On Mormonism and the Christian right

find it interesting that the Evangelical Christians who raised me to believe that Mormonism was a cult are now prepared to vote for Mitt Romney over Barack Obama, a churchgoing Christian.
Billy Graham, whose evangelistic association spent decades spreading the word that Mormonism is a cult, decided the other day to remove Mormonism from its list of cults in order to give Mitt Romney a better shot at the presidency.
Here’s what the site used to say: “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 Witnesses, Mormons, the Unification Church, Unitarians, Spritualists, Scientologists, and others.”
Here’s the justification for removing it: “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.”
Interesting, but not surprising.
Countless members of the Christian Right have spent the last four years attacking their Christian brother, Barack Obama, and calling his faith into question, based on nothing but his political principles and a laundry list of lies from Bill Ayers to Birtherism. They have gleefully joined in a systematic and hateful campaign of destruction, rejecting their savior’s commandments to love their enemies, tell the truth, and judge not, lest they be judged.
This is just the latest example showing that Evangelical and Fundamentalist Christianity (aka “the Christian right”) has become primarily a political movement rather than a religious one.
My first hint of this came in 1978, when Democrat Rudy Perpich was running against Republican Al Quie for governor of Minnesota. Quie had friends in our church, Lakewood Evangelical Free Church in White Bear Lake, Minnesota, because his son went to a private Christian school in Minneapolis called Minnehaha Academy. My brother and several friends from church graduated from Minnehaha.
One Sunday morning a couple friends and I — 15 years old at the time —decided to respond to the Al Quie buttons people were wearing to church by wearing Rudy Perpich buttons. We and our parents were quickly informed that our behavior was inappropriate.
My parents were outraged. My mother was the daughter of a Free Church pastor, and my dad’s ancestors had been among the denomination’s founding members. They were not partisan Democrats, but during their youth in the 1930s and their coming of age in the ’40s and ’50s, politics were not discussed in church. For one reason, if FDR had been denounced from the pulpit in Chicago, where my dad grew up, many of the working class parishioners would have gone elsewhere.
My parents made it clear to the church fathers that my friends and I would wear our Perpich pins as long as anyone sported a Quie button, and the tempest was quelled.
Two years later, in 1980, the Moral Majority endorsed the nominally Christian Ronald Reagan over the nation’s first born again Christian president, Jimmy Carter, a Baptist Sunday school teacher whose devotion and knowledge of the scriptures would have put Reagan to shame.
At the time, Evangelicalism was a one-issue religion: abortion, of course. But as they embraced the Republican stance on abortion (or more accurately, the Republican party embraced the Evangelical stance in order to win their votes), they also embraced every other Republican position, from gun rights to defense spending to trickle-down economics to tax cuts to deregulation to capital punishment to the drug war, and they questioned or rejected whatever the Republicans told them to reject, however “Christian” it might seem: the peace movement, anti-poverty programs, public education funding, environmentalism, the women’s movement, gay rights, and the scientific consensus on climate change.
It should go without saying that there’s nothing particularly Christian or Biblical about supply-side economics nor secular about a social safety net or environmental regulation, yet judging by Evangelicals’ partisanship, you’d think “God helps those who help themselves” is in the Bible, while “Blessed are the peacemakers” is something the Black Panthers dreamed up.
Democrats, who no longer felt welcome in Evangelical churches, left on their own, but it was really a quiet purge. Nowadays, at least here in Minnesota, you’d be hard pressed to find a single Democrat in the typical Baptist, Free or other Evangelical church.
That’s why Billy Graham’s sudden tolerance of Mormonism should come as no surprise to those who have been paying attention to the Christian right over the last three decades. In Evangelical churches, politics trump religion every time.
Unfortunately for Graham, though, scrubbing his website of references to Mormonism as a cult cannot scrub the Internet of its terrabites of articles by Evangelicals outlining very clearly the sundry heresies of Mormonism, which Graham himself has no doubt preached in the past.
For example, “The Plain Truth about the Mormons” on biblebelievers.com calls Mormonism “a dangerous cult” and lists the following heresies:
• the belief that man can become God
• the belief that God was once a man
• the denial of the Trinity
• the questioning of the Bible’s authority
• the belief in the authority of Mormon scriptures
• the belief in polygamy
• the belief that other Christian religions are “corrupt” and “an abomination”
• the denial of the literal burning hell
• the belief that God lives on a star near the planet Kolob
• the belief in baptism of the dead
• the belief that Jesus and Satan were brothers.
• the belief in salvation by works
To these heresies can be added many others, like these listed by Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry:
• the belief that God has a flesh-and-bone body
• the belief that God is married to a goddess wife and has spirit children
• the belief the there is a mother God.
In summary, the site declares, “Yes, Mormonism is a cult, a non-Christian cult because Mormonism denies essential biblical teachings and adds new, false doctrines.”
Here are a few more facts about the religion that Evangelical Christians might take issue with:
The Church of the Latter Day Saints, aka Mormon Church, follows the teachings of Joseph Smith, who said he was visited by an angel who dictated the tenets of “true Christianity” to him in the 1820s in a rural county in New York.
The revelation included the following claims: that Jesus came to the New World, that the Garden of Eden was in North America, that the New Jerusalem would be in Missouri, and that Native Americans were the lost tribes of Israel.
The planet (or star) Kolob, which is the nearest to the Throne of God, was discovered by Abraham and Methuselah using the seer stones known as the Urim and Thummim.
These seer stones were allegedly found by Smith along with the golden plates he said were the source of the Book of Mormon. Smith said he discovered the plates on Sept. 22, 1823, showed them to 11 witnesses, translated some of them into the Book of Mormon, then returned them to the angel Moroni (or Nephi — historical sources differ on his name).
Smith initially said marriage should be between one man and one woman, but then he fell for a 16-year-old follower (or adopted daughter), Fanny Alger, and in 1843 had a revelation that polygamy was okay — and that any wife who didn’t accept it risked damnation. Smith ended up with several other wives: Eliza and Emily Partridge, Sarah Annn Whitney, Helen Kimball, Flora Woodworth, Lucy Walker, et al. Sources differ about the precise number of wives Smith had. Some say 48, some 46, 42, 33, or 29. Many were teenagers when they married Smith.
If that’s not enough to convince you that Smith was either a delusional sex addict or a self-promoting charlatan, consider this. In the 1840s, an Irishman named Michael Chandler brought some Egyptian papyri to Smith when his pilgrims were living in Kirtland, Ohio. Smith determined that they were scrolls written by Abraham and Joseph. He translated the first, which has become a text of Mormon scripture, but died before he could translate the second. The text includes the only reference to the planet Kolob and also includes teachings on plural gods, priesthood, the exaltation of humanity, etc.
Unfortunately for Smith and the Mormons, these scrolls — unlike the golden plates — survived, and are now in the vault of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. With the help of the Rosetta Stone, they were translated and turned out to have nothing to do with Abraham, or Kolob, or the Mormon priesthood. Says Lawrence Krauss, who wrote a recent article on the topic, “Every single aspect of Joseph Smith’s translation was fabricated” — which doesn’t reflect well on the purported translator of the missing golden plates.
Smith was killed in 1844 by a mob of Christians in Illinois, after Smith’s church members were persecuted in New York, then Ohio, then Missouri. Eventually his followers accompanied his successor, Brigham Young, to Utah. (Young, FYI, had 51 wives and 56 children.)
In the 1890s, the church denounced plural marriage, as they changed their minds about other controversial issues throughout their history — like the belief that black men could not be priests, a doctrine reversed in 1978. (They haven’t officially reversed or repudiated their belief that dark skin is a curse but say the 1978 decision speaks for itself. The online book of Mormon has cleaned up references to the curse, and some Mormon authorities now deny that the curse doctrine ever existed.)
In their defense, early Mormons opposed slavery (unlike many Christians) and ordained black priests.
Like Catholics and most Evangelicals, they still don’t ordain women.
In general, Mormons don’t have a problem with changing their positions. They adhere to a doctrine of “continuous revelation,” which may explain why Mitt Romney has seemed so comfortable with his flip-flops. Their leaders are pope-like in their authority and their ability to create and overturn teachings.
And yes, Mormons really do wear special undergarments (“magic underwear”), which serve as a reminder of their covenants and a protection against temptation.
Many of the claims of Mormonism may seem strange to non-Mormon Americans, but many religious beliefs and practices seem odd to the uninitiated, from the animist belief that rocks and trees have souls, to the polytheism of the Hindus, to the head coverings of Muslim women, to the Christian practice of drinking blood and eating flesh.
Still, I can only imagine how Billy Graham and his ilk would respond to a Muslim candidate, even though Islam is hardly more distant in doctrine and practice from Christianity than Mormonism is.
And Mormonism does not have the benefit of age to explain its weirdness. It seems less gullible to believe in miracles that occurred 1,000 or 2,000 years ago — prior to the age of science and history and journalism — than to believe in supposed miracles that occurred a few generations ago — long past the mythic age of miracles and giants and talking asses.
Although we should beware of throwing stones from glass houses, we should consider whether our leaders’ religious views will prevent them from facing realities that may dramatically affect our country and our world in days and years to come.
Foremost among them: climate change. If religiously affiliated political leaders — Mormon, Christian, Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, Pagan or Jew — choose faith over fact to prevent a nation as carbon-soaked as the U.S. from addressing threats to our species’ very existence, then we should consider whether religion in politics has become a force of destruction rather than salvation.
If it hasn’t, no big deal.
But if it has, or does, God help us all.

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