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Eric Sapp

Eric Sapp

Posted: September 1, 2010 11:19 AM

We sure live in a religiously tolerant society. What liberal could have dreamed that this past weekend we'd see a Mormon stand on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and call on evangelical Christians to follow him in a religious revival? And in a scene that would make Unitarians the world over shout in joy, standing beside the Mormon Glenn Beck were conservative Christian icons like Palin and Bachmann and even Richard Land, the spokesman for the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). It was truly a remarkable day.

To put it all in perspective and show how far we've come, keep in mind that the SBC was a denomination that up until very recently -- right up until Mitt Romney ran for President, in fact -- categorized Mormons as a cult! But since then, Land has argued that rather than being a cult, Mormons are merely another religion, "in the same sense that [Land] would look upon Islam as another faith." Thank goodness! Cults are scary...but Muslims, well I'm sure we all have friends who are Muslim.

Nevertheless, after all of the recent hoopla over the mosque in NYC and all the religion baiting by Fox that has followed Obama, it's heartwarming that Americans (and conservatives no less!) would be able to so quickly move past their prejudices.

It's almost Norman Rockwellesque isn't it? After all, in what country but America could one hope to see the SBC spokesman, Sarah Palin, and Michelle Bachmann putting aside their stogy "theological orthodoxy" and answering the call to follow someone from a faith they liken to Islam on a religious revival? Who knows, perhaps at this rate we might even hope one day to see a gay man chair the RNC! But I probably shouldn't muddy the religious waters of the Beck rally by bringing partisan politics into this conversation...

So as I was saying, as further proof of the full acceptance Glenn Beck has received from these conservative evangelical leaders, he saw no irony and did not even hesitate -- as a Mormon--in criticizing President Obama's Christian beliefs this past Sunday as "a perversion of the gospel of Jesus Christ as most Christians know it." Now that's progress.

Sadly though, beneath that theologically-tolerant surface, all is not well. Despite the best efforts of the SBC's more political (and clearly progressive) arm to smooth over differences by talking about Mormons as a separate religion instead of a cult, their domestic mission board still calls Mormons a cult. Michelle Bachmann's Wisconsin Lutheran Synod goes even further saying that "beneath the clean-cut, all-American exterior of Mormonism lies a Satanic set of doctrines."

And while Richard Land argued that Beck used the Bible well and in a way that reminded him of Billy Graham, the SBC's website warns parishioners that "cults and sects may misuse the Bible, often quoting verses out of context or using symbolic meanings...remember, cults and sects often redefine standard Christian or biblical terms to accommodate their preconceived doctrines." Clearly that is not the case with Beck, but there are many out there (one of the more articulate arguments comes from a professor at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) who are not as theologically open-minded as Palin and Land and argue that is exactly what Beck is doing.

Land also talked himself into a bit of a corner by explaining to reporters that a cult is a belief system that "does not comply with the essential teachings of the Christian faith but claims to be within the Christian faith or to be the true expression of the Christian faith, as opposed to being another religion." Since the Mormons do, in fact, claim not only to be within the Christian faith but, in point of fact, the true expression of that faith correcting the mistaken beliefs of all Christian churches and denominations who had come before, Land, Palin, and others definitely will have their work cut out for them.

But liberals, Unitarians, and progressives who will embrace this new openness and willingness to overlook theological orthodoxy by certain conservative Christian leaders should not lose heart. It may be a difficult path ahead. But Land, Palin, and other political leaders who are asking evangelicals to follow Beck as he seeks to restore his brand of Christianity to this country have huge membership lists...and we know Fox News will be fully behind them. So fear not, too much is at stake for mere theology and decades of church teaching to get in the way of Beck's vision for what this country might be.