CULT OR CULTURE?: Is the growing tolerance of Mitt Romney’s faith among evangelical Christians a sign of theological maturity or political desperation? (Photo: Gage Skidmore)
“We’re electing him to be our Commander-in-Chief, not Pastor-in-Chief.” That’s how one Christian woman recently defended her support of GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney in a Facebook comment.
It has been curious to observe the about-face that many formerly doctrinaire evangelicals have taken when it comes to the subject of Governor Romney’s religion. For most evangelical Christians, the Mormon faith has commonly been viewed as an unorthodox, non-Christian religion. Even the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, which once characterized the Mormon religion as cultic, recently deleted that wording from its website. This has got me to thinking more about the relationship between politics and faith.
In The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism, Carl F.H. Henry, one of the principal architects of the modern evangelical movement, called conservative Protestant Christians to abandon their otherworldly stance encouraged by the liberal-fundamentalist controversy of the 1920s and to actively engage society from an orthodox Christian worldview in order to redeem our culture from the chaos of the times. Though his message initially was met with stiff resistance from older evangelicals, Henry’s message was warmly received by the younger ones who went on to positively impact society from a distinctively Christian worldview.
Since 1947, when Henry’s influential book was first published, until now, evangelicals have increased their sophistication in articulating the gospel message of salvation in Jesus Christ and in their analysis of social problems and corresponding solutions. Evangelicals subscribe to a high view of Scripture and have always maintained that all true knowledge is divine in origin and is complementary to the Word of God. As a result of this conviction, they have boldly and confidently entered into all the realms of social engagement that previous generations affected by the impact of fundamentalism were reticent to enter. One of these areas has been the political arena.
The engagement of the political arena by orthodox Protestant believers is not new; from colonial times until the present, Christians have been at the center of much of the contested issues in American life. What evangelicals brought to the table was a clear commitment to the Bible, personal conversion, and social engagement. Evangelicalism sought to bridge the chasm opened by the focus of fundamentalists on evangelism to the exclusion of social witness and the focus on social justice by liberals to the exclusion of personal conversion. While evangelicals have always leaned towards the right politically, they have always done so with a theological articulation for that leaning. Plainly put, most evangelicals are convinced that the Republican Party is more compatible with the Christian faith than the Democratic Party.
While I am not surprised that most evangelicals heartily endorse the Republican Party given its explicit commitment to religious liberty and its stated support for certain moral positions congenial to conservative social ethics, I must admit that I am a bit disturbed by the implications of the current evangelical support for Mitt Romney. While aspects of my own sociology tempt me to critique this support for his candidacy, my main contention is theological.
I am concerned about the theological implications of Christians committed to a certain view of Scripture and of orthodoxy wholeheartedly endorsing a candidate who is a member of a religious tradition whose doctrine compromises both. I am not saying that it is inherently wrong for a Christian to vote for a secular candidate or a member of another religious tradition; after all, we do live in a post-Christian, secular, pluralistic democracy. What I am saying is that Christians have an inherent responsibility to wrestle with the implications of the teachings of Scripture, the witness of the Christian tradition, and sober theological reflection when doing so.
Simply put, Mitt Romney’s membership in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints matters. Maybe not enough to automatically invalidate him as a viable candidate, but it does matter. The reasons are obvious, almost all evangelicals have asserted that the the Mormon religion is not in fact a legitimate Christian denomination and is in fact a heretical sect. By contrast, as far as I know, no credible evangelical has ever stated that the United Church of Christ, the denomination in which President Barack Obama received his religious formation, is an illegitimate Christian tradition. (A bent for liberation theology and a progressive stance on certain social issues is not a disqualification for Christian orthodoxy.)
The groundswell of evangelical support for a Romney candidacy seems peculiar — not so much because of what evangelicals are saying, but because of what they have said about Barack Obama’s beliefs in the past, and what they are not saying about Mitt Romney’s now. Despite President Obama’s public confession of his Christianity on numerous occasions, many still question the veracity of his faith, calling him a “closet Muslim” or pointing to his support of same-sex marriage. But do they practice the same degree of scrutiny when it comes to Governor Romney’s beliefs? As a friend of mine recently said, “What’s worse, altering the definition of marriage, or redefining the nature of God?”
It’s something to think about.
HIS OWN JEREMIAH WRIGHT?: Texas governor and GOP presidential candidate Rick Perry was forced to distance himself from his pastor's statement that GOP frontrunner Mitt Romney's Mormon faith is a cult. (Photo by Gage Skidmore)
Mitt Romney wants his fellow Republican presidential candidate Rick Perry to disavow the Texas mega-church pastor who called Mormonism a “cult” at the Values Voters Summit last weekend, but Perry has declined, The Associated Press reported yesterday.
“The governor does not agree with every single issue of people that endorsed him or people that he meets,” said Perry spokesman Mark Miner. “This political rhetoric from Gov. Romney isn’t going to create one new job or help the economy. He’s playing a game of deflection and the people of this country know this.”
This Story Is Old News
At the media criticism site Get Religion, Christianity Today online editor Sarah Pulliam Bailey argued earlier that this story is old news.
“If you have been paying attention to religion and politics for at least the last four years, you know that [Robert] Jeffress’ belief that Mormonism is a cult isn’t terribly newsworthy to religion reporters. …Jeffress has been saying these things for quite a while now and political reporters are just now taking notice,” Pulliam Bailey wrote.
Bruised Feelings and Fundamentalists
At The Huffington Post, Episcopal priest and Columbia University religion professor Randall Balmer wrote that Mormons are sincerely wounded and confused by the charge that they aren’t Christians, right before he engaged in a bit of mud-slinging himself.
“For Jeffress and for millions of other fundamentalists, the word ‘Christian’ is a specialized term reserved only to those who hold certain beliefs. Having grown up fundamentalist, I spent the first two-plus decades of my life convinced that Roman Catholics were not Christians – because they were not fundamentalists,” Balmer wrote.
What interests me is the power of the labels bandied about in this discussion. Does the term cult hold any real power in an increasingly laissez-faire culture? Does it even approach the dismissive power of the word fundamentalist, which is identified not only with intolerance but also with religious terrorism?
It was 1978 when “cult” leader Jim Jones’ fanatacism led to the murder/suicide of 909 Americans and 1993 when the 50-day FBI siege on the Branch Davidian sect in Waco, Texas, left 86 people dead. It seems to me that the word cult has lost some of its verve in the intervening years, perhaps in part because of controversy surrounding the Waco siege.
Aside from the celebrity goings-on and abuse charges related to the Church of Scientology, the latest “cult” story to dominate the news involved the 2006 arrest of Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints leader Warren Jeffs. Jeffs was charged with sexual assault and arranging illegal ploygamist marriages between adult men and underage girls. He was convicted of two counts of sexual assault earlier this year and, just yesterday,The Salt Lake Tribune reported that one of his 78+ plural wives requested police assistance in leaving the sect’s home base.
But then there was Big Love, the HBO hit drama series about a Utah polygamist sect that ran for five seasons (2006-2011) and helped normalize polygamy and other alternative family structures for an American audience.
Last month at the Religion Newswriters Association annual conference in Durham, North Carolina, the Darger family that the series was reportedly based on talked to journalists about their marriage. We were offered free copies of their book, Love Times Three: Our True Story of Polygamous Marriage, which I just finished reading.
Supercharged Words in a New Context
One of the things that struck me most about the Dargers’ storytelling was the way terminology was used in an unfamiliar context. For example, they repeatedly describe their family structure as a “lifestyle choice” and write about bigotry in a way that is similar to arguments for the legalization of same-sex marriage.
On the other hand, they describe themselves as Independent Fundamentalist Mormons, whose sect they say emerged from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (LDS) after polygamy was outlawed and the LDS church changed its position on the practice. For the Dargers, fundamentalist is a positive term, one with which they want to be identified.
The idea of one man looking to religion to justify having sex with three women involves a sexual taboo in American culture, but the term fundamentalist carries with it the idea of sexual repression. The phrase lifestyle choice is sometimes used to argue against inherent homosexual identity and is thus rejected by some homosexuals, but here it is embraced to argue for personal freedom.
Innovation or Aberration?
In the Associated Press article that I opened with, reporter Kasie Hunt says rightly that “some evangelical Christians believe Mormons are outside Christianity because they don’t believe in the concept of a unified Trinity and because they rely on holy texts in addition to the Bible.” But then she adds, “For conservative Protestants, the Bible alone is the authoritative word of God and the innovations of Mormon teaching are heresy.”
Innovations is a loaded word here. It carries with it a positive connotation, whereas earlier in the piece she had described the controversy over Jeffress’ statement as a “highly charged, emotional issue” that “raises the specter of religious bigotry.”
But does it really? In an age when the polygamy of Mormon-related sects is celebrated on TV and Americans are increasingly uncomfortable with religious marginalization, is this really a “highly charged emotional issue” or just a diversion, as Perry’s spokesman contends?
What do you think?
Do words like cult and fundamentalist still have power to marginalize or are we all so jaded by the exploitation of language that we don’t even listen anymore?