December 14, 2015

The Four-Letter “C” Word

Many critics of the LDS church opine that it is a cult, or at least cult-like. I have not heretofore referred to the Church with these terms, perhaps because the thought of having been in that kind of organization is so repulsive. However, I gave it more thought after I ran across one definition of a cult in a text that was unrelated to the Church. After an informal evaluation, I thought it may be an interesting exercise to more formally evaluate the Church with these criteria on this blog. I will first give that definition, in its entire and original form, and then add my thoughts about whether and how the LDS church fits.

According to the widely recognized skeptic, Michael Shermer (Why People Believe Weird Things, 2002), a cult consists of the following core elements:
  • Veneration of the leader: Glorification of the leader to the point of virtual sainthood or divinity. 
  • Inerrancy of the leader: Belief that the leader cannot be wrong. 
  • Omniscience of the leader: Acceptance of the leader’s beliefs and pronouncements on all subjects, from the philosophical to the trivial. 
  • Persuasive techniques: Methods, from benign to coercive, used to recruit new followers and reinforce current beliefs.
  •  Hidden agendas: The true nature of the group’s beliefs and plans is obscured from or not fully disclosed to potential recruits and the general public. 
  • Deceit: Recruits and followers are not told everything they should know about the leader and the group’s inner circle, and particularly disconcerting flaws or potentially embarrassing events or circumstances are covered up. 
  • Financial and/or sexual exploitation: Recruits and followers are persuaded to invest money and other assets in the group, and the leader may develop sexual relations with one or more of the followers. 
  • Absolute truth: Belief that the leader and/or the group has discovered final knowledge on any number of subjects. 
  • Absolute morality: Belief that the leader and/or the group has developed a system of right and wrong thought and action applicable to members and nonmembers alike. Those who strictly follow the moral code become and remain members; those who do not are dismissed or punished.

I will now assess whether and how the LDS church fits this definition. However, before doing so, given the numerous changes to Church doctrines (example) and practices (example) since the time of its founding in the early 1800s, arguably for the specific purpose of making it more mainstream and less cult-like (e.g., Official Declaration 1), I think it only practical and fair to analyze the organization in its current form separately from Joseph Smith, Jr.’s original organization.

Veneration of the Leader: As Joseph Smith, Jr. founded the LDS church, let us begin with him. On the one hand, Smith was/is explicitly not prayed to or worshipped (source). Yet it is certainly difficult to argue that he was/is not perceived as an especially sacred person doctrinally (e.g., D&C 138:53-57). Indeed, considering the oft-repeated statement that he “has done more, save Jesus only, for the salvation of men in this world than any other man that ever lived in it…” (D&C 135:3), he is the de facto fourth member of the Godhead. In the LDS church, a testimony of Smith’s divine calling is as important as a testimony of Christ’s divinity. In practice as well, many members commonly have graven images and paintings (example) of Smith in their homes, just as beautiful and maintained as are their images of Christ. Several hymns literally “praise” Smith. If any doubt his virtual sainthood, simply read the lyrics to the popular LDS hymn, “Praise to the Man.” In every sense of the word, Smith was and is venerated by the membership.

Current Church presidents may be venerated to a lesser degree than was Smith, but I do not find it to be much less. Consider how many talks and Ensign articles plead with members to follow the prophet. The popular children’s song entitled Follow the Prophet, contains the lyrics, “Follow the prophet. Don’t go astray. Follow the prophet. He knows the way.” Even though the current leaders of the Church rarely speak of any personal revelations in the same tone as did Smith, it is official doctrine that the Church president is the only person on earth who has the authority to speak on God’s behalf (example). It is probably safe to say that the average LDS member believes that the current Church president is the most important person alive (at least the office is the most important office). Therefore, I argue that this element has been toned down in the current practices, but for all intents and purposes, it remains just as present as it was in Smith’s day.
Inerrancy of the Leader: Interestingly, there is seemingly contradictory evidence on this topic. Joseph Smith, Jr. admitted to having flaws, and even warned followers about expecting too much of him. He is often berated in his “revelations” (D&C 3, for example). But at the same time, these alleged revelations continually upheld that Smith was God’s servant, and although there were sometimes threats of removing his authority, Smith got away with whatever he wanted in reality. Regardless of what he said about himself, though, Smith’s followers have essentially stated that he was without error in his leadership of the Church. For example, Wilford Woodruff, president of the Church at the time, said, “I say to Israel, the Lord will never permit me or any other man who stands as President of this Church to lead you astray. It is not in the programme. It is not in the mind of God. If I were to attempt that, the Lord would remove me out of my place, and so He will any other man who attempts to lead the children of men astray from the oracles of God and from their duty” (Official Declaration - 1; Harold B. Lee said similar things in 1968).   
This statement, in essence, suggests that the leader, though human perhaps, is infallible at directing God’s work and, in turn, directing all people on earth. Indeed, even in the face of blatant error in judgment, the leaders are granted complete immunity. Consider the repulsive example of racist doctrines and treatment of persons of African descent—the LDS church has still never apologized for these. On the contrary, these errors are excused with statements such as, “limited understanding.” The Church never concedes and calls it what it is—complete and unbridled racism posing as revelation. 

Regarding more modern Church practices, in addition to the massive efforts aimed at public perception of the past leaders’ inerrancy, there is much evidence that it also applies to current leaders. Perhaps most telling is the requirement that members not associate with people who are critical of the leaders (among other things; source). To be worthy of entering LDS temples, members must deny associations with critics of the Church. At a minimum, then, it appears that much effort is exercised to preserve the perception of the leaders’ inerrancy.
Omniscience of the Leader: Because early Church members left behind everything they knew to join the LDS community, abandoning previous associations, trying out a new economic system, even giving up their political affiliations, and following Smith and other early leaders as mayors and even facing the prospect of making Smith the President of the United States, it is safe to say that early members viewed Smith as being correct in far more than just his interpretations of scripture. He was their leader in all things.

Modern leaders may be less involved in areas of members’ lives, but the foundation of this element remains. Because spiritual wellbeing is believed to be tied to virtually all other areas of life, there is little room for disagreement with a current church president on matters as diverse as diet, personal appearance (e.g., ear piercings), choice of media, associates, and so on.

Decades ago, leaders had stricter positions about topics such as family planning, gender roles, and so on. Although these latter positions have softened in more recent years with society’s views, it remains clearly held that members would do well to heed the Church leaders in all things.
Persuasive Techniques: Obviously, the missionary system for both the early and current Church fulfills the recruitment method element of a cult, not to mention the member missionary program and social media campaigns, as well as movies like Meet the Mormons. Naturally, this element does not a cult make per se, but it is certainly present within the Church.

Regarding reinforcement of current beliefs, the Church holds 3 hours of meetings on Sundays, in addition to firesides and other devotionals; Mondays are set aside for Family Home Evening, which includes reinforcement of Church doctrines; Members are taught that every day should include scripture study, guided of course by Church-publicized study aids and interpretations; High school students are almost required to attend seminary, where beliefs are reinforced each weekday; Home and visiting teachers must deliver a “spiritual message” to each family each month, and each member (above a certain age) must also make such visits to several families. Hours more of belief reinforcement may be added if one considers that members are encouraged to also attend the temple, do family history work, and constantly look for opportunities to share their beliefs. It is undeniable that there is a great emphasis in the Church on recruiting others and reinforcing beliefs.
Hidden Agendas: I argue that this was and is clearly present in both the early and modern Church. The phrase “milk before meat” encompasses this element. A social psychologist would call the same thing the “foot-in-the-door” phenomenon—if you can get someone to commit to something relatively minor, they are much more likely to commit to something bigger later. Following promises of spiritual cleansing and the personal guidance of a member of the Godhead, potential members commit to baptism, usually before having learned about all that will thereafter be required of them (e.g., the Word of Wisdom, tithing, volunteering in a calling, home or visiting teaching, temple attendance, etc.), and without exposure to the troubling doctrines and practices of the past, and sometimes present, Church (see this blog). They are later gently introduced to these subjects with assurances that faith and prayer will make everything alright in the end, and before they know it they are in temple ceremonies, dedicating their entire existence to furthering the Church’s agenda. A less cult-like approach would involve months or even years of education about Church doctrines before baptism, so that it is clear that the investigator understands the nature of the Church. Instead, it seems that a very basic understanding of the more popular doctrines is all that is necessary for baptism; the rest comes later. 
Furthermore, the secretive nature of the temple fulfills this cult-like element. Call it “sacred” rather than secret, but the practice is the same – investigators are sheltered from learning many vital agendas of the Church.

Deceit: Very much in line with the hidden agendas, even lifelong members are carefully kept away from information that might cast doubt on the Church’s divinity. In Joseph Smith, Jr.’s days especially, as he was quietly pressuring women into marrying him, but lying about it publicly and going to other extreme lengths to keep it secret (e.g., sham marriages; see Compton, 2001), deceit was an enormous part of the early Church. Smith even went so far as to destroy a printing press that might make his actions public. Only recently, as the internet has made it easier for the troubling flaws of the Church and its leaders to be made public, has the Church made attempts to address these issues. But even these attempts are largely superficial, without actually addressing the core concerns, and often they even contain inaccuracies to allow the deceit to carry on (example). In any case, the Church does not seem troubled that its members believe false things about the Church, as long as it keeps them faithful (more). Certainly, the LDS church meets this criterion of a cult, both in the past and the present.

Financial and/or Sexual Exploitation: The financial must be separated from the sexual here. Financially, tithing is the obvious application for the modern Church, although it arguably falls short of the severity of what I would consider a cult; All churches require some form of financial support from members. What I find bothersome about tithing in the LDS church is that consequences of not paying are severe to the point that an otherwise faithful and true believer is not in good standing with the Church without having paid an amount set forth by the Church. Considering “other assets,” such as the hours of time members are required to “volunteer” for callings, financial exploitation may be clearer. The LDS church does not typically pay for things that they can order (“call”) a member to do, such as cleaning Church buildings, babysitting children (“called to nursery service”), marketing (“missionary service”), and so on. It would be difficult to suggest that members do not invest a great deal of money, time, skill, and other talent in the service of the LDS church. Naturally, they would insist that they volunteer these things willingly, but all of these assets are given under the vague promise of “blessings,” for which there is no objective measure or proof. 

In Smith’s days, the financial exploitation of members was far more severe, especially during the failed Law of Consecration experiment (not to mention the banking fiasco). Members gave literally all they had to the Church, which then supposedly redistributed it in a manner it saw fit. Smith himself earned no income, but all of his property came from his followers. Thus, it is difficult to argue that this was not a form of financial exploitation.

Sexual exploitation is another matter entirely. I am aware of no such exploitation in the modern Church, at least certainly not sanctioned by the leaders or widespread in any way. Developing sexual relationships with leaders is no issue of which I am aware. Joseph Smith, Jr.’s leadership, on the other hand, was rife with obvious sexual exploitation. Not only did he take multiple wives, but many of them were very young, and many of them he took even though they were married already (Compton, 2001). That he consummated his marriages is supported by the historical records, and perhaps most damning is the fact that he kept these practices hidden for as long as he could. Despite attempts to explain this obvious sexual exploitation away, I am unable to find a reasonable purpose for these marriages (see the outline of my concerns). Clearly, sexual exploitation was apparent in the early Church. If I am wrong about this, please, someone explain to me how.

Absolute Truth: This element requires very little discussion, for this is precisely the Church’s claim. It, alone, holds the authority, knowledge, and inspiration that are necessary to pass this test that is earthly life. There are no substitutions (example of this position). It was so in the early Church, and remains so today. This cult-like element is indisputably present in the LDS organization.

Absolute Morality: Certainly related to the previous element, the Church leaders claim precisely to have the system for right and wrong that applies to all of humankind, without exception. Members who stray from this system (or even voice disagreement) are disciplined, including excommunication. They are, of course, invited to return, but only after they have adjusted their behavior and/or beliefs to again conform to the morality dictated by Church leaders. The Church undeniably purports to hold absolute moral authority. I know of no evidence to the contrary.

In conclusion, I argue that the early LDS church met all criteria for a cult. The modern Church has softened relative to many of the early practices, but these elements are still at the core of the organization. I, therefore, would describe the modern LDS organization as cult-like. Of course, simply because an organization is cult-like does not mean that it is necessarily a negative organization. On the contrary, the LDS church has done and continues to do much good. Even so, I argue that these cult-like elements are necessarily unhealthy for absolute truth. When transparency is the enemy, and illusion is needed so that people will remain loyal to a cause, that cause is not interested in truth. Such an organization is interested first in its own existence, and only secondarily to its other purported goals. Because the Church claims to be primarily interested in truth, but instead often works directly against truth for the aim of ensuring its survival, I argue that the good it does is overshadowed by the harm. There are far more healthy and appropriate ways to do good in the world than through pseudohistory, manipulation, and behavior compliance tactics with promises that cannot be kept.