Mormonism, Politics and Democracy
Texas evangelical leader Robert Jeffress, the Baptist megachurch pastor who introduced Rick Perry at the Values Voter Summit, said Friday afternoon he does not believe Mitt Romney is a Christian. Jeffress described Romney’s Mormon faith as a “cult,” and said evangelicals had only one real option in the 2012 primaries. “That is a mainstream view, that Mormonism is a cult,” Jeffress told reporters here. “Every true, born again follower of Christ ought to embrace a Christian over a non-Christian.” www.politico.com
Here we go again.
I wrote about Dr. Jeffress in my August 8, 2011 blog. – “The Disciples… A Road Kill Church?” As I explained there-“Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice,” or so said Barry Goldwater in his acceptance speech of his party’s nomination of him as their candidate to run for President in 1964. And I suspect that Dr. Jeffress adheres to the very same point of view when it comes to Christianity – “extremism” in its defense is “no vice.” But as a Disciple, I find that I’m constitutionally and incurably moderate, and I suspect that this is true of most of us.
My “moderate’s critique” of Dr. Jeffress back in August was that he “…lacks modesty, fails to appreciate the mystery of what has not been revealed (Deuteronomy 29:29), and does not have even a modicum of appreciation for some legitimate diversity of interpretation (which is odd in light of the wonderful emphasis on the right of private interpretation and the spiritual competency of each Christian to be an interpreter that has historically been a hallmark of the Baptist tradition).” And if you are “constitutionally and incurable moderate” like me, then my guess is that you were just as horrified by Dr. Jeffress’ latest public pronouncements on the national political stage as I was. Three things he said to the media as a part of his introduction of Governor Perry at the Family Values Forum in WashingtonD.C. last week, and then repeated again from the pulpit of First Baptist Church, Dallas, on Sunday morning to applause and cheers, trouble me deeply –
- His confident declaration that Mitt Romney, a Mormon, is not a Christian.
- His unequivocal statement that “Every true, born again follower of Christ ought to embrace a Christian over a non-Christian” politically.
- And his public endorsement of a political candidate as a pastor.
In my next couple of blogs I want to reflect on why I find each of these assertions to be wrong-headed and wrong-hearted, and I want to start with Mormonism
Theologically, the grid I use to determine whether or not the teachings of another church are consistent with historic Christianity are: (1) Who is Jesus Christ?; (2) How is a person saved?; and, (3) What is your authority for faith and practice? Anything less than the “fully God and fully man” language of the Definition of Chalcedon (451 AD) in answer to question #1 makes me spiritually nervous. Anything other than the “by grace” and “through faith” formula of Ephesians 2:8 in answer to question #2 gives me significant pause. And anything more or less than the Bible in answer to question #3 puts me on high alert. And by these three standards, I would have to agree with Dr. Jeffress that doctrinally Mormonism represents a significant deviation from what the church has historically believed and proclaimed. But this is not news.
If Mormons believed the same things as Dr. Jeffress, they’d be Baptists! But they are not, and if you ever take the tour of the Headquarters of the Church of the Latter Day Saints in Salt Lake City they will be more than happy to tell you why they are not. Spend an afternoon there and it will become quite clear that they believe that they have a better understanding of who Jesus Christ is than we do, a different understanding from us about how somebody gets saved, and even what salvation is for that matter, and more divinely inspired books than the Bible – three to be specific: The Book of Mormon, The Pearl of Great Price and Doctrines and Covenants. A Texas Baptist telling a Mormon Presidential candidate that they don’t believe the same things doctrinally is something that a Mormon Presidential candidate already knows, and that any Mormon missionary duo would be delighted to pedal over to your house and make clear in a series of full color presentations that can be scheduled at your convenience. So let’s not bog down here. Mormons themselves are just as emphatic that they don’t believe the same things that Dr. Jeffress does as he is eager to tell them (and us) that he doesn’t believe in the things that they do either. So let’s get to the nub of this issue.
I suspect that it is Dr. Jeffress’ use of the term “cult” for the Church of the Latter Day Saints that riles most people. I know it certainly riles me. To his credit, Dr. Jeffress tries to make the distinction between a “sociological cult” which he freely admits that Mormons aren’t, and a “theological cult” which he argues that they are, as I heard him try to do with Anderson Cooper on CNN last week. The problem with this is that in the popular mind a “cult” is what Jim Jones had in Guyana, and what David Koresh had in Waco, and what Marshall Applewhite had with his “Heaven’s Gate” folks in Southern California back in 1997. And no matter how careful Dr. Jeffress tries to be with his definitions of a “cult,” when he uses such language in the media or in popular culture, it only has one result, and that is to lump the Mormons in with the spiritual crazies, and anybody who knows a Mormon knows that this is a shoe that just doesn’t fit.
My first ministry out of Christian College in the mid 1970’s was in Mormon Country –Southeastern Idaho. When Mary Lynn and I lived there I was routinely told that the community where the church I served was located was 90% Latter Day Saint, and that certainly ”felt” accurate. And while I had substantial theological differences with the teachings of their church, I found Mormons individually to be some of the most spiritual and moral people that I have frankly, ever known. In fact, I have never felt safer in any community that I’ve lived in since, and never have my values and the values of my community been more in concert than in those first few years inPocatello. So how do I reconcile this? How can people with whom I am at such variance theologically be the very same people with whom I am so comfortable when it comes to my spiritual and moral values?
It was the Roman Catholic theologian Hans Kung (somebody else Dr. Jeffress would no doubt kick out of Christianity) in his book The Church who made three observations in his section on “The Church and Heretics” (“The word heresy derives from the Greek word αἵρεσις (pronounced hair-es-is) meaning “choice.” Heresy is the deliberate choice of a different point of view, the formal denial of any defined doctrine” – politically, socially or religiously) that have helped me to make sense of Mormons, and others whose Christianity is doctrinally quite different from my own.
Let me quickly point out that the relevance of Kung’s categories have proven useful to me not just when dealing with groups like the Mormons, but when dealing with some of my fellow Disciples. Using the same grid of three questions that suggest that Mormonism is a significant deviation from historic Christianity, some of what I hear preached and taught by other Disciples represents a significant deviation from what the church has historically proclaimed and believed as well. Just take a look at “The Heretics are Restless: A Call for Theology Transformation” by Bill Cooley & Robert Aubrey @ http://wt-cooley.net to get a “feel” for how dramatically different the faith of some Disciples is from what has been our traditional perspective and plea. This is not just about “them.” It’s about “us” as well.
Discussing heresy and heretics, Hans Kung reminds us of –
- The element of truth in heresy.
St. Augustine wrote, “Do not believe, brethren, that heresies are produced by insignificant souls! Only great men have produced heresies.” Selectivity, which is the essential feature of heresy, does not only lead to error; it can very often lead to an impressive degree of concentration, in which a single trait, perhaps a vital trait… can be brought out in a new way that is all too often neglected by the church. (318-319)
- Error in the church.
Augustine remarked that heretics carry away from the church truths which belong to it. This can only happen if these truths are not sufficiently regarded and respected within the church. In all ages the church has been partly responsible for the rise of great heresies, and nearly always by neglecting or even by obscuring and distorting the gospel. Truths can be abandoned by letting them grow dry and dusty as much as by denying them. (320)
- The good faith of the heretic.
Leaving aside all detailed and technical points and any psychological motivation, if asked – “Why do people become heretics?” – the heretics themselves would surely reply that they only wanted the best for the church, that they acted in good faith. …It is striking that the great heretics rarely took an easy road, they committed themselves totally to their ideas, without counting the cost; they subordinated everything to their faith and sacrificed everything to it: this was how they were able to make their tremendous impact. In this the great heretics were very much like the great saints. Neither group has ever been understood by lukewarm believers, by shrewd ecclesiastical tacticians and by the diplomats of the church, great and small, who were not born for martyrdom. (322)
What this means for me is that while doctrinally there are Christians who believe in substantially different things than I do, and while I think that theologically I’m right and they’re wrong (otherwise I would not believe what I do), and while I would welcome an opportunity to sit down with people with whom I am at doctrinal variance to have a respectful conversation about beliefs, believing and truth (a wonderful example of this with Mormons is Claiming Christ: A Mormon-Evangelical Debate (Brazos Press, 2007) by Gerald R. McDermott and Robert L. Millet (Author)
I must nevertheless be very careful about making absolute judgments about the final state of their souls.
Despite what their church teaches, most of the Mormons I knew and loved 40 years ago in Idaho were, just as most of the Mormons I know and love today in Dallas are true believers with “good” faith (by Kung’s standards) who are trusting Jesus Christ (as they have been taught about Him) to save them. That may not be enough for Dr. Jeffress, but it’s enough for me, and I trust, it is enough for Jesus Christ. After all, we are not saved by correct doctrine, but by God’s saving love that honors everyone who believes in Him and that rewards anyone who truly seeks Him (Hebrews 11:6; Acts 17:27). And no matter what else can be said about Mormons, that they believe in God and sincerely seek after God are things that simply cannot be denied.
In the introduction to the German edition of his book Protestant Thought, theologian Karl Barth explained –
I believe in one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church. And if I seriously intend to listen to a theologian of the past – whether it be Schleiermacher or Ritschl or anyone else – then I must mean this “I believe” seriously, unless I have been released from this obligation by private inspiration! That is, regardless of my myriad opinions I must include these people in the Christian Church. And in view of the fact that I myself, together with my theological work, belong to the Christian Church solely on the basis of forgiveness, I have no right to deny or even to doubt that they were as fundamentally concerned as I am about the Christian faith. (8)
And this is what I must constantly keep in mind when dealing with believers whose beliefs are at variance with mine, be they Mormons, fellow Disciples, or even the pastor of the big Baptist Church downtown.
Next Blog: Must “every true, born again follower of Christ embrace a Christian over a non-Christian” politically?