An ad promoting a trip to Glacier National Park

When you want to see one of its members elected as president, apparently.

For many years, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (BGEA) has steadfastly assigned cult status to Mormons (officially, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints), but with an unabashed Mormon carrying the “conservative-values” banner in the presidential election this year, the BGEA has changed its tune and purged its website of specific references to Mormonism as a religious cult.

Photo from www.billygraham.orgCandidate Mitt Romney recently paid a visit to the respected Graham (now 93 years old) and his son Franklin, who helps run the BGEA, tightening a supportive relationship between them. While Graham generally makes it a point not to endorse a specific candidate by name, it’s a game: a poster on the BGEA website that has run as an ad in the Wall Street Journal and USA Today (and is popularly “shared” on Facebook) quotes Graham as urging voters in the Nov. 6 election to support candidates who “base their decisions on biblical principles and support the nation of Israel,” and “who protect the sanctity of life and support the biblical definition of marriage between a man and a woman.”

No intelligent voter would doubt which of the two major candidates Graham favors.

It continues to amaze me, however, how quickly many fundamentalist Christians abandoned their previous diatribes against Mormonism once Romney became the Republican candidate for president. In a guest article for USA Today, Franklin Graham has written a passionate defense of why evangelicals can vote with good conscience for a Mormon.

Ken Barun, the BGEA’s chief of staff, told the News & Observer that descriptions of Mormonism as a cult were removed “because we do not wish to participate in a theological debate about something that has become politicized during the campaign.” But the BGEA’s entire argument that votes should be based on “biblical values” is about theology and they haven’t abandoned that — only the identification of Mormonism as a cult.

Based on “Answers” from Graham still posted on the website, Mormonism would still qualify for cult status. To a reader who asked “How can I identify a religious cult?“, Graham responded in part that “cults often do not accept the Bible alone as God’s Word, and may even say that other books (usually written by the group’s founder) are also God’s Word and of more value” — something the Book of Mormon clearly does.

The Grahams are not alone in singing a different tune about Mormonism. While Southern Baptists have long held Mormonism to be a cult, the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary recently hosted a panel discussion in which seminary officials argued that one should vote for candidates based on common values rather than their Christian identity. Several speakers distanced themselves from long-held assertions by the religious right that early American political leaders were largely orthodox Christians.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with promoting a candidate with whom one shares common values, and I am in full agreement that one should not vote for a candidate on the basis of his religious faith alone. Even so, it seems to me that selectively rewriting theology for present political expediency is a questionable enterprise, at best.

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