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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. Katniss

    Please, god or magical unicorn or Santa or someone. Please make this imbecile change his epistle so it doesn't mention Christian Science as if it is Scientology.

    "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."

    So sayeth he who goes on to tell you how wrong other religions, besides his and Mormonism, are.

    October 10, 2011 at 8:26 am |
    • george

      Christian Science is not the same as Scientology. Neither, however, is mainstream belief. That does not make either "wrong" but don't act holier-than-thou.

      October 10, 2011 at 8:33 am |
  2. who cares

    It all boils down to groups. This group thinks their better than that group. These folks think they're more righteous than those folks. Those guys think those other guy's religion is invalid. What is the result of this theological conflict between these self-righteous groups. Yes, that's right kids, you get everything from spirited arguing at the backyard bbq to mass murder using machetes and torture devices. Religious groups, we have divided ourselves into groups and them in one form or another, fight amongst each other. It's very similar to a football game where one team is against another and each side has their supporters who boo the other team, and sometimes they fight, EXCEPT, each team believes that God favors their team and not the other. Based on that model, you ultimately get war because both cannot peacefully coexist.

    October 10, 2011 at 8:21 am |
  3. nick2

    All religions are cults. Which ever way you look at them, pejoratively or otherwise – they simply exemplify a belief with leadership. Of course the larger your religion is, the more likely you are to demean the beliefs of others – because very few of our religions are able to accommodate the spiritual views of others, as also being an expression of 'the truth'.

    October 10, 2011 at 8:19 am |
    • Sam

      Excellent post and so so true

      October 10, 2011 at 8:30 am |
  4. Pietrino

    "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."

    As a non Christian, I've been told by scores of Evangelicals that while they may still love me, I'm going to hell for rejecting Christ. It is their stated mission to find new adherents, and their belief that salvation runs exclusively through their vision of god. It's not even us versus them. It's just them.

    October 10, 2011 at 8:18 am |
  5. BL

    What's the true difference between a religion and a cult? Religion is what I believe in. A cult is what you believe in.

    October 10, 2011 at 8:16 am |
  6. allie

    I know many evangelicals that believe that if you are not saved in the ways of their specific denomination of Christianity then you will go to hell. That sounds a bit cultish to me according to the "definition" of cults described by the author. I do not think Mormanism is a cult but I do not think they are Christian either. Romney is a legitimate man of faith... just not the Christian faith and that doesn't bother me one bit. (I am a prebyterian, btw). I am far more interested in a candidate's message, plan and values.

    October 10, 2011 at 8:14 am |
  7. The Real Tom Paine

    As someone who was once LDS, I can tell you the " us vs them" mentality is alive and well in the LDS Church, contrary to what the author says. Their whole metality is built arond a belief that they, and only they, possess the greatest measure of truth, and that all other denominations are an abomination. I remember sitting is a testomony meeting , listening to a young man who made a side living playing organ for other Churches, describing a wedding he was playing at: " Don't they know this is wrong?" he said, describing his thoughts as he took their money to play at a wedding. I looked around, and watched people nod in agreement. I got up, walked out, and never came back. Anyone who thinks they don't have a cult-like, defensive mentality, is deluding themselves.

    October 10, 2011 at 8:14 am |
    • Pinolera

      I wouldn't necessary call them a cult because cults isolate themselves from the rest of society and they are based on secrecy. So in their defense cannot call them a cult. Do they defend the bible or their version of the bible, now that is argueable. For they believe in things that isn't taught in the scriptures. Kings and Queens of their own planet? The richer you are the better off you will be in heaven? Their entire religion is based on money and that is why they have lots of it. Totally contrary to Jesus' teaching and his way of life.

      October 10, 2011 at 8:20 am |
    • Matt M.

      Pinolera – What is Utah if not a gigantic version of separating from society? They separate and then remake society in their image.

      October 10, 2011 at 8:24 am |
    • Jon

      I don't know what 'Mormon" church you attended, but it certainly isn't the one I've been a member of for 25 years. I have never experienced the kind of negative experience you describe.

      October 10, 2011 at 8:25 am |
    • dave

      Every church thinks their better than another, why would you join a church if you didnt think it was the best?

      October 10, 2011 at 8:34 am |
    • The Real Tom Paine

      @ Jon, it was a ward chapel in Brighton NY, on Westfall Road. It was actually the Singles Branch they had at the time. I walked out with someone who was investigating the Church at the time, and he swore he would never join. That was only the most blatant example I saw, there were numerous others in the years I was a member.

      October 10, 2011 at 9:45 am |
  8. Tad

    Man is saved by grace alone not good works.

    October 10, 2011 at 8:11 am |
    • Kev

      Tad, Is it that Mormons don't believe in being saved by gace at all, or is it that Mormons believe in being saved by grace under certain conditions such as doing certain works and then grace is given?

      October 10, 2011 at 9:27 am |
  9. Me

    It doesn't matter what the LDS church believes, what matters is what Romney believes. The LDS church isn't running for President, Romney is.

    Ask HIM how he holds his religion in comparison to his political work. That is what you need to know.

    October 10, 2011 at 8:07 am |
    • Mirosal

      That's exactly what was asked of JFK back in 1960

      October 10, 2011 at 8:10 am |
  10. WGAS

    This is like arguing about where Santa Claus shops for his red suit.

    October 10, 2011 at 8:07 am |
  11. Medved

    Mark said it perfectly. I can't believe Fuller Theological Seminary has sold out. Even a brief exploration of the tenets of the LDS religion should elucidate that it is NOT a Christian religion. Period. The LDS "church" expertly markets itself as "Christian", and mamby-pamby fools like Mouw only help their heretical cause.

    October 10, 2011 at 8:05 am |
    • Gast

      Only according to its narrow view of Christianity and yours. I find it a very sad discussion to see how narrow-minded people are here. Instead of noting that a faith doesn't belong to our own particular type of Christianity, we exclude it altogether. Wars have been fought over this issue, in Europe centuries ago, and in Ireland not so long ago. No wonder there are so many non-Christians who think we are all nuts, regardless of our views of this Prince of Peace called Christ we adhere to!

      October 10, 2011 at 8:24 am |
  12. Zacchaeus Akinleye

    This write-up is a disservice to the cause of evangelical Christianity. There is nothing in the tenets and belief of Mormonism that bears agreement with Bible truth. Mr. Mou's endorsement of Mitt Romney is simply political and needs no spiritual justification.

    October 10, 2011 at 8:04 am |
    • Gast

      Read the article again: He isn't endorsing Romney. He's saying that he needs to be cut some slack about his religion rather than people letting people's views of it tank his campaign and he should be allowed to say what his beliefs are politically and let that stand.

      October 10, 2011 at 8:26 am |
    • DS

      If you took Mouw's advice and talked to a Mormon about their belief in Christ you would be proven wrong. They believe in the Bible and more (Book of Mormon, etc.). Narrowly defined views of what "Christianity" is will ultimately leave you on an island all alone. Then tell me who is the "cult" according to Mouw's definition!

      October 10, 2011 at 8:32 am |
  13. DrJStrangepork

    Religion, Cult... whatever. Sounds like a semantic argument to me. If you want to call Mormonism a cult, then you should be prepared to call Christianity a cult as well. It is all the same. I am sure many disagree, but that is the point.

    October 10, 2011 at 8:00 am |
    • Mirosal

      Very well. I publicly declare Christianity a cult, as well as Islam, Judaism, Hindu, Buddhism, and myriad other "faiths". Any belief in invisible sky-fairies and celstial kingdoms because some book told you to believe it just tells me how gullible you really are. And for the Mormons, what's with the special undies? Are they boxers or briefs? Thong or Bikini or granny-panties? Or is it just a big diaper because the bible the Koran the book of mormon etc. is full of sh....aaaving cream be nice and clean shave every day and you'll always be keen

      October 10, 2011 at 8:08 am |
    • Michael500ca

      Christianity is a cult. Any group that believes in invisible, all powerful beings technically is a cult. Love live science and reason.

      October 10, 2011 at 8:16 am |
  14. Mirosal

    Belief in the supernatural? Does that mean "Twilight" is REAL, and that "Ghost Hunters" really DO catch ghosts?? Oh my, better eat lots of garlic and set out those werewolf traps!! Then I'll just ride to the countryside on my unicorn and hide in the mystical magical forest where the trees will protect me

    October 10, 2011 at 7:59 am |
  15. Stephen

    According to the good professor's own words, Early Christianity was a cult since it did not have a university, but more critically was considered marginal by both the leading theological and military leadership of its time. Who, then, would have predicated that Christianity would become one of the dominant religtions of the last 1500 or so years? I often find the words such as cult to be self-serving by those who wish to diminish the value of of a smaller group or its members.

    It goes without saying that some groups are terribly harmful to its memjbers or those with whom they come into contact. This statement is true for groups that would be called either cults or mainstream religious groups. History is replete with such examples. While those who believe that they bring the "truth" to the uninitiated or uninformed, they often bring great despair. The world once populated by thousands of different religious systems is now much reduced in its religious diversity. Think about the processes that wreaked havoc, death and despair as the cost for spreading the good word-regardless of the specific religion. Much of the spread of one religion over another has been at the end of a sword or spear tghat was also used to exploit the recipients of the new truth.

    October 10, 2011 at 7:58 am |
  16. myklds

    We as members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, firmly believe in Christ as the only Begotten Son of our Heavenly Father, Saviour and the redeemer. We also believe the Bible as the Word of God and the Book of Mormon as the Second Testament of Jesus Christ.

    October 10, 2011 at 7:58 am |
    • Bilbo

      2nd Testament huh? Well John wrote before 70 AD that anyone who added to the Word would have the end time plagues added to them. Duck and Cover.

      October 10, 2011 at 8:18 am |
    • DS

      Bilbo–So John wrote that before the Bible existed huh? It wasn't even compiled and put together yet. So what exactly was this "Word" he was referring to that you speak of? That's a weak argument. I think you would be better off reading that scripture pervert or drastically change or alter the meaning.

      October 10, 2011 at 8:38 am |
  17. Mark

    Plain and simple – Mormonism, the official LDS Church, is nominally Christian, that is in NAME only. Simple reason – Christians, basically all Christians draw the line at the Nicene and Apostle's Creed. Even if they don't say it in church every week like most Protestants and all Catholics, they still adhere to it. These creeds were written in an unambiguous manner to ensure right belief and combat heresy. Mormons strongly desire to be under that same umbrella for legitimacy reasons, but believing in multiple gods (they worship one, but acknowledge countless), rejection of the Trinity, Jesus is God, humans becoming divine (eternal progression), human pre-existence, plus about a hundred other seriously divergent beliefs puts them at odds with traditional Christianity. They simply have Jesus in their name and have a concept of who Jesus us, but it’s not the same Jesus as Christianity. Think of it this way – A chair is a chair because we have defined the concept, the idea what a chair is. A goldfish is not a chair however, even if you put "chair" in its name.

    October 10, 2011 at 7:55 am |
    • Mark

      Correction... I meant to to say that LDS do NOT believe Jesus is God. He may be on his way to becoming a God, just like all good Mormons believe they are too, but Jesus is NOT God the god of this World. They believe in ETERNAL Progression" so that all Mormons that follow the only true church (the LDS Church) are in the process of becoming gods themselves.

      October 10, 2011 at 7:59 am |
    • Medved

      A very lucid and appropriate response!

      October 10, 2011 at 8:11 am |
    • Gast

      I'm sorry, but you are very ill-informed. Jesus Christ IS considered the God of this world according to the Mormon faith.

      October 10, 2011 at 8:12 am |
    • inforodeo

      I think Mark's response is a little more thought-out than most Mormon-bashing I've read recently.

      I like the analogy of the goldfish being called a chair. I personally find it interesting that so few followers of Christ bother to put His name in the name of their churches, instead calling them by the names of pastors, theological concepts, or catchy "hip" names to draw in Generation X. This is where the goldfish and the chair are both called Sam, Bob, Rapture and GaGa.

      The theological differences that are mentioned are all concepts designed by man. There has never been a "Trinity" in the Bible that matches that contrived over the centuries through the various councils (generally grouped and called the "Nicene Creed"). The doctrine of "Rapture" was invented in the past 300 years, and the term coined in the 1800's. There is no gospel of worldly wealth as is preached by a lot of mega-churches. Every year there are more and more modifications and allowances made by "Christian" churches that have bent the Gospel of Jesus Christ to a point far removed from its strait and narrow path. These changes are made so potential followers will not feel ashamed of their sin, or so members can have a little entertainment to keep them awake. The list can go on and on, but essentially the point is this: "Christianity" as it is today was not practiced by Christ or His earliest followers.

      My favorite quote in this article was when Muow said, "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 like this quote because those are the Mormons i know too – the ones who do their best to live Christ's teachings every hour of every day. I like the reverence and respect of the religion; there is no need for smoke and lights and a trained charismatic pastor.

      I believe the most important criteria for a determination of Christianity – following Christ – is that the believers literally follow Christ. Living the teachings, doing their best to walk behind Him in His footsteps, and doing this sincerely goes a lot further, in my opinion, than strapping on a cross and shouting "Praise him!" once a week. The issue here isn't one of cult/non-cult, it's one of mainstream or outsider. Which was Christ in His time?

      October 10, 2011 at 8:26 am |
    • Jun

      Mark, the reason why most evangelicals don't agree with mormon doctrine just because you don't believe in modern revelation even if the bible speaks or revelation to his prophets in ancient times but because he is the same yesterday today and forever he speaks again today. I know the time will come(during his second coming) that most evangelical and people who reject the teaching of his church (LDS Church) will ask forgiveness to our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and will recognized that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is his church on earth.

      October 10, 2011 at 9:44 am |
  18. someoneelse

    The only difference between a religion and a cult is popularity.

    October 10, 2011 at 7:55 am |
  19. Jesus Is Lord

    Mormons believe that God the Father used to be a man. That's not a cult belief? Good grief, then what is?

    October 10, 2011 at 7:54 am |
    • Jon

      We are you getting this type of nonsense?

      October 10, 2011 at 8:26 am |
  20. nick2

    Religion, or a belief in the supernatural is perfectly OK – if you keep it to yourself. But the manifestation of it be it Christian, Jewish, Muslim or some variation, is like a short circuit that cuts out logic and a desire to learn. Worse – it abrogates personal responsibility, instead handing it to a religious leader – who is often corrupted with illusions of grandeur and power.
    Now some would like to contradict my issue with personal responsibility – but if you examine the dictates of organized religion, you will see that they are really offering captivity in return for what they audaciously offer as future salvation – which they enforce with a psychological barrage of mental beatings.
    I am not a sado-masochist – but I find it hard to distinguish any kind of religious culture from that predicament.

    October 10, 2011 at 7:52 am |
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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.