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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. Frank Tien

    So this guy will condemn the Church of Christian Science as a cult because they don't create a university? A university that is run like a cult compound? You get caught drinking a cup of coffee in Utah and they can kick you out of BYU – even if you're Catholic attending classes there. What about the whole "afterlife language" the Mormans teach?

    This is a religion that didn't admit that black people got into heaven until the disco-era.

    October 10, 2011 at 10:26 am |
    • Zach

      Frank- I must correct your inaccuracies. The LDS church has said nothing about black people not being able to get into heaven. Joseph Smith himself sold property and gave the proceeds to black members of the LDS congregation in order to buy their relatives' freedom. I personally do not believe that our God is racist. The reason why Blacks were not able to receive the priesthood until the late seventies is more of a reflection on us as human beings than on God. People in general (including Mormons) were still extremely racist and had a hard time with anything allowing blacks and whites the same privilege. God reveals his gospel piece by piece, step by step. Blacks, whites, asians, native americans...we are absolutely all God's children, but God recognized our need to be brought up a little at a time until we are ready for the next piece. This is the same reason why only the Levites had the priesthood in the times of Moses. The same reason why people questioned Peter when the gentiles (non-Jews) were given an opportunity to hear and receive the Gospel. It was not that God hated the Gentiles, it was that his followers had to be given ample time to wash their minds of the racist sentiments that their culture had instilled upon them. BTW-I am from a multicultural family with several blacks, a korean and a middle-eastern as direct, blood relatives. The LDS church does not, and never did hate blacks. I do not believe that this idea is any more far fetched than that of many Christians who believe that the sacrament literally turns into the body and blood of Christ. I do not condemn their beliefs and respect them for being devout, as that is what Jesus Christ, our Savior would do.

      October 10, 2011 at 10:49 am |
  2. Rob

    Whoever "mingles his seed" with the Lamanites will be cursed by God and will "bring the same curse upon his seed." (Their children will have dark skins.) Ya it aint a cult.

    October 10, 2011 at 10:24 am |
    • Agkcrbs

      Wow. You seriously equate genetic and religious heredity with a "cult"? I have about two centuries of science to refer you to. The curse was a loss of God's presence, not the particular skin colour coincidental to people marrying other tribes.

      October 10, 2011 at 11:45 am |
  3. Jeepers

    Anyone who comes to my door trying to recruit me by asking me all sorts of personal questions that are none of their business is going to make me angry. If someone else calls them a cult, I don't have a problem with that. Haven't they ever heard of not talking about politics or religion in polite conversation? Of course, what is polite about coming to someone's door and asking them about their religious beliefs? Yes, I think Mormons are crazy people...and probably a large cult. Of course, I think that about all religions. If you need some leader to tell you what to believe, how to behave, who to VOTE FOR...you may be in a cult.

    October 10, 2011 at 10:24 am |
    • Mark from Middle River

      What if it a Democrat party that comes knocking at your door? The thing is that Mormons, at least do the foot work and come to your door, ever get a political call asking you to support a candidate Republican or Democrat?

      October 10, 2011 at 10:29 am |
    • Sally

      While I agree that I don't want anyone coming to my door to try to recruit me, I solve the problem by politely saying that I am not interested and closing the door without giving them time to respond. But even though they do get lots of doors closed in their faces, they are successful in recruiting. My cousin was recruited in just that way. I don't share their beliefs but I do have to say that the few Mormans I have known have been happy, loving and not at all judgemental of anyone who does not share their beliefs. They won't try to recruit their non-Morman friends unless that door is opened by the friend. All in all, they are a very respectful people.

      October 10, 2011 at 10:34 am |
  4. Loxley Moor

    Seems like Republicanism is a cult

    October 10, 2011 at 10:22 am |
    • Mark from Middle River

      That would make the Democrats a Cult also. Ever see Bill Clinton show up at an event?

      October 10, 2011 at 10:26 am |
  5. yeahalright

    Guess what people. It's a cult. So is your religion, whatever it is. The varieties of hocus pocus differ only in how many suckers they claim as followers.

    October 10, 2011 at 10:19 am |
  6. Mark

    RESPONSE TO MUDDY

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

    The word "Trinity" never occurs in the bible, it was developed in the century following Christ's crucifixion.

    Here's some of the rationale:

    "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God." [John 1:1] Jesus, of course, is the Word. A neo-Platonist background is helpful here.

    "Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit" [Mt 28:19]

    "Hear O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one." ( Mark 12:29)

    "I and the Father are one." ( John 10:30)

    "Do you not believe that I am in the Father, and the Father in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own authority; but the Father who dwells in me does his works." ( John 14:10)

    So no the word "Trinity" is not in the New Testament, but the apostolic fathers, using these and other statements in the Bible, determined that God is one and Jesus claims to be one with God, so there we have two elements of the Trinity. That's actually easy compared to trying to figure out Christ's two natures (human and divine), that's a whole other discussion.

    "I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also." ( John 14:6-7)

    I'm not claiming divine insight to know if there is a god or if the Trinity exists, I'm just pointing out how it developed, so when you ask where is Trinity in the Bible?.... you know that the Apostolic fathers had a challenge because those lines of the Bible seem to say that Jesus and God are one, not easy to reconcile in a systematic theology.

    October 10, 2011 at 10:18 am |
    • Maggie

      "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God." [John 1:1] Jesus, of course, is the Word. A neo-Platonist background is helpful here.
      If the word was with God the word can not possibly be that same God. The word has be also a god not the same God.
      "Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit" [Mt 28:19]

      This verse states three things not one

      Mark 12:29 is a quote from another book in the bible that Jesus quoted from. Please put the original verse with God's in name and it will make sense. He was referring to his father. Those words are found at Deuteronomy 6:4. The Catholic New Jerusalem Bible (NJB) here reads: "Listen, Israel: Yahweh our God is the one, the only Yahweh."* In the grammar of that verse, the word "one" has no plural modifiers to suggest that it means anything but one individual.
      The Christian apostle Paul did not indicate any change in the nature of God either, even after Jesus came to the earth. He wrote: "God is only one."—Galatians 3:20; see also 1 Corinthians 8:4-6.

      John 10:30 "I and the Father are one." The bible also states that a man and a woman after they are married they are one, you will agree that the bible does not mean they are not one individual but two, rather they are not united for one common purpose.

      If Jesus is God the Almighty who resurected him when he was dead? who was in charge of the universe while he was dead? On the other hand if he resurrected himself then he was dead, so therefore there is no ramson for our sins and no resurrection.

      Jesus never made such a claim. You need to read more.

      AT MATTHEW 4:1, Jesus is spoken of as being "tempted by the Devil." After showing Jesus "all the kingdoms of the world and their glory," Satan said: "All these things I will give you if you fall down and do an act of worship to me." (Matthew 4:8, 9) Satan was trying to cause Jesus to be disloyal to God.

      But what test of loyalty would that be if Jesus were God? Could God rebel against himself? No, but angels and humans could rebel against God and did. The temptation of Jesus would make sense only if he was, not God, but a separate individual who had his own free will, one who could have been disloyal had he chosen to be, such as an angel or a human.

      On the other hand, it is unimaginable that God could sin and be disloyal to himself. "Perfect is his activity . . . A God of faithfulness, . . . righteous and upright is he." (Deuteronomy 32:4) So if Jesus had been God, he could not have been tempted.—James 1:13.

      Not being God, Jesus could have been disloyal. But he remained faithful, saying: "Go away, Satan! For it is written, 'It is Yahweh your God you must worship, and it is to him alone you must render sacred service.'"—Matthew 4:10.

      October 10, 2011 at 10:47 am |
    • manuel rodriguez

      Every religion is man made, did Jesus said he came to create a new religion? or to correct what was wrong with his(Jewish) even in the cross he forgive them he did not said they going to hell and i ask the so call evangelico (no christian) if theirs children did wrong will they burn them? no one say yes so far and them i said you are better than the god you believe in because he will do it to his children and if god Knows no the past present and future how could he create the devil? before man was able to write were thousands of years and the bible was from mouth to ears to try how this work make a line of 100 people and read a long sentence without the next person listening and see the results at the end of the line.I believe in perfect God and he has a perfect plan for salvation for every one even before the bible even before Jesus he plan was working or he could no being just so hi is not perfect but this is only me with a 8th grade of school and if there is one God humanity is one no matters your believe we are all the same and the law of karma will set set in sooner or later.

      October 10, 2011 at 11:13 am |
  7. Maggie

    If Mitt Romney truly believes in the bible why is he into man's government? The entire theme of the bible is God's coming kingdom is the only solution to human's problem. so therefore, he is an hypocrite. Do not vote for him, he can not be trusted?

    October 10, 2011 at 10:18 am |
    • jo jo

      Maggie: Are you saying if you believe in the teachings of the Bible, you should not serve in the government? I find your statement hard to fathom. Think about what you just wrote. It doesn't make any sense at all.

      October 10, 2011 at 10:28 am |
  8. TomNPitt

    Funny thing – i alwasy thought Evangelicals were a cross between Christians and Atheasts. They just have TV Shows filmed in beautiful churches the worship before, instead of having beautiful churches they actually had to go to. I really don't see any of these Pagan religiona (Protestants, Methodists, Lutherans and especially Baptists) ever having a seat at the temple of God!

    October 10, 2011 at 10:18 am |
    • yeahalright

      Nor will you. There is no god.

      October 10, 2011 at 10:32 am |
  9. Ryan

    Pfft, religion.....

    October 10, 2011 at 10:17 am |
  10. chip

    Whatever Mormonism is, it's not Christian. Christians do not believe that God was once a mortal on another planet. Mormons do. End of story.

    October 10, 2011 at 10:17 am |
    • Binky42

      Depends which brand of Christianity you're talking about. They all claim to be the original brand.

      October 10, 2011 at 10:20 am |
  11. Kate

    Mormons are a cult and they exclude so many walks of life.

    October 10, 2011 at 10:16 am |
  12. JerryD

    All religions are cluts.. except perhaps the one you believe in?

    October 10, 2011 at 10:16 am |
  13. Dave

    I'm a Mormon and I appreciated this article because it puts Evangelicals in a much better light – too often the Evangelical movement is represented by a few very vocal, hate-spewing people, but I know so many Evangelicals who are nothing like that.

    I love the idea of open discussions about beliefs because as the author pointed out, we actually have lots of beliefs in common. There are several key points on which we disagree, but we can disagree amicably and with increased mutual understanding.

    On the question of whether or not Mormons are Christians, it's an interesting question. We certainly consider ourselves Christians – go to any dictionary and look up 'Christian' and we more than fit the bill. We worship Jesus Christ as the Only Begotten son of God (we absolutely do not worship prophets), we believe that only through him can we return to live with God, we believe that we need to pattern our lives after Jesus' and his teachings. Goodness, our church is named after him – the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints ("Mormons" is a nickname).

    It's only when you take that simple definition of Christianity and start adding caveats and conditions to make the definition far more narrow that anyone could start to claim that we're not Christian. But I could do that too – I could change the definition of Christian into something else and then claim that somebody else isn't a Christian, using my custom definition. I could, for example, say that to be a Christian you must think the Crusades were a terrific idea. 🙂

    I think Mormons, Catholics, Evangelicals, etc. are all Christians because they share a faith in Jesus Christ. It really is that simple. We do tend to disagree on some things... for example, Mormons don't necessarily agree with all the points in the Nicene Creed. But considering that those things came hundreds of years after Christ's death, I don't see how disagreeing with them makes us non-Christian.

    To everyone out there who loves to rail on Mormons and tear down our beliefs, I do have to ask: is that really what Jesus would have you do? I sincerely believe in Jesus Christ and am trying to follow his teachings. Do you honestly think Jesus wants you to answer that with statements of hate or things like, "you're not a Christian!" or "you don't worship the same Jesus I do!" ? Those are pretty hurtful things to say. I'm pretty sure he would instead prefer you to act with love and respect, *especially* if I am in error. If you consider yourself a disciple of Christ, then please try to act like one. That's all I'm trying to do too.

    October 10, 2011 at 10:14 am |
    • Kate

      Mormons exclude black people

      October 10, 2011 at 10:18 am |
    • Mark from Middle River

      Are you sure about that. Aretha Franklin I believe is a Mormon.

      http://www.blacklds.org/

      October 10, 2011 at 10:24 am |
    • Shannon

      Dave, one simple little question to tell whether or not a person is Christian. Have you accepted Christ into your life as lord and saviour? If not, then, no, you are not Christian.

      October 10, 2011 at 10:33 am |
    • Sally

      I am not Mormon, but I do agree with you. I grew up Catholic and was always taught that anyone who believes in Jesus was a Christian. The different types (Baptists, Protestants, etc) had different underlying beliefs, but all fell under the Christian heading.

      October 10, 2011 at 10:42 am |
    • Dave

      @Kate: not so – I know tons of Mormons who are black. One example of many: the mayor of my city is a black woman who is also a Mormon (and a pretty good mayor too! 🙂 ).

      @Shannon: "Dave, one simple little question to tell whether or not a person is Christian. Have you accepted Christ into your life as lord and saviour? If not, then, no, you are not Christian." – I think you're right, Shannon. And yes, I have accepted Christ into my life as my lord and Savior. I was baptized in his name. I pray to God in his name. I try really hard to live his teachings. I'm very, very far from perfect, but I find happiness to the degree that I am able to follow his example.

      @Sally: Thank you for your level-headedness. 🙂

      October 10, 2011 at 11:04 am |
  14. Mike

    The truth is, they are all CULTS!! Just different flavors. Everybody thinks they have the only answer and if you don't believe in what they believe you are a cult.

    October 10, 2011 at 10:14 am |
  15. Sathyavrath

    All Religion is Mass Neurosis. Evangelicals especially. Tey need immediate psychiatric attention since they take the Bible literally. For example, Evangelicals diss on the Mormon concept of Lucifer being Jesus brother. But that is a literal view. For an outsider have studied various religions including thought before religions were organised into political camps, this makes perfect sense. In an allegorical sense good cannot exist alone, it must have evil to define it, like a twin brother. And that makes the Mormon case of Lucifer being Jesus brother more sensible.

    October 10, 2011 at 10:13 am |
    • Peter

      As a faithful member of the church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, I do agree with you. A lot of what we believe might give cause for psyco therapy. But I thank you for at least looking into what we actually believe before bashing on things we don't actually believe. If more people just looked at what Mormons believe before going off of what they heard from a friend 7 years earlier, there would be much less confusion and hatred.

      Thank you.

      October 10, 2011 at 10:30 am |
  16. Beebo

    So all it takes for a cult to become a real religion is PhD's?

    October 10, 2011 at 10:13 am |
  17. Colin

    As an atheist, it is completely hilarious watching theists debate who knows best about life after death, and the answers to all the “big questions”. And here, we have two of the stupidest groups imaginable – evangelical Christians and Mormons! All we need is a scientologist and we would have a full deck.

    I would love to see a full on debate in person as the Mormon tries to convince some tambourine-banging simpleton Christian how Jesus and Satan are brothers and we are all descended from gods hum.ping aliens and human women.

    October 10, 2011 at 10:13 am |
    • Schmecky

      Colin,

      You must not have been hugged enough by your mother. You poor thing! Some day you will come to know the reality of Divinity and true purpose of our existence.

      October 10, 2011 at 10:19 am |
    • Rob

      @Schmecky "For no man needs a mothers love when surrendered to the true father" Your a phukn idiot.

      October 10, 2011 at 10:30 am |
    • tallulah13

      I agree Colin. All of this is tantamount to an argument over whether Superman could beat Batman.

      October 10, 2011 at 11:20 am |
    • Chuckles

      to be fair Tallulah,

      Superman would totally beat Batman and that's a fact, you know, I know, we all know it and is something that is actually worth a serious debate with anyone would like to disagree, unlike this subject that Colin has put succinctly and basically pointed out that when people claim to know more about the unknowable than the other person and are taken seriously it makes me want to cry for the crazy world that I find myself living on.

      October 10, 2011 at 11:26 am |
    • dave

      Colin,

      Please tell us the answers to the big questions. Who am I? where am I going? What is the meaning of life?

      October 10, 2011 at 11:41 am |
  18. Laurie in Spokane

    Mormonism IS a cult. A big cult, but one nevertheless. What but a cult, that wants to maintain its brainwashing, sends people to each Mormon's home once a week to check that they're toeing the line, and let them know they're being watched? It is an insidious cult.

    October 10, 2011 at 10:11 am |
    • Sathyavrath

      You've just described a fundamental christian.

      October 10, 2011 at 10:14 am |
    • Schmecky

      Wrong on all counts Laurie. Wrong, wrong, wong!

      October 10, 2011 at 10:16 am |
    • Richard Stone

      Laurie, respectfully...I don't mind you having an issue with religion, or for that matter the LDS church. But I have to object to your description of the church as being "insidious", a "cult", and "brainwashed." Referring to the church as insidious, cult-like, or it's members as being brainwashed would imply that we aren't frank and candid about our beliefs; that somehow we're trying to trick you. Please go to Mormon.org to learn about our beliefs; there is ample enough information out there for you. If you're still not satisfied, no problem; maybe our religion isn't what you had in mind. Secondly, and I have to chuckle about this, you're snippet about us sending people to members houses "every week" to "keep them in line" and "let them know they are being watched" is borderline paranoiac. I presume you are referring to Home and Visiting teachers? I have over the years come to love and appreciate the men and women who have on short notice responded to my home to assist in comforting a sick child, to bring a meal when my wife was in the hospital, or help lay sod in my backyard. And when they weren't performing tasks such as these were able to bring a quick message about the Gospel of Jesus Christ to share. I appreciate that my children see their service and want to replicate it. They love the feeling in our home when they do come. I am ashamed that I often don't find the time every month to do the same, but I try. What the evangelical preacher said in the article is praiseworthy; I am thankful, despite or theological differences, that he has the civility to refrain from using labels that are divisive and essentially say nothing more than, "we are better than you." Using terms like "cult", "insidious", and "brainwashed" weaken your position and question your credibility.

      October 10, 2011 at 11:12 am |
  19. Lucky

    @ chuckles,
    If people believe that US is a christian state, please learn the BILL OF RIGHTS..1st AMENDMENT...
    this is a secular nation...that is what is great about this nation..

    October 10, 2011 at 10:11 am |
    • The Ack

      The government is secular but not the nation. There is a big difference between these two ideas.

      October 10, 2011 at 10:13 am |
    • Pam

      All organized religions are cults!

      October 10, 2011 at 10:14 am |
    • Binky42

      This country was founded to give people peace from religious persecution. So, a few hundred years later, the persecuted are now the persecutors. I love it!

      October 10, 2011 at 10:22 am |
  20. twgloege

    Let the crusades begin.

    October 10, 2011 at 10:09 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.