That is the question raised this morning in the Wall Street Journal by Mitch Horowitz, When Does a Religion Become a Cult? It is an interesting question and one that in Western culture is somewhat uniquely American because of our free and open society when it comes to religious expression. That freedom has made possible all sorts of different denominations, movements, sects and cults. Horowitz describes what makes a religion into a cult in this paragraph:
Many academics and observers of cult phenomena, such as psychologist Philip G. Zimbardo of Stanford, agree on four criteria to define a cult. The first is behavior control, i.e., monitoring of where you go and what you do. The second is information control, such as discouraging members from reading criticism of the group. The third is thought control, placing sharp limits on doctrinal questioning. The fourth is emotional control—using humiliation or guilt. Yet at times these traits can also be detected within mainstream faiths. So I would add two more categories: financial control and extreme leadership.
A few paragraphs later, Horowitz adds: Yet every coercive religious group harbors one telltale trait: untoward secrecy. There some aspects of this in many religious groups but I can think of one that embodies all of these perfectly. No shocker, that religious group is mormonism. Let's look at the list one by one:
1) behavior control, i.e., monitoring of where you go and what you do.
Check. Mormonism is well known for keeping its members busy with activities. It is not so much that Mormonism controls where members go but it does keep them away from certain people (i.e. apostates) so they won't be infected. Add to that the various legalistic requirements of the "Word of Wisdom" and you get a perfect example of behavior control.
2) information control, such as discouraging members from reading criticism of the group.
Check. This is an obvious one. Mormons are strongly discouraged from reading anything written by critics and those who critique or question mormonism are demonized by mormon leaders (i.e. Sandra Tanner)
3) thought control, placing sharp limits on doctrinal questioning
Check. Another easy one. I remember vividly when we lived in Michigan the first time, I mentioned some doubts I had about the Book of Mormon. My wife called some friends because she was concerned and it didn't take long for some "brothers" to stop over to get me back in line. Questioning mormon doctrine or mormon leaders is a sure way to get yourself in trouble and eventually end up in someone's office.
4) emotional control—using humiliation or guilt
Check. Mormonism uses an ornate system of control to keep members in the fold. The standards imposed are high enough to cause a great deal of guilt among mormons for failing to be faithful enough in their calling, home teaching, Family Home Evening, tithing, temple attendance, food storage, etc. Women are especially impacted by this.
5) financial control
Check. If you want to be a god, you need to go to the temple. To go to the temple you need a recommend. To get a recommend you must prove your "worthiness" by submitting to a grilling by a couple of men and you can be sure you are going to be asked about your "tithing". Now no one knows where those tithes go or how they are used because of the veil of secrecy over the finances of the mormon church but you better give 10% regardless!
6) extreme leadership
Is Thomas Monson an extreme leader? Not really but church leaders like Joseph Smith and Brigham Young certainly were. They both were tyrants, lecherous and megalomaniacs. Modern leaders are more like really old corporate CEO's but the extreme hierarchy of mormonism is clear to anyone who bothers to look. Everybody reports to someone.
All six of these factors are bound together by extreme secrecy. Mormonism keeps lots of stuff, including embarrassing documents and their financial records, under tight control. When the pivotal religious experience, i.e. the temple ceremony, is forbidden to be spoken of outside of the building, you have the epitome of control and secrecy.
So based on what Mitch Horowitz listed, is mormonism a cult? Most certainly and the people who are still trapped in it are not only controlled by it but placed in spiritual peril. That is why those of us who have been saved out of mormonism have such an urgency and burden toward those still caught up in it. We are often asked "Why can't you just leave them alone?" My response is that I can no more leave mormons alone than I could walk by a person about to be crushed by a falling piano. Love compels us to speak, even when what we say is received with hostility or makes people upset.