|Rev. Robert Jeffress|
The Rev. Robert Jeffress, a Texas pastor, inserted himself earlier this year into the 2012 presidential campaign, by insisting front-runner Mitt Romney, a Mormon, was a member of a cult. Jeffress (left), a born-again Christian supporter of Texas Governor Rick Perry, also includes the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Church of Scientology on his cult list.
Naturally, his comment should have been ignored. After all, Jeffress was already on record for attacking Mormons during Perry’s winning gubernatorial campaign.
|Gov. Rick Perry|
However, since Perry (right) couldn’t run on his dubious record of achievements and was obligated to end his campaign after a half-hearted effort, he was more than happy to have followers attack opponents on other, less-consequential issues. What could be less important than someone’s religion in a country that espouses freedom of religion?
At least, Jeffress is on familiar ground. In this country, religion has always made a soft cushion to batter opposition with. Thomas Jefferson, this country's third president, was smacked for daring to say he had no interest in neighbor’s religion. Abraham Lincoln, who is considered one of our greatest presidents, was bludgeoned for his lack of interest in organized religion and rare attendance at church services.
In the 1880s, successful Democratic presidential candidate Grover Cleveland was charged with supporting Roman Catholics. His Republic counterpart rejected the claim raised by a New York minister, but “Rum, Romanism and Rebellion” entered the political lexicon.
Democratic candidate Alfred Smith was forced to defend his Roman Catholic faith in 1928 presidential campaign and lost to Herbert Hoover. Smith was probably relieved he wasn’t in office when the Depression began less than a year after Hoover took office.
Eventual winner John F. Kennedy bravely stood up to critics of his Roman Catholic faith in 1960 by speaking out forcefully on his desire to be president and having no intention of obeying the Vatican. His opponent, Richard Nixon, a Quaker, ignored the issue.
Of course, in 2008, both major party candidates had to separate themselves from controversial ministers to mute attacks on their beliefs.
Why would we expect anything different now?
Besides, Jeffress is correct. The Church of the Latter Day Saints is a Christian cult. In fact, so are the Jehovah Witnesses, Christian Scientists and many more. Jeffress just didn’t go far enough.
A cult is a small belief that breaks away from a more-established faith. As such, all religions start as cults. Christianity was a cult of Judaism; Judaism was a cult of pagan faiths; Buddhism was a cult of Hinduism.
Does that matter?
Of course not. A cult today may be tomorrow’s dominant belief. Just for example, Christians note with pride that Jesus had only a few followers at the beginning. That’s a cult. In fact, it was one of many mystery religions of that day – religions that had secret rituals (communion, for example) to allow followers to come into contact with the divine. Today, Christianity is the world’s largest religion. It’s not a cult anymore.
|L. Ron Hubbard|
Personally, as a religious historian, I would bet more money on the cult of Scientology enduring longer than Mormonism. Scientology, founded by author L. Ron Hubbard (right), has a radically different belief that allows it to separate itself from other religions. That’s one way cults attract followers.
Successful new religions that are offspring from existing faiths have to take a different approach. They have to break away from the established faith; they can’t mimic it. Mormon founder Joseph Smith saw himself as the new Jesus. Later followers, trying to become accepted by Christianity, downplayed that part of his theology and Jesus remain supreme. That’s not the primrose path other successful cults have followed.
For example, Buddha’s attempts to “purify” Hinduism ended up by eliminating all the gods. Buddhism is now the third largest faith in the world. Judaism rejected pagan faiths of its day by elevating one god to the supreme position in the pantheon and then, gradually, erasing all competitors. With that model, Judaism has hung around for more than 2,600 years.
That’s how successful cults evolve. If they don’t, they disappear not long after their founders die.
A cult that worshiped John the Baptist (left), for example, whimpered on only for a few hundred years after John was executed and was only recently revived. Other cults that followed would-be messiahs like Sabbatai Zevi and others are virtually forgotten except by people who study such things.
Cults live and die on their own. If they can’t attract enough followers, they will become footnotes in history. Otherwise, like Christianity itself, it will thrive and move beyond cult status.
Eventually, a former cult will be big enough to spawn ignorant fools like Jeffress.
Long-time religious historian Bill Lazarus regularly writes about religion and religious history. He also speaks at various religious organizations throughout Florida. You can reach him at www.williamplazarus.com. He is the author of the famed Unauthorized Biography of Nostradamus; The Last Testament of Simon Peter; The Gospel Truth: Where Did the Gospel Writers Get Their Information; Noel: The Lore and Tradition of Christmas Carols; and Dummies Guide to Comparative Religion. His books are available on Amazon.com, Kindle, bookstores and via various publishers. He can also be followed on Twitter.