The unculted

The Billy Graham Evangelistic Association’s “un-culting” of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is prompting backlash from evangelicals who insist that Mormons are not Christians.

By Bill Leonard

In his 1856 autobiography, Methodist circuit rider Peter Cartwright warned of those Protestants whose “pretense of Divine inspiration” led them to predict a new millennium while playing on the “ignorance, superstition and credulity of the people.” Some, he said, even claimed to heal the sick and raise the dead, “just like the diabolical Mormons.”

In The Kingdom of the Cults, first published in 1965, Walter Martin writes: “Every Mormon is indoctrinated with the concept that his is the true Christian religion or to use their terms, ‘the restoration of Christianity to earth.’ The secret rites in the Mormon temples, the rituals connected with baptism for the dead, and the secret handshakes, signs, and symbols bind the average Mormon and his family into what might be called in psychological terms the ‘in group.’”

Protestants, especially evangelical Protestants, have been at theological odds with Mormons for a long time, viewing them not as a sect or indigenous American denomination, but as a highly successful and heretical “cult” with doctrines, scriptures and rituals that put them beyond the pale of normative Christianity.

In 21st century America, however, politics and pluralism collided, dramatically impacting those historical dynamics, as the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association opted to remove Mormons from their web-based list of cults.

The association’s cult catalogue remains, with links to web-warnings about Jehovah’s Witnesses, Scientologists, Spiritualists and even Unitarians. Mormons, it seems, have been unculted, their conservative political and ethical commitments affirmed by evangelicals, some of whom still refuse to include the Latter-day Saints in the true church of Jesus Christ.

Just last year Texas Baptist pastor Robert Jeffress firmly, and controversially, declared: “Mormonism is not Christianity. It has always been considered a cult by the mainstream of Christianity." Yet as the Nov. 6 presidential election neared, that assertion was modified considerably by one of America’s most famous evangelical organizations.

The Graham association’s unculting of Mormonism was followed by full-page newspaper ads featuring a photograph of Dr. Graham and his signed statement encouraging Americans to vote “for candidates who support the biblical definition of marriage between a man and woman, protect the sanctity of life and defend our religious freedom.”

Since Mormons share those values, implicit in the Mormon presidential candidate, labeling them a cult was apparently not helpful, a political decision that is already raising considerable theological ire among those evangelicals now denouncing the association’s action.

This is not the first time that evangelicals have reached out to Mormons in an effort to impact the public square. In 1979, when Jerry Falwell founded the Moral Majority, he made it clear that Mormons (along with Catholics and Jews) were welcomed to membership, engaging with him in reclaiming traditional values they agreed were under threat as secularism insinuated itself into the American social fabric. When other evangelicals objected, Falwell insisted that this was a moral not a theological crusade and the Moral Majority was not a church requiring doctrinal uniformity.

Yet even Billy Graham resisted Moral Majority membership, noting: “I’m for morality, but morality goes beyond sex to human freedom and social justice.... Evangelists cannot be closely identified with any particular party or person. We have to stand in the middle in order to preach to all people right and left.”

Nonetheless, in the latter days of the 2012 election season, the unculting of Mormonism signals a challenge -- not just for Graham but for many evangelical Protestants -- a fascinating intersection of religious pluralism, doctrinal concession and political reality. What might this mean now and later?

First, it now appears that American Protestants need all the help they can get. The new openness to Mormonism is not unrelated to the recent Pew study suggesting that Protestants are now a 48 percent minority in American religious life. Religious groups with varying or contradictory theologies may need each other as never before in making their conservative case in the culture, especially given the rise of the “nones,” one in five religiously unaffiliated individuals who increasingly support agendas left of center. Prospects for an extremely close election press conservatives to unite with as many politically like-minded constituents as possible.

Second, the absence of a Protestant on one major presidential ticket for the first time in U.S. history suggests that pluralism continues to edge its way into the nooks and crannies of religious conservatism. A once “diabolical” cult could soon claim their first American president, giving further credence to John Murray Cuddihy’s classic thesis of the “religion of civility,” an environment that smoothed the rough edges off some of the most “uncivilized” sects, ultimately unculting once aberrant Quakers, Baptists, Roman Catholics, Pentecostals and now Mormons. Who would have dreamt that when Mormon patriarch (and presidential candidate) Joseph Smith was gunned down in Illinois in 1844?

Finally, the 2012 election also suggests that demographic and political transitions may compel a new Protestant minority to claim a new degree of civility for itself. Suddenly Mormonism and its presidential-candidate-bishop offer a necessary coalition for Protestants forced to negotiate inevitable pluralism even as they despair of its impact on their own theological integrity and culture-privilege. Once begun, who knows where unculting may take the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association? Today the Mormons, tomorrow the Unitarians?!

OPINION: Views expressed in Baptist News Global columns and commentaries are solely those of the authors.