Richard Land is head of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission at the Southern Baptist Convention, and he doesn’t mince words. He has been deluged with interview requests since Friday, when the Rev. Robert Jeffress, pastor of one of the convention’s largest churches, introduced Rick Perry at the Values Voters Summit. “Do we want a candidate who is a good moral person, or do we want a candidate who is a born-again follower of Jesus Christ?” Jeffress asked. “In Rick Perry, we have a candidate who is a committed follower of Christ.” And later, specifically of Mitt Romney, Jeffress would tell reporters that “Mormonism is not Christianity. It’s not politically correct to say, but Mormonism is a cult.”
Land, a larger-than-life character who wields enormous influence not only over Southern Baptists but conservative evangelicals as well, was not happy. He was particularly concerned about the use of Jeffress as an introducer and the impression Jeffress would leave about Southern Baptists. If he were Perry? “I would shoot the guy who allowed [Jeffress] to introduce him,” he says with a chuckle. Later, he added: “I wouldn't say what [Jeffress] says or the way he says it. I don’t call religions evil (as Jeffress has said of Islam). Only actions are evil.”
Land said he had not discussed the issue with Jeffress but that he would bring it up only during “a private conversation.” To speak by telephone, according to Land, would be “counterproductive.”
Perry’s people have a deaf ear, Land says. “They haven’t been listening to the right people.” And he says they have made a number of errors, including Perry’s position on opponents of the Dream Act. “He’s right. We’re not the kind of country where we punish children because of their parents. We’re not going to deport them. They want them to improve themselves. But you don’t attack fellow Republicans as heartless.”
So what about the whole issue of Mormonism being a cult.?
“Mormonism is not considered by evangelicals or conservative Catholics as being an orthodox — with a small ‘o’ — view of the Christian faith,” he says. “There is one [phrase] from their scripture: ‘As man now is, God once was. As God now is, man may become.’ The only orthodox Christian thing there is the punctuation,” he says.
But is it a cult? “I wouldn’t call it a cult but it claims to be Christian and isn’t. Its theology is like a cult but socially and culturally it doesn’t act like a cult.” In that way, he says, it is more “mainstream. They don’t withdraw, they don’t live in communities, they’re not like Jehovah’s Witnesses or James Jones.”
Land likens Mormonism to a fourth Abrahamic faith. “Joseph Smith is like the prophet Mohammad, and The Book of Mormon is like the Koran. It supersedes the Bible, and Joseph Smith supersedes the apostles.” Although Land does say that the definition of a cult, from a Christian perspective, is “a movement that claims to be Christian and isn’t.”
Richard Land understands why Mormons get upset at being called a cult, but he says, “it’s just not Christianity. It’s another religion, like Islam. But [Mormons] think they are the true Christians.”
As for Mitt Romney, Land likes him. In fact, Land counseled Romney to run in 2008 and give a speech about his religion.
“I thought he handled it well last time around,” Land says. “I gave him Kennedy’s speech. Kennedy never defended Catholicism. He had a right to be a Catholic. He wasn’t going to let his religion impinge on his performance in office.” Essentially, Land says, “Kennedy told the Vatican to shove it.” And Romney, he says, said the same thing. “That his religion was only an issue in his personal and family life.”
What Land does claim, is that, “25 percent of Americans say they are uncomfortable with Mormonism.”
Land himself is very clear about his views. “I don’t believe that the tenets of one’s religious beliefs are a fit and proper subject for a presidential election. I said to [Mike] Huckabee and Romney: Don’t get trapped into trying to defend the tenets of your faith.” For one thing, he says, “it violates the Constitution. He says he never endorses candidates but that Romney’s Mormonism “would not influence me.”
Land doesn’t claim to know who the Republican nominee will be, but he does think it will be the one who shows in the polls he can beat President Obama. He does say that this will be the most important campaign since 1860. “And I fear,” he says, “that this is going to be the ugliest campaign since 1800.”
Sally Quinn | Oct 11, 2011 9:55 AM