Some demented "pastor" joker recently called Mormonism a cult, and given that the next president of the US could well be a Latter-day Saint, the outrage has been swift. Even some evangelicals - evangelicals - have been crying foul.
Now I wouldn't describe the LDS church as a cult. Nor the SDAs, JWs, or a hundred other sects that defy in some way the brain-dead conventions of orthodoxy. The sad truth is that I kinda admire some, in a jaundiced, skeptical, raising-of-an-eyebrow fashion. And, yep, the use of the word 'cult', especially when used as a theological club, is extremely poor form.
But I still use it to describe high demand religious movements that micromanage the lives of adherents, especially intellectually, and impose punitive measures on those who don't conform to the letter of their legislation. It becomes even more problematic when those in charge have no line of accountability, ruling by fear and authority, without the slightest mandate.
Okay, we could use the term "high demand religious movement" instead, but let's face it, it doesn't even begin to convey the malice against the human spirit - evil even - that these groups can perpetrate. No, the LDS church isn't like that now, and hasn't been that way for a very long time, but can you say that about the FLDS sect?
It just doesn't cut it to merely call groups like these 'New Religious Movements', as if they're just promoting a new Tupperware product.
I am a former member of a high demand NRM. Was it a cult? Or more to the point, did it deserve the opprobrium of being labelled as a 'cult'? It depended on when you asked; NRMs tend to be unstable entities, evolving rapidly. There were times it scored low on the cult continuum (the late 1970s for example), despite the impassioned shrieks of the cult busters like Salem Kirban and his ilk. There were others when the groups' dynamic turned from mildly toxic to downright lethal. People actually died because of church doctrine and discipline. Groups like these aren't about what people believe in their heads - doctrinal purity is an illusion. They're about control, and they're about the people who are manipulated by those who are supposed to 'serve' as leaders.
'Cult' therefore remains in my vocabulary, though I think voters should be more concerned about Mitt Romney's policies rather than his faith commitment..