Hey, Who Are You Calling a Cult?
The LDS Church is less of a cult than many of the religions that accuse it of being one.
"I asked my priest," he said, "and he told me that Mormons are a cult."
Setting aside the obvious riposte ("What did you think your priest would tell you, that Mormonism was true Christianity as restored by God to living prophets?"), I think it's worth considering just what we mean by "cult" and seeing whether it applies to the Mormon Church.
Cult as Bad Word
Anti-Mormons use "cult" the way gay activists use "homophobe"--as an ad hominem epithet hurled to try to silence any persuasive opponent whose ideas can't be countered on their merits.
When used this way, "cult" just means "religion I want you to fear so much you won't listen to them." Or even, "religion I want you to hate so much that you will remove it from the list of churches that deserve constitutional protection."
But just as "homophobe" has a core meaning (someone with a pathological fear of homosexuality to the degree that it interferes with his life), so also with "cult." The only reason it works as name-calling is because there really are religious groups that do--and should--scare us.
There are real examples of what we mean by cults: Jim Jones' group that destroyed itself in mass murder and suicide in Guyana, or those sneaker-wearing folks who killed themselves to join aliens approaching behind a comet. And even though the Branch Davidians may not have been as monstrous as they were depicted in the media, they still clearly fall within what we mean by that word.
What do they have in common?
Charismatic Founder. Cults gather around charismatic individuals who are the sole source of truth to their followers.
Exploitation. The leader enriches himself through the financial contributions of the members, or gathers personal power that he uses to exploit members in other ways to benefit himself. If the group survives the leader's death, it remains a cult if his successors continue that exploitation.
Automatons. The members are discouraged from thinking for themselves, and, insofar as possible, are turned into unquestioning "obedience machines."
Withdrawal and Isolation. Perhaps because exploitation and obedience are easiest to maintain when the ordinary world can't offer its distractions and attractions, cults tend to withdraw physically, seeking ever greater isolation. This is often used as part of the conversion process, to keep the prospective member from hearing counterarguments.
It's worth pointing out that there are very few religions of any size or influence that did not begin with a charismatic founder and whose members did not seem, to outsiders, to behave in much the way I've just described. A humble, wise teacher can always be charged with "setting himself up as the sole source of truth" merely because he offers any unusual idea.