In case you somehow missed it, there is a new controversy hovering around the Rick Perry camp. At the recent Value Voters Summit in D.C., Pastor Robert Jeffress (First Baptist Church of Dallas) made some politically incorrect and tactically questionable statements about Mitt Romney’s religious affiliation. When introducing Perry on stage, Jeffress gave his endorsement and asked,
“Do we want a candidate who is a good, moral person, or one who is a born again follower of our Lord Jesus Christ?”
Some have asked (mockingly) if the two choices are mutually exclusive. Of course, Jeffress could have been clearer if he had said “merely a good, moral person.” Regardless, while not specifically naming Romney, the assumption by some was that it was an oblique reference to the former Massachusetts governor, that he may be “a good, moral person,” but he is not “a born again follower of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Later confronted by reporters, Jeffress was asked if he, an evangelical Christian, would ever vote for a Mormon.
“Well, Rick Perry’s a Christian. He’s an evangelical Christian, a follower of Jesus Christ. Mitt Romney’s a good, moral person but he’s not a Christian. Mormonism is not Christianity. It has always been considered a cult by the mainstream of Christianity. So it’s the difference between a Christian and a non-Christian.”
Bottom line, for Dr. Jeffress, having a fellow evangelical in the Oval Office is his preference. This should NOT be a shocking revelation, since everyone would like someone in charge who shares as much of their worldview and values as possible.
Not surprisingly, the press ran with it and, as is typical, at least partially misrepresented what the pastor meant. The big, ugly word being repeated in headlines is “cult”. Of course, the Latin verb cultus just meant to worship a deity, and the word “cult” can still be broadly defined as a particular system of religious worship or a group having a sacred ideology and a set of rites.
But, nowadays, “cult” tends to have a negative connotation. When most people hear it, they think of a relatively small (quasi-)religious group with bizarre, sometimes dangerous beliefs and a charismatic leader/guru who controls practically every aspect of the members’ lives. Such groups usually live in their own compound, physically and socially isolated from the rest of society, including family. Images of brainwashing come to mind. Jim Jones and the Peoples Temple in Jonestown, Guyana. David Koresh and the Branch Davidians in Waco, TX. Marshall Applewhite of the Heaven’s Gate group in San Diego, CA. These guys were whackos who led their followers to suicide.
So, it isn’t too surprising that the Perry campaign has sought to distance itself from the “cult” characterization of Mormonism. Mark Miner, Perry’s campaign spokesman, insists that the Perry camp had no input into Jeffress’s introductory statements and that the governor does not agree with the pastor’s assessment. At a later event, Perry was asked point blank if he thought Mormonism is a cult and said, “No.” Beyond that, he is sticking to the real issues of the campaign. As for Romney, in reference to another speaker’s rhetoric, he called language that is critical of other faiths “poisonous”.
But, is Jeffress correct?
While early Mormonism and some of its offshoots have had controlling, charismatic leaders and a few violent incidents (e.g., the Baker–Fancher Party), the modern-day Mormon Church is pretty well integrated into mainstream society and usually considered a full-fledged religion and not a “cult”. At least, not in the sociological sense of the term, as indicated above.
But, from a theological standpoint — and Dr. Jeffress, a theologian, clarified in a later interview that this was what he meant — Mormonism is indeed legitimately identified as a “cult”. Most cults come out of a mainstream religion, usually Christianity. Some popular figure has some unorthodox ideas and/or claims he has had prophetic “revelations” that eventually lead to heretical teachings. He and a small group of followers break off from the main church and start up their own. They use many of the same terms and ideas as historical, orthodox Christianity, which is why many Christians become fooled into thinking this new group is also “Christian”. But, upon further investigation, the actual concepts/definitions (e.g., in re the nature of God and of Jesus Christ, sin and salvation) are quite different. Many of their teachings compromise, confuse, or contradict essential Christian doctrine. When it comes to the Bible, they become very adept at selecting certain verses, usually out of context, and twisting them to mean something very different than what sound hermeneutical principles reveal. They inevitably produce their own translation of the Bible or add additional texts to “supplement” the Bible; though, in practice, the additional texts become more authoritative and take precedence over Judeo-Christian Scripture. Examples include The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (aka LDS Church or Mormons) and certain offshoots; the Jehovah’s Witnesses; and The First Church of Christ, Scientist (aka “Christian Science”). In theological circles, these groups are sometimes called “Christian cults”. (Note: Based on founder Joseph Smith’s teaching, Mormons have historically claimed that they are the true Christians, and others who claim the label are not. Smith claimed to have received personal revelation to restore the true teachings of Jesus and the prophets from a Bible that had long since been corrupted.)
Despite Bill Bennett’s charge of “bigotry”, then, Jeffress is theologically correct. This is nothing new and Jeffress has made similar remarks publicly in the past. It is consistent with the teaching of mainstream Christianity since Mormonism’s inception in the 1820s. If people are put off or offended, perhaps they need to study up a bit. But, I think Jeffress could & should have been a little more sensitive to the typical layman’s understanding of the word “cult” and worded his comments differently. Maybe he could have avoided some unnecessary controversy for himself and his preferred candidate, Rick Perry.