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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. David

    How much brainpower must be spent arguing which is the real path to answering the unanswerable? Religion is all about empowering the clergy.

    October 10, 2011 at 9:37 am |
    • Matthew

      What "powers" do clergy wield? Most of the ones I know work long hours for little pay. If that's what "empowered" means, then most clergy are no more empowered than your average lower or middle management type.

      October 10, 2011 at 9:51 am |
  2. Wanda

    My sister died of brain cancer in June after a horrific battle for 8 months. The only consoloation I have is knowing that through my Savior, Jesus Christ, I have the opportunity to live with her again. Because of his atoning sacrifice on the cross and through the resurrection I can be with her again; this life is not the end. It is through the Savior, Jesus Christ, that makes all this possible. She left five children–she was only 43 years old. Only through our Savior, our faith in Him, and our strong belief that we can live together again as a family, does that give me the FAITH and HOPE that I will see her again. She is a Mormon, a member of the Church of JESUS CHRIST of LATTER DAY SAINTS. I am a MORMON, a member of THE CHURCH OF JESUS CHRIST OF LATTER DAY SAINTS. I still wonder that those who criticize it's usually because they feel threatened by the truth.

    October 10, 2011 at 9:37 am |
    • Colin

      Hmmm, dead at 43, leaving five kids. Your sky-fairy doesn't sound very loving to me.

      October 10, 2011 at 9:40 am |
    • JT

      If you must have this delusion in order to be comforted then I certainly wouldn't try and take that from you but it's beyond me how you can praise this same beast for taking your sister leaving 5 children and making her suffer needlessly for 8 months. Sounds like your sister suffered far greater than the 36 hours your savior did.

      October 10, 2011 at 9:50 am |
    • Darkermeat

      Sky fairy should have just blocked that one cosmic ray that corrupted the cells DNA that lead to her cancer. Or sky fairy could of blown the cancer causing smoke the other direction.....of course sense all science stands in the way of the power of mythology/religion I guess you don't even believe in cancer or chemotherapy, bet you just prayed her to death

      October 10, 2011 at 9:57 am |
    • Lucifer's Evil Twin

      Let us not forget that sympathy and empathy are human emotions that do not require religious nonsense to display. I think belief in religion is a psychological illness.

      Wanda i'm sorry for your loss, I hope that whatever means you sought in your time of despair gave you comfort.

      October 10, 2011 at 10:25 am |
  3. Nick

    Just like CNN to pick someone that agrees with their view. What demonation does Meow lead as a top religious leader? As a Christian for forty plus years I have never heard of him, but it doesn't surprise me that his work was with a Morman. CNN should get the facts about different faiths. One question they could clearify is waht do Mormans and Christians and Muslems believe about Jesus Christ.

    October 10, 2011 at 9:36 am |
    • Steve in Boston

      I believe you'll find that he is a well-known leader in the Southern Baptist Conference.

      October 10, 2011 at 10:00 am |
  4. Rob

    Since Morman's believe if they work hard enough they will be come God and have their own planet when they die. Not Christians's sorry. You may not want to call them a cult, but they are not part of the Chrisitan faith. No mater how much they want to be Christians.

    October 10, 2011 at 9:36 am |
  5. blark

    Dr. Jeffress is either ignorant or a religious bigot. And, most often one is the ugly step sister of the other –ignorance being the fertile ground from which bigotry sprouts. Are we really to assume that he did not know exactly what kind of vitriol he was delivering last week? Outside of his narrow theological world, he understands clearly the common person equates "cult" and "non-Christian" as very negative insults and characterizations. If he does not grasp that, then he is ignorant. Some people claim 'exclusive' membership in Christianity by narrow definitions and technicalities. Others simply are christians by the way they live their lives according to Christs' example. Anyone who cares to look into this deeper will find out for themselves that Dr. Jeffress is the former variety of Christian and Mitt Romney is the latter kind of Christian. Over an above his career in which he provided for himself and family a livelihood, Mitt has served God from the time he was a young man, without any monetary compensation or reward. In terms of dollars and percentage of income, Mitt gives more to the poor and needy and to God's work than any other candidate –by far. This is something he has done all of his life, not just present political positioning. He commits 10% of his income to the Lord, and then on top of that, gives generously to many other causes, including one managed by a local volunteer church leader in a way that 100% of what he donates goes directly to help the poor and needy –no overhead. Whatever wealth Dr.Jeffress has, has come through his life-long career as a pastor in his church. I would be interested to know what of that he gives back. True Christianity, as exemplified by Christ himself, has always been about what you do not about what you say.

    October 10, 2011 at 9:33 am |
  6. Muddy

    My biggest problem with this whole thing is that everyone involved is abusing the definition of a cult. There are rules to what makes a cult, and I believe they are as follows.
    1. It a religion out lives its founder by many years, its not longer a cult.
    2. If a religion grows beyond a few thousand people it is not a cult.
    3. If a religion is 100's of years old, its not a cult.

    Just because a religion is not valid, or is harmful has nothing to do with whether its a cult. Most religions have to be untrue on fairly major points, since they disagreed. The largest religion in the world has at most 1/4th the population of the planet, and most likely less than 1/5th of the world's population. Even if you say the religions of the Book (Islam, Judaism, and Christianity) all worship the same God, and are therefore basically the same religion, that only gets you 1/3 to 1/2 of the World's population. Thus the majority of people will disagree with any religion.

    If there is a use for the word cult, it needs to be restricted to religious groups centered around abusive individual leaders, and nothing more.

    October 10, 2011 at 9:33 am |
    • skeptic

      It's actually not really OK to just make up your own definitions of commonly defined words in the English language.

      October 10, 2011 at 9:35 am |
    • Rod

      Sorry – but all religions are cults – whether you believe it or not .... LOL

      October 10, 2011 at 9:40 am |
    • Reason

      And these rules come from....?

      October 10, 2011 at 9:44 am |
    • Darkermeat

      Wrong.....good try but wrong. Cult is just a word used between two battling religions that they use to discribe one another. But in the end they are all cults that believe in sky gods. And besides anyone who hash been to Missouri can tell you that Branson is NOT the garden of Eden. Native Americans do not have darker skin because they were punished by god. And the Jewish rabbi named Jesus did not hang out here in north America 2000 years ago. And that BS that Smith could not reproduce his bible that god wrote through him after the first copy was lost is just frosting on the cake.

      October 10, 2011 at 9:51 am |
  7. Colin

    10 signs you are an Evangelical Christian.

    1. You honestly believe, despite everything we have been taught by cosmology, astronomy, geology, biology, history, paleontology and archeology, that the World began about 6,000 years ago with one man, one woman and a magic talking snake. You have no evidence to support you, but your unmatched ability to ignore inconvenient facts and bury your head allows you to maintain this silly mythology into the 21st Century.

    2. You think that, despite Jesus getting it wrong, despite the apostles getting it wrong and despite every single time it was said to be “about to happen” over the last 2,000 years being wrong, the Second Coming is imminent. You fail to see that believing that the “end is neigh” is generally recognized by psychologists as a basic human reaction to one perceiving themselves as a failure in life.

    3. You accept the “leap of faith” as a valid basis for believing in god in the absence of evidence, but fail to see that this makes you a pantheist, because you have to accept that the same leap can be made to any god with equal validity.

    4. You consider simple thoughts like lust and mast.urbation a sin, but have no issue with the disgusting, degenerate way your Bible treats women and $ex and, even today, admire people like Michele Bachmann who consider women second class citizens to men.

    5. You likely deny global warming for no other reason than it makes you uncomfortable and hold science to the impossibly high standard of having to explain every conceivable mystery about the natural World before you will accept it, but some moron rolling around a floor speaking in tongues is enough to convince you he is channeling a spirit.

    6. You will regularly be ripped off and cheated by charismatic “preachers” who are obviously crooks to everybody but you. Ted Haggard, Jimmy Swaggard, Eddie Long, and the other dozen or so who have ripped you off are not enough to convince you that you are a mindless sheep that is regularly being fleeced.

    7. You spout off about the importance of charity and generosity as Biblical principles, but likely support movements like the tea party that promote the evisceration of social policies.

    8. You fail to see that, given your personality, the only reason you are not a fundamentalist Jew, Hindu or Muslim is an accident of where you were born. Had you been born in Iran, you would be one of those bearded half-wits that burns American flags.

    9. You will defend the Bible, an Iron Age collection of Middle Eastern mythology, despite it being indisputable wrong and literally infested with outdated morality, contradictions and barbaric cruelty.

    10. You believe that anybody who does not accept your silly faith will burn in hell. You don’t have to kill, you don’t have to rob, hell, you don’t even have to litter. All you have to do is reject a belief in the Christian god and he will inflict a punishment upon you an infinite times worse than the death penalty….and he loves you. You see no contradiction in using the same sky-fairy as both the carrot and the stick.

    October 10, 2011 at 9:32 am |
    • Darkermeat

      Amen

      October 10, 2011 at 9:43 am |
    • Lucifer's Evil Twin

      hooah

      October 10, 2011 at 10:02 am |
  8. mouse

    christianity is a cult...if someone tells you differently run the other way....heck run the other way anyway, it'll show you know how to think for yourself.

    October 10, 2011 at 9:31 am |
    • John The Baptist

      If I only run away because you told me to then I'm not thinking for myself.

      October 10, 2011 at 9:33 am |
  9. Morgan

    President Mouw, I can't say thank you enough for the time you took this morning on CNN to share a refreshingly honest opinion of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Everyone has a right to an opinion, including Pastor Jeffress, but it's always important to make sure that we are well-informed before speaking on any issue.

    As for Mr. Romney and the other candidates: I'll give my vote to whoever I can trust to be honest at all times–someone that has the skills necessary to run a country in tough times.

    October 10, 2011 at 9:31 am |
    • Lucifer's Evil Twin

      so I guess your refraining from voting than?

      October 10, 2011 at 10:03 am |
  10. David Black

    First of all religon and politics don't mix. Its about religon stayed out on the street.
    Secondly I don't believe in the christian faith. It has no respect for anybody's else's believe and are very aragont bunch of people.
    Its about time religon stopped dictating whats right and wharts wrong. The bible is has no clue to any of whats whats.

    October 10, 2011 at 9:30 am |
    • IT

      My reply to David Black

      DB: First of all religon and politics don't mix. Its about religon stayed out on the street.

      IT: I disagree. A deep seeded belief in religion helped found this great nations where we are given religious freedom. Because of this, I believe they do mix. What doesn't mix is closed minded people who feel that their way is the right way – the only way. As Mr. Mouw points out of the Mormons and Evangelicals meeting – everyone regardless of religious & political beliefs should (and I even encourage) to have open talks, find your common ground, learn from one another and most of all – come away with an equal respect that one is not attacking nor tempting to take away your points of view. I love talking religion as well as politics with those of an open mind who are willing to share their opinions and listen to mine. In the end, isn't that really how we learn and grown? We share opinions and ask then others go and search to find the truth for themselves?

      DB: Secondly I don't believe in the christian faith. It has no respect for anybody's else's believe and are very aragont bunch of people.
      Its about time religon stopped dictating whats right and wharts wrong. The bible is has no clue to any of whats whats.

      IT: To broadly categorize all Christians as believing as well as behaving the same is injustice. That is equal to someone from another country as saying all American's only think of themselves and want to rule the world. You as a single individual have no idea what I as a Christian believe in my heart. All members of all faiths have core beliefs that are individual in nature to them. I doubt you'll find many in any church who agree on everything, but rather have developed their own beliefs that are unique to them. Sure, they can agree with the core beliefs of their religion, but for them – there's going to be doctrine that is personal to them in their belief that guides them in life.

      So I say to anyone quick to say all religions are false, nuts, radicals, or what have you – look in the mirror. Are you not doing to them, what you claim they do to the world. My mother always taught me never point a finger at anyone because you always have three pointing back at you. We as people can and will disagree on things of every topic and this my friend David Black, is what makes our country, The United State of America truly the home of the FREE and BRAVE. For we are free to express ourselves and allow others to freely do the same. Anyone who asks one to open their eyes, should be willing themselves to equally and respectfully do the same.

      October 10, 2011 at 10:04 am |
  11. mouse

    Any religion is a cult so picking a chosing which to label as such is silly. Funny how one kettle calls the other black.

    October 10, 2011 at 9:29 am |
  12. sybaris

    Here, in case this hasn't been posted before I'll post it for all the christians who think they can get away with saying Christianity is not a cult. And no, you don't have to meet all 5 criteria, just one and you're in.

    From Websters. Definition of cult

    1. : formal religious veneration : worship

    2: a system of religious beliefs and ritual; also : its body of adherents

    3: a religion regarded as unorthodox or spurious; also : its body of adherents

    4: a system for the cure of disease based on dogma set forth by its promulgator

    5:
    a : great devotion to a person, idea, object, movement, or work (as a film or book); especially : such devotion regarded as a literary or intellectual fad

    b : the object of such devotion

    c : a usually small group of people characterized by such devotion

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

      Like button 🙂

      October 10, 2011 at 9:31 am |
  13. Colin

    Which of the following is a silly story only a naïve child would believe and which is a cherished religious belief that should never be questioned or criticized?

    Harry Potter stared into the big black hat. Inside were magic gold tablets – which nobody else would ever see- which told Harry the secrets of the Universe, of life, death and the afterlife. They explained to him how, if he wore certain magic underwear, he would be protected from evil spirits in this life and in the end times.

    Joseph Smith stared into the big black hat. Inside were magic gold tablets – which nobody else would ever see- which told Joseph the secrets of the Universe, of life, death and the afterlife. They explained to him how, if he wore certain sacred underwear, he would be protected from evil spirits in this life and in the end times.

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

      You can also consider other stories to be rather naive as well such someone who physically wrestled with God, or God talking to a man through a burning bush, or of somone walking on water. There is so many stories in mainstream evangelical Christianity that can seem far fetched, but that in of itself doesn't necessarily mean that they didn't happen, even though one cannot prove that those events actually did happen. It all seems to boil down is that it is a matter of faith. Whether it's your faith or somone else's faith, it is just that, faith. As it says in the New Testament "Faith is the substance of things hoped for the evidence of things not seen".

      October 10, 2011 at 9:53 am |
    • Colin

      So by that token Kev, you can understand why many thinking people choose NOT to believe and that their choice is valid and well founded. Funny that they get to burn for all eternity for having the temerity to question.

      October 10, 2011 at 10:01 am |
    • Kev

      Colin, I can understand that others can make their own conclusions based on the evidence or the lack thereof, but it doesn't necessarily mean that something is not true just because it cannot be proven at the time to be true. That is where faith comes in.

      October 10, 2011 at 10:18 am |
  14. Colin

    "We evangelicals and our Mormon counterparts disagree about some important theological questions."

    Interpretatio"n: The c.rap the Mormons made up is even more crazy that the bat sh.it wierd c.rap we evangelicals believe.

    October 10, 2011 at 9:27 am |
  15. Mark

    RESPONSE / QUESTION TO GAST – Then if God the Father is a separate person from Jesus and as you state that Jesus is the god of this world, then do LDS worship two separate gods? I'm not trying to be facetious, I'm asking. God the Father has spirit children – Jesus, Lucifer and all of us according to LDS doctrine correct? Jesus is not part of the godhead as in Christian theology (tri-une godhead, father, son, holy spirit – one deity). So if you worship Jesus and he is the god of this world, then who is God the Heavenly Father, because Joseph Smith clearly stated they were two completely separate beings. That's what I was taught when I attended an LDS ward.

    October 10, 2011 at 9:24 am |
    • Ex Mormon

      Good question?!?

      October 10, 2011 at 9:26 am |
    • Muddy

      Could you please point out any place in the Bible that even remotely implies the Trinity?

      October 10, 2011 at 9:38 am |
    • Dave

      I'm a Mormon and we believe that the godhead consists of 3 beings: God the Father, his son Jesus Christ, and the Holy Ghost. We believe they are one god in the sense that they are absolutely one and unified in purpose (like a team in the most perfect sense), but that they are distinct or separate beings.

      For me personally this makes intuitive sense since the Bible has accounts that otherwise wouldn't make sense – Jesus on multiple occasions prayed to his father and not himself obviously, on the cross as he died he spoke to his father, when he was baptized the voice of the father was heard, Stephen while being stoned say Jesus on the right hand of God, etc. – to me all of these make a lot of sense if God and Jesus and the Holy Ghost are 3 separate beings, but become pretty convoluted if they are all the same being.

      I'm not asking you to agree with my perspective, but I hope you at least have a more correct understanding of our beliefs now. Thanks!

      October 10, 2011 at 9:39 am |
  16. petridish

    All religions are cults. Big congregations just like to call smaller congregations cults, but they're all equally delusional and ridiculous.

    October 10, 2011 at 9:24 am |
    • J.C.

      Forgive the obvious incongruity, but "Amen."

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

      Like button (hint.. CNN) 😀

      October 10, 2011 at 9:33 am |
    • Robertt

      You get a one sided viewpoint on this subject as 90% of folks who respond to CNN articles have no faith oir are antiChristian (ie liberal;). Muslims follow Mohammed, a person, Mormons follow a person, Joseph Smith. Mohammed and Joseph Smith wrote their revelation. Jesus did not write a revealation – he was revealed by God and written by those who were with him seeing first hand acts of God and were willing to die rtather than go back on their testimony or eyewitness. Christians follow Jesus Christ.

      October 10, 2011 at 9:42 am |
  17. Ex Mormon

    Trust me, i use to be Mormon. I stopped going because I think it's a cult. The definition of cult is "A system of religious veneration and devotion directed toward a particular figure or object." Im sorry, I was a devout mormon for almost 10 years, until the politics from the "cult" like extreme passive aggressive "brothers" and "sisters" within the organization shared their extreme views. It is a cult. There is rank structure, and everyone snubs there noses at each other. IT'S A COLT! Trust me I am a baptized Mormon that almost went on a mission to "share the good word." When the Mormons come to your door; ask them about the "garments," the "12 oxen" and ask about their "spiritual name" from their "spiritual tribe." Freaks.....

    October 10, 2011 at 9:21 am |
    • JustAMormon

      A "spiritual name" huh? That's almost as bad as someone dripping water on a baby's head, and giving them a "Christian" name.... wait....

      October 10, 2011 at 9:23 am |
  18. OnTheRoad

    The term 'evangelical' is beginning to look a lot like crazy!

    October 10, 2011 at 9:21 am |
  19. spiritandtruth

    Mormonism is a cult. Jehovah witnesses, and 7 day adventists are cults. If somebody who call himself a Christian is telling you the opposite, do not believe him. He is a wolf in sheep clothing, who will not spare the flock. Even if an angel from heaven tell you a different gospel, let him be accursed!

    October 10, 2011 at 9:20 am |
    • John The Baptist

      Of course, anyone who doesn't believe in a magical being exactly like you do then it must be a cult but you're perfectly sane and not brainwashed.

      October 10, 2011 at 9:27 am |
  20. lgny

    This article asks the wrong question.

    The real question should be "Will Romney or Huntsman serve as an honest ethical president?" It does not matter what flavor of religion they believe so long as they given consistent with our ethical values.

    Both gain an easy "yes". Let's move on to the real political issues.

    October 10, 2011 at 9:15 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.