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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. merrilltoyco

    This article is a huge for us. It's always been hilarious to hear people try to label us as non-Christian, or as a cult. I've always pointed to the very name of our Church as my response to the first claims; and since Merriam-Webster's first definitions of a cult is 1: "formal religious veneration" and 2: "a system of religious beliefs and ritual", (and since one of their definitions for religion is "a cause, principle, or system of beliefs held to with ardor and faith") I guess I'd have to say we're a cult- just like every other religion, philosophy, cause, belief, or person on earth.

    October 24, 2012 at 5:19 am |
  2. Lars J

    I wonder if Martin Luther, Wycliffe, or the early founders of Fuller Theological Seminary would have had as hard a time stating whether The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is a cult? Or the Apostle Paul, for that matter.

    October 17, 2012 at 7:51 am |
  3. Lars J

    When it was announced today that the Baptist sponsored Billy Graham site has taken Mormons off its list of cults, I couldn't help thinking of your comment, Ron, that "Values trump theology". Clearly you are not alone in your view. These are historic times when men and women are forced to make choices. Most of life is subjective and people are free to claim whatever they wish about themselves and the groups they identify with. But once in a while Providence forces on people a choice which creates an objective statement about what they believe. In this case, the question of whether politics is more important than theology to many American cultural Christians is clearly answered. While Baptists may believe that the Book of Mormon is not divinely inspired, that salvation is by faith alone in Christ and not through works, that Jesus is not the brother of Lucifer, etc, those beliefs are secondary to their more strongly held beliefs about temporal matters. So taking the Mormons off the cult list was not really that hard a thing to do. As Jesus stated so plainly, "Where your treasure is, there your heart is also."

    October 17, 2012 at 7:48 am |
  4. Wooky

    “I see a lot of Catholics supporting Romney. Not sure if they shouldn't but I can tell you that the Mormon temple ceremony was practically plagiarized from the Masonic rites. Every single sign, token, and penalty was taken from Masonry. The True Order of Prayer, the rapping of the mallet, and the Five Points of Fellowship are all Masonic in origin.

    The Catholic Church has imposed the penalty of excommunication on Catholics who become Freemasons or embrace masonic principles. The penalty of excommunication for joining the Masonic Lodge was explicit in the 1917 code of canon law (canon 2335), and it is implicit in the 1983 code (canon 1374) which is still in force to this day." There is no excommunication for being gay or supporting abortion but it does apply for Masonic principles, rites and the lodge.

    Should Catholics vote for Romney the former Mormon Bishop? Well, it depends on how much Catholics understand their faith.”

    August 2, 2012 at 9:25 pm |
  5. leonotis

    You really make it appear so easy together with your presentation however I in finding this matter to be actually something that I believe I would never understand. It seems too complex and very large for me. I'm looking forward to your subsequent post, I'll attempt to get the hold of it!

    April 8, 2012 at 10:45 pm |
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    April 2, 2012 at 1:10 am |
  7. humbled

    I find the new atheists, their naturalistic/materialistic religion and their absolute faith in their religious leader high priest Dawkins a cult. You are already responsible for the deaths of 100+ million lives during the 20th century and if you had your way you would do it again. Its time responsible God believing people put their religious differences aside and show the new atheists the door. We no longer have the luxury of bickering amongst ourselves, we have bigger problems...

    February 28, 2012 at 9:52 pm |
  8. Javier

    consider these points that what makes a true christian
    First, Jesus Christ said of his followers: “They are no part of the world, just as I am no part of the world.” (John 17:14) TRUE CHRISTIANS take this principle seriously. Being “no part of the world,” they are neutral in the political affairs of the world.—John 18:36.
    Second, the apostle Paul referred to himself as an “ambassador” representing Christ to the people of his day. (Ephesians 6:20; 2 Corinthians 5:20) TRUE CHRISTIANS believe that Christ Jesus is now the enthroned King of God’s heavenly Kingdom, and they, like ambassadors, must announce this to the nations. (Matthew 24:14; Revelation 11:15) Ambassadors are expected to be neutral and not to interfere in the internal affairs of the countries to which they are sent. As representatives of God’s heavenly Kingdom, TRUE CHRISTIANS feel a similar obligation not to interfere in the politics of the countries where they reside.
    A third factor to consider is that those who have a part in voting a person into office may become responsible for what he does. (Compare 1 Timothy 5:22) Christians have to consider carefully whether they want to shoulder that responsibility.
    Fourth, TRUE CHRISTIANS greatly value their Christian unity. (Colossians 3:14) When religions get involved in politics, the result is often division among their members. In imitation of Jesus Christ, TRUE CHRISTIANS avoid becoming involved in politics and thus maintain their Christian unity.—Matthew 12:25; John 6:15; 18:36, 37.
    Fifth, their keeping out of politics gives TRUE CRISTIANS freeness of speech to approach people of all political persuasions with the important message of the Kingdom.—Hebrews 10:35.
    Sixth and finals reason how Jesus feels. after seeing Jesus’ miracles and his skillful leadership in managing the crowds and caring for their needs, the people conclude that Jesus would be a perfect king. (John 6:14) Their response is not surprising. Remember that they were desperate for a good, effective ruler; their beloved homeland was under the oppressive rule of a foreign power. So they put direct pressure on Jesus to join in the political process. With that background in mind, consider his reaction.
    “Jesus, knowing they were about to come and seize him to make him king, withdrew again into the mountain all alone,” says John 6:15. Jesus’ stand could hardly have been more decisive. He resolutely refused to get involved in the politics of his homeland. His stand never changed. He said that his followers were to take the same position. (John 17:16) Why did he take this stand?
    Jesus’ neutrality regarding the politics of this world was well-grounded in Scriptural principles. Consider just two.
    “Man has dominated man to his injury.” (Ecclesiastes 8:9) That is how the Bible sums up the history of human rule. Remember, Jesus existed as a spirit in heaven long before he came to earth as a man. (John 17:5) He thus knew that man, however well-meaning, lacks the ability to care properly for the needs of billions of people; nor was he created by God to do so. (Jeremiah 10:23) Jesus knew that the solution to mankind’s problems lay elsewhere—not in human governments.
    “The whole world is lying in the power of the wicked one.” (1 John 5:19) Do you find that statement startling? Many do. They think of sincere people who get involved in government because they want to make the world a better, safer place. Try as they might, though, even the most sincere rulers cannot overcome the influence of the one whom Jesus called “the ruler of this world.” (John 12:31; 14:30) That is why Jesus said to one worldly politician: “My kingdom is no part of this world.” (John 18:36) Jesus was the prospective King of God’s heavenly government. Had Jesus mixed in politics, he would have sacrificed his loyalty to his Father’s government

    February 21, 2012 at 4:46 pm |
    • MP

      Very true my brother!

      February 26, 2012 at 8:27 am |
  9. Tony

    This a very LAME Article very poorly written very one sided and bias

    February 21, 2012 at 4:21 pm |
  10. Linzey

    So according to this author, the test of whether a religion is a cult is whether or not they establish a universityor law school or offer graduate classes in world religion. If he is correct then I guess Jesus was a cult leader because he, nor the first century Christians did any of these things. They did however, go door to door and travel from place to place preaching the good news, just like Jehovah's Witnesses.

    January 28, 2012 at 12:49 pm |
    • Mike

      My thoughts exactly. "Jehovah's Witnesses haven't established a university." Obviously a cult. This was hilarious.

      November 4, 2012 at 5:43 pm |
  11. Cassidy

    An interesting discussion. I think this is the video President Mouw referenced; very enlightening about the Latter-day Saints' view of and belief in Jesus Christ and His atonement. Anyone who has questions about what President Mouw meant can check this out: http://lds.org/ldsorg/v/index.jsp?autoplay=true&index=5&locale=0&sourceId=04f3a899d5e92210VgnVCM100000176f620a____&vgnextoid=bd163ca6e9aa3210VgnVCM1000003a94610aRCRD

    January 17, 2012 at 3:04 pm |
  12. Ray

    mormons DO NOT interpret the bible, they have the book of mormon. They believe God was a human being who now lives on planet KOLOB with his many wives. They also believe that if you are a good mormon, you will have your own planet someday. THIS IS NOT IN THE BIBLE.

    November 3, 2011 at 4:10 pm |
    • Jean

      fuuny, you don't even know what you're talking about. It's just painful how you say things like that, you do not even know what you're talking about. Read the Book of Mormon first before saying and judging something YOU DON'T KNOW.

      November 13, 2011 at 5:58 am |
    • Matt

      Hahahahaha! Wow... This is so ridiculous it's funny... Oh ignorant people that don't know what they are talking about... Lol

      December 2, 2011 at 1:44 am |
    • Blake Garten

      Ray's right. See the Wikipedia link on Kolob: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kolob. Smith's discussion of Kolob isn't in the Bible or the Book of Mormon Jean, it's in the Book of Abraham; ch. 3 verses 1-10 will teach you about Mormonism and Kolobianism. You can read about the fascinating discoveries about Kolob that BYU astronomers made and learn how Kolob is in the constellation Cancer, here:
      http://nowscape.com/mormon/mormons4.htm. Mormons "hie to Kolob" when they die because that's the star nearest where God lives. According to Doctrine & Covenants 132, men may espouse virgins and be sealed to them if the first wife is okay with it (if she doesn't give her approval that makes God unhappy). If they are sealed with priesthood authority, then those wives go to Kolob with their husband, when they are all dead.

      January 3, 2012 at 10:07 pm |
    • Brent

      Unfortunately, Blake, Ray is wrong. Just because he puts out half truths doesn't make him right. And it is good to know that you are able to find all truth on Wikipedia. Why did I even bother with reading the scriptures? I should have just Googled it...

      Yes, we have the Book of Mormon, but trust me we still use The Bible, or at least we are supposed to. Yes, many LDS faithful get a little preoccupied with the Book of Mormon, but it is not a stand alone book. It is meant to compliment and clarify the teachings found in The Bible. I'll finish with that, I don't feel that this is the most effective way of discussing these topics.

      January 12, 2012 at 11:13 pm |
    • humble

      You poor ignorant soul. Please make sure you understand a religion and it's beliefs before opening your mouth. You are a bigot and this is nothing more than uneducated trash talk.

      For the truth and what The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints really believe, please visit http://www.lds.org.

      October 1, 2012 at 4:40 am |
    • Brick Moore

      very well put and,if they are christians why do they have there own holy book?

      October 11, 2012 at 4:42 pm |
    • Victoria

      Bruh..just how high are you?? Wait, I get it, you've been watching Religulious, haven't you? As someone who was raised Mormon and my whole family is Mormon, I've never ONCE been taught anything you're spouting off. Please educate yourself before you look a fool on the internet.

      November 7, 2012 at 7:02 pm |
  13. rmax

    LDS is a Jesus centric organization, that is in words and in deeds. Very organized and service-oriented, well grounded and tuned to follow Jesus 's doctrines to the ends of the earth. As a catholic convert, I was impressed on their doctrines rooted on the principles of how Jesus would like us to live our life. The Trinity did not make sense to me. God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit is definitely separate personages. It made sense to me. We have to remember, the Trinity was concocted by mortal men being influenced by the political landscape at that age and time.

    October 31, 2011 at 4:22 pm |
    • Jason

      Hi rmax

      May I suggest this article http://www.tektonics.org/jesusclaims/trinitydefense.html to provide an understanding of the trinity through the background of Jewish Wisdom theology.

      November 5, 2011 at 8:12 pm |
  14. Brooke Willson

    Christianity, Islam, and Judaism are united on one absolutely essential point: there is only one God. The strongest condemnations in the Bible and Koran are of people who believe in any other gods. Mormonism is a thoroughly polytheistic religion - something the missionaries don't like to talk about. In the Mormon marriage sealing ceremony, couples learn that after death, they will become gods and given their own planet to rule, just as Earth's Heavenly Father - and Mother - and their son, Jesus, got their own planet when they became divinities after their mortal lives on another planet.

    No matter what else Mormons may say about their relationship with Jesus, their polytheism is incompatible with the most central of all Christian and Jewish teaching - that "the Lord our God is One."

    October 30, 2011 at 7:19 am |
    • Mike

      In a technical definition of polytheism, all Christians believe in multiple Gods . . . God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Ghost. But generally polytheism is referred to as the practice of worshiping multiple Gods . . . which all Christians can agree is heretical.

      Brooke, would you believe me if as a practicing Mormon I declared like the Apostle Paul, "But to us there is but one God the Father . . . and one Lord Jesus Christ".

      I think you're distorting the term polytheism and applying it to Mormons in a way that is inaccurate and divisive. I, like other Mormons do believe and accept Jesus Christ as the Savior of the world, as my own personal Savior, wherein there can be no other way to return to live with God the Father.

      That is the basis of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints – the Mormons . . .

      October 31, 2011 at 12:34 am |
    • Mark Richardson

      Actually, we LDS are not "thoroughly polytheistic." As a visiting rabbi who spoke to us at BYU pointed out, polytheism teaches that different gods have distinct goals, personalities, and ethics. Therefore, polytheism allows one to justify various courses of action by worshiping the appropriate god. Mormonism, on the other hand, teaches that the trinity is one in purpose,–that we should be one with them (consider John 17:23). We also claim to be the “offspring of God” (Acts 17:29), and we believe in deification– Jesus said, “all mine are thine, and thine mine” (John 17:10). The part you mentioned about being gods of our own world is considered commentary (where the person misspoke, by the way) and it is not taught in the church today as you yourself acknowledge.

      October 31, 2011 at 12:44 am |
    • Linzey

      A true Christian does not believe in the Trinity. The Trinity is a man made myth that was adopted by the Christian church along with other pagan beliefs and celebrations.

      January 28, 2012 at 12:57 pm |
  15. Joe Brooks

    Each epoch has found in the Gospels what it sought to find there, and has overlooked what it wished to overlook. – Ludwig von Mises
    “One has to wonder, how many people, self-proclaimed Christians, many of whom we see in church with us every week, never really even made a conscious choice to accept Jesus Christ as their personal savior. How many people inherited their faith, have maintained it, and adhere to it publicly, but have never actually asked Jesus to be lord of their lives? How many of us are unwittingly destined to hear Christ tell us, “I never knew you; depart from Me.”
    My new book, The Four Pillars of the Kingdom, is set to be released in a week. It is, not only a response to some of the metaphysical arguments of the so-called New Atheists, but also a call to believers to take their faith serious in a very real way. You can find a few excerpts from the work and the cover art on my website, The Immaculate Conservative:

    http://bit.ly/TheFourPillars

    Please read and let me know what you think!

    Thanks,
    Joe Brooks

    October 26, 2011 at 8:59 pm |
  16. Kat

    Cult:
    Noun:
    A system of religious veneration and devotion directed toward a particular figure or object.
    A relatively small group of people having religious beliefs or practices regarded by others as strange or sinister.

    It's a silly argument.

    October 18, 2011 at 8:03 pm |
  17. Sara Richins

    I well written and courteous article. I would argue that the Mormon church is not "more Christ-centered than they have been in the past" because it has always been Christ-centered. A a people, however, we are being taught more and more how to better live the gospel of Jesus Christ and being urged to let our light shine before men. As such, many in the Christian community are reevaluating their ideas of the Church. Are we not Christians because we do not share the common Christian history? We believe many Protestant Reformers were inspired to do the things they did because they recognized the churches of their day were teaching false doctrines. The history of Protestant churches is that of seeking after truth, and this is a tenant of the LDS faith.

    October 18, 2011 at 1:05 pm |
  18. Keith

    OK, why are the simplest answers always discussed with complicated angles? YES the LDS church is Christian because they believe and worship Christ written about and worship in the New Testament of the Apostles. The LDS church has the old and new testaments as part of their teachings and beliefs, as all other Christian denominations. The theology of the writtings of the BOM do not trump the theologies in the Bible, but that is not the issue at hand. Opinions of the companion writtings and beliefs of the LDS Church may never be settled, but as one who believes Jesus was the Christ, was sacrificed and now lives again with the Father, it is MY opinion that we (those who believe on the name of CHRIST) are ALL on the same team against more evil opponents than each other. But for the record, the LDS church doses uphold a belief that was handed down from GOD and upheld by our founding fathers...for everyone to have their own free will to worship however they please. The LDS church does not force members to exclude ppl who believe differently than themselves, or persecute any other religions because of theology as many other denominations do. For my soul and beliefs, the LDS church offers more answers and supports more Christ-like actions than many denominations who peddle fear and hate.

    October 18, 2011 at 11:36 am |
  19. Mark

    The LDS understanding of the nature of the relationship between God the Father and Jesus Christ the Son does not correspond with the understanding indicated in the New Testament. The background of the Divine Wisdom of God, first as a personification, and then, in Jesus Christ as a person, is much closer to the creedal understandings of the Trinity as three persons in one essence than it is to the Mormon conception of a social trinity involving three separate deities who closely cooperate. The Jewish background of the New Testament knows of no such concept except in the form of a heresy.

    October 17, 2011 at 5:53 pm |
  20. John

    Whether you believe the bible or not, it says right in there that you can't add or take away from it. Mormons add to it. If you look at this as if it were a game, they've broken the rules of the game. Or at least changed them, which means they've made a new game. It just ain't that complicated. It seems that they should just call this new game something other than Christian and the whole debate goes away.

    October 16, 2011 at 10:23 pm |
    • morpunkt

      That's an old, worn-out retort to the Book of Mormon. But in actuality, you don't understand that that scripture was written, BEFORE the Bible was abridged. Therefore, everything added to that particular book of John the Revelator should be condemned. Like the entire rest of the Bible. (And by the way, Deuteronomy 4:2 basically says the same thing. So, using your logic, everything after Deuteronomy "breaks the rules".
      Sorry, weak argument.

      October 16, 2011 at 11:43 pm |
    • Steve

      @morpunkt is right. Authors of the Bible did not complete their writings with the intention of creating the "Holy Bible". They simply wrote letters, journals and so forth. As time passed, these writings were compiled and organized into a collection which most Christian religions have cannonized into their scriptures. The "Mormon" church uses the King James Version of the Bible. I don't hear people arguing which of the version of the Bible is the only true word of God. There are so many different versions that use varying levels of scholarly interpretation that in many cases the translation into modern English serves only to pervert the meaning of the doctrine taught. The Bible also contains references to books which were not contained in any of the current iterations of the Bible, so by @John's argument the Bible must be false because the people compiling the writings omitted sacred text thus taking away from the book. @John, your argument is a non-sequitor.

      October 18, 2011 at 9:31 pm |
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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.