A while ago, I introduced the notion into discussion forums populated by many evangelical Christians that the driving political theology of the American Founding, adhered to by certain "key Founders" -- leading lights, if you will -- was something halfway between Deism and orthodox Christianity. Some folks in these forums responded that such to them, sounded like a "cult." (Others simply wished to deny that what I reported was accurate.)
Indeed, certain evangelical-fundamentalist circles define "cult" by adherence to doctrines that are not "correct" as they understand what the Bible "really" means. In other words, if you are not "doctrinally correct," you risk the "cult" label.
But there has to be more than that, right? Arminians and Calvinists disagree with one another, sometimes call the other "heretics," but do they throw around the "cult" label in their accusations? (Not a rhetorical question, rather one I really don't know the answer to.)
It could be that orthodox Trinitarian doctrine -- something to which Arminians and Calvinists both adhere -- is the "safe ground" that avoids the cult label (but not necessarily the "heretic" label).
But I have heard evangelical-fundamentalist types term "Roman Catholicism" a cult. But Roman Catholicism adheres to orthodox Trinitarian doctrine! Protestant evangelical-fundamentalists disagree with one another here. Many, sensible in my opinion, evangelical-fundamentalists, though they may disagree with Roman Catholicism and indeed, fear its adherents are not really "saved," understand it's not proper to label such a "cult."
Why? In addition to endorsing orthodox Trinitarianism, Roman Catholicism also happens to be the largest Christian denomination in the world. And arguably the oldest. In other words, it's "normative," historic Christianity.
What then? In addition to being doctrinally incorrect -- especially on areas like the Trinity -- for a sect to be relatively new and relatively small, might help to establish its status as a "cult." This is why, in the above mentioned circles, Mormonism, Jehovah's Witnessism, among other creeds, qualify as "cults."
I still don't see why any of these criteria make "cult" status negative or wrong compared to the religious traditions that don't necessarily qualify for "cult" status.
Is it because of issues of "control"? All religions to some degree seek to control the behavior of their adherents. That's supposed to be a feature, not a bug. Fallen humans are by nature out of control and bound to cause trouble. "Religion" is something that is supposed to, for the sake of society and civilization -- at least according to George Washington in his Farewell Address -- keep them in line and make them into moral and productive citizens.
With that, see below a 35 year old video from CNN's "Crossfire" featuring one Roy Masters. The show terms Masters a "cult leader." On social media, Masters -- still alive at almost 90 -- frames it as a matter of the corrupt "media" smearing him. Masters is very conservative and integrates his political leanings into his theology. As such, the "media" establishment who tend towards the Left and have institutional biases against the Right, have not been kind to him.
After Masters posted this old video, many followers on his site made the expected comments on how the Left media establishment were characteristically smearing him then as they do today.
But they missed one important dynamic. CNN's "Crossfire" was a show that featured someone from the Left, and someone from the Right. The person on the Left who antagonized Masters was the late Tom Braden. I don't know much about him, and just learned that apparently he was the real life inspiration for the Dad from "Eight is Enough." The person on the Right was the late John Lofton, who was far more "conservative" than Masters, arguably to the Right of Attila the Hun. Lofton was a member of RJ Rushdoony's "Christian Reconstructionist" movement that sought to impose harsh Old Testament style punishments in today's civil society.
These "uber-orthodox" Protestant fundamentalist Christians like
Lofton, as such, had no problem terming Masters -- who is not
"doctrinally correct" according to fundamentalist Protestant standards
-- a "cult leader." Lofton wrote, ironically, for the Rev. Moon owned "Washington
Times" until he was fired for being too conservative for them.
Lofton said of Masters that he is “a false prophet and theological fraud.” I write of this because some of Mr. Masters' social media followers apparently thought these were two members of the Liberal media trying to smear him as a "cult leader."
They couldn't be more wrong, at least as it relates to the late Mr. Lofton.