In reading Richard Mouw's comments about Mitt Romney, Mormonism and evangelicals ("Mormonism: Neither a cult nor a problem," Opinion, Nov. 25), I find myself at my usual point of frustration. I was told the other day by a Mormon that if anyone tells a Mormon that they are not Christian, the Mormon is likely to be bothered and alienated by it.
My initial response is "so what?" The English language is not infinitely malleable. Words mean something in both the abstract sense and in the concrete sense. The term "Christian" is no different.
The term originated in the first century as a mildly pejorative label for followers of what the Book of Acts described as "The Way." It is believed that individuals who were part of The Way were first called "Christians" in Antioch. They held certain views about who Jesus was, who God the Father was and what salvation entailed, that were very clear. So clear that they endured periodic intense persecution as a result of both the content of their theology and the nomenclature that was foisted upon them.
So when I hear a Mormon want to claim a title that cost many before me their own blood it is both intellectually and personally offensive. What Mouw calls "historic Christianity" is Christianity plain and simple. There is not another version. Once a group redefines Jesus' essence, the Father's essence and the entire doctrine of salvation it is no longer allowed to co-opt a term with a rich, blood-stained heritage from my ideological ancestors. That, to me, is the height of hubris.
As for the term "cult," we have to recognize its technical sociological use, its use in pop culture and its technical theological use. Of course The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is not a cult in the sense meant by pop culture, which typically views a cult as a group of crazies, one bad day away from calling for the end of the world.
I have Mormon friends just like Richard Mouw does, and they are great business people, rationally concerned citizens and fun-loving companions. Is it a cult in the sociological sense? No, not necessarily. I don't think a lot of its contemporary flavor would fit the bill, although some of its earlier history clearly would have.
I do have my doubts, however, when we talk about how much authority is vested in contemporary prophetic leadership. I think this is part of what makes evangelical voters a bit nervous.
Would Romney be under the authority of the prophet? Ezra Taft Benson, in a 1980 speech entitled "Fourteen Fundamentals in Following the Prophet," surely indicated so in his statements about the prophet's authority extending to civic life.
The real rub for most evangelicals comes in talking about Mormonism as a theological "cult." The struggle for many of us, honestly, is that we don't know what else to accurately call it. Any term that is used that divides and places it outside the mainstream will be perceived as pejorative. I doubt any Latter-day Saint would feel good about substitute terms like "heretical" or "heterodox."
The point is that we have a limited lexicon of terms, and minimizing central theological distinctions is not an option for us. We aren't trying to be mean-spirited. We are just trying to be clear. However, when our terms (like "Christian") get co-opted and misappropriated, the matter is not helped.
So my request to my LDS friends is to offer another term that shows eternally defining distinctions, and to please stop ignoring historical labels like they don't matter because the sacrifices of many say they do.
Bryan Hurlbutt is lead pastor of Lifeline Community in West Jordan.