Monday, October 10, 2011

Romney's Mormonism

In my Evangelical days, I would have been on board with Robert Jeffress assessment of Mormonism as cult and his urging to vote for a "Christian" candidate.

My, how my thoughts have changed.

Lurking behind Jeffress assessment of Romney's Mormonism and political candidacy is the assumption that   having a "real" Christian in the White House will automatically increase the odds that the United States will be closer to God's will and favor. It won't be worded that way in the media, but that's what underlies Jeffress statement. All things being equal, a bona fide, officially approved Evangelical will always be better, in Jeffress eyes, because they have an inside line to God, while other candidates have to rely on their own powers and qualifications.

All things being unequal, even if Romney has better qualifications or better political ideas, the fact that he isn't a bona fide Evangelical just naturally means that he is more prone to being spiritually deceived and leading the USA down Satan's primrose path.

That seems over the top for me to write....but it is an entirely accurate portrayal of what Jeffress and those like him think. It has nothing to do with whether or not Mormonism is a cult. That's simply a way of phrasing things for the larger public.  Even secularists and atheists don't want to vote for someone who might belong to a cult. The cult language is a way to sway those outside of Jeffress' particular version of Evangleicalism.

Jeffress doesn't need to invoke cult language in order to influence his followers, because his followers don't believe in a spiritually neutral universe. People who think like Jeffress will automatically infer that Mormonism is a false religion, probably started and sustained through demonic influence and ergo, its followers, who may seem moral, are the under the influence of demonic teaching and false beliefs. Even if they seem nice, they are deceived.

Rmmney is not alone in this classification. Obama, as a member of a liberal Christian denomination, doesn't qualify for "real" Christian status in Jeffress version of Evangelicalism, either.

Is Mormonism a cult?

No. At least, it isn't any more. It definitely may have originated as a cult, following the teachings of Joseph Smith and his "discovery" of the golden plates. A cult usually revolves around a single personality, or a very tight circle of authoritative leadership which is not open to the larger grouping of religious followers.

There are certainly splinter groups of the Latter Day Saints which would qualify as cults, Warren Jeffs group providing a prime example. And there are other groups like his, with compounds full of women and children dressed in pioneer-like clothing, separated and closed off from the world through purposeful self-isolation.

However, mainstream Mormonism has moved beyond cultism. Regardless of what a person thinks about the dubious origins of Mormonism, as a religion it has normalized itself to a certain extent. By abolishing polygamy and establishing broader leadership and openness it has done what all religions must do to move beyond cult status; it has compromised and changed what it could to fit within the larger culture surrounding it.

In fact, mainstream Mormonism looks quite similar to Evangelicalism. The average Evangelical could walk into a Mormon ward and hardly tell the difference between one of its services and a traditional Baptist service.  Evangelical mothers could talk with Mormon mothers and discover that the same focus on being a good wife and mother, which prevails in conservative Evangelical culture, is virtually identical in Mormon circles. The same attitude and arguments for male-only leadership that the Mormon church espouses could have been written by any conservative Southern Baptist pastor. The same effort to engage youth groups, to encourage tithing, to require service to the is virtually identical to how many Evangelical churches work.

The reason that most Evangelicals don't realize this is that their only exposure to Mormons and Mormonism occurs when they hear a knock at the door and find two young men in black pants, white shirts and black ties patiently combing neighborhoods, handing out the book of Mormon and trying to convert anyone they can. That is no better of a way to know what Mormons are like than to know what Baptists are like through their evangelism efforts.  It's only a small peak into their world.

Many Evangelicals would honestly be more comfortable with Mormon friends than they would with Catholic friends, they just don't know it. Behind the weird theories about Jesus, and the more sensational Mormon beliefs, the core of Mormon culture is made up of family, work ethic, and being willing to not conform to the world for the sake of God. The "feeling" of mainstream Mormonism is congruous to the "feeling" of conservative Evangelicalism.

That's why Glenn Beck can be so popular in conservative Evangelical circles. Even though his religion is not the same, the things he says, the views he holds, the way he comports himself  is familiar and second nature to conservative Evangelicals. Listening to him is like listening to one of their own.

Will Jeffress' comments mean anything in the way the election pans out? Only if his comments influence those who are outside of his group and who take his comments at face value.


MInTheGap said...

I'm not sure you're right about Mormonism's cult status. While it's true that the religion's size is bigger, I'm not sure that Mormonism isn't still focused on one man's vision (the book of Mormon) and the rights and traditions of that founder. If you look at the practices from the holy underwear on down I think there are still things that speak to the religion as being a cult.

Again, this all depends on your definition. My definition of a cult, growing up, was any religion that did not proclaim Jesus to be God-- therefore that made JW's, Mormons, etc. a cult.

Part of the reason that Mormonism is gaining status is the number of people that view it as acceptable, but don't necessarily follow or agree with the doctrines. This happens in every religion. Therefore, there is no tight control like Waco or Jeff's bunch, but I believe that the foundation of the religion is still cultish.

Would you agree that JW's are a cult? Why or why not?

terri said...

In the past, I would have said what you have said.

However, if you took that definition to its logical extent, every religion other than orthodox Christianity(and that is depending on who's defining what's orthodox) would be a cult. Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, etc. Although I think that many Evangelicals would call those false religions, I don't think that they would use the term "cult".

Nowadays, I would not label Mormonism, or Jehovah's Witnesses as cults. They are cousins to Christianity whether or not mainstream Christians want to accept that.

That's why Mormons can blend in so well with Evangelicals. Even though they have the Book of Mormon and all these weird, little ritualistic quirks, a large base of their beliefs are rooted in Christianity.

The same goes for JW's. Like it or not, their religion is a form of Christianity in the sense that it evolved from Christianity and still relies on the same Scriptural canon to form its viewpoints.

So, even though, it's possible to think that Mormonism and JW's are wrong, it isn't correct to call them cults. Although, I think in comparison with Mormonism, JW's have a much more authoritarian, legalistic environment. They can be very harsh within their group and towards others.

I think being defined as a cult is more about how a religious movement is run rather than what its theology is. Sometimes those things are intertwined, as in groups where the theology is that the leader is God's mouthpiece and total obedience is the only correct attitude towards the leader.

I would call Westboro Baptist a cult before I would call Mormonism a cult.

But, again, I think one could argue a good case that Mormonism's beginnings could have definitely qualified for cult status.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Words change in meaning, so what was a cult fifty years ago may not be the same today, even if the religion is the same. Cult has usually carried the idea of not only heterodox belief, but the following of a single individual or restricted group of teachers. Mormonism fits that, as it remains dominated by Joseph Smith/Brigham Young thinking. However, others have been added to the mix over the years, and time and broadness ease a group out of that status - else Buddhism, Islam, and Christianity would be cults. Christianity, in fact, could legitimately have been defined as a cult in its first century.

After that it gets fuzzy. SDA followed the writings of Ellen G White and came pretty close to being a cult, though I think solid orthodoxy on the concept of the Trinity exempts them.

I think Mormonism is a cult and am likely to vote for Romney anyway. I agree that this "we can only trust those who are absolutely from our tribe, and we believe too readily that all our guys are good" is just not very solid, spiritually or logically.

MInTheGap said...

The current definition I can find for a cult is very broad, and you're right, Terri, it would fit Christianity to a degree.

However, I don't think that Mormonism is just another form of Christianity. In this post, Mohler states that the very doctrine is anti-Christianity, and I would say JW's are probably closer to Christianity than Mormons.

MInTheGap said...

From this source, which believes it is a cult but I quote not their conclusions but their sources:

In Mormon theology, Christ as a preexistent spirit was not only the spirit brother of the devil (as alluded to in The Pearl of Great Price, Moses 4:1-4, and later reaffirmed by Brigham Young in the Journal of Discourses, 13:282), but celebrated his own marriage to “Mary and Martha, and the other Mary,” at Cana of Galilee, “whereby he could see his seed, before he was crucified” (Apostle Orson Hyde, Journal of Discourses, 4:259; 2:82)…[and] the Mormon concept of the Virgin Birth alone distinguishes their “Christ” from the Christ of the Bible.

This is an entirely different Christ than the Christ of the Bible.

The difference, to me, is in the doctrine. Yes, the people practicing the religion may look similar and have similar morals, but the doctrines of the two groups are radically different.

DH said...

If nothing else, Jeffress used a very inflamative word that evokes a very strong emotional response in many. As can be seen from the discussion above, however, many disagree on exactly what a cult is, though, and so using such a loaded adjective is neither meaningful nor productive beyond creating the aforementioned gutteral response.

MInTheGap said...

Good point-- I wonder if the word actually carries any more meaning today than being a pejorative to claim one religion's superiority to another?

Gets hard when people redefine what words like depression, recession, cult, etc. mean.

DH said...

MInTheGap - I think we run into that problem in many areas of life.

People in different religious circles think they're in agreement because they're using the same words only to find out later that the words mean very different things to each group.

Politicians use loaded terms and gain the support of voters only to have their actions in office be very different than what voters expected and who later discover that the politician meant something very different than they had thought.

Oftentimes the misunderstandings are unintentional and accidental, but it is frustrating when someone knowingly exploits the ambiguity of a word or term in order to advance their own agenda.