To many Americans, Mormon theology seems an impenetrable stew of biblical literalism, weird relics and a supernaturalism so aggressive as to border on science fiction, stirred together by a parade of shady self-declared prophets, from the frontier polygamist Joseph Smith to the complacent, dark-suited elders who run the church today. "Plutocratic oligarchs," Harold Bloom labeled them: men (all men; women are barred from participation in the Mormon priesthood) either cynically manipulating the religion for personal gain or themselves taken in.
Does this confection make the religion a cult, as commentators as wide on the spectrum as the evangelical Baptist Robert Jeffress and the acerbic atheist Christopher Hitchens have speculated?
The question would be easy if the word "cult" had a serious and well-justified definition. But it doesn't. The term has fallen out of favor with academics, but originally referred to a new religious movement with beliefs unusual for whatever culture it found itself. Under this definition, academics might routinely discuss, say, the Quakers or the Mennonites as cult movements. But after the members of Jim Jones's Peoples' Temple committed mass suicide and Charles Manson's "family" engaged in mass murder in the 1960s and 1970s, the media and Americans more generally started to use the word to refer to religions that were not simply new, but threatening. No longer were "cults" harmless curiosities, like Christian Scientists or Rastafarians; instead, "cults" endangered the American way of life.
In the popular lexicon today, then, "cult" has come to be a pejorative, its definition political rather than sociological, designed to marginalize whatever religion it might be leveled at. It means, more or less, any religion that the speaker finds distasteful. But more, the things Americans choose to attack "cults" for generally reflect the Protestant bias that rests deep in American public life: fear of hierarchy, distrust of religious ritual and discomfort with seemingly odd doctrine. Not surprisingly, these are all concerns Americans who suspect that Mormons blindly follow their leaders, or credulously embrace strange doctrine, routinely express.
But they are also accusations that Roman Catholicism, some variants of Judaism and any other number of non-Protestant religions in America have faced over the past century. And it may be no surprise, then, that some fundamentalist American Protestants have in the past labeled both of these religions -- far more venerable than Mormonism -- cults. Catholics, so the accusations went, worshiped the Virgin Mary and turned over their moral compass to the pope. This is why many Americans feared electing John F. Kennedy president in 1960. Furthermore, Jews performed strange rituals and wore odd clothing. But today the number of Americans outside the fundamentalist community that would call Orthodox Jews or Roman Catholics cultists is surely tiny.
What makes Mormonism different from either of these faiths? A few hardy secular Americans would say nothing at all and claim that all religions are equally ludicrous: this, at least, gets the point. There are two primary differences between Mormonism and other faiths that have transcended the label of cult and gained full participation in American life: time and size.
The primal narratives of Jewish and Christian scripture have sunk deeply into Western culture, so deeply as to escape much sneering. The Bible gains respect as a work of literature from those who do not believe it. Atheists who reject tales of miracle or resurrection claim Jesus Christ as a moral inspiration. The respectable mantle of age has slowly settled upon Joan of Arc and Muhammad, and arguing too loudly at dinner parties that the archangel Michael did not in fact visit young Joan is likely to get you odd looks: it seems simply beside the point. On the other hand, the founding miracles of Mormonism are not even two centuries old. Joseph Smith is a figure of history, not myth, and upstate New York is altogether too mundane to be graced with angels. But the difference here is of degree, not kind: as sacred history Mormonism's past is hardly less credible than that of any other visionary religion. Give it another half-millennium, and Joseph Smith may well join the ranks of the respectable prophets.
But for the time being, the Mormons lack a particular advantage that Roman Catholics possessed as they struggled for acceptance in the middle of the 20th century: size. Today, Roman Catholics make up 25 percent of the American population, and fears of lockstep allegiance to the Pope faded as Americans came to realize that Catholics were no more a monolith than were Episcopalians or Methodists. Old tales that Catholic priests sought to keep their congregations from reading the Bible or offered sacrifices in pagan worship of the saints faded as the actual content of Catholic practice and theology simultaneously proved less vivid than the stories and more familiar in the routines of everyday life. But Mormons, as yet, make up only around 2 percent of the American population, and their distinctive practices and theology remain unfamiliar and therefore easily caricatured.
Neither of these obstacles to overcoming the word "cult" are easily surmounted. But the volume of attention Mormons are receiving now may well aid them as they try. John F. Kennedy's presidency assuaged many fears that he would seek to subvert the republic. Mitt Romney is hardly as gifted a communicator as Kennedy was, and in some ways his image exacerbates suspicions of Mormonism. But Mormons should nonetheless welcome their opportunity to present themselves to the nation: the spotlight is, after all, not going away.