Billy Graham's Romney Endorsement Backfires -- 'Mormonism Is a Cult' Meme Could Reach Millions
"A religion or religious sect generally considered to be extremist or false, with its followers often living in an unconventional manner under the guidance of an authoritarian, charismatic leader." -- from The Free Dictionary definition of the term "cult" "
" "cult" is how many evangelical Christians define Mormonism. Not surprisingly, "cult" is a four-letter word (in both senses) in Mormon circles." -- from The Rise of Mormonism, Rodney Stark and Reid L. Neilson, Columbia University Press, 2005
As Larry Sabato of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics told the Boston Globe, for an October 13, 2012 story, "Romney is counting on evangelicals. The irony is that this is a shotgun marriage between two very different religions but they are completely dependent upon one another for victory."
But even before that Boston Globe story hit the press, an emerging public relations debacle of the first order was undermining consummation of the "shotgun marriage" and now, with only three weeks before the 2012 presidential election, millions of Americans are confronted by news stories with headlines that feature the terms "Mormon" and "cult".
On October 11, 2012, aging evangelical icon Billy Graham met, prayed with, and in effect endorsed presidential candidate Mitt Romney. But Graham's endorsement backfired when an LGBT rights group discovered an article on the website of Graham's flagship organization, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, apparently authored by Billy Graham himself, that labeled Mormonism a "cult".
In a textbook case of ineffective damage control, Graham's BGEA proceeded to wipe the offending article from the BGEA website but left in place other BGEA website articles that conveyed the same message.
Visitors to the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association website who use the site's search engine to search for the term "Mormon" will get six search results; the first will be a page featuring Billy Graham's own definition of what a "cult" is, an explanation that clearly encompasses Mormonism.
On that page, featuring an entry from Graham's My Answer column, Billy Graham explains,
"[Cult] Members reject what Christians have believed for almost 2,000 years, and substitute instead their own beliefs for the clear teachings of the Bible. 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."
Founder of Mormonism Joseph Smith discovered new books of scripture that comprise the Book of Mormon which, according to the Mormon faith, augments and completes biblical scripture.
The BGEA website My Answer column was preceded by a question posed to Graham, "This couple keeps coming to our house and inviting us to come to their assembly hall to study the Bible. I'd like to know something about the Bible, but a friend of mine says this group is a cult. What exactly is a cult? They seem like nice people."
The question mirrored narratives that launch numerous evangelical books attacking Mormonism which designate it as a "cult", including the 1998 book Mormonism Unmasked, by R. Philip Roberts, which opens with a chapter titled "Mormons on Your Doorstep".
Mormonism Unmasked is published by the B&H Publishing Group, a division of LifeWay Resources, the main publishing wing of the Southern Baptist Convention, which officially designates Mormonism as a cult and claims 16 million members - slighter more than the estimated number of Mormons worldwide, about 14 million.
LifeWay publishes several books attacking Mormonism. CEO of LifeWay is Thom S. Ranier, who also happens to have an article published on the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association website, in which Ranier describes his travels with his wife across the United States, announcing in the article's title that,
"We heard from Christians who were once Mormons, Hindus, Jehovah's Witnesses, agnostics, witches, Buddhists, Unitarians, New Agers, Muslims, Satanists and non-Messianic Jews."
While it is not immediately apparent to many secular observers, designations of Mormonism as non-Christian or a "cult" are extremely offensive to Mormons. According to the Mormon Voices website,
"Use of such a term [cult] to describe Mormonism is highly offensive to members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. "Cult" carries the connotation of dangerous, even violent groups whose beliefs are irrational and whose practices are immoral and lawless (Koresh and the Branch Davidians, Heaven's Gate, Aum Shinrikyo, and The People's Temple are all prominent examples) . The term cannot be applied to Mormons unless it is so broadly defined that its use could be applied to virtually any religious body.
Like racist language, the use of the word "cult" to describe a religion usually tells us very little about the religion, but a great deal about the person using the word."
Amidst a fast-growing swarm of articles covering the scandal, a few have attempted an upbeat spin - such as the Charlotte Observer story Graham family ties tighten with Romney as presidential election nears (subtitled "Evangelistic Association's website cuts Mormonism from listing of `cults' "), also syndicated in the Kansas City Star, which claimed,
"The Grahams' actions could further cement conservative Christian support for Romney in the Nov. 6 election, even though most evangelicals don't consider him a Christian.
That religious divide cost Romney heavily in the South Carolina primary, when he finished a distant second to New Gingrich, a Catholic but twice divorced."
But another Charlotte Observer story published the previous day, syndicated from the Religion News Service, Billy Graham website scrubs Mormon 'cult' reference, by RNS reporter Daniel Burke (also published by the Washington Post) noted continued anti-Mormon bias at Billy Graham's BGEA website:
"According to the liberal website Daily Kos, the belief that Mormons are members of a cult is built into the BGEA's website. The site is programmed to call up articles about cults, including one authored by Billy Graham, when readers search for "Mormon."
"Billy Graham's own website is automated so that Christians who search for the term `Mormon' will get this page result and be informed, straight from Billy Graham himself, that the Mormon Church is in reality a cult," said Daily Kos writer Bruce Wilson."
The spreading story is hardly limited to liberal audiences - the conservative evangelical Christian Post was one of the early venues to pick it up, as Article Calling Mormonism a 'Cult' Removed From Billy Graham Website; Mormon convert Glenn Beck's The Blaze ran a version titled Article Calling Mormon Faith a `Cult' Was Scrubbed From Billy Graham's Web Site Following His Meeting With Romney.
Even on Beck's The Blaze story, rancorous arguments broke out in the comments section, and the comment thread attached to the Christian Post story was strongly anti-Mormon and antagonistic to Billy Graham's Romney endorsement, with one commenter remarking,
"Disgusting, whether you believe Mormonism is a cult or not. This is unfortunately a familiar theme. Evangelical "leaders" being co-opted by a poliltian and toning down the truth in order to curry political favor. They are either naive or responding to the siren call of political power.....or maybe both."
At The Blaze, a commenter named THERAPTURECOMES proclaimed,
"To all mormons, and all those that claim that mormonism is a part of Christianity. I warn you in all love that you have been deceived and I ask you to abandon your cults.
I have shown clearly that mormonism is not Christianity and is not of the bible and my warning is clear also.
Time is running out..."