Mormons Are (Different) Christians, Not Cultists

Mormons Are (Different) Christians, Not Cultists October 25, 2012

The idea that Mormonism is a cult is beyond absurd, unless by cult one simply means a religion that one does not like.

In recent days, observant reporters noticed that after Billy Graham’s recent meeting with Republican candidate Mitt Romney, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association removed “Mormons” from a list of non-Christian cults. The included groups on the list ranged from Jehovah’s Witnesses to Unitarians  (it was news to me that the liberal descendants of New England’s Puritans have formed a cult of their own).

I have a hard time believing that Graham himself is intimately involved in current decision-making, but Franklin Graham and the BGEA are throwing all of their weight behind Romney. (I’m also not convinced that they have all that much sway over evangelical voters, say, in Ohio). A Franklin Graham article accessed from the BGEA’s homepage informs readers that: 1) They can in good conscience vote for a Mormon; and 2) President Obama intends to create “a new nation without God or perhaps under many gods.”

Hogwash, of course (the second point, not the first). But I’m not incensed today because Franklin Graham wants his followers to vote Republican. I’m angry at Frank Schaeffer’s anti-Mormon screed over at Patheos’s Progressive Christian Channel:

Because Franklin is trying to help Mormon Mitt win (at any cost) he’s got to lie about Mormonism because he knows that many evangelicals — rightly — think Mormonism is anything but Christian. And he’s taken his father’s good name with him.

…Why are the Grahams lying about the most basic theological and church history facts? Is political victory really more important than clarity on what the gospel is or isn’t? I mean aren’t the Grahams supposed to be Christian evangelists?

I’m not exactly the biggest fan of everything Franklin Graham does. But what’s the lie? Graham hasn’t said that he considers Mormons to be Christians. As of last February, in the midst of another pro-Romney statement, he said “Most Christians would not recognize Mormonism … but he would be a good president if he won the nomination.”

So Franklin Graham has betrayed Christianity by making it clear that he no longer considers Mormons members of a cult? Wow. And Schaeffer disagrees. Are Unitarians cults, too, according to Schaeffer? Are all religious movements that don’t accept certain doctrines he considers central to Christianity?

The idea that Latter-day Saints are a cult is such a blatantly un-Christlike canard. Why? Because they have rituals they keep secret? So do many Native American religions, and that doesn’t make them cults. For me, a cult is a religious group organized around a charismatic figure, who demands strict obedience from his followers and often cuts them off from the outside world. Heck, many evangelical churches function more like cults (organized around the charismatic leadership of celebrity pastors) than does the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. More basically, to call a church a “cult” labels them a danger to society, akin to Jim Jones and David Koresh. So for evangelicals to call Mormons a cult is simply a mean-spirited declaration. There’s no imitation of Christ in such behavior.

It’s not easy to classify Mormonism. Jan Shipps has persuasively argued that Mormonism is a “new religious tradition,” separating itself from its surrounding Protestant culture akin to the way Christianity had once diverged from Judaism. Richard Land, in the last presidential election cycle, talked of Mormonism as a fourth Abrahamic religion, taking its place alongside Jews, Christians, and Muslims.

In my view, the LDS church has moved in a decidedly Christocentric direction in recent decades. Thus, for the most part, I view Mormonism as a fourth branch of Christianity, not yet accepted as within the bounds of orthodoxy by most Protestant, Catholic, or Orthodox Christians. Still, while they have distinctive beliefs with which I disagree theologically, the Mormons I know consider Jesus Christ their Lord and Savior and believe that his atoning sacrifice enables them to obtain salvation. Perhaps these Mormons have been pulling the wool over my eyes for years. Maybe they eat some special Jell-O once they get inside of their temples and come out determined to hide the true nature of the LDS Church. But I don’t think so.

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