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Billy Graham taking heat for Mormon 'cult' reference removal

The venerable Billy Graham, often referred to by evangelical Christians as “the greatest proclaimer of the gospel in the last century,” is taking some heat for the recent decision to remove language from the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association website calling Mormonism a “cult.”

The language was removed soon after Graham met and prayed with GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney, who is a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Following the meeting, Graham told Romney, “I’ll do all I can to help you. And you can quote me on that.”

The removal of the “cult” language from the website prompted positive — and even humorous — reactions from LDS writers and bloggers. But it has also prompted negative responses from Christians who feel Graham and the BGEA are selling their souls for a mess of political pottage.

“I will never again support anything by the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association,” the Rev. Samuel Wynn, a Methodist minister in North Carolina, told Daniel Burke of the Religion News Service. “My question to Billy Graham is, ‘What’s more important for the kingdom of God: politics or the message of Jesus Christ?’ ”

BGEA officials said they eliminated the “cult” language “because we do not wish to participate in a theological debate about something that has become politicized during this campaign.” But Howell Scott, senior pastor of a Baptist church in New Mexico, said he believes that decision “will have disastrous unintended consequences.”

“The most immediate consequence will be the acceptance and approval of Mormonism as a legitimate Christian ‘denomination’ or faith group,” Scott wrote last week on his blog. “The blurring will only increase if Mitt Romney is elected president.”

Burke explained that “most evangelicals do not consider Mormons Christian because Latter-day Saints revere Joseph Smith as a prophet, consider the Book of Mormon on par with the Bible and conceive of the Christian Trinity as three separate gods.”

“Mormons acknowledge those differences,” Burke continued, “but insist they are Christians.”

Bart Barber, a Texas pastor, said the BGEA move “probably cost Mitt Romney my November ballot.”

“For the sake of my congregation,” he said, “when Billy Graham is muddying the waters of the gospel, I have an obligation to provide clarity.”

Paul Louis Metzger, a professor at Multnomah Biblical Seminary and author of “Connecting Christ: How to Discuss Jesus in a World of Diverse Paths,” thinks the controversy provides Christians with “an opportunity to reassess issues related to our approaches to evangelism in a multi-faith, post-Christendom environment.”

“Whether or not one thinks that Mormonism is a cult, hopefully one agrees that we should not construe a Mormon’s faith or anyone’s faith or frame terms like ‘cult’ with ulterior political connotation,” Metzger wrote in a blog on The Christian Post. “Surely, there are better terms and expressions we can use to unpack the fundamental differences between various religious groups, including key distinctives that distinguish historic Christian orthodoxy from Mormonism (such as the teachings on the identify of Jesus Christ and salvation).”

Metzger believes that “we should describe rather than label groups.”

“Such descriptions must certainly account for various religious movements’ teachings, but should not be limited to the important analysis of doctrines,” he continued. “One must also account for a particular movements' web of experiences, rituals, sacred narratives, practices and group dynamics.”

He encourages his readers to “see ourselves in Mormons,” arguing that “if we demean Mormon teachings and their customs, we are demeaning them as persons as well as their familial and tribal ties.”

“Jesus never objectified, labeled or wrote anyone off,” he said. “He always got beyond stereotypes and moved through doctrinal formulas to engage people graciously and truthfully, to bring the good news home, and to bring people home to be with him in his Father’s house in eternity.”