Thursday, February 19, 2009

Will Mitt Romney be part of a cult in 2012?

We'll get to that question near the end, because it's more relevant than you might think, but can only be answered by a beginning.

If Republicans are going to be presented with two Mormon candidates in 2012, it's important that we resolve the question right now -- is Mormonism a cult?

Perhaps the best resource is Jeremy Gunn's academic piece "The Complexity of religion and the definition of 'religion' in international law." If you're into that sort of thing, knock yourself out. Academia is about establishing rigid conceptualizations that turn out to be porous rags in the end. That's not to say those conceptualizations are unworthy; it's only to say that we're always reduced to "I think; therefore, I am." So keep that in mind while reading.

But if there's any sort of consensus about what differs religion from a cult, there are two things. Time and cultural acceptance. And often, the two go hand-in-hand (which is precisely why the definitions of "religion" and "cult" are so porous).

At one point or another, all religions were cults. Christianity fulfilled even the broadest of definitions, and certainly, in its infancy, violated what the IRS defines as "religion" now.

On the other hand, Mormonism meets all of the IRS' requirements of recognition, while still retaining stigma. So is it a cult?

That's a tricky question because there are relative and even regional stigmas associated with Christianity. So how do you sort that out? You sort that out, because even with stigmas attached, a Hollywood director would call Christianity a religion. Time has stripped it of enough stigma in America; its existence has become so prevalent that even those wishing to discriminate acknowledge it as a religion.

Therefore, if one of the most common criteria for inclusion as a religion is relative cultural acceptance, Mormons face a higher climb toward religious acceptance. They simply haven't had the time to remove stigmas. And it's not because of doctrinal differences. The differences with Christianity are very real, but so differ the unitarians.

Now to come full circle. If time and cultural acceptance are broadly agreed barometers for religious definition, it's possible that both could work together to remove Mormonism's stigma as a cult.

And Mitt Romney may play a significant role.

As Republicans, specifically, and Americans, in general, become increasingly familiar with a Mormon who not only functions, but excels in both his personal and public relationships, stigma may be erased.

The question is: how quickly can it be erased, so that its stigma, if not entirely removed, is such that people won't choose to, for example, vote for someone based on that stigma?

It could be that Mitt Romney is able to do more to undo the notion of Mormonism as a cult than all the Mormon missionaries, towering temples, and sun-drenched commercials, combined. And he could do it very quickly.

He might even be able to pull off what couldn't be done for generations in one election cycle.

Time and stigma. Inexorably linked.

Evangelicals --especially Mike Huckabee -- are obviously concerned about this. You'll find evangelical after evangelical who defines Mormonism as a cult solely based on doctrinal differences. And they don't want those doctrinal differences blurred. Thus, they persist in perpetuating the notion of Mormonism as a cult, and not just a competing religion.

So then, while the doctrinal differences between the two are very real, there is one common feature they share: Both Christianity and Mormonism are religions.