Billy Graham: Mormonism No Cult

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.

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27 thoughts on “Billy Graham: Mormonism No Cult

  1. It is interesting to note that although they scrubbed “Mormon” from the site you can still find plenty of Billy Graham’s “My Answers” that describe “cults” in a way that it’s hard not to think “Mormonism”:

    — “Another characteristic of many cults is that they reject the Bible, or claim their founder’s writings are also divinely inspired”.
    –“They also may claim that God gave their founder a new revelation that “corrects” the “errors” of others”.
    –“Often, they add to the Bible by claiming that the books their founder wrote or “discovered” are from God, and have equal authority to the Bible.”
    –“The basic mark of any cult, however, is that it rejects the divinity of Jesus. The Bible teaches that Jesus Christ was God in human flesh—that He alone was both fully man and fully God.”
    –“Cults usually deny that Jesus was the unique Son of God, sent from heaven to save us from our sins.”

  2. Destructive cult or benign religion?

    The *Cult* word gets overused,but in some cases it is appropriate.
    The definition of a destructive religious cult is like alcoholism-if booze controls you instead of the other way around you are an alcoholic.
    I was in the Watchtower society Jehovah’s Witnesses,they are not benevolent and won’t let you leave their organization in peace.The Jehovahs are not without scandals-child abuse,deceptive mind control tactics, sex scandals, money scams, general bad behavior.
    Is it a cult?
    If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it’s probably a duck….
    Danny Haszard *tell the truth don’t be afraid*

    FMI dannyhaszard(dot)com

    • Yes, but where is your definition of “cult” here? It’s all well and good to refer to ducks quacking and walking, but if one does not actually put forth an archetypical definition or example of said duck, then comparisons are in vain. One must establish what a duck is before one can make comparisons to ducks.

      Is there such a thing as a non-destructive cult? Is a “cult” any destructive religion? If so, why is that definition more correct than one based on doctrine? And who defines “destructive”? The disgruntled ex-members? The happy current members? And what about historical usage of cult? What about its etymology?

      Again, I think poor cult is mostly dead, or perhaps even all dead. Let’s go through its clothes and look for loose referents.

  3. Orthodoxy has been an awesome pair of glasses, for me. I see some will agree with you, Fr. Andrew, about what a cult is and what it is not. But, to ME the focus of your story is the fact a change was made. A change whether for political reasons, money reasons or just for loosening a restrictive dogmatic definition is in fact change. When you take a foundational dogma of your belief (what is and what is not Christian) and change it then you have begun to redefine who you are. Like if you change the foundation of your house you have begun to redefine the structure of your house.

    Probably one of the most important attractions to Orthodoxy, for me, was the lack of change. The foundation was set in stone (pun intended) many centuries ago and there is no need for change. So, for me, change is a sign of weakness as something was wrong with the original form. We change (repent) because something was wrong with the original form. We came to Orthodoxy, because something was weak or wrong with the original form of religion we once believed in. So, if the “church” (a very loose term for protestants) changes its position then something was weak or wrong, in the beginning.

    Billy Graham, and I’m sure many more will follow his lead, has just said to the world and God, “I was wrong and I need to change who I am and my core belief of what a Christian is and is not.”

    If the Orthodox Church, today, said, “Hey, remember that (insert heresy here) from centuries ago? Well, we were wrong. Even though they don’t believe in the Trinity, really don’t even believe in the same God as us and blaspheme the Theotokos, well, they’re not so bad. We will now accept them.” I would have no choice but to run from the church and that would make me a protestant, again.

    Lord have mercy.

  4. This is just another example of why I am convinced that Evangelicalism collapses by 2050.
    Confessional Protestantism likely holds out longer, but will also eventually secumb.
    Even Rome is on the same trajectory, especially since Vatican II.
    Someday, Orthodoxy will possibly be the only viable option that can be classified as distinctly “Christian” at all. Grant us grace for that time, O Lord.
    I’ve had a couple Mormon boys coming around recently and keep pressing them in love to explain why they suffer the same “protestant” problem of not being able to identify themselves in any and every century since Christ and the apostles. All the promises of Christ mitigate against the position that the church disappeared during any era.

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  6. Father Andrew,

    Aren’t all individuals whether Orthodox or not subject to the temptation to alter beliefs based on political interest?

    Also, i agree that “cult” is probably just an unhelpful term and at best likely connotes “bad/weird” group as you mentioned. But it just struck me when you listed Mormon beliefs and asked if they were weird, i thought of my own beliefs listed in the Nicene creed could be worded in such a way that would strike many people as equally weird. Was your point that Mormon beliefs are distinctly weird (that point puzzles me–seems entirely perspectival, doesn’t it?), or was your point to illustrate further the uselessness of the term “cult”?

    Also, what really hangs on whether Billy Graham or even the American public view Mormonism as a cult? Or was that not your point?

    –guy

    • To answer your questions in order:

      1. Yes, of course. But that wasn’t really what the post was about.

      2. I don’t really care about whether a belief is “weird” or not. I was indeed illustrating the uselessness of cult. If all it really means is “weird,” then how do Mormons not qualify any more for the average Evangelical?

      3. I honestly don’t know, but my suspicion is that a growing acceptance of Mormonism and other non-Trinitarian groups may herald a further broadening of the denominationalist boundaries, which used to be defined by a rough orthodoxy of sorts. I think what really changed them is already past, and that is the mainstreaming of Pentecostalism.

  7. I could certainly be wrong (often am), but considering the character of Billy Graham himself, I believe this was done, given current politics, exactly for the reason he states: to keep the politics from detracting from the focus of the BGA to preach the gospel. I admire Billy Graham no end. His worst fault seems to be to tend to err on the side of graciousness (mostly this is not a fault in my mind–case in point, he was the only Evangelical leader to visit Jim Bakker in prison after the PTL debacle), and to do this maybe a little too readily with sitting Presidents (or potential Presidents?).

    That, notwithstanding, you make a lot of good points about defining what is a cult and the difficulty for that within modern Evangelicalism.

    • Wouldn’t the focus of the BGA in preaching the gospel include discerning the difference between Christians and non-Chirstians?

      As sheep, people sometimes want to mix other things in with an established religion because it is pretty or makes them feel good. So, Billy Graham, as any clergy of any religion, would need to educate his followers of things that are not acceptable.

      To take it off the list, especially after a well documented meeting, would make it appear acceptable.

      • Ed, another way to look at it is that the BGA elsewhere on the web site leaves up exactly the same criteria as it always has for defining a cult (without naming particular ones). Anyone who does their homework can still put 2 + 2 together from an Evangelical perspective using their web site.

        • Karen, that is a good point, but for me, anyway, is that lingering thought of how it “appears” Billy Graham had a sit down with Romney and POOF Mormons are off the list. I just fear a lot of people will see that as acceptance and not research it further.

          If I tell you all green jelly beans are good and other colors are acceptable, but stay away from the red, blue, yellow and especially the orange ones and you trust me, that is what you do. So, then you read that I had a meeting with the company who makes the blue ones. Then you go back and check the list and see the list now reads: red, yellow and especially the orange ones. I think a lot of people will assume the blue ones are okay, now.

      • I understand that perspective, but if I’m understanding correctly what happened, it wasn’t just that Mormons were off the list (where others remained), rather that the whole list (and page) was gone.

        • Karen,
          Oh, my bad completely. I have to confess my ignorance as I have never looked at Billy’s web-site. I went solely on the opening line of this article which read, “…a reference to Mormonism as a cult was scrubbed from the website of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association.”

          Ooops, I just substantiated my own theory and I am guilty of not doing the research. Thanks for the correction.

          I still stand on the fact change is bad (in this type of situation). We, as Christians, cannot change our beliefs or the Gospel to fit society. Society needs to change to fit within God’s plans for His creation.

  8. I had my ‘cult’ phase where everyone not in agreement with my understanding and interpretation was a cult member. I read all the articles and books and booklets and discovered that not only was the roman Catholic Church a cult but so were all the evangelical & fundamentalist churches! It depended on that wonderful protestant fall back position ‘private interpretation. People need to just live out there faith choice and leave everyone else to their own.

    • Matthew,
      I understand this as my parish was called a “cult” by a local Baptist preacher who was also seen on CNN calling Mormons a cult. Funny thing is he left this huge church for a better paying and even bigger church in Dallas. So, I don’t know if chasing money is considered a “cult”, but if the shoe fits… But, as you said, “People need to just live out their faith choice and leave everyone else to their own.” seems kinda counter-productive since we were commanded to go out and preach the Gospel to the world. Since Orthodox do not accept “private interpretation” then we would need to correct these miss-givings. Our Fathers have defended the faith and we must continue to defend the faith. We as Orthodox Christians MUST discern fact from fiction; our souls and the rest of the world’s souls depend on it.

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  10. I have not read all the comments, but I don’t see anyone pointing out that Billy Graham himself made no public comment that I am aware of endorsing Mitt Romney or changing his doctrinal views. That would be Franklin Graham, his wayward son, he has complete control of the public output of the BGEA, and what his father purports to support. One should not, in my opinion, equate Franklin Graham with his father. One is a walking saint who is 90-something years old, the other is a very cynical and manipulative “hater,” as the kids say.

    • I find this one somewhat hard to swallow. Since Billy’s kid is running the show I’m sure many followers will assume Billy is on board with whatever goes out from the organization. I’m sure if someone posted an article on Fr.Andrew’s site then we would assume Fr. Andrew supported it. So, if in fact, Billy does not agree with what his son is doing he should get that info out to his followers. I think a “walking saint” should be able to manage that. Forgive me if I come off bitter. I have said this on other posts, but I just feel so betrayed, all those years as a protestant, and so thankful I have found the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church.

  11. A more useful definition of a “cult” is any religious organization that uses deception, brainwashing techniques, and sometimes physical force to keep its members in line, that uses force to isolate its members from their families and friends, and that takes financial advantage of its members. To me, it’s a criminal financial scam operating under cover of religion. Jonestown is an obvious example.

    I don’t know whether Mormonism is a cult by that definition, but it certainly is a heresy, no question about that.

    • You don’t think that “cult” leaders actually believe in what they’re doing? Jonestown is actually a counter-example to what you describe, since Jim Jones died with his followers—hardly someone who merely was taking financial advantage “under cover of religion.”

      • Sorry to further sidetrack this thread, but recent investigative updates about what occurred in the Jonestown tragedy have altered the initial storyline. It appears that Jones may have been murdered against his own will. While he did initiate the murder of innocents in his cult, seems he was planning on making a getaway rather than dying along with them. He had certainly gathered a lot of money.

      • Can’t they be both? Seems to me cult leaders can be believers and charlatans simultaneously–having a variety of motives. i don’t know why those would necessarily be mutually exclusive categories.

        • Who said they were? I was responding to the assertion that a “cult” is “a criminal financial scam operating under cover of religion.” Some may well be an attempt to gain wealth, but I strongly suspect that most such religious groups are not a “cover” at all but led by people who actually believe in what they’re doing.

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