“So I was trying to remember what we talked about in class last year, is it a cult?”
This was the question that a student popped in my office to ask recently. She’d overheard some chatter about the Republican presidential primary, and recalled that in my introductory class on Christianity we talked about Mormonism. I’m not sure exactly what or who she had recently heard, but I am confident that the chatter was because of Pastor Robert Jeffress’ recent comments about Mitt Romney’s religion at the Values Voter Summit in October: “That is a mainstream view, that Mormonism is a cult.”
Following that event, a slew of political and religious commentaries emerged offering their opinions on whether or not Mormons are Christians. This included Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Convention, definitively proclaiming that Mormonism “is not orthodox Christianity in a new form or another branch of the Christian tradition.”
David French, writing at Patheos, has done a good job of deconstructing the many issues involved when some Christians declaim other Christians as not real Christians. To be clear, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints clearly and definitively articulates its belief in salvation through faith in Jesus Christ: “If we believe in Jesus Christ, follow His teachings, and repent when we commit sins, His Atonement, or sacrifice, can wash us clean of our sins and make us worthy to return to God’s presence.”
My response to the student in my office started with that fact: Mormons consider themselves Christians. As a teacher and scholar, I told her, I’m more interested in talking about who doesn’t, and why?
So consider the fact that evangelical Christians and political conservatives, currently atwitter about Mormonism, were chief among those decrying the Cordoba House, aka Park 51, development project in lower Manhattan just one year ago. Banking on Islamophobia, right wing activists stirred up the irrational fear of Muslims that has proved divisive and dangerous over the past decade as they tried to block the permitting and construction of the community center.
Contrary to some conservative Christians who suggest that a Romney candidacy actually makes the religious left nervous, a proposal ably debunked on this very blog, it seems that the claim is more effectively made about those conservatives themselves.
What is it about Mormons and Muslims that seem to get religious conservatives very nervous and anxious? Jeffress himself has said in the same breath that Islam and Mormonism are both “heresy from the pit of hell.” Far from being a new idea, connections between the two religions were made in 1882 by temperance advocate Frances Willard who wrote in the introduction to a book on the women of Mormonism that “modern Mohammedanism has its Mecca at Salt Lake.” In Mohler’s own statement on the Mormon question, he strategically includes an uncited reference to sixteenth century reformer Martin Luther “saying that he would rather be ruled by a competent Turk (Muslim) than an incompetent Christian.” He effectively equates the “Turk (Muslim)” of Luther’s day with the Mormon of our day, and raises the specter of President Obama’s faith once again.
Actual parallels between the two religions are indeed fascinating. Both emerge out of the Abrahamic roots of Judaism and Christianity; Both have a founding prophet who was visited by a heavenly messenger; Both have a unique sacred text revealed through that prophet; Both embrace continued or progressive revelation; Both historically embraced polygyny; Both experience substantial split to the community after the death of the prophet, splits similar in their question of whether to follow the prophet’s bloodline or the leader best suited to teach his traditions.
And now, both are remarkably feared and despised by Christian conservatives using words clearly designed to discredit and insult: Cult! Terrorist!
Why? If we limit our focus to the political and religious context of the U.S., Mormons and Muslims are such a small minority of the population as to be irrelevant to those most laser-focused on branding them as evil. I suspect there is something else going on. Racism and xenophobia certainly have to be seen as contributing factors for those who are targeting Muslims. For Mormons, though? Is it their success and rapid growth that makes some nervous? The Book of Mormon sitting peacefully alongside The Gideon Bible in Marriott hotel rooms?
Considering the way that the Mormon faith hits a unique nerve, though, it seems that there is more. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has done exactly what early Christianity did in relationship to Judaism: Claim a fuller revelation of God superseding the one that came before. Just as Christianity added on to the sacred text of Judaism, calling the Hebrew Bible the “Old Testament,” Mormons see their book as “Another Testament of Jesus Christ.” Perhaps their increasing legitimacy makes visible the thing that conservative Christians would prefer to ignore completely: That a fully realized and complex Jewish tradition existed before and after Christians decided to claim it for their own. Theologically, Mormonism is perhaps too close to home.
Whatever the issue, conservative Christians will find a way to make their peace with it. Given the possibility of an Obama v. Romney presidential election, I realize that for people like Jeffress, Mohler, and those aligned with the conservative religious right, even an imaginary Muslim is worse than a real Mormon.
Good news, Mitt.
Caryn D. Riswold, Ph.D., is associate professor of religion and chair of gender and women’s studies at Illinois College in Jacksonville, Illinois. She also serves on the editorial board for the international journal Political Theology. Her most recent book, Feminism and Christianity, is now available for Kindle, as well as in print in the U.S. as well as in the U.K. You can follow her on Twitter @feminismxianity.