AP Photo
In this June 13, 2011 file photo, Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney answers a question during the first New Hampshire Republican presidential debate in Manchester, N.H.

A prominent evangelical Christian leader took a strong public position Sunday in opposition to fellow evangelicals who recently have attacked Mitt Romney for his membership in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which they called a "cult" and "non-Christian."

Writing on CNN's Belief Blog, Richard J. Mouw, president of the Fuller Theological Seminary, an evangelical school in Pasadena, Calif., says he "begs to differ" with those who say that "to cast a vote for (Romney) is to promote the cause of a cult."

For 12 years, Mouw and BYU Professor Robert Millet have co-chaired a private dialogue of about 25 evangelicals and Mormons, exploring a variety of "key theological issues" between the two groups.

"We evangelicals and our Mormon counterparts disagree about some important theological questions," Mouw continued. "But we have also found that on some matters we are not as far apart as we thought we were."

Mouw has studied cults and taught about them. He said their hallmarks include a distaste for engaging in "serious, respectful give-and-take dialogue with people with whom they disagree." They also do not promote scholarship.

"But Brigham Young University is a world-class educational institution, with professors who've earned doctorates from some of the best universities in the world," Mouw continued. "Several of the top leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have PhDs from Ivy League schools. These folks talk admiringly of the evangelical Billy Graham and the Catholic Mother Teresa, and they enjoy reading the evangelical C.S. Lewis and Father Henri Nouwen, a Catholic. That is not the kind of thing you run into in anti-Christian cults."

The question of whether or not Latter-day Saints are Christian is, according to Mouw, "a complicated question."

"My Mormon friends and I disagree on enough subjects that I am not prepared to say that their theology falls within the scope of historic Christian teaching," Mouw wrote.

"While I am not prepared to reclassify Mormonism as possessing undeniably Christian theology," he continued, "I do accept many of my Mormon friends as genuine followers of the Jesus whom I worship as the divine Savior."

If the name of Richard Mouw sounds familiar, it is because he has broken ranks with other evangelical Christians before with regards to the LDS Church. In 2004 he participated in "An Evening of Friendship" at the church's Salt Lake Tabernacle. The meeting was attended by a capacity crowd of evangelicals and Latter-day Saints and featured a powerful sermon on the divinity of Jesus Christ by internationally acclaimed Christian philosopher Ravi Zacharias. But many of those who attended remember most Mouw's observation that "friendship has not come easily between (evangelical Christians and Latter-day Saints)" and his candid apology for evangelicals who "have often misrepresented the faith and beliefs of the Latter-day Saints."

"Let me state it clearly," he said. "We evangelicals have sinned against you."

He noted that both camps have tended to marginalize and simplify each others' beliefs.

There are other evangelicals who support Mitt Romney, such as those behind the website EvangelicalsForMitt.org.

Baptist pastor Robert Jeffress said Friday at the Values Voter Summit that the LDS Church is a cult and that evangelicals only have one option in the race for the Republican presidential nomination — Texas Gov. Rick Perry. Perry distanced himself from Jeffress and the comments.

On Saturday, also at the voter summit, Bryan Fischer of the American Family Association said, "We need a president who believes in the same creator that the Founders believed in." Fischer had previously said he didn't believe Romney was a Christian.

Romney spoke directly before Fischer and referred to him vaguely as he talked about civility.

"One of the speakers who will follow me today has crossed that line, I think," Romney said. "Poisonous language doesn't advance our cause. It's never softened a single heart nor changed a single mind. The blessings of faith carry the responsibility of civil and respectful debate. The task before us is to focus on the conservative beliefs and the values that unite us — let no agenda narrow our vision or drive us apart."

Mouw has a reputation for preaching Christian civility in public discourse. He has even written a book on the subject: "Uncommon Decency: Christian Civility in an Uncivil World." He speaks with conviction of the need for dialogue and discussion as opposed to rhetoric and name-calling.

"Those of us who have made the effort to engage Mormons in friendly and sustained give-and-take conversations have come to see them as good citizens whose life of faith often exhibits qualities that are worthy of the Christian label, even as we continue to engage in friendly arguments with them about crucial theological issues," Mouw concluded. "Mitt Romney deserves what every politician running for office deserves: a careful examination of his views on policy and his philosophy of government. But he does not deserve to be labeled a cultist."

EMAIL: jwalker@desnews.com