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.

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.

What Do You Mean By “Apostasy”?

Rev. Jeffress and Pastor Mark Driscoll have both stirred up a lot of recent anger by saying that Mormonism is a “theological cult”. I don’t think the term is all that helpful even when thoroughly explained (and Driscoll has a MUCH better definition than Jeffress).

I don’t think the term is helpful because the word “cult” has shifted and is so strongly connected with mind-controlling organizations and brain-washing. It’s such a loaded term than any attempt to nuance it is totally thwarted by the power of of the perceived meaning. It’s like doing surgery with a broad sword. I suggest that those who want to discuss “theological cults” might find it more useful to find a different word all together.

Earlier this week I asked a Mormon friend what he meant by the word “apostasy” because the average Christian is going to find it nearly as offensive. He responded:

Being in a state where the church organization and priesthood authority as established by Jesus Christ and restored through Joseph Smith is absent or aberrated.

I think this definition fails for the same reason any secondary definition of the word “cult” fails. The speaker is talking about something the listener isn’t hearing.

Mormons are fond of defaulting to the common dictionary definition when defending their status as Christians. The dictionary refers to apostasy as:

a total desertion of or departure from one’s religion, principles, party, cause, etc.

In addition to the lack of clarity in meaning for my friends definition of “apostasy”, I think he fails to recognize that when Joseph Smith first introduced the term he meant something closer to the dictionary definition than what he’d like it to mean. Similarly Rev. Jeffress probably meant something closer to the common definition of “cult” than any theological definition he could devise.

Mormonism is a Cult

This is a recent interview with Rev. Robert Jeffress by Anderson Cooper. Jeffress is an outspoken supporter of Gov. Rick Perry and pastor of a large Baptist church in Dallas. I think this is perhaps one of the worst definitions of “cult” I’ve ever seen. Even with a pre-qualifier that it’s a “theological definition,” it’s so broad that it becomes meaningless. It’s only use is as a pejorative.

I think Mormonism is in fact a different religion that Traditional Christianity. The Mormon view of God’s place in the universe and His relationship with man is so radically different than what Christianity teaches it’s hard to meaningfully align them unless you’re only looking at the most cursory comparisons. That being said, Jeffress does a terrible job here explaining the differences and an even worse job as an ambassador of Christ. His definitions and explanations appear to be for no one’s benefit except Rick Perry.

For a different perspective by a clearer thinking Evangelical, I recommend this article from the Washington Times by John Mark Reynolds: Why Evangelicals Must Stand Up to Anti-Mormon Bigotry.