In the nineteenth sixties and seventies, an “anti-cult” movement emerged in America, assailing religious movements like Krishna Consciousness and the Children of God and Jim Jones’s Peoples Temple with the word “cult.” The anti-cult movement was secular, and as such attacked these movements in secular language: it popularized concepts like ‘brainwashing’ and ‘deprogramming,’ warned that such religious movements were not really religious but rather elaborate means of self-gratification erected by charismatic leaders who wanted to exploit the young, and generally made the word ‘cult’ a symbol of a dangerous, suspect, clannish, and authoritarian pseudo-religions.
Around the same time, the “counter-cult” movement arose around the charismatic Baptist minister Walter Martin, who in the 1960s founded the “Christian Research Institute” and published the runaway bestseller (as far as these things go) Kingdom of the Cults. Distinct from the anti-cult movement, the counter-cult advocates defined ‘cult’ in strictly theological ways. Martin argued that a cult was “a group of people gathered around a specific person’s interpretation of the Bible,” rather than, he assumed, what the Bible actually taught. “Cults have capitalized upon the failure of the Christan Church to understand their teachings,” he explained. “There is considerable truth, all of which, it might be added, is drawn from Biblical sources, but so diluted with human error as to be more deadly than complete falsehood.” [Kingdom of the Cults, 1965, 11, 17]. For Martin cults were more dangerous for theological reasons than for secular reasons – and, again, were not really religions at all, but parodies of true faith. Into the category he placed the Jehovah’s Witnesses, Christian Science, Spiritualism, and, of course, Mormonism. Doggedly, doggedly, Martin would comb the authoritative writings for each such movement and find ways in which it contradicted the plain and self-evident reading of the Bible (as, of course, it seemed to Martin himself, who just happened to be an evangelical Baptist minister, which, as far as he saw it, allowed him to read the Bible with clarity others lacked).
Of course, the lines between these two movements are more blurry than it might seem. “Cult” as it is commonly used today seems to be a conflation of the two definitions – a religion that makes one uncomfortable for theological, sociological, or cultural reasons. Martin could be generous toward the cults at times, affirming their sincerity, but also borrowed language from the anti-cult movement to warn of exploitation and totalitarianism. Likewise, anti-cultists found Martin’s many works useful to demonstrate that the new religious movements they assailed had no place in the community of ‘real’ religions and instead were heretical inventions that did not deserve the respect normally accorded in America to true belief. Each movement informed the other, and strategies of delegitimization swapped back and forth.
Following these efforts, many of these beleaguered “cults” have generated their own ministries which go toe-to-toe with the counter-cultists in their own language. The work of organizations like FARMS and FAIR and other Mormon apologetic groups try to demonstrate that the Bible verses Martin cites don’t mean that; they mean this, and so on. When Martin asks the question whether Mormons are Christian or a cult, he does so from the perspective of Christian unity, that the Bible teaches a single coherent faith; many Mormon apologists willingly enter that arena. But others take a slightly different tack. Many years ago the Mormon theologian and philosopher Truman Madsen published an article with the rather cheeky title “Are Christians Mormon?,” a title that the Mormon philosopher and theologian David Paulsen more recently adopted for an article of his own. Ostensibly these articles are designed to demonstrate that many Christians share (usually as folk belief) some of the same beliefs that Mormons hold as central to their theology: eternal families, an open canon, and so on. What is more interesting is a tack the two take which the patron of Mormon apologists, Hugh Nibley, more or less invented: they find parallels to Mormon belief existing on the fringes of Christianity since its beginning. That is, while Martin assumes a single coherent Mormon faith, these apologists argue the opposite: that Christianity has always been diverse and multiple, and that orthodoxy is more or less an invention, and that Mormon beliefs are as much a heritage of the early church as are the creeds.
In one sense this seems to aid the Mormon cause, as a rather unique version of Christianity to begin with. Certainly it seems more in line with contemporary academic scholarship on early Christianity. But it also will likely demand that Mormons think through their own doctrine of restoration more closely: if, after all, they believe that their own church is the image of the one in the New Testament, what might the rising vision of diverse Christianity mean for that?