Pursuing Answers to Questions of Faith & Life

Monday, October 10, 2011

Cults, Mormons and Political Correctness

By labeling Mormonism a “cult” and Mitt Romney a “non-christian”, a firestorm has erupted.

I think much of the problem comes from the negative connotations associated with the word “cult”.

When we hear it, we tend to think of something like a midnight bonfire in the woods with people in black robes sacrificing animals or children.  Or we think of Jim Jones or David Koresh—a maniacal leader with brainwashed followers who will commit suicide. 

Connotations aside, that is not what the word really means.

A cult is typically defined or understood as an offshoot of another established religious system. 

This typically includes at least 3 elements (there are a few others but these are the basic:
  1. A new leader—attracting a group of followers from within a system who have many of the same foundational positions/assumptions but separate out of it 
  2. A redefining of major doctrines— that distinguish the new cult from the old system 
  3. A new set of scriptures—that highlight the differences and hold an equal/greater source of authority than the previous scriptures.  The previous scriptures are still held as valuable but are often overruled by the new revelation
With this basic definition, here are some examples of  cults:
  • Christianity is a cult (derived out of) Judaism 
  • B’Hai is a cult of Islam 
  • Buddhism is a cult of Hinduism 
  • Mormonism is a cult of Christianity--along with others from the 1800’s like Jehovah’s Witnesses, Christian Science
By no means is labeling something as a cult intended to imply that the people currently involved are evil or immoral.  It is a label that highlights the fact that this new group is not the same as the old.

This is exactly what Mormonism claims for itself. 

To be fair, Mormons would probably prefer terms more like, “restored Christianity” since from the very beginning, Joseph Smith considered the orthodox Christian church to have apostatized its beliefs and deviated from the truth. 

This is much the same way Christianity would claim to be “fulfilled Judaism” in the sense that Jesus claimed to be the Messiah that Judaism was looking for.

But with the basic definition of a cult—an offshoot of an established system, Mormonism qualifies.
  1. It has a New Leader—Joseph Smith – while he points people back to Jesus, the main figure of restoration is through the life and teaching of Joseph Smith—without him, the movement would not exist. 
  2. It Redefines Major Doctrines—Joseph Smith thought the church of his day was apostate and in error on its doctrines so he proposed to change/restore them.  Major doctrines he changed are not limited to the following: 
    • The Nature of God – Mormons do not believe in the Trinity in the orthodox sense but three distinct beings, Elohim/God the Father has a body of flesh and bones while Orth. Xity understands God as Spirit (see John 4:24).  Mormons also believe that Elohim was at some point a man on a different planet that has been exalted to godhood for our planet—He was once like we are now 
    • The Person of Jesus—not co-equal to the Father or co-eternal in a Trinitarian sense but a created being 
    • Future of Salvation—Mormons believe in 3 levels of salvation, the highest of which allows someone (by faithfully following and participating in Mormon life)to progress to be a god for their own planet 
     3.  New Scriptures—Mormons have 3 books of new Scripture
a.     The Book of Mormon
b.     The Pearl of Great Price
c.      Doctrine & Covenants
Most of the variant theology is found in D&C and PoGP
d.     The Bible—the Bible is a source of faith but has been corrupted.  Some examples:
"We believe the Bible to be the word of God as far as it is translated correctly. . ." (8th Article of Faith of the Mormon Church).  
"Wherefore, thou seest that after the book hath gone forth through the hands of the great and abominable church, that there are many plain and precious things taken away from the book, which is the book of the Lamb of God," (1 Nephi 13:28)

Some people have argued that the Protestant Reformation from the 1500’s also fits this definition in its breakaway from Roman Catholicism but I do not believe it does. 

First, Martin Luther’s motive was first to reform R.C., not leave it. 

Second, Luther and the reformation did not propose new scriptures, rather a return to the scripture—getting away from the added layers of church tradition—sola scriptura—was one of the highly emphasized tenets. 

Third, Protestants and Catholics still share most of the same theology—upwards of 90-95%.  The nature of God, of Jesus and the universe are largely held in common. 

The elements and gaps that divide us are miniscule compared to the gulfs between orthodox Christianity and Mormonism.  While there are elements within Catholicism that I believe makes salvation more difficult (veneration of Mary/Saints, emphasis on works, etc.), it is not impossible.  I do consider many people within Catholicism to be my brothers & sisters in Christ.

In regards to the current political debate, I’ve known several Mormons over my life and I have always enjoyed their company and conversation.  Typically, they have a greater understanding of their faith and a willingness to talk about it than most Christians (we are far too spiritually lazy).  Many of the converts to Mormonism are coming out of orthodox Christian churches, particularly Southern Baptist churches.

The pastor was right when speaking about Mitt Romney’s beliefs being aberrant to orthodox Christianity.  As a pastor, he does need to speak clearly to that and not try to blur the great differences that exist between them.   

Early Mormon history also did not try to blur the lines at all b/c they considered what they were leaving to be apostate.  I will say this has shifted, since the 1980’s LDS commercials and missionaries as a public outreach effort have tried to minimize them to appear as just another denomination.  Considering this current discourse, they have been successful.

Thankfully, in America, we have no religious test for public office.  Mitt Romney is not prevented from running because he is a Mormon.  But any individual considering any candidate should consider their religious beliefs (among other factors) and how they may impact their governing philosophy.  I do this with every candidate. 

In the 2008 election the theology of Barak Obama’s church and pastor Jeremiah Wright became an issue.  I believe the media largely failed to investigate and inform the country of those beliefs.  I believe this was because the media in large part favored his candidacy.  Had a conservative candidate gone to a church with similarly racially charged beliefs the media would have been all over it and it would have won the election for the other guy. 

His religious affiliation was enough for me not to seriously consider him as a candidate for President.  It was not my only reason, but it would have been enough by itself.  I will continue to do that with all of the current candidates.

As for the Pastor from Dallas; a Pastor should be able to answer a religious question.  And if he is a pastor worth anything, he will answer in such a way that is consistent with his beliefs and not be concerned with whether it is politically correct or popular.

The discourse in our country has for too long tried to pretend as if differences do not exist.  It would be a mistake for pastors, Mormon, orthodox Christian or anyone to start pretending and talking as if we were all the same just to score some political points.

Because I for one am of the opinion that Beliefs matter.  If the candidate does not take his or her beliefs seriously, live by them and allow them to influence their decisions, then any claim to faith is mere window dressing and that kind of hypocrisy is evidence of questionable character.  If he or she does take them seriously, then those beliefs should be examined and considered.

The Pastor in question recently answered some questions on this issue.  He can speak for himself.

The Mormon Puzzle is a good video that gives a basic introduction to Mormon history and theology.  While there are some parts I don't like, the best is when LDS representatives from their universities speak very candidly about their beliefs--by far these interviews are the highlight.  Wish I could find a hosted video online, but the link gives a sample.

Al Mohler has an excellent blog on this controversy.

Another video that is very interesting to consider.

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