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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. slavedriver

    I find it amazing how many of you are proving the Bible right about things. I guess in the end we'll see if a dictionary and the book of mormon can actually give you eternally life. See you on the other side...or not

    October 9, 2011 at 8:54 pm |
  2. Greg

    What I do know about the Mormon church is that it produces very Christian people. The most honest and ethical people I have ever met. Are actions worth anything?

    October 9, 2011 at 8:52 pm |
    • Greg

      This all started because some whacko from Texas was trying to justify the candidacy of a corrupt governor from Texas, one who gave millions and millions of taxpayer money to his friends in exchange for personal campaign donations. By their fruits ye shall know them, or something to that effect.

      October 9, 2011 at 8:59 pm |
  3. revolting peasant

    Mormonism started as a cult. They just grew very big and then went mainstream. The Book of Mormon and the history of the Church of LDS has its wonky elements, but nowadays it is an organized modern religion. It is no more or less of a cult than evangelical chistian groups. Of course, I could make a great argument that those groups are cults.

    October 9, 2011 at 8:52 pm |
  4. Biblical Gospel

    Gal 1:8-9 ". . . even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed.. . ."
    Scripture is pretty clear, my Mormon friends. You're following the wrong guy. I can carve an image and call it "Christ" if I want to, but that doesn't make it Christ.

    October 9, 2011 at 8:51 pm |
    • Hooligan

      I love it when wingnuts quote a 2000 year old book with countless updates over that time and try to pass it off as fact.

      could you imagine a biology book or history book from the 50's being taught as curriculum today?

      because thats pretty much what it is

      October 9, 2011 at 8:53 pm |
    • dick

      yes haekels from was discovered to be a fraud 150 years ago and its still in the books. lying to the kids with tax payer dollars tsk tsk

      October 9, 2011 at 8:59 pm |
    • Biblical Gospel

      That's okay, Hooligan. I'm not under any delusion that I'm any more wise than you are. I just know I'm a sinner and I need a Saviour. I've never been able to deny these two realities; they seem obvious to me. But if I'm going to follow a Saviour, I want one that's true, one who actually has the power to save. After all my own questions and doubts and personal atheism, I'm pretty sure I found him, or rather, he called me. The Bible is reliable. I just wish more people read it and understood what it's actually saying. I'm afraid most Christians don't even know their own Bible, especially from an historical perspective. The information is readily available; it's just that most don't seem to care to look it up. Mormon's included. If they had, they would know that the heresies they believe have cropped up numerous times throughout history and have been consistently refuted by faithful Christian teachers. Actual Christianity, and its Scriptures, has remained unchanged since day one. It's easy to regurgitate what you've heard about Christianity, and it is extremely easy to condemn what usually manifests as Christianity in this country—I'm not fond of it either—but I would encourage you to actually study it, and the Bible, at length, and not so readily dismiss it.

      October 9, 2011 at 9:19 pm |
  5. Mike M

    The only difference between a "cult" and mainstream religions is the number of believers. As far as I can see, all religions are cults.

    October 9, 2011 at 8:50 pm |
    • revolting peasant

      I don't know the official definition but cults tend to revolve around a demogogical (I did not spell that right) figure. Thus, the evangelical churches with 10s of thousands of followers are pretty cult-like. The real question is whether they believe anything that is truly far fetched. Thus, to me, people who read the Bible and take it literally are effectively cult followers even if their religions are not officially cults.

      October 9, 2011 at 8:55 pm |
    • regis990

      And, apparently, if you can afford to build a university or law school, then that separates you from cult and into a religion.

      "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."

      Religion is the worst thing mankind has ever created.

      October 9, 2011 at 9:04 pm |
    • blinky

      Mike M, Please listen to yourself. You say you know better for all Christians based on your word. You are endorsing the very tactic you criticize.

      October 9, 2011 at 9:05 pm |
  6. Blursd

    I get really fed up with all these intolerant evangelical nuts who feel they have a monopoly on "Christianness." because if they actually read and understood the principles of the Bible they'd realize how un-Christlike they're beahving.

    The truly ironic thing is they don't even think of the fact if we went 2,000 years back to Judea and talked to Jesus you really think He would call himself a "Christian?" He'd probably just look at you blankly and state, "I'm Jewish if that's what you're asking ..." As were his twelve apostles, and all his followers ... It wasn't until well after his death non jews were allowed to become members.

    October 9, 2011 at 8:48 pm |
    • Satan

      I find u all hilarious.

      October 9, 2011 at 8:54 pm |
  7. TheDudeAbides

    Star Wars fans are a cult! (although that story is totally true).

    October 9, 2011 at 8:47 pm |
  8. The Ack

    One's faith is vitally important to one's leadership. History has proven this countless times. Anyone who denies this is ignorant of the past. One can be a good leader without having believing faith, but that leader will lead from some set of values or some worldview. It is the opinion of many people in this country at all levels of the society that one who calls upon God has a wisdom lacking in those who view life only from a worldly perspective. It makes a huge difference in the policies of the government. There have been very few godly leaders of this country. Those who have been we often say have been the best.

    Whether Mormonism is a cult is a matter of definition. It is a deviation from Christianity and the New Testament, that is clear for those who know these topics (I have a PhD in the matter). Christianity is defined by the creeds of the church (Apostles and Nicene). Mormonism differs at some critical places, especially about the doctrine of the Trinity. For that reason, it cannot be called Christian. It shares many elements with Christianity but at the most critical points, it differs. As far as the world view, it is very consistent with Christian trajectory.

    One thing really bothers me about many posts in this forum and others: people speak out of ignorance. Know the facts and be students of history and don't glorify your worldview when it has proven destructive in countless situations in the past.

    October 9, 2011 at 8:46 pm |
    • DOG told me to do it!

      When one cult calls another cult, a cult, it is hilarious. Lets ask Jeebus and see whether he chooses the curtain or the box on the floor.

      October 9, 2011 at 8:48 pm |
    • iamdeadlyserious

      You're confusing morality with faith. Guess that PhD isn't all it's cracked up to be, huh?

      October 9, 2011 at 8:48 pm |
    • Blursd

      Let me guess ... A Ph.D from tbe University of Phoenix. Which is basically the same thing as a $75,000 Associates Degree.

      October 9, 2011 at 9:04 pm |
    • andrew

      Don’t be fooled by STD. Rev 12:9 does not say he is misleading the whole inhabited earth for nothing !! The popular road has never been the right one (Matt &:13,14) it wasn’t in Jesus day when he & the first century disciples were persecuted & it is not now. The right road is the hardest one! It’s the one that Jesus referred to when he said your enemies would come from your own family (Matt 10:21,22)... maybe because they refuse to follow the crowd?!! (acts 28:22)
      As these religions all consider the Trinity central to their beliefs;
      consider:
      1)God loved the world so much he gave “his only begotten son” !! What does only begotten mean? From an unbiased point of view (with no presupposition) Begotten comes from beget : ‘to procreate or generate (offspring) & the ‘only’ part, because he was the only one created directly & only by God himself (Col 1:15)
      This is what makes the ransom so so special. God gave his special son – the very first born of creation – Not himself !! That would be mental ! I would gladly take a bullet for my own son! God loved the world so much he gave that son (that’s what it says!!)
      2) why did he say the father is greater than I in John 14:28?
      3) Why did he say nobody knows the day or hour except the father in Matt 24?
      4) Why did he say to the Jews that wanted to stone him in John 10 that he was only claiming to be ‘God's son’ not God?
      5) Why did he tell Satan in Matt 4 that it is YHWH alone you should worship?
      6) In prayer to his father; John 17:3, Jesus said ‘Now this is eternal life that they know you THE ONLY TRUE GOD & the one you sent Jesus Christ’. If the father to whom he prayed is the ‘only true God’ what sort of god is Jesus?? A false god? What then?
      7) How could Jesus be God if he was the firstborn of creation? (Col 1:15,16 compare Rev 3:14)
      8) Why did Jesus say in prayer to his father "Let not my will take place but your will" (Luke 22:42) Does this not show that Jesus & his father have different wills hence separate beings?
      9) Why is there no concept of a Trinity seen in the Torah or Hebrew scriptures (King David, Moses & "God's Friend” Abraham never knowingly worshipped a Trine God)
      10) Why does the entire context of the Greek scriptures center around Jesus being God's son?
      11) 1 Tim 2:6 tells us ‘Jesus gave himself a ransom for many’ The word for ‘ransom’ here is derived from the Greek word ‘antilutron’ in a good concordance you will find ‘anti’ means “corresponding to” & lytron: “ransom price” . Now since this shows the ransom price was meant to correspond to the perfect life Adam lost, how could it correspond if it was God who gave himself? (The ransom price would be infinitely higher than required) & it would mock the universal laws God has put in place!
      13) if Jesus is God, who is he meant to be with in John 1:1? (check for alternative renderings)
      14) Claims that the holy spirit is a person is so baseless & so easily refuted I will not consider it here. Interesting one for you though- compare Luke's account Lu 11:20 with Matthew's account in 12:28 (notice in Luke's account he uses "God's Finger" instead of the expression "Holy Spirit" as used by Matthew) showing that the Holy Sprit is the same as God's metaphorical fingers or hands – an impersonal force that he uses to get things done like create for instance or in this case expel demons.

      Remember, the same Councils (Nicea) that established what mainstream Christianity teach today also excepted idols in worship. From that time on it's Popes lived in shameless luxury while most suffered & many lived immoral lives. Millions lost their lives for so called heresy which was often for reading the bible! Do you really believe that these were the spiritual shepherds Jesus referred to or the ravenous wolves of Matt 7:15 that were inspired of demons (1 Tim 4)

      October 9, 2011 at 11:55 pm |
  9. Greg

    I have lots of Mormon and Evangelical friends, and I will bet you can guess which group adheres most closely to Christian principles. As a Unitarian, I can tell you without a doubt that Mormons worship Christ as their savior and it is the most important part of their lives.

    October 9, 2011 at 8:45 pm |
    • andrew

      They might do, but as they're proud to be the first to conscript into national service they put themselves at odds with Christ's teachings. Jesus taught his followers would be 'no part of the world' (John 15&17) & said that you would know his disciples by ‘the love they have for one another’ (John 13:35) not by their patriotism! How can a Mormon preach on the streets of another country trying to find converts but then be willing to lift up arms against them should it be a call of duty???? Something doesn’t add up.

      October 10, 2011 at 2:18 am |
  10. kimsland

    Come on kids time to go to church!
    NO Mommy, I don't want to cry in fear today.
    Please Mommy please please please don't go.

    October 9, 2011 at 8:45 pm |
  11. DOG told me to do it!

    One cult calling another cult a cult. How hilarious! Let us ask Jeebus shall we?

    October 9, 2011 at 8:45 pm |
  12. Chedar

    Rather than castigating another faith as cult, why not spend them and develop compassion to people who are without. People and Children who have nothing and who don't know what meals their children is going to have 3 times a day. Instead of playing politics, let those pastor start getting into action and help the poor. Take their 10% donation they get from their congregation and start helping the poor. I am sure if they do that, they get good merits and show their true faith on what to be a good christian.

    October 9, 2011 at 8:45 pm |
  13. kristin

    I will look up lds. I had a cousin convert years ago to it and don't get it really other than I cannot drink hootch in her house. I'm interested in other people's beliefs, doubly so if they're controversial. Mormons, don't take these people seriously as we're all just as bad and hypocritical as the next.

    October 9, 2011 at 8:45 pm |
  14. Truth Seeker

    You decide –> http://carm.org/mormonism

    October 9, 2011 at 8:44 pm |
    • johnny b

      Matt Slick. Very appropriate name.

      October 9, 2011 at 9:35 pm |
  15. Matt

    I fail to see what criteria could be applied to label the LDS Church a cult but would exclude Southern Baptists. Translating golden plates is cuckoo but saying Moses inscribed the Ten Commandments onto stone tablets is perfectly rational? Give me a break. I choose to judge a religion by its followers, and the many Mormons I have met have been unfailingly polite, intelligent, and disciplined. Notice their lack of a vitriolic response when their religion is attacked. I can't say that about many other denominations.

    October 9, 2011 at 8:43 pm |
    • iamdeadlyserious

      To be fair, in the myth of Moses, the tablets actually exist for everyone to see. And he also doesn't have to duck into a hat with some con-man stones to read them.

      Not saying that there's any validity to demeaning a church for having nonsensical beliefs when you're a member of an equally nonsensical faith. But even I can appreciate that Joseph Smith is more obviously a shrewd manipulator. Which may have more to do with us having access to a better historical record of his time than of biblical times.

      October 9, 2011 at 8:46 pm |
    • regis990

      @iamdeadlyserious Where are the tablets? Can you give the exact location?

      October 9, 2011 at 8:56 pm |
    • regis990

      @iamdeadlyserious...sorry, never mind, I misread your comment.

      October 9, 2011 at 8:57 pm |
  16. Liberal87

    Oh my freakin God... Who cares if Mitt Romney is a Mormon? As a matter of fact, he could be a Pagean praising some random god, for all I care. The important thing is: can he build a better future for the US, create jobs, get out of Irak and NOT START ANY WARS, etc.

    October 9, 2011 at 8:43 pm |
  17. Strange1-2

    I don't agree with ignorance behind the labeling of Mormonism as a cult. However, it is even more frightening when the definition of cult, by an evangelical, is that group doesn't have it own Law School or college attempting merge its own brand of theology under the guise of "higher education." That may be as dangerous, maybe even more so, as calling another religious group a cult. Am I the only one frightened by the growing influence of fundamentalist religion on our society?

    October 9, 2011 at 8:42 pm |
    • blinky

      Strange, Look at the article again. The author's point is that the academic study at Brigham Young University functions self-critically and in dialogue with other universities, secular and non-secular. BYU has as much credibility as any other university. It's not about having enough money to fund a university, but open-mindedness.

      October 9, 2011 at 9:15 pm |
  18. SoIndianaGuy

    The author's degrees are in philosophy, not theology, and I think it shows one of his biases when he goes on about where his Mormon counterparts got their degrees. If they studied at Harvard, well, then, they can't be bad, can they? Mainstream Christianity has always regarded Mormonism as non-Christian. It may be Mormonism has moved closer to Christian tenets or perhaps mainline Christian denominations have gotten looser on what they regard as Christian [and a lot of good that's done their membership numbers]. The fact that several senators are Mormons and Mormons now wield a lot of political power is what really scares the right-wing Christian base of the Republican party, especially in the South. This Howdy Doody guy from 1st Baptist-Dallas and his counterparts in the SBC are losing membership [I guess proselytizing Jews and Hindus didn't work all that well for them] while the Mormon Church is growing by leaps and bounds, so they would do better examining their own beliefs and practices before they go around calling other religions a cult.

    October 9, 2011 at 8:41 pm |
  19. martin arkostekton

    Mormon belief is not even a cult, barely nonsense...

    October 9, 2011 at 8:41 pm |
  20. s kel

    Hitme Pres Obama does not HATE your type........ But I DO.

    October 9, 2011 at 8:41 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.