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When is a cult not a cult?

When you want to see one of its members elected as president, apparently.

For many years, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (BGEA) has steadfastly assigned cult status to Mormons (officially, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints), but with an unabashed Mormon carrying the "conservative-values" banner in the presidential election this year, the BGEA has changed its tune and purged its website of specific references to Mormonism as a religious cult.

Photo from www.billygraham.orgCandidate Mitt Romney recently paid a visit to the respected Graham (now 93 years old) and his son Franklin, who helps run the BGEA, tightening a supportive relationship between them. While Graham generally makes it a point not to endorse a specific candidate by name, it's a game: a poster on the BGEA website that has run as an ad in the Wall Street Journal and USA Today (and is popularly "shared" on Facebook) quotes Graham as urging voters in the Nov. 6 election to support candidates who "base their decisions on biblical principles and support the nation of Israel," and "who protect the sanctity of life and support the biblical definition of marriage between a man and a woman."

No intelligent voter would doubt which of the two major candidates Graham favors.

It continues to amaze me, however, how quickly many fundamentalist Christians abandoned their previous diatribes against Mormonism once Romney became the Republican candidate for president. In a guest article for USA Today, Franklin Graham has written a passionate defense of why evangelicals can vote with good conscience for a Mormon.

Ken Barun, the BGEA's chief of staff, told the News & Observer that descriptions of Mormonism as a cult were removed "because we do not wish to participate in a theological debate about something that has become politicized during the campaign." But the BGEA's entire argument that votes should be based on "biblical values" is about theology and they haven't abandoned that -- only the identification of Mormonism as a cult.

Based on "Answers" from Graham still posted on the website, Mormonism would still qualify for cult status. To a reader who asked "How can I identify a religious cult?", Graham responded in part that "cults often do not accept the Bible alone as God's Word, and may even say that other books (usually written by the group's founder) are also God's Word and of more value" -- something the Book of Mormon clearly does.

The Grahams are not alone in singing a different tune about Mormonism. While Southern Baptists have long held Mormonism to be a cult, the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary recently hosted a panel discussion in which seminary officials argued that one should vote for candidates based on common values rather than their Christian identity. Several speakers distanced themselves from long-held assertions by the religious right that early American political leaders were largely orthodox Christians.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with promoting a candidate with whom one shares common values, and I am in full agreement that one should not vote for a candidate on the basis of his religious faith alone. Even so, it seems to me that selectively rewriting theology for present political expediency is a questionable enterprise, at best.

References (1)

References allow you to track sources for this article, as well as articles that were written in response to this article.
  • Response
    When is a cult not a cult? - Tony W. Cartledge Blog - Baptists Today, The Source for Daily Baptist News for You and Your Church

Reader Comments (19)

I thought you might pounce on this...great article!

I have to agree that it is interesting timing for the BGEA to remove Mormonism from "Cult" status. Obviously, this was politically motivated.

I wish that I knew more about Mormonism than its charicatural presentations in conservative SBC life as well as men in white shirts on bicycles. I ask this as an honest question, though: Has Mitt Romney's candidacy broken some of these charicatural presentations of Mormonism? Has his candidacy presented Mormonism in a more positive light to the evangelical community?

Or, is this merely a concession which will be soon forgotten, especially if Romney is not re-elected?

Oct 19, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterTim Marsh

It's interesting to look at the sociological and theological characterizations of a "cult." From the sociological viewpoint, the characteristics include authoritarian leadership and strict conformity patterns. From a theological viewpoint, it depends on the perspective as to what constitutes unorthodox or heretical teaching. Take, for example, the viewpoint of the gospel writers, who emphasized Jesus' teaching on love for enemies, welcome of strangers, and contentment with daily bread. From both the sociological and theological characterizations, doesn't the contemporary SBC and the right wing evangelical movement as a whole fit the definitions, as they rely on authoritarian leadership to keep their flocks in lockstep conformity on heretical matters diametrically opposed to Jesus' teaching, such as condemnation of enemies and reliance on violent force, deportation of strangers, and the value of concentrated wealth?

Oct 19, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterStan Dotson

Dr. Cartedge,

I have to agree with the timing of this change. It has been such a political roller coaster which shows the signs of the times in my opinion. Im a little disappointed that the BGEA would dumb down what is TRUE for the sake of politics.

Oct 19, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMaurice Webb

I have had great respect for Billy Graham since the 1940s, but I have just lost it all.

In one swipe the Grahams have forfeited all of their credibility with me in this not-even-thinly-disguised endorsement of a political candidate.

I might like the choice better had they endorsed the other one, but that endorsement would have sacrificed their credibility just as completely.

Thre's a social convention that in casual groups we do not discuss politics or religion.

I'm a member of a political club; we do not discuss religion.

I'm a member of a church; we do not discuss politics.

In my estimation the Grahams would have been better served by maintaining the distance between religion and partisan politics.

Oct 19, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterRegular Reader

I noticed I said above "if Romney was re-elected" Of course, I meant "elected". Sorry!

Oct 19, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterTim Marsh

Daniel 5:21 "the Most High God is sovereign over all kingdoms on earth and sets over them anyone he wishes." (Refer to stories of Nebuchadnezzar and his lovely son Belshazzar).

"All " is ALL.

Bottom line - God is still in control of HIS-Story and HE will work HIS will according to HIS plan and HIS timing through whomever HE allows into office. Not much we measley people can do except VOTE and PRAY and give GOD the honor and glory for the work HE is doing and THANK HIM for the saving blood of JESUS so we know that we are on the winning side (regardless of who takes the election....)

Mark 9:40 "for whoever is not against us is for us." - Jesus

Oct 19, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJust Sayin'

Note this older article about the SBC coming to St. Lake City. A huge push was made for Home Mission Board material, The Mormon Puzzle.

I was recently told by someone affiliated with Lifeway that they were told to pull this material off the shelves about six months ago. It is not available through their website either, though there are some other materials that seem to challenge Mormonism.

Oct 19, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterRick Jordan

I don't think we have to agree on every point with people to acknowledge their greatness-- if they have it. Some of my most embarrassing blunders have been assuming the motives of another and acting upon those assumptions. I acknowledge the curious pragmatic shift of some of my SBC brethren during this season. (I've probably made one myself.) Early in his ministry the fundamentalists called Billy Graham a liberal and now at the end of his life he is called a fundamentalist--amazing. The article was interesting and addresses an issue we should consider. We must strive for consistency for if we do not we run the risk of losing credibility. However, I think wisdom should dictate cautiousness in judging our dear 93 year old brother in Christ or saying that we no longer respect him. Consideration for his age alone should provoke some grace....and who among us can compare our Christian effort to his? If tomorrow the news reported that Billy had changed his positions on the moral issues in this campaign it would not matter for me. I will still love him and be grateful that he allowed God to use him to bring millions to of which was my precious mother.

Oct 19, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterNathan Morton

Nathan Morton, thank you for sharing your wisdom in response to Dr. Cartledge's blog. I fully agree with you.

Oct 20, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJoe Lee

I think the abandonment of conservative biblical values for political power began with Reagan, a divorced man in a time when divorced people were not allowed any type of leadership role in a Baptist church. Declaring the Year of the Bible was a good enough gesture to reel in religious conservatives who had felt so left out of modern political conversation. Romney is acceptable because of his pandering to religious right language, regardless of his own belief system - one that does not accept the deity of Jesus or the salvation path of the protestant churches. The religious right has long ago abandoned the message of the biblical Jesus for the pharisee mentality of condemning sinners and trying to separate themselves from them as much as possible.

Oct 20, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterkathy capps

"In a guest article for USA Today, Franklin Graham has written a passionate defense of why evangelicals can vote with good conscience for a Mormon."

That says it all for me--Franklin gives people their "cover" to vote for Romney.

I am greatly disappointed in Billy and Franklin Graham and the SBC for compromising Christian principles to elect a REPUBLICAN.

Oct 21, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterTom Parker


Tony, you said:"Even so, it seems to me that selectively rewriting theology for present political expediency is a questionable enterprise, at best."

Was I and others as "loyal" Southern Baptist lied to by the Southern Baptist Convention about Mormonism being a cult all of the years we were told that Mormonism was a cult and it was preached from Southern Baptist pulpits.

It all smells of hypocrisy.,

Oct 21, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterTom Parker

Dr. Billy Graham has earned respect, admiration, and credibility from Christians through more than 70 years of public ministry. He has accomplished more for the Kingdom than Cartledge or anyone else, including myself, could ever dream about. Dr. Graham has, in my opinion, made a mistake in stating that Mormonism is not a cult. However, his age must be taken into consideration and regardless of his statement, he loses no credibility from myself, even though I disagree.

A man among men in Christian service, Dr. Graham deserves no stones from anyone, especially not the caliber of Cartledge. How absurd can a blog be? You stick your head in the sand when your party, the DNC blasphemes God and yet you attempt to criticize a spiritual giant like Dr. Graham.

You and Peirce are both critical of any Christian who speaks out politically, yet it is okay (in your mind) for the two of you to promote your own political agenda. If a Christian cannot vote for a Mormon, then that means they, in this election, vote for abortion on demand and gay marriage, both of which are extremely anti-God. So, answer this: How do you promote such behavior? And, how do you criticize a man whom God has used to preach the truth of God's Word around the world, including to presidents from both sides of the aisle?

Oct 22, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterTravis

Travis in all due respect you need to stay away from caffeine as you sound very angry in your post to Tony.

You said:"Dr. Billy Graham has earned respect, admiration, and credibility from Christians through more than 70 years of public ministry"

And he can lose all of this when he endorses a Presidential candidate that is not a Christian.

Personally I do not think Billy knew what he was doing when he endorsed Romney, this was Franklin's idea.

Oct 22, 2012 | Unregistered Commentertommy9999


You said, in reference to Dr. Graham and his credibility, "And he can lose all of this when he endorses a Presidential candidate that is not a Christian." I disagree. Dr. Graham is well-respected in the Christian community and his wisdom is graciously received by those who are familiar with his life and ministry. Abraham, Moses, David, the apostle Paul, John the beloved - all these men made mistakes but they did not lose favor in the sight of God. I seriously doubt Dr. Graham did. The only people Dr. Graham will lose credibility with are those who were salivating for him to make a mistake and, perhaps, those folks never respected him, only envied.

Can you answer my question in my previous comment? Here is what I wrote: "If a Christian cannot vote for a Mormon, then that means they, in this election, vote for abortion on demand and gay marriage, both of which are extremely anti-God. So, answer this: How do you promote such behavior?"

Oct 22, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterTravis


Nice try in changing the subject--that will not work with me.

Oct 23, 2012 | Unregistered Commentertommy9999


Change the subject? I answered you directly!!! Then, I restated my question which none of you will acknowledge, much less answer and you accuse me of changing the subject. If I was expected to answer your accusation about Franklin Graham, I chose not to because I find that point irrelevant, not based on fact, and a baseless accusation. Please explain how I changed the subject and answer my original question.

Oct 23, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterTravis

If you click over to my blog you will find a much stronger challenge to Billy Graham's legacy on these matters, though not as well written as Tony.
Tony does a great job, writes well, but there is no evidence here Tony is versed in Steven Miller's recent biography of Graham, nor is it nuanced by the writings of Joe Crespino on Harry Dent and Strom Thurmond on the matter; specifically Billy Graham's history of cute endorsements.
Harry Dent's daughter, of in her memoir of her Dad's religious pilgrimage honors Wake Forest President Nathan Hatch's father Buck as a mentor to the Dent family.
Tony should engage that conversation framed in the quote of Retired UNC Chancellor Bill Friday shared with me about the most significant event in N.C. in the 80's; the fundamentalist takeover of SEBTS.
That is where the guts of this matter begins. I hope Tony and John Pierce will investigate this thoroughly and feature an article by March in Baptists Today no matter who wins the Presidency.

Oct 23, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterStephen Fox


I suppose honest dialogue does not work with you either. Truth is obvious - I did not change the subject and you do not have an answer for my question. Once again, liberals and truth do not mix.

Oct 24, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterTravis

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