In a recent interview with a Washington publication, Joel Osteen, pastor of America's largest megachurch, was asked to comment on former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney's Mormon faith, the "validity" of which has been debated among evangelical Christians since the conservative Values Voters Summit earlier this month.
The Lakewood Church pastor said in the interview, published online Oct. 24, that although he believes Mormons are Christians, "I don't know if it's the purest form of Christianity like I grew up with."
Osteen added, after noting that he knows Mormons, "I hear Mitt Romney, and I've never met him, and I've heard him say 'I believe Jesus is the Son of God... believe he's my savior.' You know, that's one of the core issues. I'm sure there [are] other issues that we don't agree on. I can say the Methodists, the Baptists, and the Catholics don't always agree on everything."
The Houston, Texas minister and best-selling author's comments attracted a handful of comments Tuesday, with most commenters expressing disappointment with Osteen's statement, which they perceived as an endorsement of Mormonism.
Romney, a Republican presidential hopeful, was recently categorized as not being a true Christian by evangelical Baptist minister Robert Jeffress, pastor of First Baptist Church in Dallas.
Jeffress was asked by a reporter after he had introduced Texas Gov. Rick Perry at the Value Voters Summit in Washington, D.C., on Oct. 7 if he believed Mormonism was a cult. The pastor answered in the affirmative.
“Historically, evangelical Christianity has never embraced Mormonism as a branch of Christianity," Jeffress explained to The Christian Post the same day of the Washington, D.C. summit. "Mormonism has always been treated as a cult. In fact, the Southern Baptist Convention, which is the largest Protestant denomination in the world, officially labels Mormonism as a cult. It does not embrace the historic tenets of evangelical Christianity."
Jeffress' comments ignited a firestorm and a theological debate, with some critics calling the Texas minister's comments divisive and unfounded. Others, however, said the minister's remarks on Mormonism being a cult were theologically sound.
As Dr. Richard Land, CP's Executive Editor, recently wrote: "The occasion was a Baptist pastor answering a theological question with a theological answer his secular political reporter interrogators simply did not have the cognitive grid to assimilate and understand accurately."
Land added, "Mormonism is a new religion and not a particular branch of the Christian faith."
Evangelical commentator and president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary Dr. Albert Mohler Jr. also weighed in on the debate over Romney's Mormon faith.
Refraining from casting Mormonism as a cult, Mohler described the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as espousing a "rival world view."
"Mormonism is not historic biblical Christianity. It should not be confused with Christianity," Mohler said. "Mormonism is a rival worldview. Mormonism has its own claim of authority."
Ed Stetzer, President of LifeWay Research, also waded into the debate, noting, "Many people are shocked at the idea that some pastors believe Mormons are not Christians - 'judgementalism' is decried and 'intolerance' proclaimed. Yet, as that may be new news to some, the view that Mormons are not Christians is historic and very widely held view."
Stezter went on to cite a 2010 survey LifeWay Research conducted with Protestant pastors. He reported: "Three-quarters of Protestant pastors (75%) disagree with the statement, 'I personally consider Mormons... to be Christians,' including 60 percent who strongly disagree and 15 percent who somewhat disagree. Just 11 percent somewhat agree, 6 percent strongly agree and 9 percent do not know."
Osteen was previously asked about his views on Mormonism in 2008 during a Fox News interview with Chris Wallace. Romney was a GOP primary candidate in the 2008 presidential election.
Wallace asked the Lakewood, Texas minister, "What about Mitt Romney... is a Mormon a 'true Christian'?"
Osteen responded, "In my mind, they are. Mitt Romney has said that he believes in Christ as his savior, and that's what I believe. So I'm not the one to judge the little details of it."
When Wallace pressed the author on LDS church founder Joseph Smith and certain Mormon teachings, Osteen responded that he does not get "hung up" in those theological issues because he "hadn't really studied them or thought about them."