Billy Graham Website Down: "Mormonism Cult" Scandal Widens
Bruce Wilson printable version print page     Bookmark and Share
Sat Oct 20, 2012 at 12:42:02 PM EST
On Thursday and Friday Billy Graham's BGEA ran high-profile full page ads, in 2012 election battleground state newspapers, encouraging voters to support "Biblical values" - foremost among which, according to the ads, is opposition to same-sex marriage. Then, on late Friday, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association pulled the plug on the over-$75 million dollar a year nonprofit organization's website, in a striking counterpoint to the BGEA's byline: "Always Good News".
The surprise outage of the flagship global evangelizing organization website comes days before the 2012 presidential election, and on the heels of a widening scandal that opened up when aging evangelism superstar Billy Graham made a widely-heralded non-endorsement of presidential contender Mitt Romney and, soon after, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association website scrubbed a page on which Graham identified Mormonism as a "cult", along with the Unification Church and Scientology.

On Friday, October 19th, the Washington Post ran a satirical essay, by a Mormon university professor, with the title "Mormon says he'll miss `cult' lifestyle".

The  same day, the website of Christianity Today, considered by many to be the world's leading publication for evangelical Christianity, featured a story titled Should the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association have Removed Mormons from "Cult" List?.

The Christianity Today op-ed followed an earlier CT wire service story, from the Religion News Service, which quoted my observation that - despite the previous scrubbing of a BGEA website page on which Billy Graham explicitly identified Mormonism as a "cult" - the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association website still featured pages which insinuated to website visitors that Mormonism is a "cult" and explicitly stated that follower of the world religion are not Christians (Mormons consider themselves fully Christian.)

To secular audiences, it is hard to overemphasize the earthquake-scale magnitude of this scandal within modern American evangelicalism -- superstar evangelist Billy Graham was friend and confidant of multiple presidents, such as Richard Nixon, and was widely viewed as a more sophisticated and inclusive counterweight to theologically rigid tendencies within Christian fundamentalism. Graham was heavily criticized by fundamentalists for his willingness to appear in public with representatives of non-Christian faiths.      

But even as Billy Graham has aged, and his perhaps less-diplomatic* son Franklin Graham has taken over the vast business franchise bequeathed to him by his superstar father, fast rising tendencies within American evangelism such as the New Apostolic Reformation -- which former co-architect of the religious right Colonel V. Doner, in a new 2012 book, warns could become an "American Jihad" -- are displacing strands of evangelicalism that embody Billy Graham's carefully cultivated ecclesiastical and religious inclusivity.  

Top leaders of the New Apostolic Reformation have called upon their followers to burn the Book of Mormon, the principal scripture that differentiates Mormonism from Protestant and Catholic Christianity. In early Fall 2012, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association was a co-sponsor of the New Apostolic Reformation-dominated Philadelphia "America For Jesus" rally.

A letter of support from the 93 year-old Billy Graham was read at the "America For Jesus" rally, which was sponsored by top NAR apostles and prophets including Cindy Jacobs, who has claimed that flocks of blackbirds dropped dead from the sky because of God's wrath at Barack Obama's decision to rescind the Department of Defense "Don't Ask/Don't Tell" policy concerning the sexual orientation of LGBT members in the U.S. military.

Other prominent NAR sponsors included Dutch Sheets, The Call founder Lou Engle, and National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference President Samuel Rodriguez.

In August 2011, after unprecedented media scrutiny (see: 1, 2, 3) of the New Apostolic Reformation following a high-profile Houston, Texas NAR apostle-dominated religious rally called "The Response" that kicked off Texas Governor Rick Perry's failed bid for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination, New Apostolic Reformation intellectual godfather C. Peter Wagner authored an op-ed for Charisma Magazine, the leading magazine of the Christian charismatic movement, titled The New Apostolic Reformation Is Not a Cult .

While some liberal publications such as Mother Jones have characterized the NAR movement as "small", the apostles of the New Apostolic Reformation - under attack for years by traditional Christian fundamentalists who accuse the NAR of being a "cult" or even the end-time church of the Antichrist - have nonetheless blessed U.S. vice presidential candidates and tutored U.S. state governors on how to establish Christian theocracy, and sit on the boards of leading evangelical publications such as Christianity Today.

The NAR also claims, as an acolyte, former Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris, who shut down the Florida vote recount in the 2000 election that sent George W. Bush to the White House.

Like the Mormon Church, New Apostolic Reformation doctrine includes the teaching that prophets can receive prophetic teachings from God which can augment biblical scripture - a teaching that Billy Graham prominently included as a characteristic of cults in one of his now-scrubbed Billy Graham Evangelistic Association website pages.  

One possible factor that may have inclined Billy Graham and Franklin Graham to weigh in so heavily against the reelection of President Barack Obama: immediately following his 2008 election as president, Obama is reported to have rebuffed Graham's overture to serve as spiritual "mentor" to the new president.

A 2012 survey sponsored by the liberal evangelical Sojourners organization, founded by pastor Jim Wallis, showed that only 29% of young evangelical Christians believed that "Christian leaders should endorse political candidates in elections".

Young Christians interviewed for the survey reported that "Same-sex marriage/Homosexuality" was the second most common theme they heard from the pulpit, closely trailing the issue of poverty - which is, by many magnitudes, a dramatically more prominent concern of biblical scripture as compared to biblical teaching on homosexuality.

*In 2010 Franklin Graham was dis-invited from a scheduled appearance at the Pentagon, because of his past statements attacking Islam.

This has been coming for a long time, and shows a continued trend away from religious affiliation to political affiliation where conservative Catholics, Evangelicals, and Mormons make common cause to protect the so-called values they want everyone to live by.

Even gays and atheists are welcome, as long as they don't stir up trouble, though I guess Muslims are still beyond the pale according to most conservative rabble rousers.

As the number of religious conservatives shrinks over the next 50 years (cf. new Pew Poll) then we're going to see more and more of this. Just because the UK no longer has a religious conservative constituency worth speaking of, that doesn't mean that the problems with "conservative values" have gone away, as the recent contentious battles over education and healthcare reforms have shown.

Secular conservatives, even when they don't fully agree with their religious counterparts, are often sympathetic to their causes (hence ideas like "teach the controversy" will likely never go away), and will proclaim that religious sensibilities are still what's best for society. The impact of this unholy alliance is more intensely felt here in the US than elsewhere because the evolution toward a progressive society remains incomplete.

by tacitus on Sat Oct 20, 2012 at 04:19:59 PM EST

By my calculation, fully 1/4 of the "nones" would be rightly classed as on the religious right, which has growing numbers of non-affiliated members.

by Bruce Wilson on Sun Oct 21, 2012 at 09:47:10 PM EST
not affiliated with a denomination? Sure, there are lots of "nondenominational" churches out there. Not affiliated with a congregation (house church cluster, etc)? I find it hard to conceive of a significant population considering themselves religious conservatives that don't want to affiliate with a congregation (as opposed to being between congregations, a common enough situation).

by NancyP on Mon Oct 22, 2012 at 02:30:49 PM EST
The Pew survey asked, "What is your present religion, if any? Are you Protestant, Roman Catholic, Mormon, Orthodox such as Greek or Russian Orthodox, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, atheist, agnostic, something else, or nothing in particular?"

But within the New Apostolic Reformation, such designations are routinely stigmatized -- C. Peter Wagner and other NAR leaders have written entire books castigating the "religious spirit", which they characterize as the spirit of denominational Christianity - depicted as obsessed with empty form, with ritual and protocol but which, they claim, has been drained of the spirit that moved in Jesus and the original apostles and enabled them to perform miracles.

So, many NAR followers do not present themselves as Protestant or even, for that matter, "Christian". They sometimes call themselves "followers of Jesus".

Think of how a such a movement could confound such surveys as Pew's - especially Pew's questions regarding affiliation.

Looking into the ~1/5 group that Pew designates at "non-affiliated", the "nones", it turns out that 30% are "absolutely certain" that God or a universal spirit exists - another 38% are "somewhat certain" that God exists.

21% pray daily and another 20% pray weekly or monthly. 14% say religion is "very important" in their lives, and another 19% say it's "somewhat" important. 18% think of themselves as a "religious person", while 37% consider themselves "spiritual but not religious". 49% profess to having had a religious or mystical experience in their lives.  

Even among the "nones", 5% attend religious services weekly or more often, and 22% attend them monthly or yearly. 10% of the "nones" are actively "looking for a religion that is right for them".  

24% think abortion should be illegal in all cases and 20% are opposed to same-sex marriage. 26% see themselves as "Republican/Republican leaning" and 20% consider themselves conservative. 23% of respondents voted Republican in 2008. A whopping 50% want fewer government services.

So, at least 20% of the "nones" would be, in my estimation, properly placed in the "religious right".

While 27% of the "nones" believe that the impact of religion on society is increasing, another 26% view the impact as decreasing and believe that's a bad thing. My guess is that the 20% of "nones" in the religious right would tend to be in the latter group.

So, while media and popular coverage of the Pew survey tended to claim it was clear evidence of declining religiosity, with some even misrepresenting the survey to the extent of claiming that the "nones" were simply "losing their religion", the real picture is quite different - the majority of the "nones" do indeed have religious or mystical beliefs, and a solid minority of them are solidly conservative.  

Indeed, about 20% of the "nones", about 4% of Americans overall, appear to be in the unaffiliated religious right.

by Bruce Wilson on Tue Oct 23, 2012 at 11:04:17 AM EST

I'd have to amend that "fully one quarter; it's more like 1/5 - still a very significant fraction of the "nones".

by Bruce Wilson on Tue Oct 23, 2012 at 11:06:10 AM EST

One of the things about dominionists is their desire to fly under the radar so to speak... to not be found out.  It didn't use to be that way nearly as much, but as people learned how evil and untrustworthy they are, they discovered they had to keep re-branding and re-inventing the face of their religion.  That has been extended.

I tried doing research on some dominionists who were involved in an organization I was involved with for a year or two.  In spite of the wealth and high status of the individual, their connections were well hidden, and usually had to come from statements from people that knew them... like saying that they came from an Assemblies-related (sometimes non-denominational "independent Baptist") church.  The higher in power they are in this society, the more the secrecy is enforced.

Even then, secrecy is a very old trait among dominionists.  33-30 years ago, we knew and were taught not to broadcast our intentions towards others... that we'd been taught that the only reason to be friends with "the world" (non-dominionists) was for conversion.  Period.  That extended to many different aspects of being a member of their cult.

When I hung out with the "College" students at their ersatz school, I was strictly charged to the point of almost a death threat to not reveal who was teaching their "ministry students" how to invade other churches, or even that they were being so trained.  I was also very strictly charged to not discuss some of the things that happened or being taught in that "School"...  and from what a walkaway ex-student has told me, it's gotten worse there.  They now try to hide their affiliation, and their theology and belief system states that denominations are evil, because if they aren't dominionist (Assemblies of God usually), they're in opposition to what they think is "Christianity" (their version of religion).

The last I heard, being "non-denominational" was official, even publicly admitted doctrine.  Not being associated even with a church is a natural extension of their policies.

It's just like their claim to be not a denomination.  Well, since they're a cult - or association of cults, they are right in a sense, but not in the way they mean.

So, in a sense, what is being reported does connect with what we know about them.

by ArchaeoBob on Tue Oct 23, 2012 at 11:12:30 AM EST

Think of how such a term might have been viewed in the great European religious wars that followed the Protestant Reformation and raged up to the Treaty of Westphalia.

I'm half convinced that the warring Catholics and Protestants would have put down their weapons and made provisional peace in order to join forces and crush the new, even more awful, heresy.

by Bruce Wilson on Tue Oct 23, 2012 at 11:40:45 AM EST

Thank for the great post/analysis. I agree there has been a move from religious affiliation to political affiliation where conservative Catholics, Evangelicals, and Mormons make common cause to protect the so-called values they want everyone to live by. This is not a good thing as politcs and religion dont mix. The values that we chose to up hold doesnt necessarily need to apply to everyone. I think people at the grass roots level of the church are pursuing their own interests. contact lenses

by JJ on Sat Dec 29, 2012 at 08:59:46 AM EST

Well, Wagner is a cult leader like Rev. Moon, so I guess he doesn't like the truth told about him and the organization he helped found.

When they teach people to harm people who aren't like them, that sounds like a cult.

When they try to micromanage the lives of everyone around them, including non-members, that sounds like a cult.

When they teach people how to harass and block other organizations they don't like, including other churches, that's mighty cult-like.

When they teach their "ministry students" how to invade other churches and try to take over... that's the actions of a cult.

When they redefine cult as "the Other" as they have, well, that's a pretty clear indication that they're a cult.

When they're willing to use arson and other forms of violence to silence critics, that's a warning sign - although in the past "Christian" cults do seem to be more suicidal than homicidal (e.g. Jim Jones).  I've been expecting this sort of change for many years - even long before I learned that it wasn't just the Assemblies of God and that there was a name for the general "movement" (dominionism).

A hallmark sign of being a cult is being very exclusive.  That is one of the most glaring of the characteristics of dominionism in general, and of the NAR in particular.  If you don't toe their line to within a millimeter (and being that far off is questionable), you're on the outside - and probably the Other.

I thought Jesus encouraged being inclusive (He did).

by ArchaeoBob on Sun Oct 21, 2012 at 11:18:28 AM EST

Rather, I'd assert that he has played a leading role in helping disparate cults and cultic groups and sub-movements to begin to cohere into a wider effort, which Wagner is trying to launch as a new global move of Christianity. If the effort becomes big enough, the coercive tactics you allude to may become less necessary, as the underlying ethic becomes normative - social pressure will displace open violence.

by Bruce Wilson on Sun Oct 21, 2012 at 09:55:54 PM EST
Having experienced the "social pressure" on top of the violence directed at an outsider, I don't see too much difference.  The social pressure is what is the most common form of coercion... trying to force people to submit.  That's what they've done to LGBT people on top of the overt violence.

The social pressure tends to limit your choices.

by ArchaeoBob on Mon Oct 22, 2012 at 11:31:29 AM EST

or even abuses, do not by themselves, add up to the definition of a cult, which is a term that is too often used as a term of disparagement.  There are some reasonable definitions from which to work. While it is always worth highlighting abuses where they occur, it is also worth being careful what terms we use.  

Many conservative Christian groups use the term as roughly synonymous with heresy, or dangerous religious competitor.  Psychologists tend to look at cults from the standpoint of coercive forms of persuasion, undue influence, and such. For our purposes, this kind of approach is most helpful because it allows us to distinguish between a sect and a cult, and note that not all cults are religious -- there are also business, political and psychotherapy cults.  Cults are defined far more by what they do, than what they believe.

TTA guest contributor Steve Hassan takes this approach, and he has a vast collection of relevant resources on his web site .

by Frederick Clarkson on Mon Oct 22, 2012 at 02:36:20 PM EST

"A hallmark sign of being a cult is being very exclusive. That is one of the most glaring of the characteristics of dominionism in general, and of the NAR in particular. If you don't toe their line to within a millimeter (and being that far off is questionable), you're on the outside - and probably the Other" Not the classic definition of cult... however, I believe that it might just be the best definition available today. Tragically, while we used to hone out theological skills, and argue about "revealed truths" today being on the inside or outside, is less about our Theology, and more about our politics. Wrong bumper sticker on the car and you are outside -- we wield our power to measure our control over others. Dominionists tend to be highly capitalistic - strong personal accountability (anti-social safety net) empire builders (military intervention/bases throughout the world) and most critically as a litmus test, the are passionately anti-abortion. I listen to good people, who speak about the world and know that to vote "wrong" would somehow place them outside the cults place of safety and welcome.

by chaplain on Tue Oct 23, 2012 at 09:17:40 AM EST
They preach and rant on accountability - you're responsible for what happens TO you according to all of the rants and preaching that I've heard (in the more conservative and steeplejacked churches too).   Yet as I've learned time and time again, they will deliberately set people up to take falls or to suffer while preaching the "You brought it on yourself" at them.  (A pretty nasty form of control and power IMO.)

That should raise all sorts of cognitive dissonance in them, but it doesn't seem to (at least, not until someone walks away).

What that DOES do is reinforce class distinctions and the status quo.  Big happy preacher, comfortable board members, and uncomfortable-to-miserable pew sitter.

by ArchaeoBob on Tue Oct 23, 2012 at 11:46:06 AM EST

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