Monday, October 10, 2011

Politics, Cults, and a Blunt Baptist

And a Baptist shall agitate them.

Dr. Robert Jeffress, that is; senior pastor at Dallas' legendary First Baptist Church. The guy who's ruffled a lot of Republican Christian feathers since his endorsement of Rick Perry at a conservative seminar this past Friday.

As a religion, Christianity has survived the past 2,000 years relatively well. Indeed, what started out as an unlikely band of 12 hapless disciples - one of them treasonous - has evolved into the world's largest religion.

Even today, in North America's "post-Christian" society, it's still politically prudent to dust off one's Christian credentials, at least during election seasons. Voters who aren't Christians begrudgingly accept its persistent resurrections during campaigns, and people who claim to be Christians find it reassuringly de rigueur in an increasingly polarized political climate.

But there's a big difference between Christianity as a religion and a personal faith in Jesus Christ, Christianity's namesake. And as a faith, Christianity remains as unpopular as it's always been. Inevitably, uncommitted hangers-on to the counter-cultural teachings of Christ continue proving their hidden apostasies when core doctrines of the Bible come under public scrutiny.

Just look at the storm that has billowed up since Jeffress' remarks last Friday.

Already well-known in the Dallas area for his pointed yet accurate assessments of Islam and other hot-button topics, Jeffress introduced the popular governor to the Values Voter Summit by distinguishing the fellow Texan as a Christian. With the insinuation that Mitt Romney, a Mormon, is not.

Of the apparently receptive crowd, Jeffress asked, "Do we want a candidate who is a good, moral person? Or do we want a candidate who is a born-again follower of the Lord Jesus Christ? Rick Perry is a proven leader. He is a true conservative, and he is a genuine follower of Jesus Christ."

Later, asked by a piqued media to clarify the distinctions he appeared to be making between Perry and Romney, Jeffress went on to say, "Mormonism is not Christianity. It's not politically correct to say, but Mormonism is a cult. I did not talk about my Mormon views [with Perry beforehand], and I'm not insinuating that the governor shares those at all. He may not share them at all."

And, as it turns out, Perry doesn't. After the forum, both Perry and his political advisers tried to distance themselves from Jeffress' remarks, with Perry himself replying "No" when asked if he personally believed Mormonism is a cult.

Yes, It's a Cult

But it is, isn't it? This distinction dogged Romney during his last run for the presidency in 2008, and to his credit, Jeffress has brought it back into the nation's political conversation again this year. However, by doing so, First Baptist's outspoken preacher may have inadvertently highlighted the shallow faith of many conservatives who assume they're Christians, even though they lack personal faith in Christ.

After all, can a person be both saved and accepting of Mormonism as another branch of Christianity? Of course not, because Christianity is based on God's grace, rather than the works Mormons need to perform for their salvation. Which makes Mormonism a false religion, like Islam and Hinduism.

But Jeffress didn't leave it there. He cut to the chase with his deliberate use of the "C" word when describing Romney's faith. And while some religion experts dispute the terminology and how cults should be defined, the very fact that Mormonism expends a lot of energy trying to validate its Christianity actually helps confirm its classification as a cult.

Several organizations exist to provide in-depth facts and insights about the false teachings of Mormonism, such as Watchman Fellowship, Apologetics Index, and ExMormon.org. Still, false teachings don't themselves make a cult. So what does?

I propose that a cult can be characterized by the degree to which members are prevented from abdicating, and the degree to which outsiders are prevented from observing the group's rituals.

Plenty of evidence exists to document the excessive hold Mormons force upon their membership, and while they profess to allow scholarly exploration of alternative viewpoints, when it comes to letting doubting adherents simply walk away, Mormons have a notoriously hard time letting go of those who've grown disenchanted with the group.

In addition, only Mormons who have jumped through a variety of doctrinal hoops can even view some of their secret ceremonies, let alone participate. And many of their religious sites have areas where non-Mormons are forbidden access. Even Islam, one of the most rigid of religions, distinguishes access to their facilities more by gender than faith.

Yet perhaps the strongest evidence of its cultishness comes from Mormonism's very efforts at establishing itself as a more complete Christianity than ours. Indeed, Mormonism actually adds to the Bible with their Book of Mormon, whose content has undergone wholesale revisions - not just edits - several times, and includes direct contradictions to the holy, inerrant Word of God.

Christ warns His followers in Deuteronomy and Revelation not to add anything to what He tells us in His Word. For Mormonism to not simply have their own holy book, but to promote it in conjunction it with the Bible, speaks not only to its heretical nature, but its vile ambition for subverting the Gospel of Christ. That in itself makes it an exceptionally dangerous religion, particularly since many professing Christians don't even know their own doctrine well enough to distinguish between the two.

Which begs the question: might Mormonism be even worse than an ordinary cult? It tries so hard to join the Christian mainstream, even convincing otherwise logical people to gullibly overlook its doctrinal subterfuge, theological duplicity, and organizational deceit. Plus, if Mormons will obfuscate the very Bible they pretend to believe to advance their own heretical document, for example, what might one of them do to, say, the Constitution of the United States?

Outing the Lukewarmers

Ironically, by trying to portray Perry as an evangelical, Jeffress may have inadvertently outed Texas' governor as the lukewarm, theologically liberal Methodist some orthodox Texas evangelicals have long suspected him as being.

Perry has worked hard to craft a religiously pious, Christian-right image, particularly in his home state, which boasts extraordinarily high church-attendance figures. But when push comes to shove regarding his personal beliefs, by revealing his lack of understanding between the tenets of his professed faith and that of Mormons, Perry may have voided the very credentials he's been trying to sell to Bible-centric Christian voters.

And Perry isn't the only supposed Christian who's ended up on the wrong side of faith in this controversy.

On Saturday, at the same Values Voter Summit in Washington DC, another respected conservative, Bill Bennett, blasted Jeffress for his audacity in calling out Romney and Mormons on their continued charade of Christianity. The former education secretary accused Jeffress of bigotry and chastised him for stealing Perry's thunder.

“Do not give voice to bigotry. Do not give voice to bigotry. I would say to Pastor Jeffress: You stepped on and obscured the words of Perry and Santorum and Cain and Bachmann and everyone else who has spoken here. You did Rick Perry no good, Sir, in what you had to say.”

In addition, Richard J. Mouw, president of Fuller Theological Seminary, joined the Jeffress-bashing wagon with an op-ed on CNN in which he tries to say that just because Mormons have a law school, some of their religious leaders have Ivy League degrees, and say they believe in Jesus Christ, they're not a cult.

"These folks talk admiringly of the evangelical Billy Graham and the Catholic Mother Teresa, and they enjoy reading the evangelical C.S. Lewis and Father Henri Nouwen, a Catholic. That is not the kind of thing you run into in anti-Christian cults."

No, not if the cult isn't trying to claim it's Christian, Dr. Mouw.

Good grief, in the orthodox evangelical Christian community, how much has the value of a Fuller degree just tanked? Mouw takes some breathlessly dangerous leaps of logic when he compares talking about Jesus Christ to actually believing He's the Son of God. He acts as though the flirtatious attention he's receiving from Mormons on an academic level validates a less nefarious secularism, as if the lack of believing faith can be hierarchical and relative instead of the pivot point between Heaven and Hell.

Religiosity Isn't Faith

Am I saying that to be a born-again Christian, you must believe that Mormonism is a cult? Of course not. To be a born-again Christian, you must believe that Jesus Christ is the holy Son of God and the perfect substitute for your sins.

But the extent to which you're convinced of that fact should also preclude your tolerance of any other religion which attempts to piggy-back on Biblical Gospel. And if your view of religion is tempered by your political aspirations, then of what quality is your faith in God's Son?

After all, you can tell the media and your voters that you're a Christian, but if your love for Christ does not compel you to defend His holiness, does it even matter if you're a Mormon or a cultural Christian?

Romney, Perry, Bennett, and Mouw can believe what they want to believe about religion.

They just shouldn't expect religion to be an acceptable substitute for faith in Christ.
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