An American cult is what happens when radical individualism meets religion and philosophy.
A cult becomes cut off from the mainstream of traditional religion and the global community of faith. It begins to converse only with self. This dangerous isolation is an important topic, as American religious communities such as the Episcopal Church drift in this direction. Mainstream global Christians do not delight in this drift as they recognize the temptations of the cult all too well from their own temptations to isolation.
Extreme stories litter the paper every day that show the consequences of isolation. Cults begin to delight in their edgy behaviors and to call what the rest of the world calls "wrong" something good.
Why is America a particular breeding ground for cults?
The root is in a misapplication of good American ideas.
Americans rightly rejoice in their heritage of legal and political equality, but the usefulness of an idea can have limits. Positive political ideas can be toxic when misapplied to other areas. Treating the ideas of individuals equally is excellent for society in the voting booth, but not so good in the laboratory or the parish.
Liberty is a very good thing, but so is excellence, and there is noteworthy tension between these two goods. American society mostly has done a good job allowing for moral excellence, virtue, while being cautious about imposing too much virtue on dissenters.
There is much to fear when culture gets the balance wrong. Liberty can always devolve into the merely libertine while excellence can become the tyranny of the experts. Humane society cannot survive either extreme for long.
Traditional Christianity asserts the importance of both liberty and excellence. Christianity asserts the essential freedom of human to choose his path. God Himself let Adam and Eve choose and face the consequences of that choice. Christianity also asserts that while human beings are created equally in the image of God, all human ideas are not equal. Some ideas are true and some are false.
No king, rich man, or mob can decide what is true, good, and beautiful.
A cult gets the proper tension wrong in two ways. First, in its relationship to the outside world it is radically autonomous, defying dialogue with the broader community in the name of what it claims to know. Second, internally it often demands a rigid suppression of thought and dissent in the name of community standards.
This is dangerous, because religion, like any field of knowledge, is powerful, complex, and fraught with peril for small communities. Cults have at least two characteristics that make them likely to go bad: they refuse to defend their beliefs using reason and they never or rarely change their minds based on external ideas.
All of us are tempted to talk only to a small group of like-minded folk, but, as recent revelations about left-of-center media lists reveal, such conversations become dull and predictable. Fringe members of the community begin to press the envelope and if the community is not careful then dangerous ideas can be "mainstreamed" in the small group.
Too little dissent can create a groupthink that slowly allows genuinely frightening ideas to gradually gain credence. The lazy tolerance for anti-Semitism that manifests itself in certain leftist web sites is one example of how otherwise sane groups can be hijacked by too much conformity.
Much of the "new" atheism presently suffers from the perils of this intellectual inbreeding. Of course, traditional Christians can give this warning, because they have bitter experience of these dangers.
There is another danger in talking about "cults" for more mainstream religious and non-religious people. We can misuse the term by applying it to any person with strong religious beliefs, especially if they are in the minority. If cults are in danger of close-mindedness, some Americans avoid this error by going to the opposite extreme. They associate any strongly held religious opinions with close-mindedness or cultic behavior.
This is a dangerous mistake that can cut off valuable conversations.
For example, while most reasonable Americans believe in God, it would wrong to say that all strong-minded atheists are in a secular cult. A few extreme secularists may fall into the "cult trap," as the founders of the American Atheist organization did, but their failure is not because they have unpopular views or express them forcefully.
Cult members are very opinionated, but that does not mean every religiously opinionated person is part of a cult. Thinking you are right is normal, having disdain for everyone who disagrees with you is cult-like. My own strong religious views have benefited by being tested by reading scholars who disagree with me, ranging from Pope Benedict XVI to Michael Ruse. Both the Pope and Ruse hold their views strongly, but reasonably, and are not isolated from a global conversation.
Overuse of the term "cult" in the public square sometimes substitutes for actual arguments with thoughtful dissenting groups. As a traditional Christian I have serious theological disagreements with my friends in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Mormons), but it is wrong to label them a cult.* Any quick search will show LDS are willing to defend their views using arguments accessible to non-LDS. These arguments have changed under pressure from counter-arguments from non-LDS scholars and improved. I am not persuaded, to say the least, by these arguments, but LDS willingness to produce careful and responsive scholarship is a nearly infallible sign that they are no cult.
America has long operated with hazy, but generally Christian, moral consensus. America has typically tried to provide maximum liberty to those who dissent in a way that is consistent with social order. For example, the government would not allow polygamous marriages, but would tolerate some types of religious dissent from forced government schooling.
Hopefully, if this consensus changes over time, the tension between religious liberty and social order will be maintained and continue to tip ever so slightly in favor of dissenting views. Today's cult, after all, might be tomorrow's received wisdom. The humility to recognize that this is true is also an important part of a good and reasonable society.
*The word "cult" has popular, technical philosophic and theological uses. Some technical theological uses of the word "cult" might apply to LDS, but I am speaking of the use of the term in newspapers like the Washington Post.
John Mark Reynolds is the founder and director of the Torrey Honors Institute, and Professor of Philosophy at Biola University. In 1996 he received his Ph.D. in Philosophy from the University of Rochester. John Mark Reynolds can be found blogging regularly at Scriptorium Daily.