Mormonism Debate: What Is a Cult?

Different Understandings Confuse the Debate on Mormonism

Southern Baptist pastor Robert Jeffress made some controversial remarks over the weekend when he described the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as a “cult.” The Southern Baptist understanding of the word “cult” is different than popularly held notions, which confused the debate.

Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, explained what Jeffress meant in his remarks, in a Tuesday interview on CNN.

“When we use the word 'cult,' that's a theological definition of a movement that claims to be within the confines of the Christian faith and clearly is not within the confines of the Christian faith. It is a new religion,” Land explained.

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The “cult” comment was made by Jeffress in an interview with a reporter during the Values Voter Summit last week. Jeffress said that the LDS church is a “cult” and Mormons are not Christians, as they claim.

Two Republican presidential candidates, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, are members of the LDS Church.

The remarks caused a media firestorm. Many have denounced Jeffress' words. Huntsman called Jeffress a “moron.” Presidential candidate and former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich said on “Face the Nation,” that the remarks were “very unwise and very inappropriate.”

When Jeffress used the word “cult,” however, he understood the word differently than how most of the public understands the word “cult.” The Texas pastor explained in his many interviews since the remarks that he was talking about a “theological cult,” not a “sociological cult.”

When most of the public hears the word “cult,” they think of small, closed religious sects led by a charismatic leader with devout followers, such as the Branch Davidians or Jim Jones' Peoples Temple. “Cult” can also be used in a milder sense to refer to passionate followers of a celebrity. Singer Justin Bieber, for instance, might be described as having a “cult following.”

But Land explained on CNN that Mormons are “middle-class, moral, respectable people. They are anything but a cult in a cultural and social sense.”

Due to the misunderstanding that could result from the two different definitions of cult, Land explained, he does not use the word “cult” to describe the LDS Church, “even though it's theologically accurate.”

“Perhaps the best way to describe Mormonism is that it's the fourth Abrahamic religion, Judaism being the first, Christianity being the second, Islam being the third, and Mormonism would be the fourth, with Joseph Smith playing the role that Muhammad played in Islam, and the Book of Mormon playing the role that the Quran plays,” Land added.

The Christian Post asked four Southern Baptist pastors how common Jeffress' understanding of the LDS Church and cults are among Southern Baptist pastors. Curt Bradford, lead pastor of Riverbluff Church in North Charleston, S.C.; Ron Dillon, senior pastor of First Baptist Mt. Pleasant in South Carolina; Donald Kirby, pastor of North Hills Baptist Church in Marietta, Ohio; and Tim Vaughn, lead pastor of Life Church of Athens, Ga., all responded via email.

Both Bradford and Vaughn referred to a blog post by Ed Stetzer, which was also featured on The Christian Post. Stetzer is “our Southern Baptist research guy,” according to Bradford. Stetzer said that, “since 'cult' is difficult to define, scholars tend not to use it.”

The main issue for Stetzer, however, is not whether the LDS Church is a cult, but whether or not it is Christian, which also appeared to be the main issue for the pastors who were interviewed. On that question, there is broad agreement among Southern Baptist pastors that the LDS Church is not Christian. Lifeway Research conducted a poll of Protestant pastors in 2010 showing 75 percent believe that Mormons are not Christians.

“The fundamental issue is: how divergent can your views be and still be a part of a faith group (in contrast to forming a new one),” Stetzer wrote. “Can you believe, for instance, that Muhammad is not the prophet and still call yourself a Muslim? The vast majority of Muslims would say you cannot. For Christians, calling yourself a Christian while not believing that God has always existed as the triune Father, Son and Holy Spirit is as inconceivable.”

Kirby, likewise, said that Mormons are not Christians “because the theological views of the LDS distort the biblical teaching on the means of salvation and the person of Jesus Christ.”

Jeffress has said that if given a choice between Romney and President Obama, a Christian, he would choose Romney because Romney's values are closer to his own.

The Southern Baptist pastors interviewed agree that Romney or Huntsman's religion should not, in and of itself, preclude a Christian from voting for them.

“I would suggest that Christians look at all the candidates and examine their positions before making any decision,” Kirby advised. “I would not suggest to anyone not to vote for a candidate because he was Mormon.”

Vaughn explained that he would also look at a candidate's stances on the issues more than anything else. “I have heard a couple of so-called evangelical Christians say that they are pro-choice when it comes to abortion. I cannot understand for the life of me how an evangelical could have that stance, and I could not vote for that person.”

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