Is Mormonism a Cult, and Does It Matter in 2012?

Dr. James Emery White | Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary | Thursday, October 13, 2011

Is Mormonism a Cult, and Does It Matter in 2012?

You’ve probably read the news by now. In a less-than-veiled attempt to sway evangelical voters to presidential hopeful Rick Perry after introducing him as a “true” Christian at the Values Voter Summit last Friday, the senior pastor of First Baptist Church-Dallas termed GOP front-runner Mitt Romney’s Mormonism a “cult.”

So is it?

The answer is both “yes” and “no,” and understanding why is an important discussion.

The answer is obviously “no” from a popular perspective, and this is what has created a bit of a firestorm.

Mention “cult” and most people think of Jim Jones or David Koresh. Or even worse, Charles Manson. They think poisoned Kool-Aid and Waco, mind control and isolation.

None of which would be true of Mormonism, and would be wrong to insinuate.

But in theological terms, if you were to define cult as a religious group that denies the biblical nature of God, the full divinity of Jesus Christ, and that we are only saved through His atoning death on the cross through grace, then yes, it is. 

This is not news; it has been the position of mainstream Christian faith since Joseph Smith came on the scene with his extra-biblical revelations. In a LifeWay Research survey of 1,000 American Protestant pastors, 75 percent rejected the idea that Mormons were Christians.

Not because of bigotry, but because of theology.

So sociologically, no, Mormonism is not a cult.  It is not like Scientology or Hare Krishna, Jehovah’s Witnesses or Christian Science.

But theologically, yes, it is.

But because of the cultural overtones, we’re better off calling them a religion that borrows heavily from Christianity but stands outside of mainstream orthodoxy.  They themselves would agree, maintaining that they have something different to offer than traditional Christian faith.

But whether a theological cult or not, does it matter? Does it matter whether we elect a non-Christian president? In the rush to condemn the comments by Jeffress, many seem to be bending over backward to maintain that one’s personal religious beliefs are irrelevant to higher office.

Much of this is pure politics. If Romney’s Mormonism becomes a liability, it will hurt the GOP’s chances in 2012 if indeed he proves to be their candidate for president. According to the Pew Research Center, 34 percent of white evangelicals report themselves “less likely” to vote for a Mormon for president.

But should faith matter?

Again, “yes” and “no,” and, again, understanding why is an important investment.

The answer is “no” in that we are not electing a president to be a pastor or Pope, priest or prophet. The title is commander in chief, not cleric in chief.  Further, Article VI of the Constitution is very clear: “[N]o religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.”

There should be no doubt as to the freedom for any citizen to participate in the political process, regardless of faith. 

But the answer is “yes” in that a person’s religious convictions, or lack thereof, shape their thinking.  And we are very much electing someone to think and decide on our behalf.

Does the candidate claim a faith but it has no real bearing on their life? 

That matters to me.

Does the candidate hold to an End Times view that will shape their dealings with the Middle East? 

That matters to me.

Does the candidate sincerely pray to the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Jesus and Paul for wisdom and discernment? 

That matters to me.

Does the candidate hold to a theological perspective that will shape views on marriage, the sanctity of life, the treatment of the widow and the orphan and the alien? 

That matters to me.

I think the question would matter to any thoughtful voter of any political leaning. They may want different answers than I would, but most in the electorate would find the answers to be relevant. People who say personal conviction, or religious faith, is irrelevant to a presidential candidate are being politically and intellectual naïve. Yes, vote for president on the basis of your estimation of their ability to govern, but don’t be misled that religious conviction is irrelevant to the decision-making process inherent within governance.

So is Mormonism a cult?

Yes and no.

Does it matter if a presidential candidate is a Mormon … or a Muslim, or a Jew or a Christian?

Yes and no.

Just make sure you know which “yes” and which “no” you have in mind.

James Emery White

Sources

“Romney, his Mormonism a campaign issue again, condemns religious bigotry,” by Phillip Rucker, The Washington Post, October 8, 2011. Read online.

“My Take: This evangelical says Mormonism isn’t a cult” by Richard J. Mouw, Special to CNN, October 9, 2011. Read online.

“Why evangelicals must stand up to anti-Mormon bigotry,” John Mark Reynolds,Washington Post, October 10, 2011. Read online.

“Pastor ignites debate over Romney, Mormonism,” Michael Foust, Baptist Press, October 10, 2011. Read online.

“Poll: Pastors say Mormons not Christians,” David Roach, Baptist Press, October 10, 2011. Read online.

“Robert Jeffress: Mormonism Is A Cult, But A 'Theological Cult',” The Huffington Post, October 10, 2011. Read online.

Editor’s Note

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