As a former Mormon myself, I understand where she is coming from. When people call your church a cult, it rarely is a compliment. The term is highly pejorative in everyday language and few people who use it are educated about its various uses and meanings in theology, sociology and psychology. Rather than focusing on the pejorative usage, Harrison proposes to consider a question which, in my opinion, is important for Mormons to understand: why do people think Mormonism is a cult?
During my own exit process, I asked my CES director for his opinion (no, not in a lengthy letter). “Sure, according to some definitions, we are a cult. So what?” His answer took me by surprise and encouraged me to study the issue in more detail.
While there are plenty of people who merely use the term cult as a slur, there is also a considerable body of research into the sociological make-up of religious groups. While the many lists of psychological effects of cults circulating on the internet are qualitative generalizations, there are hundreds of thousands of real cult victims out there, each with their own individual story.
Harrison’s approach, therefore, is much needed and she does not shy away from addressing difficult issues. At the same time, though, she appears to lack in-depth knowledge of her subject and as a result, she cannot answer her own question: why do so many people think of Mormonism as a cult?
Let’s have a look at the ten criteria Harrison discusses.
1. A Charismatic Leader
Stated briefly, charismatic succession calls for the transfer of the founder’s charisma to his or her successor. In Joseph Smith’s case, this was achieved by revelation when his followers reported seeing Brigham Young literally transfigure into Joseph Smith during a crucial succession rally.
The routinization of charisma involves the incorporation of the (new) leader’s charisma into the organisation. In Mormonism, this is done by designating the top leaders as “prophets, seers and revelators” even though their responsibilities are primarily administrative. In the sociological sense, a convincing case could be made for the Mormon church meeting the criterion of charismatic leadership.
2. Denial of Essential Christian Teachings
When discussing Christianity, Harrison displays the typical Mormon distortion of it: if you read the Bible and believe in Jesus, you’re a Christian. She reduces the fact that Mormons reject almost all of the central Christian dogmas, and that Christians likewise reject almost all of the central Mormon doctrines, to "variations" of “a few beliefs”, or seeing things "slightly differently".
Let me drive this point home polemically with Harrison’s own example: to a Christian, having the Book of Mormon next to the Bible as "a more pure translation of Christ's word" is akin to having the Quran next to the Bible as "a more pure transmission of God's word". That is how far Mormonism is removed from mainstream Christianity.
That does not mean Mormons aren’t Christians – they are – but it does mean they are on the outer fringes of Christianity, and this is what makes them a cult in the theological sense.
3. Brainwashing/Systematic Programs of Indoctrinization
The author admits to the systematic indoctrination of Mormon youth. In fact, Harrison makes an excellent point: "We want authentic experiences in spirituality, not ones that are being manufactured or manipulated". Unfortunately, she does not seem to realise that manufacturing and manipulating spiritual experiences are at the heart of every Mormon teaching programme, including the missionary manual “Preach my Gospel”.
To be fair, the manual asks how missionaries can help others “recognise the spirit” while avoiding “being manipulative as you do so” but it doesn’t give an answer. Instead, it indicates that spiritual feelings should be verified against the sciptures and the teachings of the living prophets. In other words, if your feelings don’t match the doctrine, your feelings are probably wrong. Rinse and repeat. You can see where the term brainwashing comes from.
4. Psychological Abuse/Intimidation
The author also admits to psychological abuse and intimidation but she exempts the church as an institution from these practices. This is a fallacious distinction. Mormons and ex-Mormons alike often say “the church does this” or “the church doesn’t do that” but that is just a figure of speech. There is no “church” that does something. There are only church leaders and church members who do these things, as the author admits but then justifies as “positive peer pressure”.
5. Mass Suicide/Doomsday Expectations
Harrison dismisses doomsday expectations out of hand as a false impression that non-Mormons have of the Mormon emphasis on preparedness. In doing so, she totally negates the ubiquitous Mormon teaching that we live in the last days, the final dispensation before Jesus returns to earth to rule for a thousand years from the New Jerusalem in Jackson County, Missouri. Granted, Mormons today are uncomfortable talking about this, but flat-out denying it seems disingenuous.
6. Authoritarian Mind Control
Contrary to what Harrison seems to imply, non-Mormons don’t think Mormon church leaders are authoritarian simply because they hold semi-annual General Conferences. They think so because during these conferences, church leaders continuously reinforce exactly that which the author objects to: “that the prophet would never tell us to do the wrong thing or say that even if he does, God will bless us for being obedient”.
Add to this the numerous times church leaders, bestowed with the charismatic authority of their office, urge their followers to avoid critical information, to limit the expression of doubt, and to question science and secular thought in favour of revelation and faith, and the scales definitely tilt toward mind control.
7. Communal and Totalistic Organization
The author totally misses the point of this criterion. Nobody objects to Mormons creating a community. It is the closed nature of Mormon communities that make them cult-like, as the author correctly senses. But this has nothing to do with the communal nature of some cults, which is what this criterion refers to. Early Mormon history is fraught with communal experiments. Combined with the highly chiliastic nature of Mormonism, this has caused numerous clashes with their non-Mormon neighbours in Ohio, Missouri, Illinois, and nineteenth-century Utah.
Indeed, nineteenth-century Utah is an excellent case study of the totalitarian nature of Mormonism, with its claims to regulating both the spiritual and temporal affairs of its adherents. It was the separation of church and state, forced on the Mormons by the US government at the turn of the century, that suppressed this behaviour to its current levels. Yet the very fact that the author laments the cult-like characteristics present in modern Mormonism – exclusion, isolation, separation – indicates that the totalitarian tendencies of Mormonism are not extinct but continue to lie bubbling beneath the surface.
8. Aggressive Proselytizing
Why Harrison chooses to interpret “agressive” as “violent” in this context is unclear. Fact of the matter is that the Mormon missionary effort is disproportionately large, as explained in my answer to question 16 of Swiss journalist Hugo Stamm’s list of cult characteristics:
“The Center for the Global Study of Christianity calculated that ‘in 2010, Christians from all traditions sent out approximately 400,000 international missionaries’. This includes Mormon missionaries who, in 2010, numbered 52,225, or 13% of all Christian missionaries worldwide.”
“Considering that the official membership number of the Mormon church in 2010 constituted less than one percent of the total number of Christians in that year, the Mormon missionary effort appears excessive. It is 20 times larger than expected based on the official membership numbers and 70 times larger based on the actual, much lower, attendance rates.”
9. Social Humiliation and Punishment
Again, the author admits to these characteristics and displays a keen understanding of the mechanics of social humiliation and punishment. And to her credit, she does not justify it in any way.
10. Limitation of Information to Membership or Outright Deception
Harrison also admits to this characteristic while observing that changes have been made by the Mormon church (there’s that figure of speech again) in recent years. What is important to remember, though, is that these changes were not initiated by church leaders but once again forced on them by external developments, more specifically the increased availability of information through the internet.
The author thinks “the church has done a good job of publishing essays on troubling topics” but does not acknowledge that these essays are still highly misleading and meant to stop Mormons from seeking out independent information. Harrison feels that “he church needs to do a better job of making it clear that these essays are official and disseminating the information to the local leadership” but that is not the church’s intention at all.
As per a memo from church headquarters, “the purpose of the Gospel Topics section is to provide accurate and transparent information on Church history and doctrine within the framework of faith. When Church members have questions regarding Church history and doctrine, possibly arising when detractors spread misinformation and doubt, you may want to direct their attention to these resources”.
Whatever changes Harrison sees, it is clear that they are meant to control the information Mormons receive about their church, and to inocculate them against critical information that does not fit the framework of faith.
With the author admitting to four out of ten characteristics, it is not surprising that Harrison concludes that Mormonism is not a cult. On the other hand, considering that she misinterprets and misrepresents the other six, it is safe to say that Harrison’s assessment is still open to debate.