If Scientology is a “cult,” then why is Mormonism a “religion”?

The age-old question of just how big a cult Scientology really is reared its ugly head this week when the Atlantic found itself in some hot water for publishing an advertorial (sponsored content) from the Scientologists.  But what’s interesting to me isn’t Scientology per se, it’s Mormonism – and the larger question of how we as a society decide whether one religion is real and the other fake.

Sponsored content is always a tricky question – in terms of how well you indicate that the content isn’t real news, but rather is an ad – I sense that the bigger problem people had with the ads was that they were paid for by the Church of Scientology, an organization many consider little more than a bullying cult.


Mormons via Shutterstock

But why do so many of us accept without question that Scientology is a cult, and no one other than Scientologists gets very upset about the appellation, but when discussing another relatively-new, pushy, and reportedly difficult-to-leave religion on the scene, Mormonism, suddenly the PC hairs on our neck stand on end, and we quickly distance ourselves from anyone who might suggest that the Church of Latter Day Saints is also a cult, or at the very least, not Christian?

When is a church a church, and when is a cult a cult?  And why do some of the same people who get so incensed when Mormons are disparaged have no problem when the target of our scorn and derision is Scientology?

Some on the left will say that every religion is a cult, and be done with it.  But whether or not that argument is valid, most Americans would reject it, I think.  While most Americans don’t consider Catholicism a cult (though the phrase “criminal conspiracy” does increasingly come to mind with regard to the Catholic’s ongoing, and not yet fully resolved, pedophilia scandal and cover-up), Southern Baptists consider Catholics akin to Satan worshippers.  So it’s not even completely cut and dry as to what end of the cult-religion spectrum even “traditional” religions fall.


Mormon via Shutterstock

And even amongst traditional religions, each faith considers the other somewhat of a phony.  Catholics consider their faith the one truth faith, as do Orthodox Christians (even if we don’t think Catholics are going to hell, we still think they’re involved in a slightly-off venture).  And no Christian religion thinks the Jews have it right.  And let’s not even get started on Islam.  So, clearly, we don’t have a problem judging the relative merits of religions, but only up to a point.  Folks on the left get upset when Republicans disparage Muslims.  But those some lefties probably have made a crack about Scientologists.  And while religious right Republicans are incessantly incensed about some new outrage against their faith, their strident views on freedom of religion fly out the window when the topic is Scientology, Islam, or for many, Mormonism.

When asked whether Mormons were Christians in 2011, three-fourths of American protestant pastors said “no.”  And the French government, like other European states, considers the Mormons a cult.  Though others, like Billy Graham, have suddenly changed their minds, and what was once the Mormon cult is now the Mormon church.

The religious right even has a history of trashing mainstream American religions that embrace gay rights, like reform Judaism, or the Quakers.  Religious right groups routinely dismiss the pro-gay views of those religions as irrelevant because, they claim, those religions aren’t “major” American religions (they claim, falsely), so their pro-gay vote doesn’t count.

So clearly we don’t have a hard and fast rule against knocking religion in this country.  So where do you draw the line, how do you draw the line, and how did Mormons fall on the barely-acceptable side of the line, while Scientologists are “clearly” a cult?  Do you really think we’d have had any kind of ethical debate over the propriety of knocking a Republican presidential candidate who was a Scientologist?  I doubt it.

Now, far be it for me to be making any attempt to exonerate Scientology.  Hardly.  I find the entire thing rather creepy.  I’m more interested in how Mormons have become increasingly exonerated for their once-“heresy,” and why the contradiction between the treatment of their “religion” and the treatment of Scientology’s?

If anti-Mormonism is truly the “prejudice of our age” (I always get a kick out of it when virulent bigots suddenly discover the evils of prejudice), then why isn’t it just as discriminatory to be anti-Scientology?

Follow me on Twitter: @aravosis | @americablog | @americabloggay | Facebook | Instagram | Google+ | LinkedIn. John Aravosis is the Executive Editor of AMERICAblog, which he founded in 2004. He has a joint law degree (JD) and masters in Foreign Service from Georgetown; and has worked in the US Senate, World Bank, Children's Defense Fund, the United Nations Development Programme, and as a stringer for the Economist. He is a frequent TV pundit, having appeared on the O'Reilly Factor, Hardball, World News Tonight, Nightline, AM Joy & Reliable Sources, among others. John lives in Washington, DC. .

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