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.
Faced with a Democratic candidate who supports same-sex marriage and a Republican candidate with a dubious religous affliation, will Black voters sit out this year’s presidential election. A wave of news reports over the past few weeks have raised that question.
“Some black clergy see no good presidential choice between a Mormon candidate and one who supports same-sex marriage, so they are telling their flocks to stay home on Election Day,” observed a widely circulated Associated Press report. It continues: “The pastors say their congregants are asking how a true Christian could back same-sex marriage, as President Barack Obama did in May. As for Republican Mitt Romney, the first Mormon nominee from a major party, congregants are questioning the theology of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and its former ban on men of African descent in the priesthood.”
A separate report from NPR’s All Things Considered homed in on African American Christians in the all-important swing state of Ohio. In the Youngstown area, where Obama won the majority of Black votes handily in 2008, reporter Allison Keyes spoke to parishioners at Friendship Baptist Church about their mixed feelings regarding the election. “I’m really in prayer as to what to do, whether to vote,” said Betty Washington. “I’ve never not voted. But it’s very disheartening to me to hear some of the things that are going on.” She worries about President Obama’s support of same-sex marriage. Brian Hughes is conflicted about the president’s gay marriage stance as well, but as an employee at the local GM plant, he gives Obama credit for saving hundreds of jobs in the area. Friendship’s pastor Julius Davis believes Preisdent Obama is undermining the impact of Christian churches. He adds, “If I were to vote today, I’d vote for Romney.”
In the Associated Press report, the Rev. George Nelson Jr., senior pastor of Grace Fellowship Baptist Church in Brenham, Texas, registered dissatisfaction with Obama’s gay marriage decision, but appeared even more put off by the prospect of voting for Romney, whose religion is looked upon as a cult in his Southern Baptist circles.
The Rev. Floyd James of Greater Rock Missionary Baptist Church in Chicago wonders why Romney’s religous affiliation hasn’t been put under the same scrutiny as that of Obama’s church during the 2008 campaign. “Obama was supposed to answer for the things that Rev. Wright said,” remarked Floyd. “Yet here’s a guy (Romney) who was a leader in his own church that has that kind of history, and he isn’t held to some kind of account? I have a problem with that.”
Will lingering ambivalence about both candidates keep Black voters away from the polls come November 6? A recent survey suggested Mitt Romney might receive less than 1 percent of the Black vote, but with tight races in key states, Barack Obama still needs every bit of the Black support he received in 2008. If Black Christians who supported him last time stay away, will that leave an opening for Romney to prevail?
Let us know what you think in the comments section below.
In Part 1, we saw how the problem with GOP presidential hopeful Rick Santorum started with his characterization of homosexual relationships, and Dan Savage’s … savage response to that characterization. We can see that the meaning embedded in Santorum’s words is what created such a firestorm of controversy, and it’s easy to see how such embedded meaning can be an obstacle in connecting to an audience, especially when the embedded meaning connects to racism.
Meanings make definitions
We’ve got to understand that meanings make definitions, and cultural definitions are the context in which our audiences live. So what this means for Rick Santorum, and for Christians in general, is that we are already at a rhetorical disadvantage for a certain section of the populace when we identify ourselves as Christians, because for them, the word “Christian” has already been defined by overwhelming negativity.
So we must use our words and actions to be strategic about counteracting this cultural definition of Christianity with a new definition. If we prize our faith as highly as we say, then we need to be ready not only to take a stand for our faith, but to do so with sensitivity toward those who don’t believe.
Consider what the apostle Peter told believers:
Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander (1 Peter 3:15b-16, NIV, italics mine).
Santorum’s biggest problem as it relates to the Dan Savages of the world is not just his policies, but meaning created with his words. He needs to be able to maintain his convictions in a way that isn’t quite as alienating to people in blue states (or failing that, he should avoid offending Black people in general). After all, Santorum is not simply running to get the Republican nomination. He is running to be President of the United States, and there are plenty of Americans who don’t share his faith.
What’s ironic is that, of all the significant faith groups in America, the one that seems to do this best is Mitt Romney’s Mormons. The LDS church has been known for decades as being media savvy, from the ’80s into the present day. And it makes sense that they are, because Mormon doctrine, although it uses a lot of the same language, is so fundamentally different from most aspects of mainstream Christianity that it’s widely considered to be a cult. They have to persuade people with emotional imagery in order to draw attention away from the fundamental beliefs that undergird their religious authority structure.
Wanted: Real Christians
This difference, along with the myriad of differences in terminology, doctrine and ideology between other legitimate sects of Christianity (Catholics, Protestants, Orthodox, evangelicals, Pentecostals, Baptists, etc.), means there are so many competing definitions of what a Christian really is, that no wonder the unchurched are so confused. It makes you want to ask, “Will the real Christian church please stand up?”
None of this is Rick Santorum’s fault directly. But it means that he’s sure got his work cut out for him. And even if he pulls a Rocky and somehow wins the Republican nomination — no sure thing considering he still has front-running Mitt Romney to deal with — he’s still going to have to find a way to relate to the rest of America.
I believe Rick Santorum has an authentic Christian faith. And even though there are aspects of his political record I find distasteful, I respect him for taking a public stand. His opponents might paint him as a phony, but then again people said the same thing about Dr. King. And as tone deaf as Santorum has been culturally, his immigrant lineage still connects him to the plight of the poor and the working class.
Plus, being a Christian will always put you in someone’s crosshairs. When the apostle Peter talked about others being ashamed of their slander, it reminded me of Dan Savage also attacking another prominent Christan named Rick — Rick Warren of Saddleback Church, someone who is much more image-conscious and well-known for his social justice efforts, which is why he was invited to give the invocation at President Obama’s inauguration.
Which just goes to show that as a Christian, following your convictions means you can’t please everybody.
I just wish more Americans understood what being a Christian really means. That it’s not the same as just “being a good person,” and that it’s more than just moralistic therapeutic deism.
Unfortunately, you’re not gonna get that from Google.
Just weeks before Thanksgiving, taking in a film at a movie theater, I saw it.
Intrigued, at that moment, I was sucked into the phenomenon. The it that I saw was the preview for Breaking Dawn, the latest release from The Twilight Saga based on the bestselling series of young-adult novels by Stephenie Meyer.
Though familiar with the hit series, I hadn’t seen the other films or read the novels. Yet after seeing the preview I wanted to see the matrimonial bliss birthed from a forbidden love affair between Edward and Bella. I was even more curious about the fate of Bella and the half-human, half-vampire child she carried inside her womb.
Lured by the preview, there was a part of me that wondered if this movie was something I should even want to see as Christian. Vampires, werewolves, humans marrying vampires, complicated love triangles and a half-human and half-vampire child, it just seemed so dark on the surface. But those concerns were the furthest thing from the minds of the swarms of mostly tween, teen, and female fans who flocked to see The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn—Part 1 when it opened last month. After just four weeks, the film has brought in more than $633 million in global ticket sales.
The day before the movie hit theaters I listened to a Moody Radio program and heard an expert talk about the hidden spiritual themes in the series. Dr. Beth Felker Jones, an associate professor of theology at Wheaton College and author of Touched by a Vampire: Discovering the Hidden Messages in the Twilight Saga, talked about the relationship between Bella and Edward and gave insight into their backstories. Bella came from a broken home. She moved to Forks, Washington, to live with her father. She is an outsider trying to fit in. Then comes Edward, who sweeps Bella off her feet. But there was something different about Edward; he was a vampire—albeit a good one. Bella and Edward practice abstinence in their relationship — a direct reflection, no doubt, of author Stephenie Meyer’s Mormon faith.
It all sounds harmless at first. A true coming-of-age love story that promotes celibacy, but there’s another side to look at. Edward is drawn to Bella’s blood and has to fight his own urges to have it—and ultimately her. He even sneaks into her bedroom at night and watches her while she sleeps. Bella is so desperate to become like Edward, she is ready to willingly forgo her humanity. After hearing all of this, I had more questions about The Twilight Saga. Was Edward really controlling? Was Bella insecure? Was she losing herself in a toxic and abusive relationship? Was I reading too deeply into this?
Despite my questions, I admit, I succumbed to the invisible force that so cunningly reeled me in and I saw Breaking Dawn. Later, I watched the third film from the series and quickly realized that many of the points raised in that Moody interview were valid. While many of the messages in the series are subtle, it reminded me about the subtle way in which the enemy works. In Genesis 3:1 we see this played out with the cunningly sly serpent and Eve in the Garden of Eden. The serpent didn’t force feed Eve fruit from the tree. He merely asked Eve a question that caught her attention. Intrigued, a seed of doubt was planted within in her and she ate from the tree—convincing Adam to do the same.
Like Eve, we too are enticed with all types of fruit (in the form of media) that contain both good and bad messages—some subtle and some not so subtle. In Ephesians 6:12 the apostle Paul says, “ … we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world …” This is not to say that you should stick your head in the sand and never read a secular book or see a secular movie. And it’s surely not to pass judgment if you like the Twilight series. However, with all that said, we can certainly be informed and prepared to take a closer look at what we are watching—and reading. After all, what really are werewolves or vampires and are they all that bad?
In European folklore a werewolf is a man who turns into a wolf at night and devours animals, people, or corpses. By definition a vampire is a supernatural being, commonly believed to be a reanimated corpse that sucks the blood of people while they sleep at night. Another description refers to the vampire as a demon that periodically leaves the grave and disturbs the living. In the Twilight series, Edward is portrayed as a good vampire because he only hunts the blood of animals. Jacob is the werewolf friend of Bella who would do anything to protect her and win her love. They sound like really good guys that just happen to have the wrong DNA, right? But wouldn’t that be like saying, if you’re a good demon you’re okay. Which when you think about it would be like saying if you’re a good sinner you don’t need a Savior, your own desire to be good and exercise self-control is enough. And if we could save ourselves we wouldn’t need Jesus. Though you may not be a vampire or werewolf, we’re all born into sin and in need of a Savior.
Maybe movies like these serve as good talking points and avenues to open up conversations about the true Light of the world — Jesus Christ. But what expense does it take on our souls when we open ourselves up to films like Breaking Dawn? These are just a few things to consider as we navigate through a world where blood-sucking vampires and bare-chested werewolves woo the hearts and minds of fans — both young and old.
Let’s be realistic: There’s no way we’re going to curb the fanaticism of the throngs of young girls — many of them in our own households — who have pledged allegiance to either “Team Edward” or “Team Jacob.” But perhaps we can be more discerning about the messages found in these popular books and films.
What do you think? Should we search for light in the darkness of the Twilight series, or is it best for Christians to keep their distance?
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?