Have you ever found yourself accused of being part of a cult because of your Mormon heritage? It’s not an uncommon accusation, and hearing it is a bonding experience for missionaries the world over. As I heard “You’re a cult!” throughout my life, I was bothered. It felt like such a tainted way to view well-meaning Latter-day Saints. It devalued Latter-day Saint efforts to reach out to all people regardless of religious belief. Recently, this knee-jerk reaction began to change as I read a work that gave me the perspective of those who hurled these insults.
In 1990 Arthur Deikman wrote a book called The Wrong Way Home: Uncovering the Patterns of Cult Behavior in American Society. Deikman (as a clinical professor of psychology) explores behaviors that are characteristic of cults and cult behavior.
He lists four major characteristics of cult behavior as he conducted his research:
- Compliance with a group
- Dependence on a leader
- Devaluing the outsider
- Avoiding dissent.
As I read more about these characteristics I realized two things. First, the Church is not a cult and takes efforts to avoid these behaviors. Second, despite the Church’s efforts to avoid cult behavior, there are some Latter-day Saints who are still raised in a cult-like environment. However, this environment isn’t created by the Church or its leaders, but most often by the individual’s parents and family. It is this cult-like behavior that occurs in families that gives validity (although illegitimate) to those who accuse the Church of being a cult.
Compliance with a Group
Deikman describes compliance with a group as an individual’s acceptance or banishment from a group based on their sensitivity to the group’s wishes and requirements. Parents who raise their children this way are often described as being manipulative. They unreasonably withhold love and enact capricious punishments on their children when they do not live the gospel the way they feel like it should be lived. This type of emotional banishment causes increased levels of anxiety which individuals associate with the Church. This often drives them away from Church involvement later in life.
While it is important for parents to raise their children with standards, rules, and consequences, cult-like parents try to impose their idea of a “good Mormon” on their child instead of allowing them to grow as their own unique individual. The message these parents send is often, “conform to me or be shunned by me.” On the other hand, Church leaders constantly encourage us to welcome and love those who might speak, look, or act differently than us. This certainly includes our own children.
Dependence on a Leader
Cult-like leaders seek to be seen as powerful and perfect as possible. They want to control the decisions of the members of the cult instead of allowing them to use their agency. Parents who act this way control all the decisions their children make: from their hobbies, to their friends, to their life plans and goals. They do this because they feel like they are creating the best gospel path for their children. The children struggle to make their own decisions and constantly depend on their parents to make their decisions for them. Yet, Church leaders are insistent that they will not make life decisions for members of the Church for things even as simple as what activities entail proper Sabbath observance. Additionally, they often are open about their personal weaknesses and the ways in which they need to rely on the grace of Jesus Christ.
Devaluing the Outsider
Deikman says that devaluing the outsider “takes the form of regarding one’s opponents as if they were a homogeneous group with only negative traits.” There are those who try to paint those who don’t belong to the Church as immoral hedonists with whom friendship and contact will corrupt and stain. These parents teach their children that “active” Mormons are the only good people in the world. Everyone else is an “other” who should be avoided whenever possible, especially in personal friendships. However, Elder Holland recently stated,
There is room for those who speak different languages, celebrate diverse cultures, and live in a host of locations. There is room for the single, for the married, for large families, and for the childless. There is room for those who once had questions regarding their faith and room for those who still do. There is room for those with differing sexual attractions.
The main way that cults try to avoid dissent is by oppressing it. This occurs through several methods, including limiting contact with outsiders, punishing those with different ideas, and censoring ideas that are seen as dangerous. Cult-like families exhibit this behavior by reacting in anger or extreme concern when ideas are presented that don’t align with their interpretation of the Gospel. These parents don’t talk to their children about controversial ideas but instead make them taboo to even bring up. Children raised in this environment often do not grow to understand why they have the standards they do. Instead, they revert to the explanation, “My parents told me so.” On the other hand, Church leaders encourage diversity of opinions, thoughts, and ideas. This is why they’ve stressed counseling in families.
Deikman points out that all people have some cult-like tendencies which are just a part of being human. However, it is when these characteristics cut people off from the outside world that it becomes a major problem. Many parents adopt these behaviors out of a sincere desire to protect their children. They are often ignorant of the consequences it will have on them in the long run. However, you have a personal responsibility to be aware of these behaviors in yourself and avoid the cult-like behaviors the natural man is prone to adopt. If you find you lean towards any of these tendencies, whether a parent or not, now is the time to change your outlook on what it means to be a devoted disciple.