Let's see, how long is it until the GOP primary in South Carolina? Oh well, whatever, never mind. Apparently, it's time for another round of the Mitt Romney theology wars. This whole drama is packed with all kinds of religious lingo and complicated arguments, all of which tend to get mashed into meaningless mumbo-jumbo by the time they make it into newsprint (especially headlines).
Before we move into a New York Times report that demonstrates how messy this can get, let's review some basic guidelines for reporters.
(1) The vast majority of Trinitarian Christians do not believe that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day saints is an orthodox "Christian" body of believers. This is not a belief rooted in fundamentalist Protestantism or some sort of raving bigotry (unless you want to pin that label on the Vatican, as well). It's a statement of fact about doctrinal debates between sincere believers on both sides.
(2) People who insist on saying that "Mormonism is a cult" are not automatically saying the same thing as people who say "Mormons are not Christians." The complicated truth is that different groups of people use the term "cult" in different ways. Some are using it in a narrow, doctrinal sense, while others are painting with a broad sociological brush. Here's how I tried to explain that in a Scripps Howard column during an earlier battle over this topic.
... The Southern Baptist Convention’s web site on “Cults, Sects and New Religious Movements” includes page after page of materials dissecting LDS beliefs and practices. It uses this definition: “A cult ... is a group of people polarized around someone’s interpretation of the Bible and is characterized by major deviations from orthodox Christianity relative to the cardinal doctrines of the Christian faith, particularly the fact that God became man in Jesus Christ.”
Hardly anyone still calls the Latter-day Saints a “cult” in terms of a “psychological or sociological definition” of that term, stressed the Rev. Tal Davis, of the SBC’s North American Mission Board. But traditional Christians must insist that they can use a “theological definition” of the word “cult.”
“This may not be the best word and we admit that,” said Davis. “We’re using it in a technical way, trying to make it clear that we’re describing a faith that is -- according to its own teachings -- far outside the borders of traditional Christianity. ... We’re not trying to be mean-spirited. We want to be very precise. We take doctrine very seriously and we know that the Mormons do, too.”
In other words, Jewish historians would have solid grounds for referring to Trinitarian Christians as members of a "cult," one that has radically changed the Jewish faith.
(3) Mormons believe that they have the true faith and that the Trinitarians are wrong and people of good will on both sides of that divide have not found a way around this clash. Instead of worshiping one God -- known as Father, Son and Holy Spirit -- the Latter-day Saints teach that God and Jesus are separate beings, each with a literal body and parts. Jesus was sired by God, with a divine Mother in Heaven.
When faced with people claiming that "Mormonism is a cult" or that "Mormons are not Christians," reporters simply cannot assume that they know what these people mean when they speak these phrases, even when this takes place in a political context.
If Romney is the GOP nominee in 2012, millions of traditional Christians are going to vote for him despite the fact that they believe his church is a doctrinal cult and, thus, that he is "not a Christian" in the ancient sense of that word. In other words, they will vote for him even though they believe many of his religious/doctrinal views are wrong.
Meanwhile, millions of Democrats are going to vote against Romney, in large part because they believe that his religious/political views are wrong, primarily on matters of sexuality and legal protections for the unborn.
It's complicated. So what does this argument look like in print, in the New York Times?
WASHINGTON -- A Texas pastor introduced Rick Perry at a major conference of Christian conservatives ... as “a genuine follower of Jesus Christ” and then walked outside and attacked Mitt Romney’s religion, calling the Mormon Church a cult and stating that Mr. Romney “is not a Christian.”
The comments by the pastor, Robert Jeffress of Dallas, injected a potentially explosive issue into the presidential campaign: the belief held by many evangelicals that Mormons are not Christians. And it raised immediate suspicions that the attack might have been a way for surrogates or supporters of Mr. Perry, the Texas governor, who has stumbled in recent weeks, to gain ground by raising religious concerns about Mr. Romney. ...
Mr. Perry did not bring up religion on Friday night as he addressed a Republican dinner in Iowa. Asked by a reporter whether he believed the Mormon faith was a cult, Mr. Perry said, “No.” Asked whether he repudiated the remarks of the pastor, he said, “I’ve already answered your question.”
Later on, the Times piece does offer the following information that helps clarify what is going on in this drama:
Mr. Jeffress, the pastor of the First Baptist Church in downtown Dallas, an influential congregation within the Southern Baptist Convention, also expressed surprise at the stir his comments created, saying that his view of the Mormon Church is widely held by evangelicals. “This isn’t news,” he said. “This idea that Mormonism is a theological cult is not news either. That has been the historical position of Christianity for a long time.”
That statement by Jeffress is accurate -- depending on how one defines the word "cult." Note that he said it is a "theological" cult, not a cultural or sociological cult. The problem is that the latter, more damning definition is precisely the one that will be assumed by most readers. Is this the definition that is assumed by most mainstream political journalists?
At the end of the story, readers learn that Jeffress says he will have no problem endorsing Romney or voting for him. In other words, his differences with the candidate are theological, not political. In the end, millions of people with similar beliefs will pull levers in voting booths, knowing that they are voting for a president, not a pastor, bishop or Bible teacher.
Journalists are going to have to get up to speed and learn how to tell the difference between bigoted believers who reject Mormons, period, and those who reject their theology, but are willing to work with them in the political arena. Otherwise, there is no way to make sense of these events.