Romney's in a Cult and Ryan's a Satanist? The GOP's 2012 Religion Woes
In classic sociological and anthropological definitions, cults tend to revolve around one or several charismatic figures, and are organized in concentric rings, with an inner circle of acolytes around those charismatic figures and outer rings of followers with successively less devotion, access, and perceived authority.
In that view, most religions (Christianity included) begin as cults, and the ones that successfully evolve into religions (such as Christianity and Mormonism) eventually develop fixed doctrine, established ecclesiastical hierarchy, and so on.
If anything, the conservative evangelical Christian animus against the Mormon Church has much to do with the fact that Mormonism has long been one of the fastest growing religions in the U.S. and the world.
So it's less than surprising that the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association would try to tar Mormonism, a business competitor, as a "cult" - a term that since the 1970s has in American culture, especially in evangelical culture, picked up dark connotations; for many evangelicals, even cults which do not feature overt Satan worship are halfway there nonetheless.
When casual visitors to the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association website punch the word "Mormon" into the website's search engine, what search results will they get? - The first hit is a BGEA page on which Billy Graham himself explains that,
"A cult is a group that claims that it, and it alone, has the truth about God and offers the only way to salvation. 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. In reality, however, those books deny what the Bible says about God or Jesus, or about the way of salvation."
It's no secret that Momonism's founder Joseph Smith did indeed discover new scripture.
The less than obvious but fully absurd aspect of this is that, while Graham's definition could be seen as applying to Mormonism, it also pegs a fast-rising tendency within conservative evangelical Christianity itself, the New Apostolic Reformation - a tendency whose apostles and prophets dominated The Response, the August 2011 religious rally that kick-started Texas Governor Rick Perry's failed bid for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination.
in August 2011, NPR's Fresh Air dedicated an entire hour long segment to the New Apostolic Reformation - who were the religious leaders up onstage at Perry's event? Few seemed to know.
Then, in early October, Fresh Air host Terry Gross interviewed NAR guru C. Peter Wagner himself - the low-key, elderly academic who has played a key role in shaping and organizing the emerging NAR.
If the New Apostolic Reformation had been competing* with Mormonism for sheer doctrinal color, Wagner hardly could have done better - during the interview Wagner told Gross that the early 2011 tsunami which ravaged Northern Japane, and the Japanese economic downturn of the 1990s, both may have been caused by what Wagner described as a sexual tryst between the Japanese emperor and a "sky goddess" who, according to Wagner, may have been a succubus.
Of course, Republican politicians vying for the 2012 GOP presidential nomination who had noteworthy ties to the New Apostolic Reformation didn't prevail - and so the Japanese emperor and the succubus did not become a presidential campaign issue.
Rather, Republican success or failure in the 2012 presidential election may hinge on internecine doctrinal disputes within conservative evangelicalism, disputes that will help determine evangelical voter turnout -- Is Mitt Romney a cultist? Is Paul Ryan a crypto-satanist? And more importantly, for evangelicals who agree with one or both propositions, does politics trump theology or does theology trump politics ?