What Makes Something a Cult?

It’s easy to watch a documentary like Keep Sweet and chalk the whole mess up to cults. If it’s cult territory, then we can’t imagine being caught up in it.

But what makes something cross the boundary into cult? I think the line between religion/political party/business/organization affiliation and cult is thinner than many of us realize.The FLDS religious doctrine and lifestyle do not appeal to me, but their lives pre-Warren Jeffs sound a great deal more like a religion vs a cult. Many of their worst problems and abuses came from blindly following a charismatic leader and gradually giving up self.

The documentary Keep Sweet follows the people in the town of Short Creek after Jeffs is imprisoned. The town is deeply divided and the faithful FLDS people are heartbroken and feel mistreated. I think the documentary does a good job of focusing on the aftermath of an abusive leader like Jeffs (who is still a prophet to many). It’s difficult not to feel angry when people refuse to see his abuse and believe he is a martyr, though. I can also see what it would mean for their lives if he’s a false leader, however. It would be devastating.

While watching, my heart sunk when faithful FLDS women kept saying “My truth” in reference to literal facts about Warren Jeffs’s crimes. Yes, we all have our own beliefs, but there is indisputable evidence showing how Jeffs abused young girls and jeopardized the community’s joint property and ownership of member homes. There is only one truth here. Their faith in him literally blinds them to these facts and, as a result, they won’t protect the most vulnerable in their community.

Following any leader is precarious. I think we all get caught up in charisma and the appeal of absolutes. It’s so much simpler to just follow a strict path with no grey areas or room for critical thinking. We all want to belong and be a part of something big and meaningful. None of us believes we could be caught up in a cult either.

If a person or organization wants to micromanage your life, separate you from family, insulate you from other teachings, or require you to cross personal moral boundaries in pursuit of faith or exhaltation or money, it’s cult territory.

When we are part of something we love, we should be able to critique it, improve it, question it, and think critically about it. This applies to businesses, religions, families, politics, and other orgs. If we can’t do these things without being shunned, if there’s alternative truths, if it can’t hold up to scrutiny, if questions lead to exhile, then we should take another look at who and what we’re committing to.

We all may not be as immune to cult or cult-like systems as we thought.

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2 Responses

  1. Katie Rich says:

    I haven’t watched Keep Sweet yet, and I have my eye on Under the Banner of Heaven coming out next year. I think it is easy for LDS people to look at the FLDS and think of them as separate and cultish, but that perpetuates harm and makes it harder for FLDS people to get help and resources for themselves and their children, both while active FLDS and if they leave. And a harsh, negative comparison can make it harder for LDS people to look at systemic problems in their own institution (we’re not cultish! Look at this other group!). Seeing the similarities in our systems and empathizing on a human level is so important in mitigating harm all around. “When we are part of something we love, we should be able to critique it, improve it, question it, and think critically about it.” YES.

  2. Sometimes I think we have a tendency to use the word, “Cult” when we mean, “unpopular religion” or “a religion I personally dislike.” Thanks for unpacking this.

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