The Cult of Rick Perry

The Cult of Rick Perry October 14, 2011

Disheartening.  Profoundly disheartening.

That’s the word I would use to describe the kerfuffle over Robert Jeffress and his comments on Mitt Romney and Mormonism, as well as the strange, confused, often-angry conversation that has followed.  I’ve been too buried in diapers and onesies to participate, but now that I sit down to write, I feel only discouragement — as a conservative and as an evangelical Christian.

Let’s be clear.  However often we forget it, this is the first question we need to answer: How do we communicate the grace and the truth of the gospel in this situation?  How, in this environment and these circumstances, do we be a people defined by Jesus Christ and his kingdom?

There is nothing gracious or compassionate in diluting the truth.  However much the world might implore us to believe that there is no such thing as absolute truth, or that each person can define the truth for herself, or that any person who calls himself Christian must therefore be a Christian, we reject all of these claims.  We speak the truth clearly, because the truth clarifies and liberates and heals.  Mormonism professes to be a recovery of a pristine original Christianity, the Christianity of Jesus Christ.  We disagree.  Mormonism explicitly rejects the Christianity of the great western creeds.  We affirm them.  We believe that the Holy Spirit guided the church into those creeds as the right and best interpretation of the Scriptures.  So Mormonism, in our view, is neither Christianity in its original sense nor in its traditional, historical sense.

Words have meanings.  It is not hateful or arrogant or superior to delineate the boundaries of a religious tradition.  It is necessary.  It’s necessary because otherwise that tradition will cease to exist as such.  If you cannot say This is Christian and This is not Christian, then everything is up for grabs and sooner or later there will be no such thing as a Christian tradition.  We view the preservation of that tradition as the protection of God’s revelation.  So we define Christianity in terms of its essential beliefs, practices and commitments.  Mormonism does not, in our view, match that definition.  I can explain further in another post.

Robert Jeffress

But that does not mean that Mormonism is a cult.  That does not mean it’s legitimate to attack a presidential candidate because he is not a Christian by the proper historical standards.  And it does not mean that it’s okay to manipulate religious audiences for partisan political gain.  In other words, it does not mean that it’s okay for evangelicals to act in the ways they’ve been acting.  What kind of witness does this give to the world?  What kind of witness does it give to Mormons?

Is it permissible to include a candidate’s faith in our assessment of that candidate?  Absolutely.  The Constitution prohibits a “religious test,” but that merely means the government cannot exclude a candidate by law because of his or her religious affiliation.  It does not mean that a voter cannot assess a person’s faith and whether it would shape his actions in office.  True faith shapes everything the person of faith does.  Some religions are so offensive to the True and the Good and the Beautiful that they would, in effect, disqualify a candidate from my vote.  I would be uncomfortable, for instance, having a Satanist in the White House.  And some religions are so manifestly absurd that I could not respect a person of that faith enough to vote for him.  I could not vote for a person who worshipped the Flying Spaghetti Monster.

Mormonism falls into neither of those categories.  Mormons uphold the personal, family and social values I hold dear.  In many ways, the Mormon church has done so much more strongly and consistently than the American evangelical church.  Even in the face of verbal and physical attacks, Mormons have stood fast on abortion and the definition of marriage.  Mormons are deeply ethical, deeply patriotic, and deeply committed to life and family.  Mormons also make arguments for their specific beliefs, and how their beliefs reflect the original meaning of the scriptures, that would surprise many evangelicals with their power.  How many of my fellow evangelicals know, for instance, that Mormons defend their view that “As God now is, man may be” with reference to the Early Church Fathers’ teaching on theosis?  I interpret the Greek teaching of deification differently, but the point is: if you didn’t know that Mormons justify their teaching of “becoming Gods” in this way (and know that the Mormon teaching regarding God’s past has greatly modulated over time), then you’re (I’m sorry) not very well informed on what Mormons believe and why they believe it.

The question then is whether specific Mormon beliefs would lead a President to behave or respond in ways that concern us.  I’ve seen no credible argument that Mormon differences from traditional Christian theology would lead Mormons to act differently than traditional Christians in the Oval Office.  We know Mitt Romney’s commitments on ethical and political matters.  We don’t need to speculate on how a finely-cut (albeit important) theological difference might make Mitt mishandle a national crisis.  We can judge his commitments and his character on the basis of his record and his platform.

I agree with Robert Jeffress that it’s important to have a leader who honors biblical principles — and I believe that Mitt honors the principles of love and grace, life and family, wisdom and stewardship just as well, if not better, than candidates like Rick Perry.  I know many people who know Mitt and they all, every single one, speak in the highest terms of his integrity and his moral commitments.  He was not always pro-life, but he appears to have sincerely seen the light on the issue, and ever since then he’s stood up for pro-life causes even in the face of withering criticism from the overwhelmingly liberal Massachusetts electorate.

I also believe that God blesses a nation that honors Him, but I see no evidence that America has fared better — materially or spiritually — under born-again believers than it has under others.  Should we have voted for Carter over Reagan because he was/is an evangelical?  Nations that honor God are blessed because they live according to values and principles that bring life and healing and flourishing.  Mormons have inherited those values and principles from the Christian tradition — a fact for which we should be grateful, since Mormons have fought with conservative evangelicals on every major moral/cultural issue in the last few decades.

I don’t blame Dr. Robert Jeffress — not much, at least.  Evangelicals in general have been systematically misinformed about Mormonism through books like Walter Martin’s The Kingdom of the Cults.  Jeffress was repeating what he had heard all his life.  He believes he’s defending the salvific truth.

I blame the Rick Perry campaign.  If you believe that they had no idea what Dr Jeffress intended to say, then you must not follow politics much.  This was calculated, and executed as intended.  Whether Perry himself knew what was coming, of course I cannot say.  But you can be confident his campaign knew.  With their support in free-fall, and anxious to reestablish themselves as the Romney-Alternative for evangelicals, they used a pastor proxy to say that Mitt’s a “cult” member and that no Christian, given a good Christian alternative candidate, should vote for him.  You can also be sure that the Perry campaign is, even as we speak, speaking with evangelical luminaries and trying to line up their support and keep the Mormonism critique going.  They want Perry to be The Evangelical Candidate, and they’re doing so by posing themselves over against The Mormon Candidate.

Make no mistake.  “Cult” is an explosive term, and they knew what they were doing.  Some have tried to walk that language back and say that Mormonism is a “cult” in the theological but not sociological sense.  That’s nonsense.  James Emery White, for instance, defines a “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.”  By that definition, anything other than Christianity, and arguably anything other than Protestant evangelicalism, is a cult.  Richard Land argues that “cult” has a specialized sense in Baptist circles, referring to sects that claim to be Christian but are not Christian.  Yet the point is: the Perry/Jeffress camp were not addressing the Southern Baptist Convention.  They knew full well that the American people associate “cult” with poisoned Koolaid and the Branch Davidians and Charles Manson.  The implication is that Mitt Romney is a cult member, and we all know cultists are unstable, weird, irrational and subject to control.

This, in my view, was a shameful slander of a good man on the basis of his religious beliefs, and a shameful manipulation of religious language and religious sentiments for the advancement of a political campaign.  It was divisive, destructive, and misleading.  I’m sorry that it was self-proclaimed evangelicals who did this.  There was nothing gracious about it.  It harmed the witness of the church, not because the world hates it when we “speak the truth boldly” but because it showed evangelicals with partisan political commitments stooping to personal religious attacks in order to help their guy.

I warned in an earlier post about a “subtle blurring of the lines between the church and the state amongst Perry and his devotees” — and took a lot of grief for it — but this is what I was talking about.  When one candidate becomes The Evangelical Candidate, then the witness of the evangelical church becomes tied, for better or worse, to the actions of that candidate.  That is not in the interest of the kingdom of God.  Just as Romney does not present himself as a representative of Mormonism, Perry should not present himself as a representative of Evangelicalism.  But he’s doing so in order to attract the support, votes and money of evangelical conservatives.

The future of our country is at stake.  We live in exceptionally perilous economic circumstances.  The economy has foundered, and the basic economic structure and the cultural resources that made the American economy so remarkably successful have deteriorated.  We need a President who can make government lean and efficient and recreate the circumstances for a flourishing private sector.  Presently, Romney and Perry are essentially in agreement on life, family and culture issues.  Both have impressive economic records.  While I think we need Romney’s skills and experience, Perry and Romney would both be vastly better than Obama.  We don’t need to be dividing Republicans on religious lines, and pitting evangelicals over against the Mormons who have fought alongside them on issue after issue.

Anita Perry, Rick’s wife, complained yesterday that Perry has been “brutalized” in the mainstream media because of his faith.  And yes, for a variety of reasons, so he has.  In this case, however, it was the Perry campaign that brutalized an honorable Republican candidate for his faith.  I hope that gives Rick Perry some food for thought.  The kingdom of God is more important than the presidency, and this was one case of groping for the latter by harming the former.




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