I was loaded for bear when I heard a clip (on the radio) of Chris Matthews saying, what sounded to me, that Catholics and Mormons were “cultists.” However, as I examined the clip further on my own, and heard it in context, I discovered that his comment, while still bigoted, had to be understood differently.
In effect Mr. Matthews was saying that southern Evangelicals consider Catholics and Mormons to be cultists and, despite that, they are willing to hold their nose and vote for “cultists” since they dislike President Obama even more. Thus Mr. Matthews did in fact make a bigoted comment, but he directed it against Evangelicals, whose views he simplifies, demonizes and caricatures. The video below contains his comments. And here are some brief written excerpts of what he said. Remember, he is saying what he thinks are the views of Southern Evangelicals:
They’re [i.e. Evangelicals] not going to vote for President Obama. So who [are] they going get to beat him? That seems to be on their minds now, not who they like. They are willing to outsource it to a Mormon. …It’s almost like calling up India, or somewhere in the third-world to get your computer fixed. You don’t care who is fixing it, just fix the damn computer. They have…two RCs — Roman Catholics, running and a Mormon, so they’re three cultists running. I have to pick one of the three cultists, as they see them. This isn’t as funny as I’m making it, but it’s ridiculous to pick a guy they really think is the heretic…[so] they pick the guy they don’t like to pick [i.e. beat] a guy they hate worse,“
It’s a bit garbled but to summarize, Mr. Matthews is saying, in effect, that the hopelessly bigoted Republican Evangelicals in the South are obviously prejudiced against both Mormons and Catholics, but they’re willing to put aside their concerns, for the moment, just to ensure that the candidate they chose is most likely to defeat President Obama.
It is clear that this is a prejudicial rant, it is uncalled for and simplistic. Evangelicals, where ever they live are more diverse and sophisticated than Mr. Matthews presumes. However I do have a couple of questions to pose about his claims, especially about how you think Evangelicals regard Catholics and Mormons.
First, I wonder if there has not been a great easing of tensions at many levels between Catholics and Evangelicals. What do you think?
I recall, as a youngster, that Evangelicals, (we often called them “Fundamentalists in those days), would quite publicly vilify Catholicism with terms such as popery, whore of Babylon, cult, Mary worshipers, etc. It would be almost unthinkable in those days (60s and 70s) for Catholics and Evangelicals to meet on common ground, except perhaps to debate the “errors” of Catholicism.
But I think there is a lot less of this today. To be sure, we still have very significant theological differences, and these do still cause some tension. However, I think the dialogue today is much more respectful between Catholics and Evangelicals. Our commonalities on Abortion and the moral issues have a lot to do with this. We have learned to work together and have grown in mutual respect.
I have personally come to appreciate the zeal for faith that many Evangelicals I have known have. Further, they have a fine tradition of good biblical preaching and a love for Scripture that is admirable. Differences in interpretation of Scripture are not minimal, but ultimately there is a lot of common ground on the premise that Scripture is the inspired and infallible Word of God in matters of faith and morals, and that it cannot be set aside for any purpose.
The steady stream of converts to Catholicism also shows greater openness and respect from the Evangelical side. They too have come to know, trust and respect us based on our work together in pro-life action and a shared vision on the moral issues of our day. We, as the Church are enriched by the gifts they bring with them from their Evangelical roots.
At least this is how I see it. While not not denying that some anti-Catholic bigotry still exists in pockets of the Evangelical community, I don’t see it as strong and widespread as Chris Matthews does. What do you think, do most Evangelicals see us as “cultists” or not?
Second, regarding Mormons the situation is less serene. I do hear a lot of strongly negative things said of Mormons by both Catholics and Evangelicals. And the word “cult” is often used.
Frankly I have concerns about using the word “cult” in reference to Mormons. First of all “cult,” as used in American English, does not really express the Catholic understanding. When the word “cult” is used in official Church documents, it is usually meant in a positive manner, (e.g. the “cult of the Saints”). “Cult” or cultus in the Catholic lexicon refers to religious devotion of some sort. The modern use of the word “cult” among Americans is strongly pejorative and not particularly helpful, especially where Mormonism is concerned.
To be clear, I do think that Mormonism is a false religion, or at least a heretical offshoot of Christianity, which has departed so far from the Christian faith as to no longer be considered Christian. However the use of the word cult may not help advance trust or engender a true or fair consideration of Mormons.
I want to say that I am no expert on Mormonism, but I have come to discover that neither are many of the critics I have heard. I have a Catholic acquaintance who is a former Mormon, and I often run some of the crazier things I hear past him. And though he is a clear critic of the Mormonism he left, for theological reasons, he often smiles at some of the wilder things. As for Mormons getting their own planet, he thinks this is blown out of proportion since it is not an official teaching of theirs, but a speculation of certain Mormons of how to interpret Jesus’ words In my Father’s House there are many mansions – Jn 14:2. According to him, most Mormons would simply conclude they don’t know what this means exactly, perhaps a house, a planet, but most just say they don’t know, except that somehow they will one day reign with Christ. As to the claim that they think they will become gods, here too, though a critic of Mormon theology on the Trinity and many other things, he thinks this claim is unfair, and a caricature of their belief that they will share one day in the divine nature. But this is a standard Christian belief too, (e.g. 2 Peter 1:4).
Now I can hear some of you now, “Boy, Msgr. Pope really has the wool pulled over his eyes and doesn’t seem to know that this is a dangerous cult.” Again let me say, I don’t really know much about Mormonism. But what I am saying is that if we are going to criticize it, let’s make sure we are fair and accurate.
As Catholics we know how many have distorted notions of our beliefs and practices, whether now or in the past. No matter how many times we say we don’t worship Mary, some still think we do, etc. Lets just be careful not to engage in the same things toward Mormons and lets be careful that we are critiquing real Mormonism, not just a straw man.
Back to Chris Matthew’s point. Is he right that Evangelicals (and many Catholics for that matter) see Mormons as cultists? If they vote for Mitt Romney, do they see themselves as having to hold their nose and vote for a devout member of a cult?
Frankly, while I disagree with Mr. Matthews on most Evangelicals seeing Catholics as cultist, I think he may be right on their attitudes toward Mormons. And, I would add that I think most Catholics see them that way too.
For the reasons stated, I would like to see us avoid the use of the word cult in reference to Mormons. Candid discussion of our theological differences is essential, and will become more so if Mr. Romney gets the nomination. Faithful Catholics will need clear teaching on the errors of Mormonism. But it will also be true that many on the political left will distort and exaggerate Mormon beliefs for their own political reasons. I hope we will be careful to avoid spreading false and exaggerated claims. Lets critique true Mormonism, not the secular and political left’s notions of it.
Chris Matthews cartoonishly says that Evangelicals consider Mormons (and us) to be cultists. I would like to think he is wrong on both counts and is in fact himself the bigot. And yet I cannot wholly say that the world “cult” is not often used by both Protestants and Catholics in discussions of Mormonism.
What do you think? Do Evangelicals still widely consider us a cult? Do you think Mormons are a cult? Or do you think we should find other ways of describing our differences. Is Chris Matthews right about southern Evangelicals? Or is he bigoted and wrong?