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Columnist contrasts Elder Russell M. Nelson and Rev. Robert Jeffress

Published: Thursday, July 30 2015 1:03 a.m. MDT

Elder Russell M. Nelson of the Quorum of the Twelve speaks during the 181st General Conference on Saturday afternoon. A columnist for the St. Petersburg Times recently contrasted Elder Nelson and Rev. Robert Jeffress.  () Elder Russell M. Nelson of the Quorum of the Twelve speaks during the 181st General Conference on Saturday afternoon. A columnist for the St. Petersburg Times recently contrasted Elder Nelson and Rev. Robert Jeffress. ()

The Rev. Robert Jeffress of Dallas is taking some national heat for his comments last weekend about presidential candidate Mitt Romney and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, referring to the LDS Church as a "cult."

One columnist even went so far as to compare the Christian influence of Rev. Jeffress with Elder Russell M. Nelson of the LDS Church's Quorum of the Twelve Apostles — and found Rev. Jeffress to be lacking.

Daniel Ruth, a columnist for the St. Petersburg Times, had a lot to say about Rev. Jeffress, referring to him alternately as "the Torquemada of Texas (a reference to Tomás de Torquemada, an infamous leader of the Spanish Inquisition)," "the Simon Legree of Leviticus," a "scriptural snake oil salesman" and a "biblical bully."

"The issue of Romney's Mormonism has been burbling at or near the surface of the political discourse this election season," Ruth wrote. "And just as churlish quips made about Barack Obama's work as a 'community organizer' served as a stand-in fear mongering euphemism for helping black people empower themselves, so too have allegations that Romney wasn't 'conservative' enough provided cover to make the point he actually wasn't Christian enough."

For Ruth, the Christianity of Mormonism was illustrated by a recent visit by Elder Nelson to his newspaper's editorial board.

"At 87, he was lean, fit, mentally sharp and about to embark on a multi-nation tour on behalf of the church," Ruth said. "There were no horns. No signs of Beelzebub. No harems. This was just a thoughtful, spiritual man."

Ruth said Elder Nelson "readily acknowledged the church's image problems. His solution? Simply live a moral, decent life. Be a responsible member of the community. And by living a virtuous life, you set an example for others to recognize Mormonism is not a threat to anyone — except perhaps Starbucks."

Although he says he is not a religious man, Ruth posed a question: "What if I suddenly faced some personal crisis and I wanted to talk to someone for spiritual insight, guidance or consolation? Whom would I be more comfortable with? Would it be the bloviating little God-baiting parson in Dallas who is so quick to condemn, to judge, to exploit the worst ignorant fears in people? Or would it be the octogenarian gentle man, who may hold dogmatic beliefs I don't subscribe to, but nevertheless yearns to simply lead a meaningful life?

"I think," Ruth concludes, "I would be on the next plane to Salt Lake City."

Rev. Jeffress was also taken to task by Dean Obeidallah, a stand-up comic who happened to be in Salt Lake City last weekend performing with the "The Muslims Are Coming!" comedy tour when the "cult" accusation story broke.

"There we were – Muslims and Mormons – bonding on some level because we were both the subject of attacks from people on the far right," Obeidallah wrote today on CNN.com "Earlier in this presidential campaign it was our time, with Herman Cain essentially arguing for discrimination against American Muslims because of our faith. Now the voices of hate had turned their focus to Mormons."

Obeidallah said he doesn't claim to be an expert on Mormonism after spending four days in Utah. "But I can now say without hesitation that the LDS Church members we met represented the best of Christianity," he wrote. "The were truly caring and compassionate people."

The comic tells of some of his experiences in Utah, and concludes with a passage of scripture from the New Testament that he says is "often cited as one that articulates Jesus' philosophy: 'A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another' (John 13: 34-35)."

"In comparing the hate-filled language of Jeffress with the words and good deeds of the Mormons we met, " Obeidallah writes, "it is clear to me who is best following the teachings of Jesus Christ and truly deserves to be called a Christian."

Rev. Jeffress wasn't spared criticism in Dallas, where his 10,000-member First Baptist Church is located. Editorial writers for the Dallas Morning News on Tuesday offered the opinion that "Dallas pastor Robert Jeffress has a right to his opinions, but whether from the pulpit or before a national audience making a presidential endorsement, there's no place for the kinds of low blows he struck against former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney."No one expects a Baptist minister to embrace the tenets of another religion," the Morning News editorial continued. "In the realm of national politics, though, the values of civility and religious tolerance must hold sway. On this point, we have to agree with Romney: 'Poisonous language doesn't advance our cause. It's never softened a single heart or changed a single mind.' Jeffress certainly feels duty-bound to stand firm on his beliefs. It's his public delivery that badly needs polishing."

Even the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights has chosen to weigh in on the subject of Rev. Robert Jeffress. In a brief story on the organization's website, last weekend's events were retold, including Rev. Jeffress' "derisive" comments about not only the LDS Church, but also subsequent statements in which he referred to Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism as "false religions."

"Last year," the website notes, "Rev. Jeffress said the Roman Catholic Church was the outgrowth of a 'corruption' called the 'Babylonian mystery.' He continued, 'Much of what you see in the Catholic Church today doesn't come from God's word. It comes from that cult-like pagan religion. Isn't that the genius of Satan?'"

"Where did they find this guy?" Catholic League president Bill Donohue asks. "When theological differences are demonized by the faithful of any religion – never mind by a clergyman – it makes a mockery of their own religion. Rev. Jeffress is a poster boy for hatred, not Christianity."

EMAIL: jwalker@desnews.com

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