Billy Graham: Mormonism No Cult

Well, it seems that Mormonism is no longer a “cult”:

(CNN) – Shortly after Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney enjoyed cookies and soft drinks with the Rev. Billy Graham and his son Franklin Graham on Thursday at the elder Graham’s mountaintop retreat, a reference to Mormonism as a cult was scrubbed from the website of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association.

In a section of the website called Billy Graham’s My Answer there had been the question “What is a cult?”

Answer: “A cult is any group which teaches doctrines or beliefs that deviate from the biblical message of the Christian faith.”

“Some of these groups are Jehovah’s Witnesess, Mormons, the Unification Church, Unitarians, Spritualists, Scientologists, and others,” the site continued.

No longer. On Tuesday, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association confirmed that page has recently been removed from the site.

“Our primary focus at the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association has always been promoting the Gospel of Jesus Christ,” Ken Barun, chief of staff for the association, told CNN in a statement. “We removed the information from the website because we do not wish to participate in a theological debate about something that has become politicized during this campaign.”

The cynical reading of this, of course, is that now even the walking-Evangelical-saint Billy Graham has sacrificed doctrine for politics, that his desire for a Republican in the White House has transcended his commitment to the distinctives of his Southern Baptist religious faith. There has been a lot of ink spilled over whether Evangelicals and other Christians can in good conscience vote for a Mormon, because a Mormon Mitt Romney presidency might look better than a liberal Protestant (and I use the term here theologically) Barack Obama presidency. I won’t dive into those same waters here, because I’m more concerned with the question of religious definition and legitimacy.

First, let’s think about the word cult. I’ve contended for some time that cult is essentially a useless term now. In its most basic sense, a cult is a worshiping community, so pretty much any religious group qualifies. Indeed, the armies of Beliebers may well qualify. But of course that is not what is meant by Evangelicals like Graham when they say “cult.”

Sociologists of religion use cult to refer to a religious group that does not regard itself as exclusively true yet has negative relations with the surrounding society. Those two factors—exclusivity and societal relations—form the basis for sociological definition of religions into four kinds of groups: church (exclusive with good relations), denomination (inclusive with good relations), sect (exclusive with bad relations) and cult (inclusive with bad relations). Yet almost no one uses these terms in the way sociologists of religion use them.

The Graham definition above—”any group which teaches doctrines or beliefs that deviate from the biblical message of the Christian faith”—is similarly problematic. How would this definition include Jehovah’s Witnesses but not Roman Catholics? How would it include Unitarian Universalists but not Mormons? Isn’t it true that all of these groups (and many more) would deviate from most Evangelicals’ understanding of “the biblical message of the Christian faith”?

Now, looking at the Graham list more closely, the one thing all those groups have in common is that they are non-Trinitarian. And of course they also do not really believe in the Incarnation. So they have repudiated the two core dogmas of historic Christianity. But that’s not what’s being said here. What’s instead being given is a general definition for heresy, followed by a list of non-Trinitarian groups. Why not just say “These people do not believe in the doctrines of the Trinity and Incarnation”? Still, even if such a definition were embraced, all you’ve really defined is the classical, ancient content of heresy in the first millennium since Christ. (Heresy has, of course, gotten a bit more multifarious in the second millennium.)

In the end, I think what is really meant by cult in most modern Evangelical parlance is “bad/weird religious group.” And of course perhaps such a definition is right in its own way. But how does that no longer include the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints? Isn’t a religion that believes that God grew up from being just like us to what He is now and that we can grow up to be exactly like Him kind of problematic? What about the doctrine that a male alien from the planet Kolob had intercourse with a divine mother figure, thus giving birth to all of us, and that that male alien is the one we call God? Isn’t that just far enough outside even the rather loose boundaries of Evangelical orthodoxy to warrant some kind of “weird” labeling?

Like I said, though, I don’t think cult is really a useful term any more. Possibly its last real usefulness these days is in the hands of academics referring to the veneration of saints, which has traditionally been referred to with cult, e.g., “the cult of St. Nicholas.” It’s a word that has otherwise been taken out back into the alley behind the hallowed halls of intelligent discourse, mugged for its spare significance and then summarily shot.

Now, as I wrote above, I’m not talking here about how one should vote and whether voting for a Mormon can be okay for Trinitarian Christians. That’s another issue entirely that I don’t really have many good answers for. But I’m concerned about this redefinition of Mormonism. Even if it is the case that Graham’s organization took Mormonism out of its “cult” list solely to avoid politics, the removal is nevertheless a statement in itself. Should Romney get elected, will this redefinition eventually extend to include Mormonism in the greater umbrella of acceptable religion in America?

It is hard to say. I have no crystal ball. But the possibility nevertheless exists. Why? It is because there is no mechanism whatsoever in low-church Protestantism to deal with heresy (except perhaps on the purely local level). Acceptability in the ever-diversifying denominationalist neighborhood is largely a function of social feeling, not dogmatic examination by an authoritative body or process. Orthodox Christians, Roman Catholics and Reformation confessionalists can all know with certainty that Mormonism is not their kind of Christianity. But will your local mega-church know it? What happens when its pastor decides that the squeaky-clean Mormon image might well be the proper result of a doctrine or two worth giving another look?

Evangelicalism already includes some non-Trinitarians in the form of Oneness Pentecostals (sometimes called “apostolic”). What’s another group or two?


  1. Megan Leathers says

    It is interesting to note that although they scrubbed “Mormon” from the site you can still find plenty of Billy Graham’s “My Answers” that describe “cults” in a way that it’s hard not to think “Mormonism”:

    — “Another characteristic of many cults is that they reject the Bible, or claim their founder’s writings are also divinely inspired”.
    –“They also may claim that God gave their founder a new revelation that “corrects” the “errors” of others”.
    –“Often, they add to the Bible by claiming that the books their founder wrote or “discovered” are from God, and have equal authority to the Bible.”
    –“The basic mark of any cult, however, is that it rejects the divinity of Jesus. The Bible teaches that Jesus Christ was God in human flesh—that He alone was both fully man and fully God.”
    –“Cults usually deny that Jesus was the unique Son of God, sent from heaven to save us from our sins.”

  2. says

    Destructive cult or benign religion?

    The *Cult* word gets overused,but in some cases it is appropriate.
    The definition of a destructive religious cult is like alcoholism-if booze controls you instead of the other way around you are an alcoholic.
    I was in the Watchtower society Jehovah’s Witnesses,they are not benevolent and won’t let you leave their organization in peace.The Jehovahs are not without scandals-child abuse,deceptive mind control tactics, sex scandals, money scams, general bad behavior.
    Is it a cult?
    If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it’s probably a duck….
    Danny Haszard *tell the truth don’t be afraid*

    FMI dannyhaszard(dot)com

    • says

      Yes, but where is your definition of “cult” here? It’s all well and good to refer to ducks quacking and walking, but if one does not actually put forth an archetypical definition or example of said duck, then comparisons are in vain. One must establish what a duck is before one can make comparisons to ducks.

      Is there such a thing as a non-destructive cult? Is a “cult” any destructive religion? If so, why is that definition more correct than one based on doctrine? And who defines “destructive”? The disgruntled ex-members? The happy current members? And what about historical usage of cult? What about its etymology?

      Again, I think poor cult is mostly dead, or perhaps even all dead. Let’s go through its clothes and look for loose referents.

  3. Ed says

    Orthodoxy has been an awesome pair of glasses, for me. I see some will agree with you, Fr. Andrew, about what a cult is and what it is not. But, to ME the focus of your story is the fact a change was made. A change whether for political reasons, money reasons or just for loosening a restrictive dogmatic definition is in fact change. When you take a foundational dogma of your belief (what is and what is not Christian) and change it then you have begun to redefine who you are. Like if you change the foundation of your house you have begun to redefine the structure of your house.

    Probably one of the most important attractions to Orthodoxy, for me, was the lack of change. The foundation was set in stone (pun intended) many centuries ago and there is no need for change. So, for me, change is a sign of weakness as something was wrong with the original form. We change (repent) because something was wrong with the original form. We came to Orthodoxy, because something was weak or wrong with the original form of religion we once believed in. So, if the “church” (a very loose term for protestants) changes its position then something was weak or wrong, in the beginning.

    Billy Graham, and I’m sure many more will follow his lead, has just said to the world and God, “I was wrong and I need to change who I am and my core belief of what a Christian is and is not.”

    If the Orthodox Church, today, said, “Hey, remember that (insert heresy here) from centuries ago? Well, we were wrong. Even though they don’t believe in the Trinity, really don’t even believe in the same God as us and blaspheme the Theotokos, well, they’re not so bad. We will now accept them.” I would have no choice but to run from the church and that would make me a protestant, again.

    Lord have mercy.