Anthropologically speaking, the recent brouhaha over whether Mormonism is a "cult" is amusing, and it offers one of those teachable moments we all live for. Robert Jeffress, a pastor at the Dallas, Texas, First Baptist Church, referred to Mormonism as a "theological cult" in an interview with reporters at the Values Voter Summit on Friday, October 7. You can watch him defend his remark on Fox News here.
The whole thing is amusing because, in the US Folk Model, the word cult is to religion roughly what dialect is to language. A variety of religion (or language) is tagged as non-standard, perhaps a bit weird or undesirable, the property of some minority or other that isn't quite inside the pale.
The Merriam-Webster online dictionary has these as the first three definitions of cult (my emphasis added):
1: formal religious veneration: worship
2: a system of religious beliefs and ritual; also: its body of adherents
3: a religion regarded as unorthodox or spurious; also: its body of adherents
Note that the third definition, the one Pastor Jeffress presumably had in mind, is the negative one. The first two reflect the history of the term, which has the same root as culture (Latin cultus) and referred to the set of beliefs and behaviors associated with the worship or veneration of a god, saint, etc. These definitions are not what most people have in mind when they use the term cult, and I would argue that to reflect actual usage in US society Merriam-Webster have these in the wrong order.
At least some anthropologists, following Anthony F. C. Wallace, continue to use cult in this broader, neutral sense to refer to any system of beliefs and behaviors involving the supernatural in some way. Wallace identified four basic types of cults: individualistic; shamanistic; communal; ecclesiastical. Individualistic and shamanistic cults are most characteristic of small-scale societies whose subsistence is based on foraging or horticulture. In these cults there are no full-time religious practitioners and most of what needs to be known to manipulate the supernatural is available to all, though especially talented individuals (shamans) may be consulted. Ecclesiastical cults, typical of large-scale, stratified, state societies, have full-time practitioners who control access to the knowledge and also the performance of rituals. Historically, the bureaucracy associated with these cults was frequently intertwined with or even equivalent to the state bureaucracy. Communal cults appear as a bridge, but are most obvious in some pastoral societies such as the Maasai, where for example all males in an age-set undergo the ritual that transforms them from warriors to elders.
Religious cults conceived in this way form an implicational scale, so that for example people whose lives are centered on an ecclesiastical cult nevertheless also have beliefs and behaviors that reflect communal, shamanistic, and individualistic levels of organization.
So, anthropologists might use the word cult to describe Christianity as a whole, or at any level; the same with Islam, Judaism, or any other set of beliefs and behaviors. Haitian Vodoun is a cult, and so is Jeffress's Southern Baptist Convention. Everything is a cult, or nothing is a cult.
We can play the same game with the term dialect. Appalachian English is a dialect of American English, which is a dialect of English, which is a dialect of West Germanic, which is a dialect of Germanic, which is a dialect Indo-European, which is a dialect of Human Language.
It's dialects, and cults, all the way up and down.