Is That a "Cult?"

family praying

When I first moved to New Zealand to work with a Lutheran parish in Palmerston North, I came across some FAQs – frequently asked question – on the national church body’s website.

Along with the usual queries, I found one peculiar bullet point. It asked: are Lutherans a cult?

Granted, Lutherans can be strange people. With their penchant for sneaking carrots into Jell-O salads and an often-disconcerting fealty to European heritages, Lutherans are anything but normal.

But rarely, if ever, had I heard them called a “cult.”

Numerous communities and religious bodies have been labeled with the pejorative term over the years. From Jonestown to Aum Shinrikyo, the Manson Family to Raëlism, the Church of Scientology to Heaven’s Gate, the Branch Davidians to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and yes, Lutherans – all of these, at some point in time, have been labelled a “cult.”

Which is not a term you want used for your community.

Why? Because it immediately suggests things like brainwashing, mass suicide, and crazy-haired white dudes stockpiling women, weapons, and weed in the backwoods.

Therein lies the problem.

When we hear the term “cult” we already think we know everything there is to know about that group. They’re dangerous. They’re deviant. They don’t deserve to be called a “real” religion.

But if we take a moment to double-click on the term and expand on what it means from a social perspective, we might find that the word "cult" – or "religion" for that matter – doesn’t mean what we think it means.


In popular parlance, the word “cult” is used to mark certain social groups as irregular, predatory, abusive, irrational, dangerous, and outside the bounds of what we consider “real” religion.

These groups are often led by a charismatic personality, may have an “end times” (or apocalyptic/millennial) orientation, and live within a highly controlled environment or stringently codified moral system.

According to these characteristics, Jonestown, as Ori Tavor put it, could be considered the “quintessential cult.” It featured a charismatic leader in Jim Jones, who fit what James T. Richardson called the ,“myth of the omnipotent leader” and the tragic deaths of 918 followers by poison matched the, “myth of the passive, brainwashed follower.”

Although the term “cult” may seem an apt descriptor for communities like Jonestown, scholar Megan Goodwin pointed out how labeling a community a “cult” can be highly problematic.

Using “cult” to label religious or social groups we don’t like or consider “strange” often marks those communities as “legitimate targets of state surveillance and violence.”

A scholar who studies “new religious movements,” Catherine Wessinger, wrote about this process, which she calls “culting:”

“once the label ‘cult’ has been applied it tends to stick, and it can inhibit careful investigation of what is going on inside a religious group and its interactions with members of society; broadly speaking, it is assumed that people ‘know’ what goes on in a ‘cult.’”

This kind of discourse is not only detrimental to the group in question, but dehumanizes its members, who often see themselves as disciples or devotees, not “cult members.” This can even lead to direct harm to the very people we claim we want to protect or rescue (as in Waco, TX with the Branch Davidians).

Cult, sect, church?

In religious studies, the term “cult” was originally used to label certain religious rituals or practices of veneration based around a particular deity or power – for example, the “cult” of Zeus or Our Lady of Guadalupe.

Then, in the 20th-century, sociologists started to use it to label certain religious groups as “socially deviant.” The word was used to imply that it was only smaller, unorthodox religious groups that could cause harm or break the law. In this view, more socially accepted or culturally dominant religious communities got off scot-free, as if their leaders or members did not cause harm.

In this is a major clue to how the term “cult” became so popular – it served as a way for dominant groups, especially those feeling threatened by the emergence of new religious movements that undermined their authority or power, to shape narratives about such movements, invite state surveillance and sanction, and perhaps curtail or combat the movement’s acceptance by society and ability to attract new followers.

We have seen this play out with numerous emergent, disruptive religious movements over the years, including the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Santería, or yes, even Lutherans.

Around the turn of the 20th-century, sociologists started to use the term “cult” to refer to religious movements that were outside the mainstream. Some of them introduced religious organizational typologies — or classification systems.

One of the most enduring is that of Max Weber and  Ernst Tröltsch, called the “church-sect” typology.

The typology’s premise is that protest defines one end of the spectrum (denominations, sects, and cults) and the status quo, the other (churches).

A “church” or established religious community, has a low-tension relation with society. “Denominations” come into existence when a “church” loses their societal monopoly, inviting protest and pluralism that is more-or-less tolerated or respected. “Sects,” like denominations, protest or breakaway from an established “church,” but unlike denominations have not found full societal acceptance or integration. On the other end of the spectrum from “churches” are “cults”: new or alternative religious movements that have a high-tension relationship with society, often distancing themselves from it via initiation into strictly defined communities or communes.

Those communities considered a “cult,” like a sect, can develop into accepted and tolerated denominations. As supposed “cults” endure, they bureaucratize, institutionalize, outlive their charismatic founder, and develop many of the characteristics of denominations.

Some denominations in the U.S. were once considered “cults” – think Christian Science, the Nation of Islam, or the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

While super-steeped in Christianese (e.g., “church,” “denomination”) and over reliant on ideal types, the typology helps underline one central point: the term “cult” is used to describe an alternative religious movement by those who want to pigeonhole the movement in a negative way.

Don’t call it a cult?

All of this brings us back to the question that “What You Missed Without Religion Class” started with: what is this thing we call religion?

As with the term “religion,” we have to be careful in assuming we know what the word “cult” means.

In the end, its usage does not define a particular kind of community but creates a particular kind of narrative about them.

Specifically, the narrative that this new religious movement does not fit our social and cultural expectations of what a “real” religion should be and is therefore deemed deviant, dangerous, and not deserving of our careful or compassionate consideration.

In the study of religion, that should never be the case.

Further Reading:

•Tina Rodia, “Is it a cult, or new religious movement?” Penn Today.

•Megan Goodwin, “Bombing American religion to save it,” The Revealer.

•For more resources on understanding new religious movements, visit

9/3/2022 3:37:21 PM
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  • Ken Chitwood
    About Ken Chitwood
    Ken Chitwood is a religion nerd, writer and scholar of global Islam and American religion based in Germany. His work has appeared in Newsweek, Salon, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, The Chicago Tribune, Religion News Service, Christianity Today, and numerous other publications. He is the author of The Muslims of Latin America and the Caribbean. Follow Ken on Twitter @kchitwood.