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. Really?

    First Commandment: Thou Shalt Not Have Any Gods Before Me...when you worship what a mere mortal says, i.e. Joseph Smith, you have another God before you...enough said!

    October 10, 2011 at 9:13 am |
    • Lars69

      The same thing can be (and has been) said about the Pope.

      October 10, 2011 at 9:20 am |
    • sybaris

      Did Joseph Smith proclaim himself a god or does he have followers like the Pope or Admiral Mullen or Ronald Reagan or The Beatles?

      October 10, 2011 at 9:21 am |
    • John The Baptist

      The Jews would say the same thing about Jesus.

      October 10, 2011 at 9:22 am |
    • Jen

      Apparently you don't know much about Mormons other than what you hear. Mormons don't worship Joseph Smith.

      October 10, 2011 at 9:22 am |
    • MiddleMan

      Two things:

      1) You are assuming that the Christian 10 commandments are correct.
      2) Last time I checked, the bible was written by man. It may represent the word of god to you, but was in fact written by man.

      October 10, 2011 at 9:25 am |
    • Gerald

      hahaha, does anyone else find it wonderfully ironic that the first commandment was said by a 'mere mortal' named Moses? This honestly cracks me up, nice try there champ!

      October 10, 2011 at 9:29 am |
    • JDame

      We (Latter-day Saints) worship Jesus Christ as our Savior and Redeemer. We revere Joseph Smith as a Prophet of God and the prophet of the restoration. If any of you would take a look at what The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is about around the world you would find us as a Christian people helping around the world through humanitarian efforts.

      October 10, 2011 at 9:43 am |
    • kaz

      @ Really? Also the 9th commandment is Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor. Mormons don't worship Joseph Smith any more than Evangelicals worship Paul.

      October 10, 2011 at 11:32 am |
  2. stevarreno

    Nice to see the "evangelicals" coping out as much as the people they condemn.

    October 10, 2011 at 9:13 am |
  3. LMB123

    Finally, an Evengelical with some brains and a sense of fairness. Thank you Mr. Mouw for speaking out. We Mormons do disagree with the concept of God put forth in the Trinity and we do not appoligise for that. We just don't believe that is an accurate definition. However our belief that Jesus Christ is the only begotten of the Father, is therefore divine, is our only Savior and is part of the Godhead should never be questioned by intelligent and informed people. I am a Mormon and I have faith in and worship Jesus Christ. We do not pray to Joseph Smith. Jesus Christ is my Savior and He died on the cross for me. Enough said.

    October 10, 2011 at 9:11 am |
    • SCAtheist

      He still believes your religion is a fraud, just not technically a cult.

      October 10, 2011 at 9:14 am |
    • JT

      And not all Prtestants believe in the trinity so they got it wrong too according to Evangelicals. That's why you have thousands of denominations. Even Christians can't agree on whta the babble is saying. I don't know how you guys don't go crazy trying to make sense out of the 2000 year old writings of sheep herders.

      October 10, 2011 at 9:33 am |
  4. Kim

    "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."

    Sounds like all religion, to me...

    October 10, 2011 at 9:11 am |
  5. Vast Differences

    One will surely find that there are VAST *Contrasting* differences in gotothebible.com/HTML/mormonism.html between Mormonism and Christianity. It is surely not one and the same in the Christian sense. Also, you need to see the "Conclusion". Be aware!

    October 10, 2011 at 9:09 am |
  6. samsword

    I don't see what the issue is. Most mormons I've met are nice, genuine people. Sure, some of their peripheral doctrines are strange. And it's honestly hard to accept the historicity of the Book of Mormon. But the message seems fine to me. As my friend said, the core principles are "Faith," "Repentance," "Baptism," and "Enduring in Christ." Sounds Christian to me. They may be different from mainstream, but then again, is that such a bad thing? They don't accept the doctrines of the NIcene Council.. To me, that's okay, because neither do I. They're not biblical. So I don't get what the big deal is. Furthermore, doesn't the scripture say: "By their fruits ye shall know them." The Mormons do a lot of good for a lot of people.

    October 10, 2011 at 9:08 am |
  7. yellow rose

    I am the oldest child of a of Mormon - Praise the LORD I was put up for adoption tooo many kids go figure!!
    I found out as much as I could about Mormonism - they have it totally WRONG why dont Mormon churches have crosses on them? - They dont believe in the Ressurection !!! Id say they have it totally totally off key there. They believe blacks are the lost tribe and the reason their skin is black is because they were punished. Go to any Christian bookstore and ask to rent a movie called the God makers watch and watch you wont believe the stuff they believe - yes Thank you Jesus I was adopted..

    October 10, 2011 at 9:06 am |
    • SCAtheist

      You got adopted by another myth. If you don't consider which myth came first and look at them objectively side-by-side they aren't much different.

      October 10, 2011 at 9:09 am |
    • JustAMormon

      The God Makers is an incredibly silly movie, that is entirely inaccurate. It quotes many things entirely out of context, which is something ANYONE could do to make ANYTHING look bad. Reporters do it all the time actually.... If you want to know about Mormonism, ask a Mormon.... just seems like common sense...

      October 10, 2011 at 9:11 am |
    • SCAtheist

      I would rather read something objective from an hisorian, thanks.

      October 10, 2011 at 9:13 am |
    • Susn

      As an ex-Mormon, I can say honestly you didn't do your homework well enough. Mormons do believe in Christ's resurrection and that they too will be resurrected. They don't have crosses on their churches because they don't worship the cross. to them it's a symbol of Christ's death, not his resurrection. In my nearly 50 years as a practicing Mormon I was never taught that blacks are the "lost tribe." You should read more than one anti-Mormon book before you spout off misinformation. Yes, I'm an ex-Mormon and have many, many issues with that church, but I don't like to see falsehoods pawned off as fact about anything at all.

      October 10, 2011 at 9:14 am |
    • derp

      My fairy tale is better than your fairy tale. Nanny nanny boo boo!!!!

      F uc king religiots.

      October 10, 2011 at 9:15 am |
    • jgrm4

      You should probably study up why most other religions DO worship crosses. It has to do with a vision that the emperor Constantine had before going into battle, and then a subsequent obsession that his mother had with collecting pieces of wood that she believed came from the 'true cross'. It doesn't have anything to do with christ's teachings, it began a few hundred years after his death. It was then picked up as tradition by many of the christian denominations that followed. I'm not a Mormon but was told by one that the reason they don't worship crosses is not because they don't believe in the resurrection but that they prefer to focus on Jesus' teachings rather than obsess over a symbol of his death.

      October 10, 2011 at 9:22 am |
    • Juanita

      Mormons don't believe in the resurrection? Are you kidding me? The reason they don't display the cross is bcause it is not the significange of the resurrection. The significance of the crucifixion and resurrection is the resurrected Christ, that He sacrificed his life for us so that we may return to live with our Father in Heaven after we leave this life. A picture of the resurrected Christ is much more significant.

      It's always best to do a little research on other faith's beliefes before you post incorrect information. Christ taught to "Love one another as I have loved you". Let's propogate acceptance and love for each other, not undeserved criticism.

      October 10, 2011 at 9:29 am |
  8. Chris

    I am glad for any step towards openness to other religions from religious leaders. The author unfortunately makes inaccurate references about Christian Science. I was raised as a Christian Scientist and though I would no longer call myself a Christian Scientist, I can definitively say that Christian Science doesn't meet the author's criteria for a cult. There is not an "us versus them" in Christian Science, nor is there in any sense a belief that they are the only ones with divine approval. There was immense respect of other Christian or even non-Christian religious leaders as well. The Christian Science Church has had a major newspaper for decades which does not have a religious focus and is known for its impartiality. They have a university that has courses on other religions including Eastern religions. Christian Scientists are political and business leaders such as the recently departed Charles Percy, Senator from Illinois.

    October 10, 2011 at 9:05 am |
  9. Lisa

    Sorry. It's a cult. It will always be a cult. It's just a cult that has a lot of followers and fat coffers.

    October 10, 2011 at 9:03 am |
  10. SCAtheist

    I wonder how many of those LDS businesses are tax exempt?

    October 10, 2011 at 9:01 am |
  11. SCAtheist

    Okay, so some christians are saying Mormonism isn't a cult. What are they saying about it being a false religion?

    October 10, 2011 at 8:59 am |
    • Godless

      Mormons are better than Christians every single day of the year.

      This is coming from someone who is intelligent enough to realize that all religions are created by man.

      October 10, 2011 at 9:04 am |

    ALL RELIGION IS A CULT. They care about ptetty churches with stained glass. They care about you as long as you think and believe the same as them. Religion has become all about $$$$$$$$$. Churches should pay taxes just like me.

    October 10, 2011 at 8:59 am |
  13. vlady

    All religion's are cults. That's a fact!

    October 10, 2011 at 8:59 am |
  14. John

    All religions are cults.

    October 10, 2011 at 8:57 am |
    • Pest

      Right on.

      October 10, 2011 at 9:01 am |
  15. Amy

    The issue I have is not what religion someone practices, but whether that person is open-minded enough to enter a dialogue that challenges his or her beliefs and admit they do not know anything with absolute certainty. I've found that once people think they have all the answers, they stop asking questions, and when you stop asking questions, your brain rots. What has been troubling me in listening to the Republican candidates is their one-upping each other in being "Christian" . My impression of Jesus Christ is a man of humility. And on that note, why NOT have a president who is Jewish, or Muslim, or Hindu, or atheist? Why is even the whiff of non-Christianity the kiss of death? I hated when Obama kept trying to distance himself from the very idea of being Muslim and kept pointing out how long he had attended his church. There's supposed to be a separation of Church and State–now THAT'S something I'd like to see practiced.

    October 10, 2011 at 8:55 am |
  16. paula

    Why do Mormons believe there are layers of heaven, and only certain people get to certain levels? Why do they only allow cetain church members to attend certain temples?

    October 10, 2011 at 8:54 am |
    • jgrm4

      Why would you come to an internet comments forum to look for answers to these questions, instead of looking up the nearest Mormon church and asking someone there, or maybe going on the LDS website and chatting directly with a Mormon missionary?

      October 10, 2011 at 9:14 am |
  17. 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.

    If there's a distinctive difference between LDS with other religions is that we only Preach and Testify our belief but neither argue nor criticize others.

    October 10, 2011 at 8:54 am |
    • JT

      That's fine. Just keep your cycle-bots from knocking on my door.

      October 10, 2011 at 9:06 am |
    • Mark Musselman

      I am certainly no expert on Mormonism. Would you allow me a couple of questions? Does your heavenly father have other son's and daughters, i.e. other children who have or who will achieved "God" Status? Does your heavenly father have a father? Are Jesus and Lucifer brothers? If so, how then can Jesus be the only begotten? I am not sure what your answer will be to these few questions but if they are as I expect then "your" heavenly father and mine are different beings. They have vastly different characters and different histories. Why then would you want to confuse the two religions. It seems that Mormons have a complex and that they want to be accepted by the rest of our nation as the same as Christianity. It is not however, the same and some day either Mormon's will stand before the Christian God or Christians will stand before the Mormon God. I would love to know your thoughts.

      October 10, 2011 at 9:11 am |
    • Kev

      Mark Musselman, I certainly don't know all the answers to your questions. Some of those questions I've asked myself and I find myself overwhelmed, especially as to who is the father of Heavenly Father and who is his father and so on and so on and so on, but here is what I understand so far. That Heavenly Father is the father of our spirits. That all of us are spiritual brothers and sisters. That would then mean that Jesus Christ is our spiritual brother and that Satan or Lucifer is also our spiritual brother, which would also then make Jesus and Lucifer spiritual brothers. The difference where Jesus is the only begotten of the Father is not only is Jesus the spiritual son of the Father, but is also in the flesh as well, and in that regard Jesus is the only begotten.

      We as spiritual children, meaning all of us who have ever lived, who are living, and who will ever live are loved by our Heavenly Father, so much so that he gave his only begotten son (John 3:16) and that we can obtain everlasting life if we believe. So, what does everlasting life mean? That may be where differences of belief come into play. As spiritual children of Heavenly Father who loves us and wants the best for us would also mean he wants us to have the same blessings and happiness that he has.

      That through Jesus Christ's sacrifce, whose sacrifice paid the price for all of our shortcomings or sins, makes it possible for us to obtain those blessings the Father wants to give us if we follow the teachings, or in other words through Jesus Christ's atonement (at/one/ment) we can become one with the Father meaning that we can be with the Father and be like him having the same blessings and happiness that he has (John 17:11).

      October 10, 2011 at 11:22 am |
  18. Theodyn

    I rejoice for the one who finds spirituality; I pity the one who has found religion.

    October 10, 2011 at 8:53 am |
  19. SCAtheist

    What a stupid argument. After a cult builds momentum to go mainstream some arbitrary blessing from a christian makes them legit. It's all nonsense.

    Joseph Smith was a con man, and the legend of Jesus Christ is a myth.

    October 10, 2011 at 8:53 am |
  20. Michael Wong

    The author writes: "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."

    He obviously has no idea what it's like for an atheist to try to talk to an evangelical. He thinks they aren't a cult because they are willing to tolerate other branches of Christianity. That's like saying that southern racist whites from the 1920s were open-minded because they could tolerate blonde-haired AND brown-haired white people.

    October 10, 2011 at 8:52 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.