I won't take time to build the case that Mormonism is far different from traditional Christianity. Others have done that sufficiently well. Check here, for one good summary. So I guess we could say, it's fairly straightforward to define "what is a Mormon". They have certain stated beliefs.
But the word that causes heartburn is "cult". It's a loaded term with lots of pejorative connotations. Is Mormonism a cult?
I think for most of us, we associate the term with some of the infamous cults, like Heaven's Gate, Jim Jones & co. Small groups of brainwashed followers with a manipulative leader. The cult leader abuses, even sexually abuses, his followers and cuts them off from family and the outside world. He becomes the center of worship, the sole arbiter of truth - and often the cultists claim to be the only "true believers" while all other religion is corrupt. Sometimes suicide or self destructive behavior ensues. David Koresh and the Branch Davidians. But that's the picture in our minds.
Certainly modern, mainstream Mormonism doesn't fit this picture. Honest Christians will note a distinction between the above paragraph and the "Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints". Most Mormons are fully integrated members of society, fairly sane, decent people just like the rest of us. They don't seclude themselves, and they are about to kill themselves and catch the next comet that passes by.
But not so fast. A careful study of Mormonism's origins, and of its founder, Joseph Smith, tells a different story. Smith's questionable character, polygamous lifestyle, dubious and conflicting accounts of his miraculous visions and experiences are just the beginning. Early Mormonism matched the cult-like connotations we've described far better than it does today. And honest Mormons should be willing to take a fair look at this history - from sources that don't simply parrot a white-washed party line.
So one might make the case, that while Mormonism began as a cult - under our working definition of such - it has grown into something -else. Isn't it now a full-fledged religious system?
While thinking about the always helpful "definition of terms", I came to the dictionary definition of the word "cult". You might be surprised to find several definitions, including:
1: formal religious veneration : worship
2: a system of religious beliefs and ritual; also : its body of adherents
3: a religion regarded as unorthodox or spurious; also : its body of adherents
By the dictionary definitions 1 and 2, even Christians would be considered a cult!
But it's definition #3 that may be most applicable. Here we could define any false-teaching religion. Here we have to get into the nitty-gritty of what is false and what is true. Here is where one's confession of faith and doctrinal assertions come to bear. Is Mormonism a cult? By definition #3, a right-teaching Christian would say, yes. But is this really helpful?
And the related question - "Are Mormons Christians?"... well, likewise, it depends on your definition of terms. Are they a religion that believes in Jesus? Yes. Do they follow his teachings? They think they do. And so they think of themselves as Christians. Traditional Christians would disagree, and point to the many ways Mormons get Jesus wrong. "You can't have the word Christian," we argue, "it's ours."
What I suggest is that neither of these arguments are fruitful in most public discourse. Many people don't know what a "cult" is or isn't. And which definition is in play? Even Christians can't always agree on what it means to be a Christian.
Do these arguments - whether they are a cult, and whether they are Christian - really help the discussion? Are these the real issues? Or do they amount to a form of name-calling that distract from the real issues?
I think the real issue is this: Mormonism, whatever you call it, is different. It is a distinctly different religion than traditional Christianity. And that's a good enough starting point for me.
Of course I think they get it wrong. As a confessional Lutheran, I believe I get it right. But maybe there are better ways for Christians to bring all this up in the public square - ways which don't needlessly offend with questionably applicable categories.
It's offensive enough to tell someone they are wrong these days, without calling him a cultist.