There’s been a lot of debate lately, thanks to Presidential politics and prospect of the first practicing Mormon president in Mitt Romney, as to whether Mormonism is a cult or not.
Historically, there has been a very clear line drawn between Mormonism and orthodox Christianity, with all leaders of the church across a wide spectrum of Christianity agreeing that Mormonism is not only heretical but also a cult.
But as the wind changes and Mormonism becomes more mainstream, some evangelical leaders are breaking rank. For instance, Rod Dreher, an Eastern Orthodox Christian writing for the The American Conservative, said in a piece entitled, “Mormonism Is Not a Cult, Okay?“:
“It is especially offensive, at least to me, to hear Christians speak of Mormonism as a ‘cult.’ Usually when you hear that word being applied to a church or religious group, it’s designed not to describe, but solely to marginalize…In my experience, Mormonism produces exemplary people, the kind who form stable families and strong communities and who make good neighbors. I do not believe in Mormonism, nor do I have the slightest interest in becoming Mormon. That Mormons tend to be good people does not make their doctrines true. But inasmuch as Mormons—and I’m generalizing here—tend to produce people who are often better Christians, in terms of their behavior, than the more orthodox expressions within the Christian tradition, should make thoughtful Christians consider what truth may exist within Mormonism and what we may learn about how to live well from the Mormon experience.”
And Richard J. Mouw, president of Fuller Theological Seminary, who not long ago publicly defended Rob Bell’s aberrant view of hell, also recently wrote an op-ed for CNN’s Belief Blog entitled, “My Take: This Evangelical Says that Mormonism Is Not a Cult”, stating that while he differs with Mormons on important issues, they are not a cult in his estimation because they are not isolationist, and they have a university. The most telling line from this op-ed states, “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.”
These sentiments are interesting in that they bring up three issues that are important to dissect:
1. What is a cult?
2. Is Christianity about being a “good Christian”?
3. Do Mormons worship the Jesus of the Bible?
What is a cult?
The first thing to understand is that there are multiple definitions of the word “cult.” Thus, as with any discourse, it’s important to define what we mean when we say that Mormonism is a cult.
The recent news coverage uses one definition of cult to mean a group of religious adherents on the fringe of society, totalitarian in nature, and anti-intellectual in practice. Both Dreher and Mouw hint at this definition of cult in their defense of Mormonism. How could a religion that is engaged in political discourse, produces good families, and creates morally upright people be looped in with religious nut cases such as Jim Jones, David Koresh, and Heaven’s Gate?
There are two extremes in the types of definitions offered by those who study theology. For instance, the admittedly liberal Charles Braden, a professor of religious history at Northwestern University, wrote the following in a 1949 work: “By the term cult, I mean nothing derogatory to any group so classified. A cult, as I define it, is any religious group which differs significantly in one or more respects as to belief or practice from those religious groups which are regarded as the normative expressions of religion in our total culture.” This loose definition speaks more of the fact of deviation from ‘cultural belief’ than of a judgment about the deviation.
On the other end of the spectrum is Christian apologist Walter Martin, who adds to Braden’s definition: “A cult might also be defined as a group of people gathered about a specific person or person’s misinterpretation of the Bible.” Elsewhere, he gives a broader definition of a cult: “A cult, then, is a group of people polarized around someone’s interpretation of the Bible and is characterized by major deviations from orthodox Christianity relative to the cardinal doctrines of the Christian faith, particularly the fact that God became man in Jesus Christ.” This definition, of course, tends to make all systems of belief that are not Christianity out to be cults.
While there’s no denying that what Mormons teach is whacky to say the least—and antithetical to orthodox Christianity—it’s impossible to make the case that in the popular definition of cults as crazy, fringe groups that deviate from ‘cultural belief’ that Mormons fit into that definition.
And since it’s true that Mormonism deviates from Christianity on fundamental doctrinal issues, it’s not helpful to call it a cult based solely on that definition alone, as we’d have to call any group that does so a cult as well.
Is there a better way forward than these two polar definitions?
Editor’s Note: Driscoll continues to explore the beliefs of Mormonism in his full blog post here. Driscoll asserts that Mormonism, theologically, is a cult, and he also believes that as the presidential race gets closer, there will be more pressure to enfold Mormonism into evangelical Christianity. Driscoll says that many Mormons are “good neighbors, friends, and fellow citizens. But we cannot go so far as to call them brothers and sisters in a common faith.”
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