we need real life, applicable principles that address real life here on earth on the ground and not emphasize magical faith or dictatorships from the gods and our bibles. We need to use the gifts that God gave us (or those gifts we have if not from a deity) to the best of our abilities.