Several months ago, the media was in a tizzy over its sudden discovery of a doctrinal statement held by the church formerly attended by Minnesota Representative and GOP presidential contender Michele Bachmann.
On July 13, Joshua Green of The Atlantic breathlessly reported his exciting discovery: Did you know that the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod’s doctrinal statement states, in part, “… It is Scripture which reveals that the Papacy is the Antichrist?”
Well-coiffed TV newspeople were aghast. Blogs were abuzz. Talking heads were incensed. And they all asked the same question: In light of this shocking theological discovery we’ve all just made, is Michele Bachmann an anti-Catholic bigot?
Meanwhile, confessional evangelical Christians were yawning. Martin Luther’s views on the papacy are in the Smalcald Articles, which he wrote in 1537, and which were incorporated into the Book of Concord, a compilation of Lutheran confessions, in 1580. Hey, media: Way to blow the lid off a 500-year-old story, Lutherans joked with one another. To them, the media didn’t look groundbreaking. They looked embarrassingly ignorant of Christian history, in general, and well-known Lutheran doctrine, in particular. And to brand Bachmann a "bigot" – when she didn’t even attend the church anymore – was ridiculous.
But Michele Bachmann was the Christian “bigot” of July, and now it’s October. So evidently, we now need the media to be outraged about another Christian position that isn’t news and was perpetrated by the newest “bigot” – Dr. Robert Jeffress, pastor of First Baptist Church of Dallas.
On Friday, Jeffress introduced and endorsed Texas Gov. Rick Perry at the Family Research Council’s Values Voter Summit. He went on to describe the faith of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney --the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints – as a “cult.”
The reaction was immediate, and nowhere stronger than from Dr. Bill Bennett, former education secretary, my colleague at the Salem Radio Network and a man whom I greatly esteem and admire.
Bennett rebuked Jeffress for his reference to Mormonism as a cult. “Do not give voice to bigotry,” Bennett said in his speech at the same summit Saturday morning.
The critical floodgates opened once more. Again, the talking heads were outraged. The blogs exploded. What a bigot, that pastor! Here we go again.
The question is this: Why is it bigotry to call Mormonism a cult? As even Jeffress himself put it to reporters: “That is a mainstream (Christian) view, that Mormonism is a cult.”
He’s right. And again, Christians everywhere are saying: “This isn’t even news.”
Put aside, for a moment, the questions over the standards Christians should use to choose a presidential candidate. It’s also irrelevant, for purposes of this discussion, whether or not a Christian can or should vote for a Mormon candidate. (And just for the record, Politico reported that Jeffress said he would vote for Romney and does not doubt that he is a good man.)
Perhaps the outrage stems from the often-pejorative nature of the term “cult.” When many people think of a cult, they think of a Jim Jones or a David Koresh, an abusive and delusional leader who holds his followers captive, brainwashes them and exerts a totalitarian control over the group, even to the point of death. This certainly would not be an apt description of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, if that’s your working definition of a cult.
But that definition is not what evangelical Christians have in mind when they use the term “cult” to describe Mormonism. As normally defined by evangelicals, “cult” refers to an offshoot organization that has broken away from Christianity, claims to possess the “new” truth about Jesus Christ and the way to salvation, but denies one or more of the core doctrines of the Christian faith – denying the “faith once delivered to the saints” in the process.
In short, Mormons claim a belief in God, in Jesus Christ and in the Holy Ghost, but they do not believe in the Trinity, which the Bible teaches and Christians claim as a core doctrine. Mormons are not even monotheistic, as Christians are. They are polytheistic, believing in many gods. Perhaps most disturbing to Christians is the Mormon belief in the doctrine of “eternal progression,” the idea that man may one day become a god himself. As fifth LDS president Lorenzo Snow put it: “As man is, God once was; as God is, man may become.”
These doctrines are not taught anywhere in the Bible, the sole authority for Christians for doctrine and practice. Mormons, in fact, claim numerous sources of written authority: the Bible, the Book of Mormon, Doctrine and Covenants and the Pearl of Great Price. And, of course, the church is rooted in the concept of continuing revelation, embodied at the outset in the person of Joseph Smith Jr., the man they believe to be a prophet of God.
So is it “bigotry” for a Christian pastor to notice these doctrinal aberrations from orthodox Christianity, call them out as such (by the authority of the Bible), and term any group that embraces them – while still trying to convince the world that they are “Christians” – a “cult?”
Of course not. It’s just politically incorrect. It’s as if we’re hearing a constant drone, even from within our own political circles: “Don’t you know, Christians, that there are certain things you just shouldn’t even think, much less say?”
Republicans and conservatives may not all agree on theological matters, and good people may weigh in differently on the wisdom of raising the “Mormonism as cult” issue in a political venue, but it’s also unhelpful to insinuate that an orthodox, biblical Christian is a “bigot” just because he voices what all orthodox, biblical Christians believe.
Unfortunately, the media, as well as many luminaries in our culture, don’t seem to truly understand the “Christianity vs. Mormonism” theological debate or why it matters so much to Christians. They don’t get it, any more than they got what was in the Smalcald Articles, or why.
And that’s due to a variety of factors: The media and the culture are generally ignorant and apathetic about theology in general, and Christian theology, in particular. So when a theological issue arises that is of great import to Christians, the media and culture generally don’t assess the story through a theological framework. The default seems to be a politically correct framework, but it just isn’t adequate to properly assess the important theological issue raised by Dr. Robert Jeffress.
Christians are in a strange position. In a culture that says, “All religions are basically the same,” we quote John 14:6: "Jesus answered, 'I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.'" In a culture that says, “As long as you’re sincere in your beliefs, you’re fine,” we quote Luke 13:3: “I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.”
And in a culture that says, “As long as a church calls itself a Christian church, who are you to say it’s not?” we quote I John 4:1: “Do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world.”
This puts us in a bind, because we care deeply about theological issues that the world doesn’t care about at all. And it is this world that is daily analyzing what we say and what we think. Dr. Jeffress tried to express it this way on Saturday to CNN's Kyra Phillips: "To religious people, religion matters."
Saying that – or calling Mormonism a “cult” -- doesn’t make the pastor a bigot. It just makes him a Christian.