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 ward....it 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.