A few years ago, my son-in-law enrolled for a master's degree at a renowned theological seminary.
Soon after, he was asked to meet with the admissions director. He was asked if he was a Mormon, to which he replied "yes." He was then informed that Mormons were not eligible for admission, and he was dis-enrolled. In that discussion the word "cult" was used pejoratively.
It came to mind again when The Rev. Robert Jeffress, an evangelical leader, recently endorsed Texas Gov. Rick Perry for the GOP presidential nomination over Mitt Romney, a Mormon.
According to an article in the Los Angeles Times, Jeffress told reporters that he "agreed with the view of some evangelicals that Mormonism is a cult."
Bryan Fischer, of the American Family Assn., joined Jeffress in making this accusation.
Traditionally "cult" was an acceptable word, one which denoted a group or collection of people sharing the veneration of a particular person, place, practice or relic, religious or otherwise. A general definition of this kind can still be found in standard dictionaries.
More recently, the term has become somewhat distorted and popularized as a way of referring to some of the new religions from the 1970s onward that temporarily attracted large followings, especially among young people. Some of these new religions were violent, but most were not. They just seemed bizarre and frightening to the adults and clergy in conventional religions because of the devotion they elicited from new converts.
In an effort to distinguish them from the "real" religions familiar in our historical experience (such as Catholicism, Protestantism or Judaism), "cult" took on a new pejorative meaning. In time, it was bandied about as a way of referring to any relatively new or unconventional religion that was seen as objectionable to those with more traditional religious preferences.
In the meantime, events surrounding the People's Temple and the Waco/ATF affair gave the word a more ominous connotation — associating itself with psychological and sexual abuse, brainwashing, kidnapping and criminal activity. To refer today to someone's faith as a "cult" infers that someone of that faith is potentially dangerous, and the faith itself might be evil and perfidious.
During my 25 years of working in the interfaith community, I have tried to educate my Christian friends that we share a common witness of Jesus Christ as Savior. However, because Mormons do not agree with some of the tenets of "historical Christianity," they do not qualify as "Christians" in the view of some Christians.
In large part, "historical Christianity" refers to the doctrines and teachings that emanated from councils of philosophers and theologians that came into being hundreds of years after the Savior's resurrection. They often drew upon the philosophies of respected men such as Plato, concluding, for example, that God has no physical nature, or that the three separate persons of the Godhead — the Father, Son and Holy Ghost — are somehow one being.
While traditional Christianity accepts the declarations of these councils as official doctrine, Latter-day Saints do not agree with the concept of the Trinity. As separate beings, we worship God the Father, Jesus Christ the Son and the Holy Ghost. We accept that the members of the Godhead are one in purpose, unity and thought, but separate as entities. Because of this we are accused of "worshiping a different Jesus" and are disqualified as Christians.
Because Mormons claim to be followers of Jesus Christ, yet profess a theology different from traditional Christianity, we are perceived by some to be an actual danger. Our missionaries are, in their opinion, teaching false doctrines that lead people away from Jesus, which can condemn them in the hereafter.
This is the Latter-day Saint belief relating to Jesus Christ: Jesus is the Son of God. He lived with His Father and was associated with the creation before he was born of a virgin. He lived a perfect life. In the garden, He took upon Himself the sins of the entire world causing Him to bleed from every pore.
He was scourged and nailed to the cross. He gave His life voluntarily as an atonement, so by His grace we could be cleansed and enter back into the presence of the Father. He was raised from the dead and now sits at the right hand of His Father.
Another claim, which would supposedly prevent us from being Christian, is our belief that God has not ended His revelatory relationship with mankind. He continues to make his desires and counsel known to us through modern prophets. To Latter-day Saints, the canon is not closed.
Michael Otterson, the church's director of public affairs, feels that our greatest problem is that about half the population knows nothing about us. But unfamiliarity and misunderstanding will gradually continue to dissipate as the church's membership grows.
Research shows that people have a far better view of the LDS Church when they know a member personally. There is a point when those people who have seen Mormons caricatured in their Sunday School classes realize that the second-hand prejudices they have learned don't fit with their first-hand experiences with faithful Latter-day Saints.
Each of us, when referring to our neighbors of another faith, whether Muslim, Sikh, Jehovah's Witness or Lutheran, should show by the words we use, respect and appreciation rather than rejection and ridicule.
Name-calling, presenting half-truths and storytelling is the oldest form of negative advertising. Like most negative labels, it takes time to remove the damage, but truth does stand the test of time. If everyone lived the teachings of their respective faiths, this world would be a better place in which to live.
TOM THORKELSON is director of Interfaith Relations for the Orange County Council of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He lives in Newport Beach.