The Curtain Falls on the Mormon Moment

With Mitt Romney’s hopes for the presidency coming to an end last night we not only close out the 2012 election cycle but we also say good bye to “The Mormon Moment.”

I felt certain that Mormonism would be used as a political device against Mitt Romney, specifically the priesthood ban. I was wrong. There certainly were left-leaning writers and opportunist who attempted to promote that angle, but those stories never really made national news. I thought a SuperPAC, unofficially affiliated with Barack Obama would create at least a few television ads attacking Mormonism’s past. Those ads never materialized. I have to say that I think the country is probably better for it. I think John McCain displayed considerable honor by not leveraging Rev. Jeremiah Wright in 2008 and President Obama returned the favor in terms of Mormonism in 2012.

Mormonism will continue to gain some national exposure about once every 10 years. But it will likely never receive the kind of media exposure it did over the last year. I don’t think the LDS church made any significant gains in converts or positive public perception, but it likewise did not suffer any large embarrassments.

About the most damaging thing to happen to Mormonism was the release of hidden video of the Endowment Ceremony. Interestingly enough, the publisher of that video, NewNameNoah, had his YouTube account suspended yesterday. If the LDS church had any role to play in that action, I think they couldn’t have chosen a better day than Election Day to make it happen. Any hopes for media coverage of that censorship will be unable to find a voice in the current news cycle. The video will live on and will remain publicly available, but will be much more difficult to find off of YouTube. [update: the account was reactivated the next day]

Second on the list of hits against the LDS church would be the church disciplinary actions against David Twede, the managing editor of MormonThink.com. The church wisely chose to suspend its disciplinary actions and Twede resigned on his own terms. He was able to successfully draw greater attention to his website but I think Twede made a number of missteps in equivocating about his potential excommunication being somehow tied to political comments against Mitt Romney.

Third on my list of problem areas for the church in the national exposure was the rise in prominence of some “non-correlated” Mormons such as Joanna Brooks and John Dehlin. They’ve found courage in their unorthodox views and the church has shown, that at least for the time being, it will not be calling people with such vocal views into disciplinary hearings as it did with the September 6. I think these individuals will be sticking around in the discussion of Mormonism and will be called upon by their new found media contacts to speak on Mormon matters at least as frequently as the official church spokesman. Many would consider this the greatest positive to emerge from this Mormon moment.

Robert Jeffress began the year with a discussion of Mormonism’s cultic status within Christianity. By year’s end Billy Graham was removing the word “cult” from his website not only in reference to Mormonism but toward several other religions as well. This may be the greatest benefit to Mormonism from the Romney campaign. The Evangelical use of the word “cult” as a reference toward heretical, new-religious-movements has probably come to an end. I think moving forward you will see “cult” being exclusively a reference to mind-controlling organizations.

Though a positive for the nation, I think the lack of attention on Mormonism in the outcome of the campaign is actually a negative for Mormonism. It shows that Mormonism (and perhaps religion in general) is largely irrelevant in the national discussion. People simply don’t care beyond a passing curiosity. In terms of future converts, it’s much better for a religion to be hated than to be irrelevant.

I’d wager that the next time a spotlight such as we’ve seen cast on Mormonism in 2012 will be caused by either a large political movement to legalize polygamy or some sort of leadership crisis. I anticipate the former (and for sure decriminalized polygamy) before the latter. Many Mormons may have hoped that a Romney presidency would bring about a long awaited acceptance in American culture. The energy and opportunity for that sort of shift has now ended. In the United States, Mormonism will now return to being a topic of discussion for Mormons, former Mormons, a few curious onlookers and detractors and a shrinking number of potential converts.

Why Mormonism is only for those who desire it, and why it matters.

In our discussion about the LDS temple ritual.  I mentioned that I do not believe the endowment is for everyone, nor was it meant to be.  It is only for those who desire it.

While this seems to be a somewhat technical/semantic point. I think it is important in the context of the “Mormonism-seems-to-be-a-cult-because-it-has-secret-Rituals” discussion. By saying that endowment is ONLY for those that really want it, I underscore how different this position is from any sort of cult-like view of the ritual. Mormons are not forcing people to do weird things against their will. This seems akin to the same fallacious argument that Mormons are somehow disrespectful for performing rituals for the dead or that they disrespect holocaust victims by baptizing them. It makes no sense in context of Mormon thought and doctrine. It seems that among the pervasive misunderstandings and/or misrepresentations regarding the religion are that Mormons are a cult that pushes people or brainwashes them into making crazy commitments and weird secret rituals against their will.  This is unsupportable by the doctrine or the scriptures.

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Playing Politics

Earlier this week Billy Graham formally endorsed Mitt Romney in his campaign to become President. The endorsement is significant for a number of reasons, Graham is a life long Democrat and has never formally endorsed a candidate. This endorsement is important to Romney because it secures the most well-known and respected Evangelical voice of the last century. Graham’s endorsement is thought to put at ease the minds of those Evangelicals who may be reluctant to vote for a Mormon in a national political race.

Perhaps of greater interest than the actual endorsement was the immediate retraction of a number of articles from the Billy Graham Evangelical Association’s web site. All of the articles in question had named Mormonism as a cult. A spokesman for Graham stated:

“Our primary focus at the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association has always been promoting the Gospel of Jesus Christ. 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 retraction on the subject has raised the ire of many Evangelicals. Calling some to ask, will we gain the White House but lose our souls?

Christianity Today published an article with some brief reactions from Evangelical leaders asking, should the BGEA have removed the cult designation from Mormonism on their site? Here are two I thought of interest:

“Yes, but not for the reason they apparently did. If [the BGEA] did so to help the Romney candidacy, then that was probably folly. First, because it likely won’t help in any meaningful way; and second, because it gives the appearance that the BGEA might think that—on certain occasions—they will let politics trump principles. However, in the big picture I’m not sad that they are moving away from the word ‘cult’ for Mormonism. These days, the word is nothing more than a pejorative, and unhelpful in communicating the true gospel to Latter-Day Saints (LDS).”
–Craig Hazen, professor of comparative religion and apologetics, Biola University

“It is unfortunate that the BGEA chose to remove the cult designation describing Mormonism this week. It will appear to the world that the Graham organization has chosen political expediency over spiritual conviction. It is possible to endorse Mitt Romney, as I have done, and yet maintain that Mormonism is a false religion that leads people away from the one true God.”
– Robert Jeffress, pastor, First Baptist Church (Dallas)

My personal take is that the word “cult” serves very little productive use in communicating about Mormonism. I appreciate the theological definition that Evangelicals have used but regard the the distinction between sociological cults is more often than not misunderstood or not all clarified. In my view it is a welcome change to remove the word “cult” from our vocabulary but the timing of this change stinks of politics and not of principle. If anything this change serves the opposite of the BGEA’s intentions by reinforcing the politicized nature of the debate over the word “cult”. I’m not sure how better the BGEA could have handled this controversy other than to make the change many months ago out of principle in a non-political atmosphere, or to have left all of the articles online and replaced the word “cult” with “heretical sect”, and then clearly explain that the change in vocabulary was intended to better communicate the association’s disagreements with Mormonism.

Billy Graham’s legacy is strongly in tact, but I think I would have preferred him not to have made this one of his last nationally recognized statements. His record of non-endorsement of presidential candidates would have better served his name and not have further promoted the political stigma that has inflicted Evangelicalism.

Give Me Liberty or Give Me Romney

Mitt Romney has been invited to give the commencement address at Liberty University, an evangelical school founded by Jerry Falwell. The announcement has stirred up quite a bit of controversy. I have to admit that the news left me in a bit of quagmire of thoughts.

I attended an Evangelical college and I’ve presumed that all of our graduation speakers have been men or women who could agree to the university’s statement of belief. Liberty University is quite a bit more conservative than the school I attended, so I was surprised to hear that they’ve previously had Jewish and Catholic speakers. But then I recalled that Michael Medved, a Jew, spoke once in University Chapel and I don’t remember anyone expressing anything negative about it.

I’m completely resolved to the idea that it’s okay for an Evangelical to vote for a Mormon. I would probably throw a fit of one shape or another if a Mormon were invited to speak from the pulpit of my church. A graduation speech at a Christian university is not a sermon, but the expectation is that spiritual themes will be affirmed and encouraged. So I can appreciate the concerns being expressed in opposition to the invitation.

I’m interested to hear what others think. Is it appropriate for a Mormon to give the commencement address at an Evangelical school?

The Mormon Candidate

The BBC recently released a new documentary about Mormonism and Mitt Romney. I think the average Mormon will regard this as a very biased hit piece against the LDS church. But it is notable for the extensive interview with Apostle Jeffery Holland including discussion about the Book of Abraham, Smith’s treasure digging, the practice of shunning, masonry and penalties in the Mormon temple and the “Strengthening the Members Committee”.

This is part one. All the parts can be seen seamlessly by clicking this link and hitting “Play All”.

My Racist Past

John Piper, a major Evangelical leader in the Reformed tradition recently released a new book “Bloodlines” dealing with his own sin of racism.  You can download the book for free here.

In conjunction with the video Crossways has released this short documentary in which Piper revisits his home in South Carolina and discusses his history with race and racism.

I’m proud to see Piper name racism for what it is and to make such a public confession.

Obery Hendricks on Mitt Romney & Mormon Racism

Yesterday Obery Hendricks posted an article on the Huffington Post challenging Mitt Romney on racist sentiments found in the Book of Mormon.  As has been pointed out, Hendricks is guilty of cherry-picking some of those statements.  He also doesn’t have a good enough handle on Mormonism to understand that the Book of Mormon is not making reference to people of African descent, rather it’s speaking of dark-skinned people of Jewish descent living in a yet-to-be-determined location (some might say they are dark-skinned Native Americans, others might say these passages have nothing to do with skin color at all).

Last night Hendricks appeared as a guest of Ed Schultz on MSNBC.  As I predicted, I believe this is just the start of these attacks on Mitt Romney and Mormonism.  The challenge Romney faces is answering these charges in the length of a sound-bite.  I don’t think the nuance that Mormons engage the priesthood bad with is going to communicate.  I also don’t think he has the opportunity to engage in exegis of the Book of Mormon. Hendricks does not offer an attack that effectively sways Mormons, but he does offer an attack that sways non-Mormons.

I don’t believe this is going to go away and I’ll be interested to see how Romney resolves it.  I believe he’ll eventually be forced to say, as John Huntsman has stated, that the priesthood ban was wrong.