Billy Graham, Mitt Romney, and the Mormon faith

Shane Vander Hart at Caffeinated Thoughts has a good post up about recent actions taken by the Billy Graham Evangelical Association (BGEA) after Graham's meeting with Mitt Romney. The BGEA has removed from its website an article that described the LDS church as a "cult."

Ken Barun of the BGEA said, "We removed the information from the website because we do not wish to participate in a theological debate about something that has become politicized during this campaign." But it seems to me that such a debate is precisely what they've sparked by doing this now.

There's plenty of room for a discussion about how to describe
the Mormon faith, and about whether softening our language might help us better reach out to Mormons. However, the timing of this action leads easily to charges that it was politically motivated. And whomever we vote for, and however good our reasons are, we shouldn't be tempted to downplay religious differences that are real and important.

What do you think of BGEA's action?


And I am not sure that defines it all that well either.

The problem with the word "cult" is that it is in fact a demonization word. And those words should be reserved for demons.
I should clarify that a church becomes cultic not if it claims tithing and attendance are important, but if it claims that they are essential to salvation.

And you're right, Kelvin, but I believe Mormonism is a cult both theologically and sociologically. Even so - and I think this is where Gina was going with this post - it would not be good to see lefty headlines saying "Billy Graham Equates Romney, Jim Jones".
The fact that we can discuss these issues in a civil manner makes me gay.
I hear you, Lee. I'm in much the same boat. I shouldn't really be here...

What surprises me about the definition of cult that both you and BGEA are using is that it seems to be specifically Christian-connected. I don't think Hare Krishna or Scientology would really fit, since neither of them accords any significance to Jesus (so #1 wouldn't apply except in the way that it applies to all non-Christian religions; I wouldn't call Judaism or Buddhism cults!). Yet both of them engage in behavior that sociologically is, I think, considered classic cult behavior.

And I guess that's where we have a disagreement on terminology. I think a sociological definition of "cult" is the most useful one; you and some others are using a substantially theological definition. While I'm well aware of the etymology of "cult," I think one risks severe confusion in trying to stick with a meaning that the general population no longer recognizes, much like trying to refer to a happy person as "gay." And perhaps recognizing this confusion is part of what drove BGEA to change, though again I wish they had chosen a different time.
Thanks for asking, Kelvin, but my work schedule has become like Rolley's - intense gravitational pull, with little light escaping. So I apologize for my brevity and any subsequent non-responsiveness.

I agree with the definition of "cult" which is put forth in the classic work by the late Walter Martin in _The Kingdom of the Cults_, which has a very detailed yet compact look at Mormonism. In brief, I look for two essential elements in the beliefs of a group:
1. The atonement of Jesus is said to be not sufficient for a person's salvation; typically the person must also do certain good works that in some way benefit the group at large, or particularly its leadership.
2. The person's salvation depends in some way on the ongoing approval of the group. I.e., leaving the group means becoming an unbeliever and putting one's eternal soul in jeopardy.

And yes, some Christian churches behave this way. But in so doing they are not behaving in a way consistent with the founder of Christianity. If a Christian church says you must tithe no less than 10% and faithfully attend every Sunday, then it's not difficult to show that their beliefs are not in line with orthodox, historic theology. If a Mormon church teaches the same things, then their beliefs are, in fact, in line with the theology their founders preached.

All cults engage in heresy, but not all heretics are members of cults.

The history of Mormonism, particularly Joseph Smith's stated reason for starting a new religious body (i.e., why the "heavenly beings" told him he should not join any of the many nearby established churches) is instructive. It's interesting to compare Smith's approach to, say, the "heretics" John Wesley and George Whitfield and how they treated non-Methodists.

Hope that helps. I'll see you again if this black hole has a worm hole nearby.
What's a Cult?
Lee, how do you define "cult," such that you think Mormonism is and always has been one? How does "cult" differ from "heresy," in your view?
Rolley, I'm sorry to hear they're throwing you in the black hole -- hope they let you back out to join us very soon!
Christians cannot avoid being political; every opinion anyone expresses will have political implications. I think BGEA is misguided in trying to avoid that, if in fact that's what they tried to do. More likely they found themselves in a dilemma and this was the most expedient solution.

Mormonism is a cult, and always was.

Didn't Chuck know Billy, during the Nixon years?
Christians cannot avoid being political; every opinion anyone expresses will have political implications. I think BGEA is misguided in trying to avoid that, if in fact that's what they tried to do. More likely they found themselves in a dilemma and this was the most expedient solution.

Mormonism is a cult, and always was.

Didn't Chuck know Billy, during the Nixon years?
Aside from the fact that cult has very pejorative connotations, some of the significant characteristics that I usually think of don't really apply: a dominant, charismatic leader who is the source of all "truth" to his (rarely her) followers; followers are expected to curtail or completely cut off their relations with outsiders; a very sharp us vs. them view of life (including "we are the only ones with the truth"); often communal life. Some other characteristics, such as aggressive evangelism, are shared with many faiths (indeed, I wish that more Christians, including myself, shared that). The Mormons of the first generation might have qualified as a cult, but not at this date. I'd say the same of Christian Scientists. Scientology I think still qualifies, even after the death of L. Ron Hubbard.

The linked article lists several theological qualifications that the BGEA uses to define a cult. I agree with Jason that "heresy" seems like a better word to use. Using the definition stated, many liberal Protestant churches might conceivably qualify as "cults," which really doesn't seem to fit, though "heretical" is a word that I think fits all too well.

I do wish BGEA had picked a different time to do their housekeeping. The timing inevitably puts a political slant on it.
I'm guessing this was initiated by Franklin, who is said to want the ministry to be more involved in political matters. "Cult" is probably not a helpful word, but it's a little fishy that it was removed at this time rather than, say, a year ago when a Mormon wasn't the Republican nominee.
You are thinking of Arrakis because you are the Prime Minister of British Petroleum? I didn't know BP had a PM. Do they have sandworms that eat oil and have their teeth made into sacred daggers for hydrocannibalistic barbarians? Or is it because your job is so boring that you think God must have made it to train the Faithful?
Cult has no definition. That is why I prefer the word "heresy" when a word like that must be used. Heresy means,"I think this religion is wrong". Cult just means, "I think this religion is kinda creepy because I grew up in a different one."
I Approve of What BGEA Did
But for reasons additional to any given.

And wish I had time to develop and defend it all in detail, but I do not – we just launched a huge project at work and I’m the PM and I’ll be in a black hole for awhile to come (hope to come up for air now and then; like LeeQuod (and, doubtless, others), BP is my oasis in a desert world (yes, Jason, I was thinking of you and Arrakis there)).

So I’m going to bookmark this discussion and come back “as able.”
My friend Gina, why is it that almost every story I click on at Breakpoint is from you? We must be concerned about similar things, or great minds think alike? ;)

Anyway, while I do believe the timing is off, I believe this is a worthy discussion to be had. What defines a cult? We have our definitions and sure, we can pull out Mormonism and label it as such, but my concern is with the greater church. Orthodoxy is all over the place, and in the name of love and inclusivity, there is a lot of "cult-like" theology trying to be passed off as Christianity. Why single out Mormonism simply b/c they are willing to admit what they really believe?

BreakPoint Blog