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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. Vincent Whitfield

    I was very pleased to watch the interview with Mr. Mouw this morning on CNN. As a Roman Catholic who teaches religion in High School and adult education I know that it is important to remember that, in its original form, Christianity was a cult within the Jewish culture of the early centuries C.E. (originally A.D.). Christians were Jews who referred to themselves as "Followers of The Way." Unfortunately, the pastor who referred to Mormonism as a 'cult' suffers from two misunderstandings. First, he does not understand the past; and, second, he does not understand or promote the teachings of Jesus Christ. Jesus never taught to think of yourself as being better than another.

    October 10, 2011 at 10:38 am |
  2. Sarcasmo

    Say what you will about Mormonism. I attended several Mormon church services with a Mormon girl I briefly dated, and 80% of the church services consisted of people taking turns at the pulpit telling stories about how they "knew Mormonism is the one true religion because..." That's all it was. Testimonials to each other about how correct they were because they were Mormon. If you put that much effort into telling yourself and the entire congregation that your religion is obviously the true one, then something is a bit fishy there.

    October 10, 2011 at 10:37 am |
  3. Zach

    Additionally, I agree with you that no one can change what God has put into place. The thing is, we Mormons believe that other scripture (such as the Book of Mormon) is every bit a book of revelations and teachings from God as the Bible is. We love and study the Bible. We believe in it. We also recognize that Jesus has other sheep which are not of this (Jerusalem) fold, per his own words in the new testament. It is very logical to assume that Christ would finds ways to bring his gospel to other people who did not have the benefit of internet or telephone. The old testament is littered with evidence of Christ revealing himself to other people. If God loves us so much, why would he stop revealing his teachings and commandments? Isn't that what caused the Jews to not believe that Jesus was the Christ when he came? He was adding to the Law of Moses, and surely we didn't need anything besides the Law of Moses.... God loves us all, and wants us all to partake of his Gospel. It is not up to us to tell him when he can and cannot give revelation to those whom he chooses and calls.

    October 10, 2011 at 10:37 am |
  4. Religion-Christian, Denomination-Mormon

    I do not worship Joseph Smith, he was a prophet like Moses. I am a Mormon and I woship Jesus Christ!

    October 10, 2011 at 10:36 am |
  5. moondawn

    From the outside, you're all cults.

    October 10, 2011 at 10:35 am |
  6. TOM

    If it were Obama they would definitely be calling it a cult because he is black. The GOP has already done everything possible to morally discredit the president including calling him Muslim. The GOP just cannot stand the fact that a black man won and kicked their behinds. I plan to vote for Obama again too. After Bush/Cheney I swore I would NEVER vote republican ever again and I mean it. The republican party only favors corporations and the super rich. They have forgotten the American people so badly that even in their own exact words have outright said that "corporations are people". That's how confused the GOP is. If "corporations are people" then why can't a corporation adopt a baby?

    October 10, 2011 at 10:35 am |
    • damonfan

      I will be voting for Obama in 2012 he is a great man and if the GOP was not run by a bunch of bigots they would not fight his every move.

      October 10, 2011 at 10:49 am |
  7. SmarterthanU

    Every religion is a cult. All religions brainwash you into believing the unprovable. I ask Christians all the time if they believe Scientology is real. Of course they say no. Then I go what about Mormanism, of course it is a cult. Joseph Smith was just the L. Ron Hubbard of the 19th Century. What about Islam? What Mohammad really a prophet? Of course not they respond. Well so were the deciples of Jesus the hucksters of their time. It's no different. Zeus and Thor and Krishna and Buddah. Every Christian believes those to be fake but somehow Jesus is the real deal. Give me a break.

    October 10, 2011 at 10:35 am |
  8. BoldGeorge

    Mormonism is definitely a cult. Fact being that they have the book of Mormon founded by their Prophet Joseph Smith. Any book aside from the Bible is definitely heresy, and this coming straight from the bible: If anyone adds or takes away from this book, God will add plagues and God will take away his part from the tree of life...Revelations 22:18,19.

    Any one person or group claiming to have had a 'new' prophecy, or an angel appear to them with additional scriptures (hint-Joseph Smith), or a divine revelation to "rewrite" the Word of God (hint-Jehovah's Witnesses), or anyone claiming to have been named a new prophet (hint-Mohammad), or anyone claiming to be Jesus themselves (hint-Davidians), but most importantly, anyone understating Jesus Christ's deity, or divine authorship, or claiming that He is NOT the way to salvation can surely be labeled a cult.

    But my advice to anyone who is unfortunate enough to listen to someone claim they are a new prophet ordained by God, or that they hear God's actual voice in his or her head, or that they see visions and have divine revelations...DO NOT BELIEVE THEM and most importantly, DO NOT FOLLOW THEM. The Bible, God's written Word has already been revealed to us and is more than enough of our instruction manual to learn how to follow Him, how to be obedient to His commandments and to learn the way of salvation which is through faith in Jesus Christ...ONLY! Now, it's just a matter of believing or not.

    October 10, 2011 at 10:34 am |
    • SmarterthanU

      YOu sir are a total wack job and prove my point. It's all BS.

      October 10, 2011 at 10:36 am |
    • El Flaco

      The Bible is not that impressive, candidly. I don't put much stock in it.

      October 10, 2011 at 10:38 am |
    • Lucifer's Evil Twin

      "If anyone adds or takes away from this book, God will add plagues and God will take away his part from the tree of life...Revelations 22:18,19"

      So why do you guys keep re-writing your little book?

      October 10, 2011 at 10:39 am |
    • damonfan

      I agree!!!

      October 10, 2011 at 10:50 am |
    • AlergictoBS

      So, by your definition, Islam, Judiaism, Buddhism, Shinto, Tao, Zen, Vodun, Hinduism, etc. are all cults...they don't follow the Bible afterall. Why not take the argument further and say that any denomination that doesn't follow YOUR version of the Bible is a cult? Let's not stop there...even if they use the same version of the Bible, if they practice/believe/preach/theologize differently than you, then they are cult members.

      There are hundreds upon hundreds of belief systems in this world...odds are there will be a lot of people that are going to be wrong in the end. Why not stop worrying about where we differ and focus on what we have in common?

      BoldGeorge, you have clearly missed the point of the article and the inter-faith efforts it speaks about. You, sadly, are closed-minded...just like the cultists described in the article.

      You know, now that I read the article a second time, it seams that Westborro Baptist Church is (dun-dun-dun) A CULT!!!

      October 10, 2011 at 10:54 am |
    • BoldGeorge

      AlergictoBS, out of all these replies to my comment, yours is actually response-worthy because you bring up a good argument and some good points. Thanks for your comment. I'll try to answer some of your key points here.

      YOU WROTE: "Islam, Judiaism, Buddhism, Shinto, Tao, Zen, Vodun, Hinduism, etc. are all cults...they don't follow the Bible afterall."
      According to the Bible (not me), these religions DO NOT follow the Bible. They would even tell you they don't because they believe the bible not to be all true and inspiring.

      YOU WROTE: "Let's not stop there...even if they use the same version of the Bible, if they practice/believe/preach/theologize differently than you, then they are cult members."
      All true bible believing Christians will follow and interpret the bible harmoniously. Not just me or my church exclusively, but all true bible-believing Christians world wide.

      YOU WROTE: "There are hundreds upon hundreds of belief systems in this world...odds are there will be a lot of people that are going to be wrong in the end."
      Well, according to the bible, this is a reality. Please read for yourself in Matthew 7:13,14 "Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is broad that leads to destruction, and there are many who enter through it. For the gate is small and the way is narrow that leads to life, and there are few who find it."
      Also, in Matthew 22:14 "Many are called, and few are chosen"

      YOU WROTE: "Why not stop worrying about where we differ and focus on what we have in common?"
      What we all might have in common may work short-term, but what we should be concerned about is eternity, not temporary things like 2 Corinthians 4:18 mentions, "while we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen; for the things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal."

      YOUR WROTE: "BoldGeorge, you have clearly missed the point of the article and the inter-faith efforts it speaks about. You, sadly, are closed-minded...just like the cultists described in the article."
      I wouldn't consider myself to be in a sad situation. I actually rejoice in the fact that a wretch like me was found by Jesus Christ. And the Bible tells me this, "For the word of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God." 1 Corinthians 1:18

      YOUR WROTE: "You know, now that I read the article a second time, it seams that Westborro Baptist Church is (dun-dun-dun) A CULT!!!"
      Good thing I'm not a member of Westboro Church.

      October 10, 2011 at 12:06 pm |
  9. Cronus

    When I was in college, my roommate was an Evengaelical, I am Catholic. We got along great, attended each other's services and found our respective congregations cordial and welcoming. There were however individual Evengelicals who referred to me as an idol worhipper and heathen that neded to be saved, but a vast majority of them were wondeful and generous people. We should not generalize the whole group because of some outspoken pastor or worshipper who takes their faith way too seriously. I have also found many atheists among the most intolerable hate-filled miserable people that I have met. Intolerance knows no bounds.

    October 10, 2011 at 10:33 am |
    • Lucifer's Evil Twin

      Kronos – an interesting name for an evangelical to choose

      October 10, 2011 at 10:44 am |
  10. chrisg

    RELIGION HAS NO PLACE IN POLITICS OR GOVERNMENT. if religion wants to engage in politics then that RELIGION CAN PAY TAXES LIKE AMERICANS THAT DO ENGAGE IN POLITICS.

    October 10, 2011 at 10:32 am |
    • BoldGeorge

      Interesting. Americans are paying taxes and Americans are into religion. So if Americans are paying their taxes, that means is religion too. Problem solved.

      October 10, 2011 at 10:47 am |
  11. Rob

    Dave, you leave out the part about becoming a God and having your own planet. Where is that in the Bible? Its a believe that I have never heard a Morman willing to discuss. Do you lose that ability if you discuess it with others? Are you banished from LDS if you give the goods on how you accomplish this? Get in a good Bible, not book of Morman, based church. Baptism of Hitler and other Nazi's is not they way to Heaven and would not be blessed by John or Jesus. They did not teach in baptism for the dead. Did John Smith come up with that one?

    October 10, 2011 at 10:32 am |
    • Scott - 1

      Robbie: Hitler was a baptized Catholic

      October 10, 2011 at 3:57 pm |
  12. peggy

    You can call the Jehovah's Witnesses a cult, and I know they can be annoying. But when my mom was homebound due to illness and old age, it was visitors from the Witnesses who brought a little sunshine into her life. She didn't agree with what they had to say, but they were comforting to her. And when she had to enter a nursing home, it was the Witnesses who visited her regularly and not fellow members of her church.

    October 10, 2011 at 10:32 am |
    • yeahalright

      Yeah fool, they wanted to capitalize on an old person about to kick it and hopefully bequeathe them some cheddar

      October 10, 2011 at 11:03 am |
  13. ReligionIsACult

    All religions are cults because you believe in a bunch of BS that isn't remotely factual.

    October 10, 2011 at 10:30 am |
    • Bill the Cat

      Please wipe the froth from your bottom lip... someone may mistake you for a rabid dog and give you a shot.

      October 10, 2011 at 10:32 am |
  14. Tim

    Look up the word cult in the dictionary... "organized religion"

    October 10, 2011 at 10:30 am |
  15. El Flaco

    A cult is a nutty religion with very few members. A religion is a nutty religion with lots of members.

    October 10, 2011 at 10:29 am |
  16. marcia

    COULD WE JUST STOP KNOCKING EVERYONE'S RELIGION!?! Let's see....what can we all gripe about this week??? Hmmmm????

    October 10, 2011 at 10:29 am |
  17. Curt

    Magic underwear? (Temple Garments) Yep, nothing to see here.

    October 10, 2011 at 10:29 am |
  18. George Reed

    "Nor do they [cults] 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."

    Thanks for coming to the defense of Mormons and Mitt Romney. Yet, university education does not define whether an organization is a cult. But Biblical spiritual education frees an organization from cultish ways. Neither the Mormon church, Jehovah's Witnesses, nor the Christian Science church are cults. They all follow the Scriptures and Jesus Christ closely. Sure they have their quirks, but they are not cultish. I have fine friends from all three faiths. By the way, Christian Scientists do have Principia College. And you might enjoy reading The Christian Science Monitor at http://www.csmonitor.com

    October 10, 2011 at 10:28 am |
  19. The_Mick

    MOST Christians consider Evangelical Christianity as a cult!

    October 10, 2011 at 10:27 am |
    • Mark from Middle River

      Naaah, I do not think they do.

      October 10, 2011 at 10:30 am |
  20. Brad

    Mormons do not believe in the Triune God or in Jesus Christ as a co-eternal part of it. Therefore they cannot be regarded as Christians. Are they a cult? Mormonism does have cult-like features: the hidden nature of their most central doctrines is one. But many sects error in ways that are cult-like.

    October 10, 2011 at 10:26 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.