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October 9th, 2011
07:42 PM ET

My Take: This evangelical says Mormonism isn’t a cult

Editor’s note: Richard J. Mouw is President of Fuller Theological Seminary, an evangelical school in Pasadena, California.

By Richard J. Mouw, Special to CNN

Some prominent evangelical pastors have been telling their constituents not to support Mitt Romney’s bid for the presidential nomination. Because Romney is Mormon, they say, to cast a vote for him is to promote the cause of a cult.

I beg to differ.

For the past dozen years, I’ve been co-chairing, with Professor Robert Millet of Brigham Young University – the respected Mormon school - a behind-closed-doors dialogue between about a dozen evangelicals and an equal number of our Mormon counterparts.

We have talked for many hours about key theological issues: the authority of the Bible, the person and work of Christ, the Trinity, “continuing revelations” and the career of Joseph Smith, the 19th century founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church), better known as the Mormon Church.

We evangelicals and our Mormon counterparts disagree about some important theological questions. But we have also found that on some matters we are not as far apart as we thought we were.

I know cults. I have studied them and taught about them for a long time. It’s worth noting that people have wondered whether I belong to a cult, with a reporter once asking me: “Evangelicalism, is that like Scientology and Hare Krishna?”

Religious cults are very much us-versus-them. Their adherents are taught to think that they are the only ones who benefit from divine approval. They don’t like to engage in serious, respectful give-and-take dialogue with people with whom they disagree.

Nor do they promote the kind of scholarship that works alongside others in pursuing the truth. Jehovah’s Witnesses, for instance, haven’t established a university. They don’t sponsor a law school or offer graduate-level courses in world religions. The same goes for Christian Science. If you want to call those groups cults I will not argue with you.

But Brigham Young University is a world-class educational institution, with professors who’ve earned doctorates from some of the best universities in the world. Several of the top leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have PhDs from Ivy League schools.

These folks talk admiringly of the evangelical Billy Graham and the Catholic Mother Teresa, and they enjoy reading the evangelical C.S. Lewis and Father Henri Nouwen, a Catholic. That is not the kind of thing you run into in anti-Christian cults.

So are Mormons Christians? For me, that’s a complicated question.

My Mormon friends and I disagree on enough subjects that I am not prepared to say that their theology falls within the scope of historic Christian teaching. But the important thing is that we continue to talk about these things, and with increasing candor and mutual openness to correction.

No one has shown any impulse to walk away from the table of dialogue. We do all of this with the blessing of many leaders from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, some of whom have become good friends.

While I am not prepared to reclassify Mormonism as possessing undeniably Christian theology, I do accept many of my Mormon friends as genuine followers of the Jesus whom I worship as the divine Savior.

I find Mormons to be more Christ-centered than they have been in the past. I recently showed a video to my evangelical Fuller Seminary students of Mormon Elder Jeffrey Holland, one of the Twelve Apostles who help lead the LDS church. The video captures Holland speaking to thousands of Mormons about Christ’s death on the cross.

Several of my students remarked that if they had not known that he was a Mormon leader they would have guessed that he was an evangelical preacher.

The current criticisms of Mitt Romney’s religious affiliation recall for many of us the challenges John Kennedy faced when he was campaigning for the presidency in 1960.

Some well-known Protestant preachers (including Norman Vincent Peale) warned against putting a Catholic in the White House. Kennedy’s famous speech to Houston pastors clarifying his religious beliefs as they related to his political leadership helped his cause quite a bit.

But the real changes in popular attitudes toward Catholicism happened more slowly, as Catholic Church leaders and scholars engaged in a new kind of dialogue with each other and representatives of other faith groups, most dramatically at the Second Vatican Council during the early years of the 1960s.

Cults do not engage in those kinds of self-examining conversations. If they do, they do not remain cults.

Those of us who have made the effort to engage Mormons in friendly and sustained give-and-take conversations have come to see them as good citizens whose life of faith often exhibits qualities that are worthy of the Christian label, even as we continue to engage in friendly arguments with them about crucial theological issues.

Mitt Romney deserves what every politician running for office deserves: a careful examination of his views on policy and his philosophy of government. But he does not deserve to be labeled a cultist.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Richard J. Mouw.

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Christianity • Cults • Mitt Romney • Politics • Rick Perry

soundoff (2,721 Responses)
  1. puresmokey

    Will America ever get past requiring that to seek elected office one must be "a person of faith?" The debate about whether Romney is a "person of faith" or a "member of a cult" should clearly demonstrate to any thinking person that religion is divisive. Just once, I'd like to hear that a candidate has emerged who espouses reason and diplomacy.

    October 10, 2011 at 1:35 am |
    • fsmgroupie

      where does ron paul stand on the " person of faith" issue? he never seems to get embroiled in any of that religious b.s. that has destroyed the republcan party

      October 10, 2011 at 1:57 am |
    • puresmokey

      Good question. I don't know where he stands on it. But, if he ever hopes to get out of the starting block, he better nod his head and say "yes, I believe."

      October 10, 2011 at 2:03 am |
  2. joe5

    Joseph Smith was clearly a charlatan. I don't think Jesus was, because he was dead long before Christianity became popular, but that doesn't make general Christianity any less fiction-based than Mormonism.

    October 10, 2011 at 1:35 am |
    • One humble man

      respect is earned, so NO, you havent earned any with me. and to save you the trouble , i have none with you. Respect should be given based on actions not words,

      October 10, 2011 at 1:51 am |
    • joe5

      I was talking to JHS

      October 10, 2011 at 1:54 am |
    • JHS

      Please clarify?...

      October 10, 2011 at 2:07 am |
  3. Mad Cow

    Moonies are not a cult, either.

    BLEED THE BEAST, MITTY!

    October 10, 2011 at 1:33 am |
  4. Harry Kermet

    Mormons suck. Having a Mormon president would suck even more.

    October 10, 2011 at 1:33 am |
  5. Scott-O

    "Religious cults are very much us-versus-them. Their adherents are taught to think that they are the only ones who benefit from divine approval. They don’t like to engage in serious, respectful give-and-take dialogue with people with whom they disagree"

    By the author's definition Mormonism is a cult. Mormons are taught that theirs is the only true church and that all others are in a state of apostasy and that only through the the true church can one receive salvation and ultimately exaltation. All baptisms outside of the true church are null and void. The church also tells members to not read what they consider to be anti-mormon literature. Furthermore, the Mormon church does not allow a "self examination". All doctrinal, spiritual, and financial matters are in the hands of the prophet and his apostles.

    October 10, 2011 at 1:33 am |
  6. Zuma

    Well, NOTHING is a cult if you tweak enough its definition.
    Dictionaries tell you:
    "a. A religion or religious sect generally considered to be extremist or false, with its followers often living in an unconventional manner under the guidance of an authoritarian, charismatic leader.
    b. The followers of such a religion or sect."

    Mormonism seems to satisfy this definition. But hey, not that being a cult is a bad thing. Romans were disgusted by a certain "slave cult", yes you guessed it, Christianity.

    October 10, 2011 at 1:31 am |
    • joe5

      *LIKE*

      October 10, 2011 at 1:41 am |
  7. Kevin Quail

    Come on, people- they are ALL cults:

    cult >noun 1 a system of religious worship directed towards a particular figure or object. 2 a small religious group regarded as strange or as imposing excessive control over members. 3 something popular or fashionable among a particular section of society.
    -DERIVATIVES cultish >adjective cultist >noun.
    -ORIGIN Latin cultus 'worship'.

    And also ALL utter nonsense,a bunch of childhood brainwashing hocus pocus.

    "Religion is all bunk."- Thomas Edison

    "To see by faith is to shut the eye of reason"- Benjamin Franklin.

    October 10, 2011 at 1:31 am |
  8. pfft

    both definitely cults.
    but hey, at least mormons are nice!

    October 10, 2011 at 1:30 am |
  9. chris

    a cult is more like the hypocrites that pray to the the church of global warming or PETA or most other liberal churches.

    October 10, 2011 at 1:30 am |
  10. Leonard L. Harrison

    Everyone is missing the point. It isn't about Mormonism being a cult. The Mormons believe that God was not a super natural being but a mortal that came from a different planet and became god by following a certain agenda that had to be followed to become a god and given a planet to rule over. It is a false teaching. Yahweh, God as revealed in the Holy Bible has always existed not mortal but supreme, super natural. With out beginning and with out end, spoke creation into existence. Any "religion" that has to have an additional book (e.g.) The book of Mormons of The Latter Days Saints is false teaching. Yahweh's word is all sufficient.

    October 10, 2011 at 1:28 am |
  11. John

    ALL religions are cults. Just because they have more members doesn't change what they are. But if self-examining is what makes a religion, then I guess I'm a religion too.
    But even if you don't agree with me on the ALL religion thing, you should at least agree that all religions started as cults...except for yours of course.

    October 10, 2011 at 1:28 am |
  12. Mirosal

    Anyone who takes seriously the idea of an invisble "being" watching over your every move so you can be judged is a cultist. We are all atheists to some degree. Once you realize why you've dismissed all those other gods, you'll understand why I've dismissed yours as well. All hail the Flying Spaghetti Monster, and may the Sauce be with you.

    October 10, 2011 at 1:27 am |
  13. JHS

    I belong to The Church of JESUS CHRIST of Latter-day Saints. or for those who don't know, I'm a Mormon. They are one and the same. We are Christians. hence the name above. There is no cult and no secrets to our religion, which is just another branch of Christianity. I feel sorry for those who label us as a cult. This only shows ignorance. by definition all religious organizations are cults. Mormon.org and Lds.org are perfect places to go find out more about our church. Please visit those sites first before making rational statements. Thank you! 🙂

    October 10, 2011 at 1:27 am |
    • One humble man

      Stop it, mormons are no more christians then the jovies (jehovah witnesses). it is very misleading to pass yourself as something to pupular to fit in. dont be afraid to stand on your belief without having to latch onto the current bandwagon.

      October 10, 2011 at 1:30 am |
    • nympha

      Have you read your own book? The Book of Mormon doctrine is fundamentally opposite the very foundations of Christianity and the Holy Bible. I have read both. They are in no way similar.

      October 10, 2011 at 1:38 am |
    • JHS

      Sir, (or ma'am, whatever you are) if I was jumping on the bandwagon I certainly wouldn't be brave enough to be on the side that everyone considers to be a cult. I am firm in my beliefs and frankly I respect any person that strongly believes in theirs. but I thank you for your opinion.

      October 10, 2011 at 1:39 am |
    • JHS

      then you must have had the wrong book of Mormon. cause it definitely wasn't one of ours if that's what you got out of it. try phoning a church in your area.

      October 10, 2011 at 1:43 am |
    • joe5

      So you respect me, an atheist? Hmm, ok!

      October 10, 2011 at 1:43 am |
    • One humble man

      ok, I dont care what rules I break here, no one reads this tripe anyway, Joseph Smith was angry on the pompousness of Christianity, he and a friend concocted book of mormon as a parody on the "enlightened" influence of the bible, sadly it went to far,. at the time of its conception, ppl were aware of this fact, but slowly it got lost sadly in the mix. I have taken a vow to not state where this came from, but hey, libery how.

      October 10, 2011 at 1:43 am |
  14. One humble man

    Mormanism is a cult, that is a fact by the socialily accepted definition, NOT MINE,. however does that mean that a cult member should not be allowed to run for president of the United States? who are we to judge, all our presidents to date have believed in the supernatural. Putting their faith in aliens, joseph smith, or whoever it was who founded the jovies. its all a power control game to feed the ego of the evangelists or whoever the flavor of the century is. the power that did create all this, pays little attention to these clowns.

    October 10, 2011 at 1:26 am |
  15. SaintGenesius

    All religions are cults –there isn't even really much variation of degree. Religions say you must accept their "teachings" which are based on a belief in magic. So those medicine men in Congo who require their followers to hack off the limb of an albino are no different than Catholics who believe a cup of wine turns into the blood of a zombie. It does not matter if the belief is that the world is only 4,000 years old, or that humans and dinosaurs lived at the same time; or that a mountain moved; or an old man built a giant boat and had a pair of all the animals on earth.

    The simple fact is, believing in any of this lunacy is the same as believing that a space ship is going to drop down and pick your spirit up after you hack off your balls and drink poison –or just drink the Koolaide

    There are facts, there is mathematics and science, and there is magic and religion.

    October 10, 2011 at 1:25 am |
    • puresmokey

      Amen. I mean, damn right.

      October 10, 2011 at 1:37 am |
  16. Bob

    It is what it is. However, I do find it difficult to accept a religion based on its founder finding golden discs in a field, interpreting them, and then the discs disappearing.

    October 10, 2011 at 1:23 am |
    • SaintGenesius

      How about those stone tablets found on top of a mountain? Those you believe in?

      October 10, 2011 at 1:27 am |
    • Moses

      Do we have the arch of the covenant and the 10 commandments on stone? Just sayin...anything is possible with faith.

      October 10, 2011 at 1:34 am |
  17. TheMirror

    All the people I know that identify as Mormon practice beliefs that are just as objectionable as other denominations of Christianity. The difference is that other people that I know who identify with non-Mormon denominations rarely practice what they say they believe. I guess our society has always taken solace in the idea that our elected representatives have not been poor representatives of their faith. Having said that, I would rather have a person that will always do what they believe in and who are predictable. Nothing like a loose cannon to make things interesting...

    October 10, 2011 at 1:21 am |
    • Magic

      Look, people. According to these Republican candidates, religion shouldn't be an issue. I wonder why they weren't saying that when Obama was running?

      October 10, 2011 at 1:25 am |
  18. Kelli

    All you Mormon and Christian and just plain old religion haters: I don't care how you feel about Mormons personally, but I ask you to look into the Mormon Church, and not by looking at anti mormon websites. Talk to an active Mormon or visit http://www.lds.org. The reason why is, if you actually know what Mitt Romney stands for, you'll see that his religious views are really an asset to the good person that he is, and hopefully would be in the whitehouse. I want someone to lead this country with dignity, intelligence, and morals. Mitt Romney has an impressive economic/financial background, and a strong sense of morals and honesty, combined with hard work ethic. That's what our country needs. I don't care if you never join the Mormon Church, but I care that you take the time to find out if Romney really is qualified, and what makes him tick.

    October 10, 2011 at 1:20 am |
    • SaintGenesius

      When I lived in Montana I had a chance to view Mormonism up close and personal. About the worst bunch of sleazebags I've ever seen. Honestly.

      October 10, 2011 at 1:29 am |
  19. agathokles

    Why all the interest in labeling it? Whatever it is, it is. Labeling it doesn't change what it is.

    October 10, 2011 at 1:17 am |
  20. John

    Reading Mouw's article reminded me of Stephen Robinson's book, "Are Mormons Christians?" Mormonism is not a cult according to Mr. Mouw (or is he saying that?) the way Mormons are Christians according to Mr. Robinson (or did he say that?).

    "Those of us who have made the effort to engage Mormons in friendly and sustained give-and-take conversations have come to see them as good citizens whose life of faith often exhibits qualities that are worthy of the Christian label, even as we continue to engage in friendly arguments with them about crucial theological issues."

    Just tortuous. "... often exhibits qualities that are worthy of the Christian label." Yes, I agree. Many Mormons are Christian enough and in many ways more respectable than those who subscribe to the Nicene Creed. Mr. Mouw, as Christian and a Seminary president, must be satisfied with that. Satisfied enough to have written this piece.

    I cannot believe what I am reading. While the respectable Mr. Mouw is enjoying his conversations with the LDS church leaders, because he can, and while he is weaving brilliant sentences such as one above, there are people whose lives are fundamentally affected by these religions.

    October 10, 2011 at 1:17 am |
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About this blog

The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.