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.

38 thoughts on “Playing Politics

  1. “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.”

    I couldn’t agree more.

  2. I agree also, I think Evangelicals and Mormons fail to serve their mission of spreading the Gospel to the entire world by too closely affiliating with political parties or candidates especially in the partisan atmosphere of American politics.

  3. Statistics are showing that Romney’s Mormonism isn’t hurting him much at all with evangelical voters. They’re agreeing that Romney is taking a more Christian stance on the issues important to Christians—he is pro-Israel, pro-life, for marriage to remain the way God made it. The porn industry prefers Obama by a strong majority—what does that tell you? Romney seems more concerned about our national debt; he calls it a moral issue. Romney mentioned God and his faith at the end of the last debate; Obama didn’t mention God at all. One report says Obama’s gold ring says in Arabic, “There is no God but Allah.”

  4. One minor correction: It would be more accurate to say Graham implicitly endorsed or effectively endorsed Romney rather than to say he formally endorsed Romney. The distinction may be a fine one, but it does have legal implications considering that the ad pictured with this blog post is being financed with funds under the control of Graham’s tax-exempt organization and that a flier of the ad has been produced as a bulletin insert for churches to distribute.

    That said, I agree with the rest of the post. I think that evangelicalism’s alignment with conservative politics has been detrimental to the movement (and, for that matter, mainline Protestantism’s alignment with liberal politics been detrimental to that movement as well, perhaps even more so).

    I also think it’s a mistake — a theological error, even — to suggest, as the ad does, that the only “Biblical values” to consider while voting are abortion, same-sex marriage and support for Israel.

  5. I think Graham simply wants to do his best to remove the taboo that some evangelicals feel obliges them not to vote for a Mormon. How many evangelicals will not vote for a Mormon on religious grounds alone, if not given “permission” from an authority they respect? I note that even Jeffres is voting for Romney, while still seeing Mormons as a cult. Fine, but I suspect many who followed his diatribe against Romney in the primaries likely don’t know that Jeffres is supporting Romney. I’ve talked to other evangelicals who like Romney, agree with Romney, trust Romney, admire Romney–but feel they’re betraying Jesus if they actually vote for Romney. I presume Rev. Graham may have felt that it’s best to make that distinction (between Romney and his religion) and felt removing the tar-brush of “cult” might simply signal that in his opinion, the two are not mutually exclusive issues. Good for him. At 94 he’s still trying to serve God and be inclusive, not exclusive. Perhaps if the well hadn’t been so poisoned with “cult” epithets for the last umpteen years, Graham wouldn’t have needed to apply such an overt antidote.

  6. …And, as a Mormon use to less-than-attractive superiority displays from some evangelicals, the article from the SBC blogger criticizing Billy Graham is far more insufferable than anything Graham could have done; “Mormonism is a false cult that damns souls to hell for eternity. I pray that Mitt Romney will see the truth before his life ends…I do not plan to punish Mitt Romney (nor America) for Billy Graham’s folly. But I do not intend to soften my conviction that his faith is founded in falsehoods. He may be a great president, but unless he repents of his sins and trusts Jesus Christ by grace through faith alone, he will be condemned. His Mormon faith, no matter how sincerely held, will never save him.” I just love Southern Baptists.

  7. Eric,

    How is being a one, two or three issue voter a theological error? Political folly, sure I’m with you, but theological error?

    What about a one issue, justice for the poor, voter? Is that a theological error?

  8. This is one of those instances where I agree with the decision that was made, but cannot respect the reasons for which it was made.

    Yes, the word “cult” is stupid and unhelpful and removing it from descriptions of the LDS Church is the correct thing to do.


    It’s obvious Graham only did this to give Romney a political boost and avoid sabotaging his preferred candidate. The wording Graham used in explaining the change made that obvious. It’s basically saying “OK Romney, you’re a freaking “different Jesus” worshiping cultist – but you’re better than Obama, so I’ll keep a low profile until the election is over.”

    The way he was talking, it seemed like he was planning to reinstate the cult label after the political situation was resolved.

    If he does, I hope FAIR nails him to the wall.

  9. Reading articles like this just makes me shake my head at how part of the debate over Romney is concern that the LDS Church might become politically involved and influence his decision-making.

    And in the meanwhile, this kind of stuff is going on over in the Protestant camp.

    I mean, really… The LDS Church has to be one of the most politically neutral denominations in the nation. We’ve never tried shenanigans like this. If we did, we’d be completely lambasted in the media. But the likes of Billy Graham and Protestant “black” churches get away with this crap all-the-time. And no one says a word about it.

  10. Seth,

    I couldn’t agree with you more. Add to that the para-church determining that it has the right to bind or unbind the conscience of believers and I’m basically convinced that evangelical in America is basically a political party.

    I dont know how political or unpolitical Salt Lake but the politico-evangelical is pleased to use the church for their own political ends and the don’t want the competition from Salt Lake or Rome.

  11. Gundek asked me:

    How is being a one, two or three issue voter a theological error? Political folly, sure I’m with you, but theological error?

    The theological error isn’t being a limited-issue voter per se. The theological error comes in the position, suggested in the Graham ad, that “Biblical principles” relevant to voting are limited to a few particular issues. And while the Bible certainly has a lot more to say about caring for the poor than it does about same-sex marriage or abortion, I’d agree that it would be a theological error as well to suggest that the Bible says that’s the only issue relevant for voting.

    The fact is that the Bible has very little to say to us, at least directly, about voting. That shouldn’t be a surprise; the Bible wasn’t written during an era of democratic governments. Jesus did talk about rendering to Caesar, and Paul wrote about being subject to government, and that’s about it. None of the writers envisioned our current situation, where believers have a part in choosing those who manage a secular government. So whatever guidance we get about voting is indirect at best. Even the LDS scriptures, written in modern times, don’t say a whole lot about the matter, except to suggest that religious liberty is a key issue. That is why I say that Christians can reasonably disagree on their approach to voting.

  12. This is all very fascinating to me. Because of Mitt, Republican Evangelicals get to show us that professions of belief really aren’t that important when it comes to elected officials – as long as the political works/policies fall in line with American Christian conservatism. Either that, or Mormons really aren’t as bad as they’ve been told. After all would you really vote for someone who you believed was part of a Satanic cult? And maybe that’s where the change comes in – Rev. Graham/BGEA deciding that for themselves and many others, the two cannot exist together (that is, 1 vote for 1 cult member). So, one of the two has to be softened, as we know they’re not voting for Barack Hussein.

    I’m not trying to gouge anyone here, but as you mentioned Tim, this is not helping the political stigma of Evangelicals as a powerful Republican voting block who see American conservative politics as a guide for how they view the gospel of Jesus.

  13. I should also add that, in a way, this looks very good on Evangelicals. They don’t really believe in a strict religious test for POTUS after all (not that they ever really did).

  14. All valid points Christian, but also, we’ve had 200+ years of experience that there actually is a pretty effective wall between politics and religion. Jefferson was not a Christian and yet was an amazing founding father and president. Kennedy was a Catholic who slept around and the Pope was about the furthest thing from his mind. Nixon was a Quaker and swore like a drunken sailor and criminal. Carter was an evangelical but a poor president in spite of Jesus supposedly loving him most. Reagan was religious but didn’t use it as his credentials. Clinton was–well, ’nuff said. So since so far how a POTUS governs seems to have little or nothing to do with where he claims his religious-meter points, I think even most evangelicals are actually pretty confident that there is a pretty effective wall between secular and religious decisions. Only the conspiracy nuts are gonna think that Romney would turn the gov’t over to “the Brethren.” And folks who actually know a Mormon don’t usually find them to have horns and pitchforks. Evangelicals don’t necessarily get brownie-points for just not being as fanatical as some of their rhetoric.

  15. Reagan was religious? really?

    I’m still trying to figure out why supporting the Nation of Israel is a biblical principal.

  16. Garth, I totally agree that most of our presidents have been fairly passive believers in name. The recent fervor over correct belief is not doubt connected to Mitt’s Mormon-ness and Barack’s Muslim father.

  17. I don’t know if Reagan was religious, I generally exclude the political use of God as a credible confession of faith. I’ve not been all that impressed by the religious use of the political either.

    Coming from a dissenting religion the separation of church and state was in our creed before the constitution.

  18. “An Open Letter to Billy Graham Regarding Mitt Romney and Mormonism” address my thoughts on how some Christians have allowed their patriotism to become an idol worshiped in Jesus’ name. It sends a message that Christians must focus on perce
    ived threats to their earthly kingdom more so than on threats to the Kingdom of God. Billy Graham removed language from its website calling Mormonism a cult to AVOID controversy? By doing this, they jumped right into it.

  19. Anyone thinking Romney is any kind of Christian, or that Mormonism is some form of evangelical xtianity, has lost their mind. I’ve worked for TWO billy graham crusades, and in both of them he hammered Mormonism relentlessly at points.

    The thing Xtians neglect to consider, is the common God YHWH, shared with both Muslims and Hebrews. But Mormons worship ADAM- just google “Mormon worship of Adam” and it will lead you to all kinds of early mormon docs.

    But regarding “The Lord of Obama’s Ring” – ARE you saying this, because you’ve seen the ring, personally? Obama is more of an actual Christian than Romney. How do “I” know? Simple: the bible says you’ll know them by their fruits.

  20. But Mormons worship ADAM- just google “Mormon worship of Adam” and it will lead you to all kinds of early mormon docs.

    Which means, at best, that some early Mormons thought Adam was God. I challenge you to find any Mormon now who says they worship Adam.

  21. Yeah [edgy kick-butt moniker guy] how could relying on Google for your research EVER steer you wrong?

  22. Wait…you mean…I’ve been worshiping Adam all these years and never knew it? Dang! That changes everything! My next task will be to wrap my mind around the total absence of Mormon “fruits”, in a religion that emphasizes discipleship.

    (But maybe seriously, that post is the best illustration of why Graham decided to send a clarion message that the “cult” designation brings out too many sound-bite thinkers.)

  23. Tim (or anyone who’s knowledgeable) — Would you care to hazard a guess about how common it would be for an evangelical church this year to distribute the Billy Graham flier or something comparable? In other words, while I assume it would be fairly common for a pastor to encourage the members of his/her flock to participate in the election as informed citizens, how common would it be to suggest which issues are most important and what would be the “correct” positions to take on them?

  24. In all my voting years, I think I’ve seen a Concerned Christians voting guide only once in a church (and I might be mistaken).

    Where as the LDS church directly spoke from the pulpit that members should vote for and actively advocate for Prop 8, the same kind of this happened in maybe 10% of Evangelical churches. That’s my very uneducated guess.

  25. There was a survey in response to pulpit freedom Sunday recently that showed something like 85-90% of Protestant ministers would not endorse a candidate from the pulpit. I’m not sure how relevant that is to your question. I travel quite a bit for work and I have never seen a political bulletin insert.

    My experience is not monolithic, I have seen many popular figures in evangelicalism cross the line, I’m thinking of a D. James Kennedy or Wayne Grudem type para-church activity more than a from the pulpit or Sunday bulletin.

  26. Well, the TV preachers are of a different breed than what I assume is the norm for evangelicalism. Every time I ran across Kennedy preaching on TV, he was talking about abortion. I doubt if a regular pastor would get away with such a thing (or want to).

    I remember a number of years ago visiting an evangelical church (I don’t remember where or what denomination) that had a pile of one-page “nonpartisan” voting guides on a table in the back of the church focusing on issues such as abortion and school prayer. And maybe about 10 years ago, there were people (not LDS as far as I know) passing out similar guides while standing on the sidewalk next to the parking-lot exit passing out fliers to members of my ward as they left after sacrament meeting to go home. But those are the only times I’ve seen such materials when I haven’t sought them out.

  27. Eric,

    Abortion is such a horrific crisis that I don’t even know how to wrap my head around it much less what to do about it. I think Dr. Kennedy came from a “city on a hill” Presbyterianism and abortion is such a stain on that city that needed to be eradicated. I cannot fault the goal.

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