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. Dan

    Why is there a debate? All religions are cults. But what does it matter? Being of any cult shows poor reasoning and a weak character so neither one of those candidates wouldn't be able to get anything done that is reasonable.

    October 9, 2011 at 8:28 pm |
    • Dan

      err... neither one *would* be able to get anything done.

      October 9, 2011 at 8:30 pm |
    • Chad

      Ok, so all the atheists posting on this are just throwing up your hands because there is not one candidate in the field that is not in a cult (by the general definition that many here are using). So the issue that Mouw rights about is whether Mormons are worthy of mainstream support from other Christians. Mouw has obviously had far more experience at examining this issue than anyone on this post. So, let's forget about the Mormon, Evangelical, Catholic distinction/distraction and determine if the candidates' own actions and words are worthy of our support.

      October 9, 2011 at 8:38 pm |
    • Ariel

      @Chad-Exactly! my point too!!!

      October 9, 2011 at 8:44 pm |
    • dg

      Chad, having been raised evangelical christian during the 70's and studying religious cults extensively during that time, and realizing that christianity exhibited many of the same traits as the cults I studied, I stopped being a christian and became atheist. I then studied world religions, the occult and metaphysics and came to the philosophical conclusion that I was an agnostic. Lately from material I have been reading online it seems I am aligned with secular humanists as well.

      Having put that forth, in my experience and knowledge, mormonism was considered a cult by all the christian literature available to me through the 70's and 80's and only recently ihave I noticed that mormonism is being a more accepted as a normal mainstream religion. Though the author makes a fairly well reasoned case for someone of a religious persuasion for why mormonism is a cult, as an agnostic/secular humanist both mormonism and christianity fit the definition of a cult.

      As far as the potus's religious affiliation, I have come to expect that most any candidate would be christian or catholic and it wouldn't have a huge effect on their politics until reagan and then the bushs. Reagan and the bushes seemed to lean more towards an evangelical bent since they pushed many of their religious beliefs in their politics such as the anti-abortion stance. Perry, bachmann and santorum I find frightening as they appear to philosophically put god first, than their family and then their country when I would definitely rather have someone leading that didn't put god before country as it stinks to much of mixing church and state. They are going to push their social conservative agendas down our throats and make the whole of the usa bow down to their religious beliefs. Romney is frighten due to his beliefs in a religion that is based on some very wacko premises that are fairly recent in origin and though not any more far fetched than the origins of christianity, I just worry that any one that blindly believes in such craziness shouldn't have the authority of the potus.

      I am sick of the two party system and as an independent I see some good and bad in both the red and the blue but something has to change. Hopefully with the rise of the internet and as the old fogeys that run much of govt die off something like the following will take the place of the two party system: http://www.americanselect.org

      October 9, 2011 at 8:59 pm |
    • dg

      I made a typo that changes what I meant to type:

      The incorrect sentence:

      "Though the author makes a fairly well reasoned case for someone of a religious persuasion for why mormonism is a cult, as an agnostic/secular humanist both mormonism and christianity fit the definition of a cult."

      What the sentence should be:

      "Though the author makes a fairly well reasoned case for someone of a religious persuasion for why mormonism is NOT a cult, as an agnostic/secular humanist both mormonism and christianity fit the definition of a cult."

      October 9, 2011 at 9:05 pm |
    • Darwin was right

      As Archie Bunker once said to Meathead, "Of course it don't make no sense. Dat's why dey call it FAITH!"

      October 9, 2011 at 9:22 pm |
    • Dan

      @dg. Nice follow-up. Thanks.

      October 9, 2011 at 9:49 pm |
    • Mark

      DAN... calling all religions cults is rather shortsighted as you are not differentiating between the archaic definition of the word "cult" from the modern usage.

      The Latin word "cultus" meant "care of" and we see that root word in our English words "cultivation," "agriculture," etc. Used in a religious context it meant the care of the gods, and there were many gods in their pantheon. It was also propitiatory, that is you had to "take care of them" and make sacrifices so that they would be good to you and not destroy you or your crops or your family. The cult of Isis, the cult of Dionysus, etc. Even when speaking of the ancient Hebrews, it is correct to say their "cult" when speaking about how they worshiped Yahweh – they had a priestly class that sacrificed animals, etc. Early Christians were a small group and were considered a sect of Judaism in Roman times, not a completely separate religion. Cult could be applied here as well in the archaic sense.

      The modern usage of cult is dramatically different. Isolation, control. abuse, extortion, the inability to see truth when plain facts are presented, etc. Cognitive Dissonance is obvious. Scientology and Mormons do fit that category rather well. It's also incredibly painful and emotional to leave the group as you will be shunned.

      I grew up in a household of Catholics, Lutherans, and a few Dutch Reform. I read whatever books I wanted to read. No one had a fit when I didn't go to church (beyond the expected paternal disapproval), they didn't come after me and try to "reactivate me" when I first left the church, and no one ostracized me when I wouldn't go back. However, these things and more do happen all the time in LDS / Mormon families. I know, I experienced this with a close friend from Utah after she left the LDS church. Her family told her as soon as she picked up the first non-approved book that was critical of Joseph Smith, that the "spirit had left her" and she could no longer tell truth from fiction, so if the criticisms seemed plausible, it was just because she lost the ability to reason. She moved to Spain, but the LDS Church found her and started sending local Spanish missionaries to try and "reactivate" her. They repeatedly came by the house, called, left messages. Then they started asking what sins she had done to be so ashamed, because only a sinner would stop going to LDS church.

      If you call any group that tries to influence your beliefs a cult, then every group with a purpose is a cult by that definition. Some though warrant the label and my experiences pulling people out of the LDS / Mormon church is that it's like opening their eyes for the first time and in hindsight they cannot believe they were brainwashed for so long.

      October 10, 2011 at 11:12 pm |
  2. Darwin was right

    The two religions differ on the details of their worship of MAGICAL FRIENDS WHO LIVE IN THE SKY. What they DO AGREE ON is that you're basically NO GOOD and doomed to a life of hopelessness, despair, and eternal dammnaation unless you give them money and do what they tell you. Funny how most religions do seem to agree on the best ways to scare up lots of the money!

    October 9, 2011 at 8:28 pm |
  3. RobertFL

    It is a cult no matter how you put it.

    October 9, 2011 at 8:28 pm |
  4. Kman821

    The word cult isn't necessarily a pejorative any more than the word socialism is ... it's only so in the eyes of self-righteous hypocrites such as Republicans in general. Mighty impressive field of candidates they've managed to assemble and yet not one of them is sane except for Huntsman!

    October 9, 2011 at 8:28 pm |
  5. The Pope

    Everyone knows that Mormonism is an offshoot of Sceintology. Just ask Tom.

    October 9, 2011 at 8:27 pm |
    • dg

      This is ridiculous and if "The Pope's" intent was arcasm it hardly qualifies.

      Scientology roots are in Hubbard science fiction writings and techniques he supposedly stole from the occult organization the OTO, which at the time was run by Aleister Crowley in the UK and Hubbards contact was John aka Jack Whitesides Parson who ran the the Agape Lodge in Los Angeles. Hubbard supposedly stole both Parsons wife and a boat of his as well as secret writings of the organization. Mormonism had nothing to do with it whatsoever.

      October 9, 2011 at 8:38 pm |
  6. TheTraveler

    Don't even care. Every election year we get the same stupid side-tracking non-issues ...

    October 9, 2011 at 8:26 pm |
  7. David M.

    Speaking as a Christian, I'm not concerned about Romney being a Mormon. Nor am I concerned that the next president has to be an evangelical Christian. Jimmy Carter is a devout Christian, but I disagreed with a lot of his politics. I don't vote for someone just because they are a Christian, or not vote for someone because they are not a Christian. I'm concerned about their political positions.

    The evangelical church in America thinks if we just get the "right" people in office, then all will be well. Nothing could be further from the truth. God is very clear in scripture, ,calling out His people to turn from their wicked ways, call on His name, humble themselves and pray, then He will hear from Heaven and heal their land. It's clearly in the lap of the church, not the lap of the president. Speaking again as a Christian, we in the church have failed miserably, and God will hold us to account.

    October 9, 2011 at 8:26 pm |
  8. pmk1953

    Oops. That's ALL republicans not a republicans.

    October 9, 2011 at 8:25 pm |
  9. iamdeadlyserious

    I don't know why this surprises people. Evangelicals and Catholics have had a great relationship with the Mormon church after they bankrolled two, count 'em, two statewide bans on gay marriage.

    October 9, 2011 at 8:24 pm |
    • OhPleaseYerKillinMeSTOP

      Author unintentionally makes an irrefutable case for taxing churches/temples./mpsques for their political activism. Also by his own definition, all proselytizing baptists etc are in a cult: "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."

      October 9, 2011 at 8:27 pm |
  10. Chad

    All religions are cults?? Using the word "cult" is an attempt to have people believe that adherents are brainwashed because there certainly could be no God... or you would have seen Him, right? Do not dismiss those who choose to believe through their own experiences as cultists because you choose not to believe. Ironically, I find more narrow-mindedness from those free thinkers who claim the "religious right" is so intolerant. There is a wealth of reasons to believe in God, just as there is to believe the contrary. Don't dismiss what you do not know.

    October 9, 2011 at 8:23 pm |
    • iamdeadlyserious

      Don't delude yourself, please. The only difference between a cult and a religion is popularity.

      October 9, 2011 at 8:25 pm |
    • kimsland

      Yes religion is foolish
      We ALL know.

      October 9, 2011 at 8:26 pm |
    • Believer

      @Chad-Right on!!!!

      October 9, 2011 at 8:42 pm |
  11. ed anger

    I love how people keep engaging in these discussions of how their imaginary friend is superior to everyone else's imaginary friend. Really, who cares?

    October 9, 2011 at 8:21 pm |
  12. pmk1953

    Is groverism a cult? It must be since a republicans worship him and pledge their undying faith in him.

    October 9, 2011 at 8:21 pm |
  13. Don

    It is really a non-issue. We can have a Mormon president as long as he puts the nation first and acts responsibly. We can have a Muslim president as long as he puts the nation first and acts responsibly. We can have a Jewish president as long as he puts the nation first and acts responsibly. Christians have no exclusive lock on love for country or responsible behavior. That should be obvious. I look forward the day when our list of US Presidents is as diverse as our citizens. When we get to that point we will have been true to the promise of America that all men were created equal and endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights and among these are the right to run for political office and be judged by the content of their character and not the color of their religious beliefs.

    October 9, 2011 at 8:20 pm |
    • Tim Callahan

      You have accurately "hit the nail on the head!" Religion is a very personal and very saving belief. It is not the business of politics. Although I may not agree with your religious beliefs, religion has no place in American politics. All religions are a simple social norm of all human societies. Peace and friendship to us all!!!! I must however note, I am not that Tim Callahan, the Theologian.

      October 9, 2011 at 8:35 pm |
    • cjd262e

      Absolutely brilliant post. Most of the other posts focus on A) Making fun of religion and people's beliefs in God, or B) Assuming that their perception of God is the right one. Thanks for the sanity.

      October 9, 2011 at 8:37 pm |
    • dg

      The problem is that candidates like perry, bachmann, and santorum put god before country. I seem to recall at least one of them stating such... god, family, country.

      October 9, 2011 at 9:12 pm |
    • babbles

      Couldn't have said that any better! And by the way I am a Mormon!

      October 11, 2011 at 2:13 am |
    • Sam...


      Thank you for your remark and for your civility.

      October 11, 2011 at 1:39 pm |
  14. TheDudeAbides

    The band The Cult is a cult!

    October 9, 2011 at 8:16 pm |
    • OhPleaseYerKillinMeSTOP

      Author unintentionally makes an irrefutable case for taxing churches over political activism. Also by his own definition, all proselytizing baptists etc are in a cult: "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." Your band, however, is ironically not.

      Nor do they promote the kind of scholarship that works alongside others in pursuing the truth.

      October 9, 2011 at 8:24 pm |
  15. Louis Nardozi

    Well let's see.

    Who will bring the troops home?
    Who will cut the budget by half a trillion first day?
    Who will prevent the million murders a year our government currently performs?
    Who can free me from being accountable to my Creator for all those deaths?
    Who will do their best to get the Patriot Act repealed?
    Who really cares about ME, and truly believes that I own myself, NOT the government?
    Who admits the dollar is now worth less than 2% of what it originally was?
    Who wants to stop the current policy of robbing seniors by keeping interest rates artificially low?
    Who wants to end the War on Drugs and use that money to actually HELP people?
    Who defends Romney against religious accusations despite the shabby way Romney has treated him?

    You don't need me to tell you to Vote Vertebrate to know which man in the room has the spine.

    Vote Vertebrate – Ron Paul 2012!

    October 9, 2011 at 8:15 pm |
    • TheDudeAbides

      Who? Shaft, that's who.

      October 9, 2011 at 8:18 pm |
  16. Mark

    Who cares what Webster's says, the common perception is that cults are bad and in religion it is used almost exclusively as an insult. Otherwise there would be no reason for this article and no conversation about if Mormons are or aren't a cult. As a Mormon I'm glad that the author doesn't consider us a cult, but at the same time disappointed that JWs and Scientologists were thrown under the bus in the same breath. It's a big world, people can believe whatever they want without having to defend cult labels from groups of people who declare themselves moral arbiters.

    October 9, 2011 at 8:14 pm |
    • Ryan

      kind of like how you use your religion to be a moral arbiter and judge and condemn atheists?

      October 9, 2011 at 8:18 pm |
    • Sam...

      Well said Mark. I am a Mormon but disagree with him labeling Jehovah Witnesses and Scientologists as cults too. What we need in this country is people being more respectful to all people while trying to understand them and not judge them... and for all of you who consider yourself a Christian, remember that Christ will be the Final Judge, not any one of us.

      October 11, 2011 at 1:34 pm |
  17. Bud Tarken

    Mormonism isn't a cult? ahahahahahahaha

    October 9, 2011 at 8:14 pm |
  18. Nick the atheist

    First ban religion, then ban politicians. It's time for a second American revolution, this one to take back our country from the mealy mouthed politicians who would sell their mothers' should for a $1 or a vote and from corporate America; I say the latter because businesses have sold out all Americans by sending virtually all of their production to foreign lands. That's why we have no jobs; even Steve Jobs' Apple products are for the most part made in China. We need to stop worshipping the $ as religion and get back to basics, hearth, home and loved one. All else pales.

    October 9, 2011 at 8:14 pm |
  19. Ryan

    Definition of a cult:

    A system of religious veneration and devotion directed toward a particular figure or object. (such as Jesus or god)

    A relatively small group of people having religious beliefs or practices regarded by others as strange or sinister.

    Notice: All religions are strange compared to other religious groups. Suddenly when a cult reaches a big enough (extremely subjective) size, it becomes a religion. Religion is the next step in any cult. When it reaches that stage, it can no longer be made fun of and can no longer be taxed.

    October 9, 2011 at 8:14 pm |
    • hippypoet

      your wrong, what makes a religion a religion and not a cult by social definitions is not size but social accecptance. if the locals like your load of crap then its not a cult to those involved. But by definition all, ALL, religions are cults.

      October 9, 2011 at 8:16 pm |
    • Ryan

      Your logic is so flawed. How many of the local populace must believe in it to become socially acceptable? And how are we defining local? Next door? Same state? Same country? Same planet? What if a cult consists of every member of a small town? So it is socially acceptable in that town, but not everywhere else? So that means that certain religions would become cults in different countries, because most of the locals are not of the same religion.

      October 9, 2011 at 8:24 pm |
  20. Whatever

    The GOP has far bigger problems right now than if Mormonism is a cult. The whole bunch is looking loonier than a tune, Romney is one of the more normal ones, even if Mormonism is a cult (which personally I think it is).

    October 9, 2011 at 8:13 pm |
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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.