Well, it seems that Mormonism is no longer a “cult”:
(CNN) – Shortly after Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney enjoyed cookies and soft drinks with the Rev. Billy Graham and his son Franklin Graham on Thursday at the elder Graham’s mountaintop retreat, a reference to Mormonism as a cult was scrubbed from the website of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association.
In a section of the website called Billy Graham’s My Answer there had been the question “What is a cult?”
Answer: “A cult is any group which teaches doctrines or beliefs that deviate from the biblical message of the Christian faith.”
“Some of these groups are Jehovah’s Witnesess, Mormons, the Unification Church, Unitarians, Spritualists, Scientologists, and others,” the site continued.
No longer. On Tuesday, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association confirmed that page has recently been removed from the site.
“Our primary focus at the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association has always been promoting the Gospel of Jesus Christ,” Ken Barun, chief of staff for the association, told CNN in a statement. “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.”
The cynical reading of this, of course, is that now even the walking-Evangelical-saint Billy Graham has sacrificed doctrine for politics, that his desire for a Republican in the White House has transcended his commitment to the distinctives of his Southern Baptist religious faith. There has been a lot of ink spilled over whether Evangelicals and other Christians can in good conscience vote for a Mormon, because a Mormon Mitt Romney presidency might look better than a liberal Protestant (and I use the term here theologically) Barack Obama presidency. I won’t dive into those same waters here, because I’m more concerned with the question of religious definition and legitimacy.
First, let’s think about the word cult. I’ve contended for some time that cult is essentially a useless term now. In its most basic sense, a cult is a worshiping community, so pretty much any religious group qualifies. Indeed, the armies of Beliebers may well qualify. But of course that is not what is meant by Evangelicals like Graham when they say “cult.”
Sociologists of religion use cult to refer to a religious group that does not regard itself as exclusively true yet has negative relations with the surrounding society. Those two factors—exclusivity and societal relations—form the basis for sociological definition of religions into four kinds of groups: church (exclusive with good relations), denomination (inclusive with good relations), sect (exclusive with bad relations) and cult (inclusive with bad relations). Yet almost no one uses these terms in the way sociologists of religion use them.
The Graham definition above—”any group which teaches doctrines or beliefs that deviate from the biblical message of the Christian faith”—is similarly problematic. How would this definition include Jehovah’s Witnesses but not Roman Catholics? How would it include Unitarian Universalists but not Mormons? Isn’t it true that all of these groups (and many more) would deviate from most Evangelicals’ understanding of “the biblical message of the Christian faith”?
Now, looking at the Graham list more closely, the one thing all those groups have in common is that they are non-Trinitarian. And of course they also do not really believe in the Incarnation. So they have repudiated the two core dogmas of historic Christianity. But that’s not what’s being said here. What’s instead being given is a general definition for heresy, followed by a list of non-Trinitarian groups. Why not just say “These people do not believe in the doctrines of the Trinity and Incarnation”? Still, even if such a definition were embraced, all you’ve really defined is the classical, ancient content of heresy in the first millennium since Christ. (Heresy has, of course, gotten a bit more multifarious in the second millennium.)
In the end, I think what is really meant by cult in most modern Evangelical parlance is “bad/weird religious group.” And of course perhaps such a definition is right in its own way. But how does that no longer include the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints? Isn’t a religion that believes that God grew up from being just like us to what He is now and that we can grow up to be exactly like Him kind of problematic? What about the doctrine that a male alien from the planet Kolob had intercourse with a divine mother figure, thus giving birth to all of us, and that that male alien is the one we call God? Isn’t that just far enough outside even the rather loose boundaries of Evangelical orthodoxy to warrant some kind of “weird” labeling?
Like I said, though, I don’t think cult is really a useful term any more. Possibly its last real usefulness these days is in the hands of academics referring to the veneration of saints, which has traditionally been referred to with cult, e.g., “the cult of St. Nicholas.” It’s a word that has otherwise been taken out back into the alley behind the hallowed halls of intelligent discourse, mugged for its spare significance and then summarily shot.
Now, as I wrote above, I’m not talking here about how one should vote and whether voting for a Mormon can be okay for Trinitarian Christians. That’s another issue entirely that I don’t really have many good answers for. But I’m concerned about this redefinition of Mormonism. Even if it is the case that Graham’s organization took Mormonism out of its “cult” list solely to avoid politics, the removal is nevertheless a statement in itself. Should Romney get elected, will this redefinition eventually extend to include Mormonism in the greater umbrella of acceptable religion in America?
It is hard to say. I have no crystal ball. But the possibility nevertheless exists. Why? It is because there is no mechanism whatsoever in low-church Protestantism to deal with heresy (except perhaps on the purely local level). Acceptability in the ever-diversifying denominationalist neighborhood is largely a function of social feeling, not dogmatic examination by an authoritative body or process. Orthodox Christians, Roman Catholics and Reformation confessionalists can all know with certainty that Mormonism is not their kind of Christianity. But will your local mega-church know it? What happens when its pastor decides that the squeaky-clean Mormon image might well be the proper result of a doctrine or two worth giving another look?
Evangelicalism already includes some non-Trinitarians in the form of Oneness Pentecostals (sometimes called “apostolic”). What’s another group or two?
The Rev. Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick is pastor of St. Paul Orthodox Church of Emmaus, Pennsylvania, author of Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy (Conciliar Press, 2011), and host of the Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy and Roads from Emmaus podcasts.