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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. Robert Flaaskog

    A cult by definition does not explain the mormon faith, if I said I have a new revelation from an angel and wrote a book about it and tried to connect it to the bible and started my own religion what would you call me?

    October 9, 2011 at 9:09 pm |
  2. haole akamai

    I don't understand why people are so upset that Romney is a moron. We've had a moron for president before in George Bush. So, what's one more Republican moron?

    October 9, 2011 at 9:08 pm |
  3. Jose

    Please inform yourself at http://www.mormon.org

    This is what The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints teaches. Knowledge is power.

    October 9, 2011 at 9:08 pm |
  4. robert

    The Mormon religion is ridiculous. But then again so is every religion. People who believe without question the bronze-age stories of a sky daddy are calling Mormonism a cult? Here's one for you, let the man without sin cast the first stone. The world needs to realize that until people act rationally and in a true spirit of brotherhood, the world will be held back. Religion cannot move us forward. It can only divide us and proselytise ignorance.

    October 9, 2011 at 9:08 pm |
  5. bkh

    Cult is defined as: a system of religious veneration and devotion directed toward a particular figure or object. Therefore, nearly all religions are cults. Further, most require one to believe things which could not possibly have occurred and which cannot be proven to be true. Mormonism is no different in that regard. For example, the core tenets or Mormonism are no more preposterous than the core tenets of Catholicism. .

    October 9, 2011 at 9:06 pm |
    • Cindy

      How long have Christians been around and how long have Mormons been around? How many countries have Christians and how many countries have Mormons?

      October 9, 2011 at 9:08 pm |
  6. slavedriver

    I'm not so sure I would use Ivy league schools as a good example of where people get their PHD's. We are talking about the leaders of the Darwinism Theory that has helped to destroy our moral fabric here in the US.

    October 9, 2011 at 9:03 pm |
    • Bob

      You need to be more subtle in your troll, young padawan.

      October 9, 2011 at 9:06 pm |
    • David

      Evidence? Proof?

      October 9, 2011 at 9:10 pm |
  7. James

    Thank you Dr. Mouw for providing your particular opinion on which particular religions are, and are not, cults. Your viewpoint adds nothing of relevance to the conversation except for advocating your own particular definition of occultism, which seems to revolve around not founding universities, a lack of self reflection (the measure of which is not defined), and some sort of essence of "us versus them".

    The reality is that "cult" is a pejorative word. It is completely subjective and is simply used as an insult against religions. The fact that you feel that Mormonism is not a cult and that Jehovah's Witnesses are means nothing outside of the context of your particular reasons for feeling that one religion deserves to be insulted and the other does not. Therefore, I would argue, that if you are a serious person, do not use the word "cult" because you are then failing to use logic and reasoning and simply falling back on inflammatory statements.

    I should also point out the irony to atheists and agnostics (such as myself) of seeing a religious person insult people from another religious persuasion about being a cult. Guess what? A lot of people think you are crazy too. The world is an insane asylum and everyone thinks they are the only one who is not a nut.

    Believe it or not, but that is my argument for tolerance and respect.

    October 9, 2011 at 9:02 pm |
  8. Cindy

    Christians follow the religion and words of Jesus Christ in the new testament. . Mormons follow the religion and words of Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon. They are two separate religions. Altho the Mormon church banned pologamy in 1870 they turned a blind-eye and it was practiced well into the early 50's. There are still a lot of people around that remember all the problems we had with Mormons. They seem to want to pursue politics and higher office as Joseph Smith himself tried to run for president. Beware!!

    October 9, 2011 at 9:02 pm |
    • Joe

      Don't forget that the functionalist mormons still practice pologomy to this day. They are simply following the teachings of joseph smith (for mormons who questions joseph smith's teaching please see D&C 132). In fact brigham young went so far as to say if you do not practice polygomy you cannot become gods yourself (mormons believe that as man is god once was, and as god is man will become) "The only men who become Gods, even the Sons of God, are those who enter into polygamy." (Journal of Discourses, vol. 11, page 269)

      October 9, 2011 at 9:15 pm |
    • Joe

      That should have read fundamentalist mormons...

      October 9, 2011 at 9:16 pm |
    • actually

      The Bible is core scripture of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The Book of Mormon is additional scripture used as another testament of Jesus Christ.
      So called "fundamentalist mormons" are only named so themselves. They have absolutely no ties to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

      October 9, 2011 at 9:24 pm |
    • Joe

      So are you saying mormons dismiss the D&C? Ignore when prophets speak? The fundamentalists are a break away group of mormons that follow the teachings of the early prophets.

      I applaud the mormon church in changing with the times and allowing african americans to hold the aaronic prieshood. Luckily those mormons from a couple decades ago, that were taught that african americans carried the mark of cain, were simply taught wrong 🙂

      Oh, do mormons still believe god lives on a planet named kobold? Or do they think that joseph smith's translation of the book of abraham was a hoax?

      October 10, 2011 at 7:11 am |
    • Joe

      "actually"'s opinion that the bible is a core book of the mormons belief system is not really true. As he tried to deceive the readers about the fundamentalist church not being related to mormons – when they believe the same books, have the same founding prophets. Obey D&C 132 ( a mormon scripture written by joseph smith saying god wanted him to marry additional wives) Follow the words of brigham young (both fundametalists and non-fundamentalists believe he carried on gods work after the death of joseph smith) stating that one must be in a plural marriage to become gods yourself.

      "actaully" stretched the truth as mormons "believe the book of mormon as the word of god, and also believe the bible as far as it is translated correctly." In other words if the book of mormon and the bible are at odds then the truth lies with the book of mormon as the bible would be not correctly translated. the book of mormon, the D&C, the pearl of great price are all books the mormons believe come before the bible. So yes, the bible is believed by the mormons as the fourth most important work.

      October 10, 2011 at 7:43 am |
  9. stayzuplate

    Mormonism isn't alone. All religions are cults when you get down to it.

    October 9, 2011 at 9:00 pm |
  10. BillyD1953

    It's kind of fun to stand on the sidelines while all the world's cult leaders argue about which one's religion is a cult and which one isn't. From here on the sidelines they all look like cults to me.

    October 9, 2011 at 9:00 pm |
  11. unowhoitsme

    Study Mormanism for yourself and you'll see that it IS A CULT!

    October 9, 2011 at 9:00 pm |
  12. teepee

    mormonism aint christianity...that's why it's called mormonism...

    October 9, 2011 at 8:59 pm |
    • MJ

      Mormons are nicknamed mormons (because of the book of mormon.) The actual name of the church is: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.

      October 9, 2011 at 9:17 pm |
    • actually

      The name of the Church is actually The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Mormonism is a nickname given by others.

      October 9, 2011 at 9:20 pm |
  13. slavedriver

    Matthew 24:24 strikes again.

    October 9, 2011 at 8:57 pm |
  14. Old Blue Dog

    Thank you Mr Mouw for mentioning JFK's speech to the Houston Ministers. When this name calling mess (and it is) started I thought of it. Many stood up and said that if JFK was elected that the Pope in Rome would be calling the shots in Washington DC. Now I am Catholic and cherish the First Amendment knowing well I live in a WASP country: historically that is the way it is. That speech is a classic and eloquent piece on personal religious beliefs in the structure of a secular government. I would suggest it to everyone who is talking on this Mess.
    http://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/jfkhoustonministers.html

    October 9, 2011 at 8:57 pm |
  15. Crazystuff

    All of you folks saying Mormonism is a cult, show me proof that Jesus really existed. Don't throw the Bible in my face. If that is your only proof then it is no more reliable than the Book Of Mormon telling you that Jesus lived in America after his resurrection. You live by faith and just because someone else basis their faith on one set of words that are different than yours does not make it a cult. How many of you Christians are part of the Santa Claus cult?

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

      Good lord, I'm an atheist as well but you have proven yourself to be just as ignorant as the worst bible-banger out there. Even atheist historians agree there was a historical Jesus of Nazarus (sp) who started a religious movement. Roman historians wrote about him.

      October 9, 2011 at 9:14 pm |
    • Crazystuff

      Written by Tacitus in 116 AD

      October 9, 2011 at 9:25 pm |
    • Crazystuff

      Oh , les we forget Josephus who wrote about him in 66 AD

      October 9, 2011 at 9:27 pm |
    • Crazystuff

      So are we getting this gist of this? Written by "historians" decades and in one case a century after the "fact" before they were even alive from second-hand sources when Christianity was considered a cult.

      October 9, 2011 at 9:33 pm |
  16. Rooster

    I am so happy that I live in a country where I am free to worship or not to worship according to the dictates of my own concience. I have seen many of my Mormon neighbors trying to live good lives, serving people, and just generally being good neighbors. I wish more people would look at themselves and find out how they can help and serve society rather than trying to tear down someone elses faith. Then again, I guess in a free country we have to out up with peoples rights to be jerks. Sheesh..

    October 9, 2011 at 8:56 pm |
  17. Sheila

    Mainstream Christianity can be summed up in the Nicene and/or Apostle's Creed. Anything over and above what they state is what breaks Christians apart from each other. We need to concentrate on what brings us together, instead.

    October 9, 2011 at 8:56 pm |
  18. fraubeeck

    By definition the Mormons are a cult. Does it matter? The Catholic church, the Church of Christ, and Johovah's Witnesses by the same definition are cults. The question is whether some people are using it as some sort of disparaging term. That is wrong and it is bigotry. As Americans we shouldn't care. That's what America is all about.

    October 9, 2011 at 8:56 pm |
  19. Mr Chihuahua

    Say what you want but Mormons arent dumb enough to try to dance with a rattlesnake and wind up in the intensive care unit like the evangelicals lol!

    October 9, 2011 at 8:56 pm |
  20. gomez

    Religion is the cause of all wars. Religion is for idiots.

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

      Oh shut up.

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

      well they do cause wars but they're not entirely for idiots

      October 9, 2011 at 9:08 pm |
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About this blog

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.