When one of Texas Gov. Rick Perry's supporters publicly denounced the faith of Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman as a non-Christian cult, he was just the latest in a long line of people who have damned Mormonism.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has struggled for acceptance ever since its founder, Joseph Smith, said in the 19th century that God told him to restore the true Christian church by revising parts of the Bible and adding the Book of Mormon as a sacred text.
Many conservative Christians, both Protestant and Roman Catholic, feel they have a religious obligation to point out any teaching they believe would lead others astray and risk their salvation. While this theological debate has often been far from polite, the attacks have sharpened as the LDS church has gained in size and prominence. The church now says it has grown by about 1 million people every three years since the 1970s and now has than 14 million members.
"It's no accident that this comes at a time when two of the candidates for president are Mormon," said Richard Mouw, president of Fuller Theological Seminary in California, who is part of a group of evangelical and Mormon scholars who have been meeting to discuss theology since 1994. "People who seem to have a vested interest in ensuring that others see Mormonism as a cult see this as an opportunity to make their case and stir up anti-Mormon sentiment."
The issue flared last Friday at the Values Voter Summit, a conservative forum in Washington. The Rev. Robert Jeffress, pastor of First Baptist Dallas, introduced Texas Gov. Rick Perry and then told reporters that Romney was "not a Christian" and Mormonism is a "cult." From his pulpit Sunday, Jeffress stood by his remarks.
"Part of a pastor's job is to warn his people and others about false religions," said Jeffress, who has personally endorsed Perry in the Republican presidential race. "Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism and Mormonism are all false religions."
Worshippers in the sanctuary applauded.
Romney did not directly respond to Jeffress but denounced "poisonous language" about faith. Huntsman, interviewed on CNN on Monday, described Jeffress as a "moron." Perry said he does not consider the LDS church a cult.
A spokesman for the church in Salt Lake City directed reporters Monday to the church website Mormon.org, where leaders posted extensive information about their beliefs in anticipation of a backlash. When Romney first ran for the presidential nomination in 2008, the church was besieged by critics; Romney felt compelled to give a major speech about his faith in which he promised that no church authorities would influence his decision-making.
From the beginning, Mormons have seen themselves as Christians — but Christians who are different.
Smith became Mormonism's founding prophet during the religious revivals of the Second Great Awakening. Smith said he had experienced visions during the late 1820s in which he was told not to join any church because they all held wrong beliefs. An angel then directed him to gold plates that had been buried in the ground in upstate New York, which Smith then translated as the Book of Mormon.
Like traditional Christians, Mormons consider the Bible sacred and view Jesus as savior. However, Mormons do not share the concept of a unified Trinity that is part of historical Christianity. They believe that God has called new apostles and prophets and that revelation continues as it did in ancient times, which does not conform to mainstream Christianity. The LDS church also teaches that God has a physical body and that human beings can eventually become like God.
But for conservative Protestants, the Bible alone is the authoritative word of God and the innovations of Mormon teaching are heresy. They do not recognize baptisms by the Mormon church and decry the secrecy surrounding some of its sacraments. Only church members in good standing can enter Mormon temples, where families are sealed, or united, so their relationships can continue in the afterlife.
Evangelicals engaged in dialogue do not expect to reconcile these different views, but hope to find beliefs that they all accept.
Mouw said he has seen a growing emphasis by Mormon scholars on beliefs they share with evangelicals, such as salvation through Christ alone and a focus on atonement and the Cross. He said prominent evangelical church leaders have been meeting with Mormon leaders in recent years "at fairly high levels."
Mormon leaders have complained that critics take obscure or outdated teachings and describe them as core doctrine. The church cast aside the teaching of polygamy in 1890, and in 1978, abolished the barrier that kept those of African descent from full participation in the church. Last week, even before Jeffress' remarks, Michael Gerson, an evangelical and former speechwriter for President George W. Bush, called conservative Christian criticism of the LDS church "unhinged" in an op-ed in The Washington Post.
Richard Bushman, an emeritus professor at Columbia University, who is a leading historian and is Mormon, said he was encouraged to see that many non-Mormons have condemned Jeffress' comments.
"To my way of thinking, that means that what I would call the tolerant majority thinks this language is really out of bounds," Bushman said.