Some prominent Christian voices have spoken against Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, calling his Mormon faith a cult. Most notably, First Baptist Church Dallas senior pastor Robert Jeffress claimed Mormonism is a cult (theologically, not sociologically, he later clarified) at the Family Research Council-sponsored Value Voter Summit.
Later, Family Research Council leader Tony Perkins called the comment “unfortunate,” noting the term moved attention away from key political issues under discussion. Neither Herman Cain nor Michele Bachmann would make a comment. Candidate Ron Paul called the comment “unnecessary.”
But the bottom line is whether the claim that Mormonism is a cult is true or not. Is it? The answer is apparently not as clear as you would think.
Dr. Richard J. Mouw, president of Fuller Theological Seminary, published a post on CNN’s Belief blog stating his view that Mormonism is not a cult. Historically, however, many Christian writings have included the Mormon Church as an aberrant movement falling under the broad area of “cults and new religions.”
This has traditionally been based on key areas of difference regarding Scripture (Mormons have their own Bible plus some other books, especially The Book of Mormon), Jesus (Mormons teach Jesus was a created being and the brother of Lucifer who became the devil), and salvation (faith plus a list of Mormon traditions), among others. Theologically, the differences are vast. This much is clear.
The “cult” label has been avoided more in recent years not primarily due to any changes in Mormon teachings, but in American litigation. Chief among examples that could be cited is the organization I serve, the Ankerberg Theological Research Institute, which was sued for over $100 million for naming a religious group as a cult in a book on cults and new religions in 1999.
This notable case proceeded all the way to the Supreme Court before being turned down, affirming the lower court’s ruling that a religious organization can be called a cult theologically in a discussion of religious beliefs. This type of comparison falls under the broad liberties available under the free speech rights of all Americans.
In this view, Jeffress and others who wish to name Mormonism as a cult can choose to do so in an effort to highlight the historical fact that Mormon teachings are largely different than those of traditional, biblical Christianity. This is not merely a “slam,” as one headline defines Jeffress’ comment or “bigotry” as talk show host Bill Bennett accused.
While Mormons or even Christians may not appreciate the name, it is one with historical and theological precedent, not the accusation of someone simply emotionally upset over a Mormon presidential candidate.
As Jeffress rightly noted, “It is only faith in Jesus Christ, in Jesus Christ alone, that qualifies you as a Christian…They embraced another gospel, the Book of Mormon, and that is why they have never been considered by evangelical Christians to be part of the Christian family.”
For evangelical Christians interested in the beliefs of those running for the Republican presidential nomination, this discussion does matter. There may be many points of agreement in political and social areas, but Christians who vote their values traditionally prefer a candidate who shares their beliefs, not just their conservative views.
Whether one calls Mormonism a cult or not is ultimately less important than the fact that Romney’s faith does matter to many who will make a decision regarding his candidacy in the days ahead.
Dillon Burroughs is senior writer at the Ankerberg Theological Research Institute and author or co-author of over 30 books, including What’s the Big Deal about Other Religions? (with John Ankerberg).