Saturday, October 15, 2011

Is Mormonism a Cult?

“Mormonism is a cult.” So declared Dr. Robert Jeffress, the Senior Pastor of First Baptist Church, Dallas, when interviewed after introducing Gov. Rick Perry to the Value Voters Summit (VVS) held last weekend in Washington, D.C.
The VVS was sponsored by The Heritage Foundation, Liberty University, and other groups noted for their conservative religious and political stance. The flier advertising the event quotes Sean Hannity saying that the VVS is “the premier conservative event now in the country.”
All of the major Republican presidential candidates were there, as well as some sitting U.S. Senators and Representatives (all Republicans). But it was Rev. Jeffress’ statement about Mormonism which got the most press coverage as he puffed Mr. Perry and cast aspersions on Mr. Romney.
The next day a Thinking Friend sent me a link to “Mormonism Takes Center Stage,” an article by Rachel Weiner in the October 7 Washington Post. And he posed this question, “Is Mormonism a cult?”
Of course the answer depends largely on how the word cult is defined. The Merriam Webster Online Dictionary defines cult as “a system of religious beliefs and ritual.” In that sense, of course Mormonism is a cult, as is every other denomination or religion.
But the same dictionary also gives this definition: “a religion regarded as unorthodox or spurious.” This is most likely the view of Mormonism that Rev. Jeffress had in mind.
It is clear that Mormonism is not one of the historic, “mainstream” Christian denominations. It was organized in 1830, based upon special revelation received by Joseph Smith, who translated The Book of Mormon and began the first meetings that grew into The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, the official name of what we usually call the Mormon Church.
It is looking more and more as if Mr. Romney will be the Republican candidate for President next year. But does it make any difference if he is a Mormon, even if Mormonism could be accurately described as a cult in a negative sense? I think not.
There are no legal religious requirements for public office in the United States, and for good reason. Religious freedom is a longstanding, and important, principle of national life.
Al Smith was defeated in the 1928 presidential election partly because he was a Catholic. But as most people came to see after the election of JFK, it didn’t make any real difference in public policy for the President to be a Catholic.
And the same sort of thing would most likely be true if Mr. Romney should be elected President next year.
If Mr. Romney does become the Republican candidate for President, though, I won’t vote for him. (In fact, I am not likely to vote for any Republican candidate any time soon.) But it won’t be because he is a member of a “cult.”
I won’t vote for Mr. Romney because of his political ideas and the platform of the party on which he stands. And I hope that all voters will cast their ballots on the basis of political conviction and not because of religious, or any other type of, prejudice.


  1. Just received from a local Thinking Friend:

    "Very helpful blog. I too will not be voting Republican. Most of their candidates I find unkind, abusive of many of my fellow Americans, stingy, and corrupt.

    "Romney is appalling and disappointing because my sense of him is that he has some good intuitions for leading folks in a positive direction, but puts his truer convictions away when challenged by the lesser thinking of his party.

    "Too bad he won't embrace the innovations he has forwarded as a governor and celebrate them. Where's the man's backbone--especially when the GOP is crying for someone with the grit to move them from Tea to a platform that percolates with energy and fair-minded answers?"

  2. Leroy
    Thanks for another very thoughtful and helpful reflection. Let us not get sidetracked in the coming presidential election on an irrelevant issue. Please, fellow progressives, liberals, and others who are supporting Obama, don't get drug into the gutter. Proudly celebrate the progress that has happened in the past three years and work to elect a president and congress that will continue the work of making this a better country for all people, including people of all faiths and religions and those without a religious community.
    Be well and feel good - David

  3. A thoughtful insight. Christians need to give thought to more than their personal relationship with the Almighty (or any candidate's as an exclusive means of evaluation).

    I find it fairly easy from the data and definition to determine that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints is a cult off of orthodox Christianity (that does not mean that there are not Christians within the organization).

    However, There have been other questionably "Christian" presidents going all the way back to Washington. Martin Luther's statement of pragmatic deference to a capable Turk providing governing leadership being superior over an incompetent Christian should be our patriotic standard of selection. Mitt Romney is a brilliant venture capitalist and turn-around artist who has also proven himself in the non-profit realm, and in state governance (in a bi-partisan manner far superior to the present or previous president).

    In the best of all worlds, one would hope to have a leader who is also of one's persuasion... but as patriots and followers of the Almighty, we must pray for those in governmental authority - the early Church was commanded to do this for Emperor Nero!

  4. A Thinking Friend in south Missouri made these much appreciated comments:

    "Well said. I appreciate your clear and dispassionate analysis of these issues. Like you, my reasons for not voting for Romney have nothing to do with his religion. How I vote, however, has a lot to do with MY religion, and my belief that Jesus taught his followers to be compassionate, give care to the poor, denounce injustice and work for peace."

  5. Mormons, Baptists, Cults, and Semantics

    This may be one of those posts that ends up making everyone mad, but here goes.
We all live with labels that we have either chosen or that were assigned to us. One such label that I wear proudly is Christian, which may be been a derogatory label given to early disciples because they were trying to act like "little Christs." Baptist (originally Anabaptists, the "rebaptizers") is another label I am glad to wear. However, I believe that the central person in this news story, Jeffress, and the organization of which he is a member, the Southern Baptist Convention, should not wear that last label. Over lunch the other day, several colleagues and I were discussing the news story that the Southern Baptist Convention was considering dropping the word Southern. The consensus among us was that they should drop the name Baptist, since that organization no longer holds strongly to two Baptist distinctive: the autonomy of the local church and the priesthood of the believer. A national convention, state convention, or association that expels individual churches over minor theological issues does not believe in the autonomy of the local church. A convention that requires all believers officially associated with it to sign a creed that includes such marginal issues as the role of women in ministry does not believe the the priesthood of the believer.

    However, as far as Mormons being a cult or not, I might agree with the concept that they are. Using the definition that a cult is "a religion regarded as unorthodox or spurious," I believe Mormonism qualifies. I believe that a central tenet of Christianity is a belief in Immanuel, God with us--what we call the incarnation and the related doctrine of the Trinity. I admit that there has been some disagreement on this tenet, but Christendom since about the time of the Nicaean Council has held to this belief. The Mormons do not. That alone is enough for me to think of Mormonism as unorthodox or spurious--without going into their many other unorthodox beliefs. One other characteristic, I believe, of a cult is a belief that they are the one and only true faith. Granted, under this definition Roman Catholicism (at least in the past) might qualify. But, Mormons, I belief, hold this belief quite firmly. If you do not think so and you have some Mormon close friends or relatives, ask if one of them as been baptized for you. I, like LKS, am not voting for Romney, but not because he is a Mormon. If he held sound political view, I would consider voting for him. But, I do believe that the religious organization he is affiliated with is a cult, according to the above definition.

  6. At this time, I don't have anything to add to these thoughtful comments except this: we need to get away from using "cult" or any other word in a derogatory manner for a faith tradition. It is arrogant and not helpful.

  7. Perhaps we would be better served to divide cults into strong and weak types. A strong cult would be one that results in death and destruction. Think of Jim Jones or David Koresh. A subtype might those cults that result in death of destruction of others, rather than of its members. A weak cult would be faddish or irregular, but not a serious threat. So a movie becomes a "cult classic." So Mormons and Catholics get bandied about as cults.

    Well, by that definition, sports fans are members of cults. Think of those painted faces and even bodies. Because I own an Apple computer I might be a member of a cult. Contributors to this blog might be members of a cult. However, eating a Big Mac and fries does not qualify as cult--too many people do it!

    From Mo Udall to Harry Reid, Mormons have participated in the Democratic Party without great controversy. The issue arises specifically in religious circles where tight definitions are being drawn between who is in and who is out. More to the point, fundamentalist Evangelicals are highly suspicious of fundamentalist Mormons, even though they share many views. Of course, if you are not a fundamentalist, you are even more surely a cult in their eyes than the Mormons are. You liberals know who you are!

    Now truth in advertising compels me to confess that while I am now a Baptist living in Liberty, Missouri, I was born across the river, one of the Saints in Zion. We read The True Latter Day Saints Herald, because we had a grandson of Joseph Smith, Jr. as our leader, and our church, the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, had been declared the legal continuation of Joseph Smith, Jr.'s church by no less of an authority than the Unites States Supreme Court! We did not even use a hyphen between Latter and Day! So I suppose there might be a cult definition in there somewhere. Then again, the RLDS finally got away from having a Smith family leader, changed their name to Community of Christ, and started ordaining women. Needless to say, the RLDS fundamentalists fled the camp, and started churches featuring names like "Remnant."

    What got me even more than my mother being ordained a Mormon elder, was when the RLDS finally built Joseph Smith, Jr's dream temple in Independence, and one of the members of my Baptist church went for a tour. When he asked me whether the man in the introductory movie was my father, I realized I had become the son of a high priest in the temple in Zion.

    Now one point of this last diversion is that when we look back to the 19th century to see the roots of Mormonism, we also see 19th century Baptist movements such as Old Landmarkism. And what they have in common is that they look so 19th century! Indeed, if you take history back a little farther, Baptists and Mormons come from the same source in the radical reformation. In fact, even secular humanists have the same older roots!

    All I know is that when I joined Second Baptist Church, on my profession of faith and prior baptism (by full immersion at the age of accountability), I left the heavy burden of Joseph Smith, Jr. and the golden plates at the alter with my profession, and at the same time, refused to pick up the heavy burden of Rev. Criswell and the original autographs by keeping my prior baptism. I cast my burden on the Lord, and have felt better ever since. So who is a cult? Apparently the Methodists, because those baby-baptisers apparently cannot join Second Baptist on their profession of faith and prior baptism! Who would have thought?

  8. While many mainstream Christians don't agree with the tenents of Mormonism, it is here to stay and Christians need to get over it...and on with it.

    Are we going to treat Mormons as we did women in the women's rights movement or African Americans in the civil rights movement or even gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered persons in the current gay rights movement?

    Why do Christians have to be so emphatic about showing who they are against?

    Pastor Jeffress may not like Gov. Romney's theology, but you can be sure he will vote for Romney over Obama in 2012 if Romney is the GOP candidate.

    Jeffress is doing the country a disservice by deflecting focus away from the important issues facing the country...and the prospect of having a Mormon president isn't one of them.