Monday, October 08, 2007

But Is It a Cult?

"Although the authority and tradition of the Christian religion were decomposing in the New World's freedom, there was a counter-desire to escape from disorder and chaos," Fawn Brodie wrote in 1945. She was commenting on the yeasty, sometimes overwrought cultural atmosphere of early 19th-century America, which birthed two important homegrown religions, Mormonism and modern Unitarianism.

I got into a debate earlier today on the subject of Mitt Romney's candidacy, and invariably someone brought up the question of whether the LDS Church is a cult. Another poster suggested that Unitarianism is a cult.

The Mormons have two holy books. One is the Bible, the other is the Book of Mormon, purported to be an amplification and completion of the Bible.

It is, in fact, a crude hoax, badly written by an impoverished and highly imaginative New York farm boy in his early twenties, in 1829, in a mock-King James style. The phrase, "And it came to pass" occurs in this ridiculous volume more than 2,000 times. Mark Twain described it as "Chloroform in print."

The book asserts, among other preposterous claims, that Native Americans are descended from an immigrant party from among the lost tribes of Israel who journeyed to the New World. This nucleus actually spawned two groups -- good descendents who remained white, and bad descendents who turned dark. Later on the dark people, called "Lamanites," wiped out the white people.

If this isn't a cult, then I don't know what is.

Fawn M. Brodie didn't write the Book of Mormon, but she wrote the book on Mormons. An apostate who grew up in Utah and whose uncle was president of the LDS Church, her 1945 biography of the Mormon founder, Joseph Smith, launched a brilliant career in the History Department at UCLA. "No Man Knows My History" is also the book that inspired me to return to college and learn how to do historical research, in 1980 when I was 40.

Brodie went on to write numerous highly-regarded biographies, especially her life of Thomas Jefferson, which for the first time broadcast knowledge of his black descendents to a wide public.


Unlike the Mormons, still in awe of the work of their founder, Modern Unitarians have little knowledge of and less interest in their forebears such as William Ellery Channing and Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Unitarian-Universalists, those hyphenated nonbelievers, are hardly a cult, though what they are is hard to say. They claim they have no creed, and look baffled when someone reminds them that believing it's best not to have a creed is in itself a creed.

I'm a Unitarian. That means I believe that if there's a God, there's only one of her. But I don't go to the Unitarian-Universalist Church.

When I was a kid I did go, with my parents, to a Unitarian church. Nearly all the members, including my parents, were atheists, and a few were agnostic holdouts. For some reason these people wanted to spend their Sunday mornings sitting in a building that looks like a church and singing songs that sound like hymns and listening to a guy who looked and dressed like a protestant cleric deliver a humanist speech that sounded sort of like a sermon. Why they took comfort in this ritual I don't understand to this day.

My point is, that's not the behavior of cultists, but simply the behavior of people who are confused, and not very introspective.

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