Saturday, September 16, 2017

What's a Cult Anyway?

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.


Tom Van Dyke said...

Founding-era unitarianism started as theological fad, but by the time of the Unitarian Controversy of the early 1800s, and certainly by the time Theodore Parker and Ralph Waldo Emerson made their move to enshrine "freethinking" rather than scripture as its central tenet, unitarianism had definitely become a cult.

[It consistently bled members over the next 100 years, and was forced to mwerge with the similarly moribund Universalist Chuurch in 1961. Today the Unitarian Universalist Church bears little resemblance to Christianity--indeed, even believeing in God is optional!]

The same can be said of the Jehovah's Witnesses, and yes, Mormonism at least in its formal theology. [It is postulated by some that rank-and-file Mormons believe in more or less the same Christology as most Prostestants, and not Joseph Smith's rather extravagant scheme.]

As for Rushdoony and the Christian Reconstructionists, Reconstructionsists don't have a Christology distinct from most of Protestantism and I don't think they're organized or vital enough to qualify as a cult. Like unitarianism in its early days, it's rather a small constellation of similar theological musings than an organized "cult." [Among the Founders, none was particularly a theological ally of the others; they simply had separate doubts about the Trinity all on their own.]

As for Roy Masters, I'd say he's more a life-coach thing with religious overtones than the other way around. Was the YMCA a cult?

Art Deco said...

Chesterton once said, 'Journalism largely consists of saying 'Lord Jones died' to people who had no idea Lord Jones was even alive'. I've never heard of Roy Masters. (I'd never heard of David Barton until World insisted on publishing an exchange about about a book someone didn't publish). Religion News Service had a frequent tic of publishing pieces about some 'popular author and speaker' that no one not deep into the evangelical-book-store-parish-lecture-hall subculture would ever recognize. Phyllis Tickle was just who?

Lofton I vaguely remember as an opinion journalist most prominent ca. 1984 who had a reputation of being something of a just-defend-the-shores-and-deliver-the-mail-fireeater. I don't recall him being a specifically religious figure, just enraged when George Will said we should raise taxes to close the federal deficit. I thought he'd resurfaced 20 years later as a professional atheist pestering Ben Witherington and others, but I see that man's name is John Loftus.

Sometimes it seems like so much wheel-spinning.

Art Deco said...

I remember this chap now. He used to run infoadvertisements in magazines. I cannot remember the content, other then they listed him as a 'stress-management' maven and author of How Your Mind Can Keep You Well. Sounded at the time like something more along the lines of self-help / motivational speaker hoo-ha.