Billy Graham just threw Mitt Romney a bone and officially removed Mormonism from the Cult List on his website, just in time for the election. Scientology and Jehovah’s Witnesses are still on the list.
As its most famous reverend and head of the highly influential Evangelical Association, Billy Graham has served as the face of the Evangelical movement. George Bush helped launch him past mainstream popularity to political power when he credited Graham with rescuing his soul from alcohol and drugs. Graham featured prominently in Bush’s 2000 campaign, and over the next eight years the Republican party’s values melded with Evangelical values.
Which presented Romney with his biggest challenge in securing the Republican nomination. He wasn’t one of the party establishment on religious grounds. He was to the twenty-first century what Kennedy was to 1963, when being a Catholic was being a religious outsider to mainstream Protestantism.
That he was able to secure the nomination with his religion listed as a cult on the website for Graham’s Evangelical Association probably speaks more to the dearth of strong candidates in this year’s primary field than it does a mass movement toward religious tolerance. Rick Perry just wasn’t a viable contender, no matter how well-liked his religious worldview.
But here we are three weeks before the election, and Mormonism has officially been removed from the Cult List kept by Evangelicals. Though Romney’s campaign hasn’t exactly been a plea for tolerance and support for all people, one unintended consequence of his run has been to de-stigmatize one more religious belief set.
And why not? As many people have pointed out, when you get down to it what’s the difference between Mormonism and Scientology, with their beliefs in extra-planetary theology, and mainstream Christianity, with its belief in virgin births and resurrections? Or Buddhism, for that matter, with its belief in reincarnation? Can you really say that one is objectively nuttier or less credible than the other?
A judge in Florida recently ruled that a schizophrenic man could be sentenced to death because his belief that he was acting according to God’s will and would be resurrected at Jesus’ right hand after death is basically the same view held by mainstream Christians. He’s got a point.
Granted, the notion that all religious beliefs are equally unfounded and a matter of simple personal preference is probably not the logic that compelled Graham to remove Mormonism from the Cult List. But sometimes it takes ascendency in power to broaden the scope of our tolerance, and not the other way around. Accidental or not, this has been one area in which Romney’s campaign represents a net gain in progress.