Recent comments by prominent Baptist Pastor Robert Jeffress that Mitt Romney is a member of a cult (and not a true Christian like Rick Perry) at the Value Voters Summit generated a lot of controversy. It also prompted this piece in Slate Magazine which argues that bigotry against Mormonism is the prejudice of our age. That is, it is safe to be prejudiced against Mormons and most people don’t even recognize that they are, just as people from earlier times were slow to recognize their own racial bigotry.
I think that the article is right that what it describes as anti-Mormonism (which by the way has only a little in common with what most Mormons mean when they say that) is a safe prejudice to have (and that it ought not be so).
There are at least three different interesting angles here. The first is that it is the “liberal” media which is championing this cause. None of the clips you see on the news where some joker gets eviscerated in an interview for saying Mormons aren’t Christian or that the church is a cult have Bill O’Reilly or Sean Hannity or the like doing the heavy lifting. It is people like Anderson Cooper and Slate Magazine glaring down at their unconscious victim. Here is a video of Cooper turning Pastor Robert Jeffress into a pretzel.
The second is the tension between the Mormon cultural tendency to perceive persecution where it doesn’t exist (which comes from a past of authentic persecution and a cultural and theological overlay that says true believers should expect this) on the one hand and conservative politics on the other which tend to say that claims of racism, sexism and homophobia are overblown or exaggerated for political advantage. That people set themselves up as victims when they should rather seek to empower themselves. Two strong urges there with different sources competing for whether it feels right to a politically conservative Mormon to claim victim status.
The third is whether religious “bigotry” or “prejudice” belong in the same category as bigotry and prejudice against gender, race and sexual orientation (I include antisemitism under race). In other words, a religion is a set of ideas or ideals. I think most people, if they are honest, will admit that Scientology, for example, requires belief in such strange things that if they found out a person belonged to that faith they would draw at least some negative conclusions about them based on that. If a person were a Branch Davidian or a member of Heavens Gate, still more. Not because of religious bigotry, but because some ideas are so outlandish that they call a person’s judgment into question.
Sex, race and sexual orientation on the other hand are immutable characteristics of a person, not beliefs. It is intuitive to most of us now why you can’t judge a person based on these and why it is wrong to do so. But what about religion? Does slapping the label of “religion” on a set of ideas immunize them from being criticized like any other set of ideas such as political and philosophical ideas (both of which religion intersects with enormously)? If they do have a special status, why?
Last, the irony of a conservative evangelical leveling the charge of “culty-ness” at anyone else is delicious. The academic definition of cult* does have some overlap with almost every fundamentalist, restorationist or conservative Christian faith, and if it applies to anyone, it applies to the people leveling the charge. This does not make any of them cults, of course. But let’s be honest, when guys like Pastor Jeffress use the word “cult” it is not an academic definition they have in mind.
*Thanks to Jared Anderson for providing me this link.