The Mormon Canard

I often wonder what planet certain people come from. Such is the case with Dallas pastor Robert Jeffress. Jeffress made headlines recently by endorsing Rick Perry and calling Mitt Romney’s religion a “cult.”

Mitt Romney is no favorite of mine, having paved the way for Obamacare with his own state health care program. Nonetheless, he deserves to be defended from the lunatic fringe that seems to be crawling out from under a rock somewhere south of Oklahoma.

It is noteworthy that Jeffress’s church was founded by built up by the late W.A. Criswell, a vigorous opponent of electing John F. Kennedy in 1960 because he was Roman Catholic. Kennedy addressed the Catholicism issue directly and forthrightly and it became a dead issue, at least to people with a modicum of sense.

A first step might be for Perry to publicly disavow Jeffress, something that is not likely to happen. Perry embraces the religious right warmly, and bases at least some of his policy recommendations on scripture–for example, US support of Israel.*

All this smacks of a religious political party, an identity the GOP seems more and more comfortable with lately. Since Jeffress has raised the issue of cult behavior, let us ask ourselves just what a cult is and how it works.

Cults are groups of people who succeed in convincing others that their way is the only way, often in a religious sense. Their victims are sometimes, but not always, gullible and lonely. Adherence to the group’s norms and rules is enforced through ostracizing dissidents or outright torture in extreme cases. Those norms are often far from things a human being would do when not under duress.

One mark of the “only way” mentality is that its claims are in principle not falsifiable. For example, in the recent finding that neutrinos may have surpassed the speed of light, experimenters the world over are examining the data to see if there was an error or if Einstein’s Theory of Relativity needs adjusting. The important thing is not the particular answer, but the method employed to get there. We test and retest until we find the right one.

Cults are not concerned with these kinds of questions, at least in the context of their cultish activities. They adhere to such claims as “God speaks only to us” or “Ours is the only right religion.” Neither of these statements holds up under any kind of logical scrutiny. The voices I hear may be God, the dog snoring in the next room, or something else entirely, and no examination of any kind can give my set of “voices” a higher rank than yours.

At the individual level, believing in one’s superior connection to a deity may be kooky, but it is harmless. Wiser people who hear what they think is the Voice of God stay quiet about it. I am pretty sure that if any deity were to appear above my computer monitor right now and predict the winner of this year’s World Series, I would quietly lay my bets and never tell a soul.

At the group level, a different dynamic takes hold. People in groups who are all hearing the same voices tend to get stupid in a hurry. Unfortunately, they stay stupid too. Caring little for reason, the cult believer is possessed of a brain that has ceased to function properly. Add to that the comfort of identifying with thousands of other cult members, it is no wonder these groups are so popular and so harmful. Lazy brains and group identity make life easier and far more comfortable than genuinely questioning the most important elements of one’s life.

The GOP has an historical opportunity to become the party of reason, but I predict they’ll blow it. Candidates like Perry and Bachmann are hell-bent on flavoring their watery libertarianism with a dash of religious bigotry. Making Romney’s Mormonism an issue is damaging the credibility of a party that should be opening its tents to people of all faiths who just want to be left alone. If Perry and his Jeffress-like friends gain traction, the GOP may become the most dangerous cult of all.


*This is not to imply that we should or should not support Israel, but to opine that doing so because someone claims God wants it is bad foreign policy.

About Terry Noel

I am an Associate Professor of Management and Quantitative Methods at Illinois State University. My specialty is entrepreneurship.
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