Presidential candidate and Texas governor Rick Perry is taking some heat for Pastor Rick Jeffress's statement that Mormonism is a cult. Pastor Jeffress made headlines by making that statement while introducing and endorsing Perry at the Value Voters Summit in Washington last Friday. Pastor Jeffress is not apologizing:
Jeffress is not backing down amid a firestorm of criticism, telling Fox News on Sunday that Mormons have "never been considered a part of mainstream Christianity." He did, however, point out a difference between a "sociological" and "theological" cult.
"Mormonism was invented 1800 years after Jesus Christ and the founding of Christianity, and it has its own founder, Joseph Smith, its own set of doctrines and its own book, the Book of Mormon. And that, by definition, is a theological cult, that's all I'm saying" [Mark Berman, "Pastor Robert Jeffress: Mitt Romney's Mormonism Is a Cult," Opposing Views, 2011.10.09].
Meanwhile, I've elicited numerous comments in response to my post about the Iglesia ni Cristo's purchase of the town of Scenic, South Dakota. Reviewing the church's doctrines and practices, I found that the church is not Christian and behaves like a cult. Various church members (almost none of whom have the courtesy to speak to me by name) have called me a redneck (there's the morning guffaw for regular readers) and cast other aspersions while mostly throwing red herrings and inviting us all to come to church with them.
So is there a difference between Pastor Jeffress's anti-Mormonism and my critique of our new INC neighbors in Scenic? Could I be as big of a jerk as a fundagelical pastor trying to help Rick Perry get elected?
Ah, there's the difference. Pastor Jeffress isn't just engaged in a discussion of theological differences. There's plenty be said on the topic of whether Mormonism is a cult or if it fits logically within Christianity.
But Jeffress isn't making a theological argument. He's making propaganda. He's trying to impose a religious test on political candidates. He's trying to give voters a lazy reason to vote for Perry and against Romney that won't involve their having to wrestle with actual policy questions or assessments of which man is practically qualified to serve as President. In doing so, Pastor Jeffress is violating the spirit of the Constitution and the Bible, both of which support a separation of church and state. He is not spreading the Gospel; he is pandering to ignorance and using his clerical authority to score political points for his favored earthly candidate.
I'm an atheist. I don't go to Mitt Romney's church, but I can still recognize that he is one of the only rational, tolerable candidates the GOP has put forward for the 2012 presidential election. (Interestingly, in my book, the only other reasonable adult seeking the GOP nomination is Jon Huntsman, the other Mormon in the race.) If I woke up to President Romney, I would be much less alarmed than I would if I woke up to President Perry, Cain, or Bachmann.
Membership in the Mormon church, the Iglesia ni Cristo, or in no church does not disqualify one for political office. Attitudes toward policy, political liberty, and economic justice do. Candidates Romney, Perry, et al. have an obligation as statesmen to lead America in a conversation about practical solutions to our nation's problems. Perry's supporters disserve the country by using the discussion of Mormonism to cast aspersions on Romney and win votes.
My discussion of the Iglesia ni Cristo has a different aim. It is not an attack on a specific candidate or person. It is a warning that the INC manipulates its members with demands for compulsory church attendance and block voting in public elections. Its behavior appears to threaten negative impacts on communities where it operates. The INC has been controlled for a century by one family, and it operates very much like a personality-based cult with a strict and secretive hierarchy. If the INC builds a giant housing project in Scenic, it will bear our scrutiny as citizens concerned for our neighbors' constitutional liberties as well as for our tax rolls (watch for that INC application for tax-exempt status for Scenic).
And if Gordon Howie runs for office and seeks the endorsement of the block-voting INC... well, then I'll have to decide if I'll have my own Pastor Jeffress moment.