Cults, Religion, and the Presidency

October 12, 2011

Reverend Robert Jeffress notoriously claimed the other day that Mormonism is a cult. From the context of his remarks I don’t think he was using the term “cult” as a term of approbation. So is Mormonism a cult, and is Romney’s Mormon faith relevant to his qualifications to be president?

It seems to me that the term “cult” functions largely as a sociologically based insult. People typically use the term to denigrate and dismiss a religious belief they don’t like if they think the belief is unacceptable to a sufficiently large number of people. Labeling a religious belief a cult is a way of saying, “I and a lot of others think your religious beliefs are too different, too weird. They’re not like ours.” The reaction to Jeffress’s remarks suggests that he may have miscalculated the extent to which Mormonism is now considered a belief outside the mainstream.

But could one defend the proposition that objectively Mormonism is a cult? That it’s just too weird? Admittedly, its doctrines are bizarre and totally indefensible. Buying into Joseph Smith’s incredible tale of the golden tablets would seem to require the gullibility of a child. The problem with singling out Mormonism is that most (all?) religious doctrines are bizarre and totally indefensible. And they score equally high on the weirdness meter. Mormonism’s doctrines about sacred underwear and Jesus’ excursion to North America are no stranger than the Catholic doctrine that one eats the body and drinks the blood of Jesus during mass or the doctrines shared by all Christians that Jesus was simultaneously a god and a human and that he (or the human part of him) regained life after being dead for three days. Or the doctrine of the Jews that they are a chosen people, whose deal with Yahweh was sealed by foreskins. Or the doctrine … OK, you get the point. There’s no need to go through the various doctrines of religious faiths seriatim. They are all rationally unjustifiable.

However, we don’t ask our presidents or presidential candidates to try to justify their religious beliefs. There is an understanding that religious beliefs are a person’s own business, which explains why Romney took umbrage at the observations of Jeffress and why most political commentators have condemned Jeffress.

I don’t have a problem—generally—with this understanding. Under our Constitution, there is supposed to be a separation of church and state, and there is no religious test for public office. There is much prudential value to this policy. Moreover, for many presidential candidates, their religious beliefs don’t seem to have much influence on their policy choices—in fact, I don’t think most presidential candidates think much about their religious beliefs at all. Like many believers, they don’t question the religion in which they were raised, study religious texts, or ponder the truth of religious claims. They go through life making the requisite motions and mouthing whatever words they think others will find appropriate. Religious doctrine holds about as much interest for them as dishwater.

This is not to say that religious beliefs should be immune from examination, in or out of the political arena. It depends on whether they are put at issue. As I argued in a previous post, when a candidate justifies a particular position because of his/her beliefs, then these beliefs are fair game. Were Romney to argue that same-sex marriages should not be legally recognized because his Mormon faith tells him such unions are unacceptable, he has opened the door for critical examination of his beliefs, golden tablets and all. In such a circumstance, it’s not only permissible to question his beliefs, but it’s imperative we do so. However, until such time as he starts citing the Book of Mormon as the basis for his decisions, his absurd religion should not become an issue any more than Obama’s absurd religion is an issue.