A pastor supporting Rick Perry calls Mormonism a “cult.” Is that untrue?

Well, what’s the difference between a “cult” and a “religion”? Not easy to say. Many people think they know the difference when they see it. Scientology and the Rev. Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Church are cults — aren’t they? And Judaism and Christianity are surely religions.

But in fact, early Christianity was considered just a cult by both Jews and Romans; Islam was long considered just a cult by medieval Christians; and, of course, many Protestant groups, from the Baptists to the Quakers, were considered cults by other Christians.

Moreover, if your definition of “cult” is a group with a charismatic and very odd leader who thinks he or she has direct access to the divine and spreads a theology that seems both heretical and confused to the established religions around it, then Christianity and Islam and Buddhism were certainly cults when they began — and no doubt the Jews were as well.

Here, I suggest, is the real difference between a cult and a religion: about 100 years. Once a cult is able to establish itself for several generations, we call it a “religion.” Before that, we dismiss it as a dangerous threat to real religion.

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