Politically speaking it was a perfect storm of faux pas. Megachurch pastor Robert Jeffress spoke to introduce Texas Governor Rick Perry and made the comment that Mitt Romney’s Mormonism is a cult and that Christians should vote for Governor Perry—because of that.
I can only imagine the horror and various cardiac effects these comments had on some of Perry’s entourage offstage.
So this has brought front-and-center the question about Mormonism and its relationship to the broader Protestant heritage in this country. Now—and for maybe a couple of weeks—it is going to be big news.
I don’t think that is a good thing.
It just highlights the “sectarian” feel of American Protestantism that the average person sees as divisive. Mormonism was born out of American Protestantism in the early 19th century. As far as the theologically uncritical eye of the standard American is concerned, the various Protestantisms are all largely the same thing. And they seem to just divide over the silliest things.
What they don’t realize is that this divide is bigger than silly. Mormonism diverges with historic (Protestant) Christianity in key issues of faith and identity that require serious attention.
So was Pastor Jeffress out of line?
I guess it’s all about audience. And it doesn’t seem that Pastor Jeffress realized who his was.
The word “cult” today has some pretty serious connotations. Evangelical Christians have used it in the past to identify religious movements with certain characteristics. These characteristics may be theological (e.g., rejection of the doctrine of the Trinity, having additional Scriptures) or sociological (e.g., led by a charismatic personality who claims to speak for God, etc.). If you put a set of those characteristics together in a single description—you probably have a “cult.”
Americans today really hate tag-lobbing. What Pastor Jeffress did really seems like tag-lobbing. You can forget the accuracy of the tag (“cult”), because he could not justify it in that setting. You can forget about any inappropriate images the tag “cult” might bring up, because he didn’t have time for all the disclaimers and clarifications needed. You can forget about dealing with theological subtleties, because there was no time for that and the audience was not familiar enough with the details. So it was really just tag lobbing.
Interestingly enough the tag “fundamentalist” is lobbed uncritically all the time at Evangelicals. And today that word carries with it some horrific images that are entirely inappropriate as a reference to evangelicals. But I guess that would be a separate article…
I know I will be asked, so I’ll be succinct: Pastor Jeffress did no one any favors with his comments. He didn’t help his favorite candidate who now will be sidetracked by endless drilling over issues of theology as he tries to address issues relevant to a race for the Presidency. He didn’t help the cause of Evangelicalism because he came off as a narrow, tag throwing preacher. He didn’t help the constantly confused issue of faith and politics because he had the audacity to suggest to Christians how they should vote. He didn’t help anyone who is trying to have an ongoing discussion about the Gospel with a Mormon friend. And he certainly didn’t help me, another Pastor who has to try to deal with confusions caused by Pastors who are asked to speak at political venues.
The technicalities and confusions among theological divides are difficult enough to deal with without throwing them into a forum where precision and detail and not welcome guests. Pastor Jeffress should have left the Mormon question completely alone. In my view it is irrelevant to who becomes President—and his bringing it up just fosters an ugly image of narrow Christians who can’t accept anyone but themselves in any context. Accurate or not—that’s how it looks.
The whole thing is unfortunate, in my view.
If I am ever asked to introduce a political candidate at a rally of some kind (yah, right), I hope one of our Elders will pull me aside and suggest that I cannot because I am “busy” that day.