Evangelical leader Robert Jeffress opened a can of worms when he declared Mormonism a “cult,” and said Mitt Romney “is not a Christian” at the Values Voter summit last weekend.
Ironically for Jeffress, his comments led most mainstream observers to conclude that, because Jeffress seemed a kook, he was 100 percent wrong. Perhaps — and I’m just speculating here — Jeffress was not the best spokesman to articulate such a complex and sensitive theological concept?
The “cult” allegation struck me as especially cheap. But the real debate to be had is over whether or not Mormons are, in fact, “Christians.” I’m of the opinion that one can answer “no” to that question without being rightly labeled a bigot. Yet, as it stands, that may be an unpopular opinion, at least, in the mainstream media. The post-Jeffress consensus seems to be that you’re a Christian if you say you are. This, of course, implies that the word “Christian” has no objective meaning. Most Christian theologians would disagree.
There is little doubt that Jeffress was the wrong man to tackle such a serious theological debate — and that he chose an unfortunate time and place to attempt to do so. Fortunately, other, more capable men have weighed in on the discussion.
One such man was Father Richard John Neuhaus.
As the Washington Post eulogized upon his death, Father Neuhaus was “a onetime Lutheran pastor who was a voice of conscience in the civil rights and antiwar movements of the 1960s and later became a prominent religious conservative and Catholic convert…” Clearly, Neuhaus was not merely some “mega-church” pastor who crashed a political conference seeking his 15 minutes of fame, but rather a man of deep faith and intellect.
And while it would be unfair to casually excerpt Neuhaus’ long and nuanced comments on Mormonism, anyone seriously interested in the topic ought to read Neuhaus’ full column in which he wrestled with the question. I will only note that Neuhaus disagreed with the premise that simply asking if Mormons are Christians is an affront. “To say that Jews, Muslims, or Buddhists are not Christians is no insult. It is a statement of fact, indeed of respect for their difference,” he wrote. “The question is whether that is a fact and a difference that applies also to Mormonism.”
Other Christians agree. In a column this week, Ken Connor, the chairman of the Center for a Just Society, also defended the legitimacy of asking the question. Connor noted that The Nicene Creed “incorporates the historic tenets of the Christian faith.” Therefore, Connor argued, “when an individual or group holds itself out as ‘Christian,’ it is a fair exercise to evaluate how their beliefs align with this historic affirmation.”
Not all theologians were as diplomatic. Writing on his popular blog this week, Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, argued that traditional Christians do not consider the LDS Church to merely be another Christian denomination. Mohler writes that,
the central claim of Mormonism is that Christianity was corrupt and incomplete until the restoration of the faith with the advent of the Latter-Day Saints and their scripture, The Book of Mormon. Thus, it is just a matter of intellectual honesty to take Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism, at his word when he claimed that true Christianity did not exist from the time of the Apostles until the reestablishment of the Aaronic and Melchizedek priesthoods on May 15, 1829.
Regardless of where one comes down on this debate, in the right place and time, this strikes me as a healthy and appropriate theological discussion. As Connor noted, “Since religious truth claims have eternal consequences, isn’t it in the public interest to examine the merits of those claims?”
Pastor Jeffress, of course, unwittingly made a fool of himself, and possibly damaged both Rick Perry and Mitt Romney. What is more, by leveling the charge that Mormonism is a “cult,” and seeking to make political hay of it, he temporarily discredited a legitimate theological perspective.
From the stage of the conference this weekend, Bill Bennett publicly scolded Jeffress, saying: “You did Rick Perry no good, sir, in what you had to say.”
He may have done more than that…