Dallas Pastor Robert Jeffress' labeling of Mitt Romney's Mormon faith as a non-Christian "theological cult" continues to draw sharp responses from religious leaders.
Newell Williams, president of Brite Divinity School at Texas Christian University, decried the use of cult and disputed Jeffress' view that Romney is not a Christian because he is a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the Mormon church.
"What I think is outrageous is attacking someone running for office because of his religion," Williams said. "It's becoming commonplace in American politics."
He said his definition of Christian is someone who is a follower of Jesus.
"I would be loath to tell a person who says that Jesus Christ is his Lord and savior that he wasn't a Christian," Williams said.
Romney, a Republican presidential candidate, has declared that he believes in Jesus Christ "as the son of God and savior of mankind."
Jeffress, pastor of the First Baptist Church of Dallas, made his "cult" comment after endorsing Texas Gov. Rick Perry as the Republican presidential nominee during the Family Research Council's Values Voters Summit this month in Washington.
He characterized Perry as "a genuine follower of Jesus Christ."
In explaining his comments, Jeffress told the Star-Telegram: "I meant a theological cult, not a sociological cult like the ones led by David Koresh or Jim Jones. What I can say with certainty is that Mormonism is not Christianity."
Perry has said several times that he disagrees with Jeffress' statements.
"Gov. Perry is a politician and I'm a pastor," Jeffress said. "It's not surprising that we use different language. My job is to tell the truth whether or not it is politically correct."
Jeffress said nothing is radical about his statements, particularly among conservative Southern Baptists. He noted that the Southern Baptist Convention North American Mission Board has for years pointed out differences between Mormonism and traditional Christianity.
Mormonism is listed under "New Religions and Cults" on the board's website. It says that the Mormon faith could generally be classified as Christian among world religions but that it is not "faithfully or soundly Christian." The website praises devout Mormons for high moral practices and for their stands on abortion and other issues.
Jeffress said he's been attacked as a "bigot" by some and been supported by others. He argues that critiquing a candidate's faith is a legitimate part of political debate. "If a person says his faith has no impact on how he governs, he's fooling himself," he said.
Texts and sacraments
William B. Lawrence, dean of the Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University, disagreed with Jeffress' use of the word cult. However, he agrees that Mormonism is not Christian.
"We have no policy on Mormonism at Perkins, but my own judgment is that Mormonism is not, strictly speaking, a Christian community, because it operates with a different set of official texts and has a different understanding of the sacraments," Lawrence said. "Christians, for example, don't baptize the dead."
Mormonism, he said, is an interesting and complex religion that suffered intense persecution. In the 1890s, it gave up one of its most controversial practices -- polygamy -- and has now emerged as a world religion whose adherents practice a highly commendable sense of religious discipline, Lawrence said.
As an organized church, Mormonism began in a highly evangelized area of western New York, Lawrence said. Mormons believe that in 1823 their prophet and founder, Joseph Smith Jr., had a vision of Jesus and God and was directed by the angel Moroni to thin gold plates with text written in an ancient language, which, when translated by Smith, became the Book of Mormon.
"I'm not suggesting others should see this comparison, but Mormonism as a religious community has a lot of similarity to Islam," Lawrence said. He noted that both faiths "grew out of a religious context that included the acceptance of the Christianity of Jesus, that incorporated many of the stories of Jesus, but claimed to have a later text of superior quality that superseded Christian texts."
Both faiths accept certain teachings of the Bible but had "specific revelations to a specific prophet," Lawrence said.
Islam's origin as an organized faith group dates to A.D. 610, when Muslims believe that the prophet Muhammad began receiving revelations of the Quran, the holy book of Islam.
"I'm not suggesting that Mormons view Joseph Smith the same way that Muslims view Muhammad, but there are certain objective similarities," Lawrence said.
During a recent televised debate, Romney said he isn't losing any sleep over Jeffress' criticisms of his faith.
"I've heard worse," he said.
'A flood of inquiries'
The Mormon church, with 14 million members in 130 countries, did not respond directly to Jeffress' criticism.
But its media arm e-mailed a statement to the Star-Telegram saying it has received "a flood of inquiries about the Church's belief in Christ and other tenets of our faith."
It said writings at mormon.org "explain clearly our belief in Jesus Christ as the Son of God and Savior of mankind."
Randall Balmer, an Episcopal priest and author of God in the White House: A History: How Faith Shaped the Presidency From John F. Kennedy to George W. Bush, said religion will continue to be discussed even though the Constitution says no religious test should be required for a candidate.
Balmer, professor of American religious history at Barnard College of Columbia University, noted how Jimmy Carter's "born again" faith attracted evangelicals and helped propel him into the presidency.
In every presidential campaign since, a candidate's faith has been prominent, Balmer said. George W. Bush was asked in 1999 to name his favorite philosopher and he replied, "Christ, because he changed my heart." Barack Obama's membership in a church led by Jeremiah Wright became an issue in 2008.
"This may be a teachable moment for the American people," Balmer said. "It may help them understand the First Amendment of the Constitution, as well as Article 6, which prohibits a religious test for public office."