The Smiling Face of Bigotry

Why is it that so many bigots are goofy-looking little men with bad hair? I figured that at some point I would have to respond to Pastor Robert Jeffress’s comments last week about Mormonism. Here is what he said:

“Mitt Romney’s a good moral person, but he’s not a Christian. Mormonism is not Christianity. It has always been considered a cult by the mainstream of Christianity.”

Responding to questions from CNN later the same day, Jeffress cited Founding Father John Jay that ” we have a duty and a privilege as Christians to select and prefer Christians as our leaders.” He repeated that Romney was a “good moral person,” but said that he would vote for someone who would uphold good “Christian principles.” When asked if he could support, say, House Minority Leader Eric Cantor, who is Jewish, he again said he would prefer a Christian to a non-Christian. However, he said, if Romney is the GOP nominee, he will have to “hold [his] nose” and vote for him over Obama. The president, he said, may be a Christian but does not uphold Biblical values.

First of all, let me say that I thought that the United States was past this kind of stupid religious prejudice. Apparently not. Second, no matter what you think of Jeffress’s comments, he did his candidate, Rick Perry, no good whatsoever. Evangelicals who agree with Jeffress were not going to vote for Romney, anyway, and those who don’t share his animosity toward Mormonism are now going to associate Rick Perry with religious bigots. This is the last thing Perry needed, coming close on the heels of the “Niggerhead” controversy.

But all that aside, let’s unpack Jeffress’s remarks. What exactly does he mean when he says that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is not Christian? Jeffress defines Christianity thus: “It is only faith in Jesus Christ, in Jesus Christ alone, that qualifies you as a Christian.” By that standard, then, Mormons are Christians. The fourth article of faith of the LDS church states that the first principle of the gospel is “faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.” Doctrine and Covenants 76:41-42 further explains that Jesus “came into the world … to be crucified for the world, and to bear the sins of the world, and to sanctify the world, and to cleanse it from all unrighteousness; that through him all might be saved.”

But Jeffress really doesn’t believe that faith in Christ makes one a Christian. He adds, “They embraced another gospel, the Book of Mormon, and that is why they have never been considered by evangelical Christians to be part of the Christian family.” Thus, to folks like Jeffress, it’s not Christian faith that makes one Christian, but belief in a closed canon. This notion of “Sola Scriptura,” or the belief that the Bible alone contains all the knowledge and truth needed for salvation, is a product of the Protestant Reformation and was an explicit rejection of the priestly authority of Catholicism. But in itself, it is not a Biblical principle.

Jeffress also said that Romney, as a Mormon, “doesn’t embrace historical Christianity.” Strictly speaking, Mormonism is not a Catholic or Protestant denomination, which apparently is what Jeffress means by “historical Christianity.” Note, however, that Jeffress isn’t convinced that Catholicism is “historical Christianity,” either, referring to it as a “fake religion” coming out of “the Babylonian mystery religion” and representing “the Genius of Satan.”

But Mormonism is indeed part of historical Christianity in that it arose from the Restorationist movement that emerged in early nineteenth-century America. Restorationists believed in restoring the primitive church, including its apostolic authority, as a precursor to the Second Coming of Christ. Joseph Smith moved his church’s headquarters to Kirtland, Ohio, because a large number of Restorationists (members of Alexander Campbell’s “Disciples of Christ” congregation) had embraced Mormonism, seeing it as the true restoration they had been looking for. So, Pastor Jeffress is mistaken in his assessment of Mormonism’s place in historical Christianity.

What he really means, I gather, is that Mormonism does not accept orthodox Protestant teachings. Fair enough, but Christianity is not defined by one movement’s particular doctrine. If people want to say that Mormonism is not “mainstream” Christianity or is even distorted or heretical, that’s their prerogative, but they have no right to say who is a Christian and who is not. That’s up to God.

Also, what does Jeffress mean when he calls Mormonism a “cult”? When most people hear the world “cult,” they think of Jim Jones and the mass Kool-Aid suicides in Jonestown, or brainwashed automatons wearing robes and handing out flowers. The word is clearly meant as a pejorative, and as I’ve always said, it adds nothing to religious dialogue. Jeffress tried to clarify his position on “Fox News and Friends” on Sunday:

“When I’m talking about a cult, I’m not talking about a sociological cult, but a theological cult. Mormonism was invented 1,800 years after Jesus Christ and the founding of Christianity. It has its own founder, Joseph Smith, its own set of doctrines and even its own book, the Book of Mormon, in addition to the Bible. That by definition is a theological cult.”

What he’s saying here is that Mormonism has different beliefs from his, so it’s a “theological cult.” I could go into what Christian apologists mean when they speak of theological cults, but it’s not necessary. Suffice it to say that they define a “cult” as a religious movement that claims to be Christian but deviates from orthodox belief. But saying that someone is “not an orthodox Christian” packs less of a punch than saying that he or she belongs to a cult. I’m sorry, but there is no way that Jeffress did not intend the pejorative connotation of the word “cult” in this context.

Finally, Jeffress cites John Jay in saying that “as Christians, we have the duty to prefer and select Christians as our leaders. That’s what John Jay, the first chief justice of the Supreme Court said.” Here’s Jay’s quote in context.

In 1816, John Murray wrote Jay asking if “war of every description is prohibited by the [Christian] gospel.” Jay responded by saying:

It certainly is very desirable that a pacific disposition should prevail among all nations. The most effectual way of producing it, is by extending the the prevalence and influence of the gospel. Real Christians will abstain from violating the rights of others and therefore will not provoke war.

Almost all nations have peace or war at the will and pleasure of rulers whom they do not elect, and who are not always wise or virtuous. Providence has given to our people the choice of their rulers, and it is the duty, as well as the privilege and interest, of our Christian nation to select and prefer Christians for their rulers.

In other words, Jay believed that Christian principles promoted peace and democracy. That is a matter of debate, I suppose, but Jay is not making a doctrinal litmus test, as is Mr. Jeffress. We should be clear here. Jeffress’s point is that, even if two candidates’ positions are exactly the same, we should vote for the “Christian” over the “non-Christian,” and we should rely on the good pastor to tell us which is which. In short, in Pastor Jeffress’s America, we should never vote for a non-Christian unless we have no choice. That’s right, if he had his way, there would be no elected Hindus, Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Seventh-Day Adventists, Christian Scientists, agnostics, atheists, or Mormons–and probably no Catholics, either.

But that’s not bigotry, right?

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9 Responses to The Smiling Face of Bigotry

  1. aerin says:

    I personally believe there are practices of mormonism that can be cult like. The unquestioning devotion to the prophet is one…many mormons will say that the prophet would never “lead the folk astray”. So I think some healthy skepticism about things that are wrong, even if commanded by the prophet (i.e. murder) is important. Another thing is the control of daily life, what one eats, drinks, watches on tv. Now, again, not all mormons agree with this or follow these rules. But I believe some of these practices can get dangerously into cult like territory. I do not believe pointing this out is bigotry. I am simply discussing my observations of some LDS, noting where the practices are encouraged by the leadership.

    With that said, many other faiths and belief systems can fall into the same trap. I suspect some evangelical Christian groups refuse to talk to non Christians (another cult sign). They too govern food, drinking and behavior, when put into practice (some of course, not all).

    So having a conversation about the definition of Christian ( and of cult, for that matter) was long overdue. My hope is that perhaps the conversations can lead to bettet understanding, tolerance among the faiths and less strict adherence, unquestioning adherence to any spiritual leaders.

    • Chris says:

      We Mormons are not forced to follow any commandments but are explicitly taught that commandments are given as tools to help us govern our own lives. We are warned of the dangers of certain forms of entertainment and told to use our best judgement. Also, we are frequently taught to question what we hear in church, and from church leaders, by examining it for ourselves and asking God if it’s true. And, to me, it would make more sense for a cult to tell you to take alcohol or drugs, as under the influence of those substances people are more likely to be manipulated.

  2. Diane Sower says:

    Yet we think conservative right wing Christians govern according to their faith. Wrong. They continue to pass legislation that burdens the poor and protects the rich. Billion dollar companies pay no taxes, for they won’t touch the tax code. Yet, they go around claiming to only vote for evangelical Christians. Which is it? Love thy neighbor, and care for the down trodden, or, crap on the poor, and only care for yourself? It’s quite a conundrum. And I’m not a Republican, but Mitt would probably be more honest than most “Christian” candidates out there. Take a look at George Bush Sr.’s vote on segregation in 1964, and tell me about Christianity.

  3. “First of all, let me say that I thought that the United States was past this kind of stupid religious prejudice.”

    You should have asked the atheists. We would have told you different.

  4. Linda Museus says:

    It also should be pointed out that Jeffress quotes John Jay’ opinion by citing him as the first Supreme Court Justice, implying that Jay wrote this quote in a Supreme Court decision. He did not. He wrote it 21 years after he retired from the Court. It has no bearing whatsoever except as an opinion of a private individual, the same as anyone else’s opinion (many of which are not the same as Jay’s).

    • runtu says:

      Yep. Anyone who knows about Jay’s life understands that he became more conservative and more stridently religious as he got older. Citing a private letter from anyone isn’t justification for bigotry.

  5. “they have no right to say who is a Christian and who is not. That’s up to God.” Great line. Let’s leave judging who is most righteous or a Christian up to God and leave religion out of politics.

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