Christian or cult? Mormons, Baptists slug it out online

TERRY MATTINCLY

Scripps Howard News Service, 2/16/02

Science fiction novelist Orson Scott Card is tired of hearing outsiders whispering about the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints - especially the dreaded C-word. The word in question is not "Christian." It's "cult." "I daresay that the Mormon church is less cult-like than many of the religions that delight in calling us one," said Card. "Indeed, calling Mormonism a cult is usually an attempt to get people to behave like robots, blindly obeying the command that they reject Mormonism without any independent thought. Kettles, as they say, calling the pot black.

Debates about Mormonism and public life always heat up when Utah is in the spotlight and the XIX Winter Olympics certainly qualify as that. Journalists have focused on the church's vow not to proselytize visitors. While avoiding deadly overkill, LDS leaders cranked up public-relations efforts to portray their faith as part of mainline Christianity. This strategy is sure to catch the attention of other faiths that send missionaries to the games, such as the 1,000 Southern Baptist volunteers in Utah for Global Out-reach 2002.


Tensions are inevitable. Thus, Clark launched a preemptive strike in a Beliefnet.com column titled "Hey, Who Are You Calling a Cult?" It's ludicrous, he said, to smear Mormons with the same word that defined the Jim Jones flock in Guyana and the "sneaker-wearing folks who killed themselves to join aliens ... behind a comet."

It's true, he said, that Mormon prophet Joseph Smith was a charismatic leader with fiercely loyal followers. But this is true of almost all new religious movements. Card defied anyone to argue that modern Mormons are "automations" who yank converts out of their homes and brainwash them. "If Mormonism were a cult, I would know it, and I would not be in it " he said.

Meanwhile, the Southern Baptist Convention's Web site on "Cults, Sects and New Religious Movements" includes page after page of materials dissecting LDS beliefs and practices. It uses this definition: "A cult ... is a group of people polarized around someone's interpretation of the Bible and is characterized by major deviations from orthodox Christianity relative to the cardinal doctrines of the Christian faith, particularly the fact that God became man in Jesus Christ."

Hardly anyone still calls the Latter-day Saints a "cult" in terms of a "psychological or sociological definition" of that term, stressed the Rev. Tal Davis, of the Baptist's North American Mission Board. But traditional Christians must insist that they can use a "theological definition" of the word "cult." "This may not be the best word and we admit that," said Davis. "We're using it in a technical way, trying to make it clear that we're describing a faith that is - according to its own teachings - far outside the borders of traditional Christianity... "We're not trying to be mean-spirited. We want to be very precise. We take doctrine very seriously and we know that the Mormons do, too."

The doctrinal conflicts are many and sincere, stressed scholar Jan Shipps, a United Methodist who is author of "Sojourner in the Promised Land: Forty Years Among the Mormons." Traditional Christians and the Latter-day Saints are not just arguing about issues of interpretation. These disputes are about pivotal additions to the earlier stream of faith. The clashes start at the very beginning, with the nature of God. Christians worship one God, yet known as Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

The Saints have a radically different approach, said Shipps, believing God and Jesus to be separate beings - each with a literal body and parts. They say Jesus was sired by God, with a divine Mother in Heaven. "The Trinity, the Trinity, the Trinity there is no way around the Trinity" said Shipps.

"But you know it would also help if Christians - if they are going to use the word 'cult - would admit that Christianity changed the very nature of the Jewish God. Christianity then grew up to become a new religious tradition. "Mormonism is a new religious tradition that has grown out of Christianity. It is an entity unto itself It is what it is."

Terry Mattingly (www.tmatt.net) teaches at Palm Beach Atlao tic College and is senior fellow for journalism at the Council for Christian Colleges Universities. He writes for the Scripps Howard News Service.






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