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.