As the Republican presidential campaigns stagger to what seems to be the inevitable conclusion, the subject of Mitt Romney’s religion is being handled reasonably quietly, considering how different Mormon beliefs are from those of other faiths, how important religion is to most people, and how skittish most people are about talking about it outside our homes and churches. (If you wear “the collar” it’s allowed, of course, but if you don’t get paid to talk about religion, most people expect you to refrain.)
Two specific things do pop up on the margins: Is Mormonism a Cult? Are Mormons Christian? The answer to both is no.
To the first question, there are two answers, depending on your proximity to the historical churches. Tom Wolfe once noted that, “A cult is a religion with no political power.” In other words, a cult is any religion too removed from the mainstream, too small, or just too weird. The Mormons have long since passed this point, there are too many of them and they’ve been around too long. They disavowed their commitment to polygamy which was the focus of most opposition in the early days of the sect. By that hazy popular definition, they would have been seen as a cult at one time but not today.
From a religious standpoint the answer is also no. There have been cults in the Christian faith for ages, and still are. Within this context a cult is a group of people that invests a human being with some god-like qualities. For example, the cult of Mary has been part of Roman Catholic tradition for centuries, as was the cult of Christopher, but in 1969 the church withdrew Christopher’s place among the saints (along with many others) and moved to eliminate his cult. If the members of a group adore and idolize a human being, it’s nearing a cult. If they pray to a human being, it’s absolutely a cult. Although there are figures in Mormon history that are treated with reverence for their part in the development of the faith, Mormons do not pray to them. It’s more akin to the way many Americans feel about George Washington or Abraham Lincoln.
The second question (Are Mormons Christian?) has been raised, loudly be a small number of evangelicals, and is readily answered. Given the wide variation among Christian sects, what is a Christian, anyway? It turns out this is very simple; the Christian church needs to define that in order to educate children and train ministers. (Historically, to our shame, this was needed so it could be determined who needed to be burned at the stake, or at least excommunicated.) The First Council of Nicea met in 325 to put this in a simple form, and the First Council of Constantinople met in 381 and made some clarifying edits. The Nicene Creed defines the faith of the Christian churches. It is trinitarian, Jesus is truly God and was present from the beginning (“before all worlds”), as is the Holy Spirit. The various unitarian sects (including Jews, Muslims, Mormons, Unitarian Universalists, and various deists) deny the divinity of Jesus and the separate existence of the Holy Spirit. You don’t have to study the various Christian sects to figure out what the core is, it’s already been done. Mormons, like the others mentioned, believe that Jesus of Nazareth was a good man, a prophet, and they don’t deny his divinity, but they have their own explanations of the triune God and it isn’t the one shared by Christians. They do not accept the fundamental creed of the Christian faith.
Note that this is not to say that there isn’t much within Mormonism that is truly admirable, such as their strong commitment to family and community and the fact that citizens that work hard generally cause the community to prosper. Like any other sect there are a few problems as well. If I Were King, the question I would ask is, will this person strive to be a good president? Or is he out to be a Mormon evangelist in the office? For several reasons I will not be supporting Mitt Romney, but his faith is not among them.