Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Religion: What is a cult?

There are a number of definitions offered at Merriam-Webster Dictionary online.

In recent news, a pastor was criticized for calling Mormonism a cult.

Cult in typical American English usage is definition number 5 in MW:
great devotion to a person, idea, object, movement or work (as a film or book)

For example, the film Blade Runner is considered a cult classic.  In this case, there are fans of the film who really like the film a lot and will buy the "director's cut" of the film and have collector's items associated with the movie and know many details about the film and the making of the film.

Certain musical bands garner a cult following.

Some libertarians would be described as very devoted to the writings of Ayn Rand and that devotion seems cultic to non-devotees.

In these contexts, the term cult is somewhat descriptive and depending on tone of voice may or may not be a disparaging.

Cult in a religious context tends to be disparaging as it usually describes a religious group where usually one leader (or small number) has a charismatic hold over his/her followers and the peer pressure of the group makes it hard for anyone to leave the group.

However, there is a descriptive definition of cult as described by definition number 3 in MW:
a religion regarded as unorthodox or spurious 

There are groups within the major world religions.

For example, in Judaism, there are orthodox, conservative and reform congregations.  The three groups are not identical but they share much in common.

In Christianity, there are Catholic, Orthodox and various Protestant denominations.  Thus, on many (most) doctrinal matters there would be agreement.  Yet, there would be some areas of distinctive.

And so within a given religion, there can be and are groups that hold beliefs that would be considered unorthodox or spurious to the vast majority of the adherents of the orthodox/historical form of that given religion.

This would be the case with Mormonism which is also known as the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-Day Saints (LDS).  Mormons use much the same language of traditional Christianity.  However, they call themselves the Latter-Day Saints because they believe that the historic forms of Christianity lost the true message which the LDS believes they have recovered.

Objectively speaking there are three possibilities:  the Mormon claims are correct, the Mormon claims are incorrect or both the Mormon and traditional Christian claims are incorrect.

However, as a matter of intellectually honesty, regardless of the correctness of the claims of either group, is there significant divergence in beliefs between the LDS church and the historic Christian church?

A Catholic priest, Protestant minister and Mormon elder go to have breakfast at a local diner and write down the beliefs of their churches on paper.  What would happen?

The lists would not be identical. 

The Catholic list would have more similarities to the Protestant list than to the Mormon list.

Thus, under MW definition #3, Mormonism is a cult.

However, given that much of the American public has in their minds that cult is definition #5, it is not useful to call Mormonism a cult.

A more precise way to describe the LDS church would be, a religious group that holds some aspects of Christian doctrine yet differs with historic Christan beliefs in a number of key areas.

I heard one Protestant pastor describe his relationship with Mormon friends this way, we have significant theological differences but we work together on issues that matter to our communities and our country.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Politics: Herman Cain's 9-9-9 Plan?

Am not an economist.  Have not read in any detail the 9-9-9 plan promoted by candidate Herman Cain.  Just have my gut reaction to the idea.

My 59 second understanding of the plan is that the Federal Government tax system would be overhauled and replaced with 9% corporate income tax, 9% personal income tax and 9% sales tax.

The virtue of the plan is simplicity.  As it is now, the tax code is loaded with deductions and credits and other adjustments that distort economic behavior.

In an ideal world, a tax system should accomplish two things:
(1) raise sufficient revenue to fund government services
(2) be simple so that there is reduced incentive to outright cheat (illegal) on taxes, engage in activity (legal) to shelter money from taxation and keeps compliance costs down.

"Fairness" of a tax system is a highly subjective criteria in comparison to the other two criteria.

Examples of "fairness" questions would be:
At what income level should someone begin to pay personal income taxes?
If someone makes more income, how much more should they pay?

Ironically, the desire to make the rich pay their "fair share," can cause problems which even LA Times lefty commentator George Skelton noted.  Excerpt:  If President Obama really wants to see the "Buffett Rule" in action, he should look at California's tax system. The state has been plagued by it for years.  The revenue stream is unstable and the state budget has been a deficit disaster.  Soaking the rich - relying heavily on them for income taxes - has resulted in a precarious revenue roller coaster ride. It's either boom or bust in Sacramento, depending on how the wealthy are faring in the stock market and their other investments.

In any case 9-9-9 has the virtue of simplicity, criteria #2.

But how about criteria #1?

Does it raise enough money to fund the government?

The rate numbers could be raised up/down to bring the budget into balance.

In many ways, the greater question is how much do we want the government to spend and are we willing to have a tax system of whatever variety to bring in revenue to pay for it?

Matching revenue with spending is really the first question.

With that question answered, we can then move onto the second one of devising a system that raises revenue effectively without the distortions in economic behavior that the current system has.

In that regard, I think most simple systems with minimal credits and deductions would suffice:  9-9-9 mix of corporate, income and sales tax, national sales tax only with a rebate for low income, flat income tax with exception for low income, 3 income tax bracket, etc.

The challenge is that the current system has provisions put in by political winners to benefit their group and punishes political losers!

Sweeping away all those tax credits, deductions, loopholes and provisions would result in huge political battles.

If we can decide how much government we want and sweep out all the various competing interests baked into the tax code... that would really be something!

UPDATE:  Conservative icon National Review is against 9-9-9.  I didn't realize that the 9-9-9 plan is just a transition to a national sales tax only plan.  In regards to the fairness issue, looks like 9-9-9 might be hard on the lower income folks.  Also, there is the difficult political reality of going from our existing system to any proposed system that is radically different.  As it is, if any change is to occur, the feasible practical thing to do would be paring back the various tax credits, deductions and loopholes of the existing system in exchange for lower rates rather than shoot-the-moon with a brand new system.

Cato's Dan Mitchell has mixed feelings about 9-9-9. Excerpt:  After all, Europe’s welfare states began their march to fiscal collapse and economic stagnation after they added a version of a national sales tax on top of their pre-existing income taxes.