So, the latest hubbub to come from the trainwreck that is otherwise called the Republican Primary Process for the 2012 opponent to Barack Obama.... is Rick Perry's introduction speech by megachurch pastor (and so far, self aggrandizing) and supporter Robert Jeffress. He hit all the shows he could, including Chris Matthews. Some media is jumping all over the pastor because of southern evangalicals' religious litmus test, but here's the thing; Jeffress is absolutely right about Mormonism Not Being Part of Christendom.
Is he wrong about using religion in an Us vs. Them manner? Absolutely.
Is he wrong about calling the Church of Latter Day Saints a cult? That's semantics and for you to decide.
Is the media wrong to lump LDS members in with Christianity? Absolutely.
More after the fold, and if you've forgotten Christian theology, here's a primer.
For the sake of posterity, remember that I am a member of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod (LCMS). I went to an LCMS K-8 parochial school, served in my church as I went to a public high school, attended an LCMS university and participated in an LCMS church when I got my MA in Communication Studies from a midwestern secular university (I am currently at a different institution for my PhD). So my worldview, is heavily influenced by the LCMS, which is about as close theologically to the original Reformation as any Protestant denomination operating in the United States (hint- our hierarchy of theological authority is Jesus Christ first [New Testament], then Martin Luther, then the Apostles, etc.)
So what do Christians believe? The Apostolic Creed and the Nicene Creed are the benchmarks of Christianity. These creeds were crafted in the Third and Fourth centuries of the Common Era, and contain the central tenets of universal Christian Church (the big umbrella, in which Catholicism, Lutheranism, Baptists, the Coptic Church, Armenianism, etc., are all part of). One of these central tenets is the doctrine of the Triune God (which defines Christanity as Monotheism v.2, and heir of Judaism). The Triune God concept is the mental acrobatic maneuver required to make sense of God the Father, God the Holy Spirit and God the Son (Jesus) as also being The Everliving Godhead (ie, all three are also the same person). For a rationalist, this may not make sense, but hey, it's faith.
What do Mormons believe? They believe that there is no Triune God- instead, that there are Three Separate Gods called the Father, the Spirit and the Son. So, they are not part of Monotheism, but rather, Polytheism. One of the central concepts of Mormonism is that a good Mormon can also become a God equal to Jesus Christ, and have their own world to rule (very sci-fi).
Another tenet of Christianity is that Jesus was incarnated (pre-existing) and was born to the Virgin Mary. As part of this, God did not rape Mary, or have sexual relations (such as Zeus with his myriad of female victims). Thus, Mary was both Mother of Jesus and Virgin when he was born (Mary did not remain a virgin, as Jesus had younger brothers, fathered by Joseph, Mary's husband- Catholics assert Mary remained a virgin her entire life, which is sort of silly, since the New Testament talks about Jesus' younger brothers and sisters- see Mark 6:3 and Matthew 13:55-56). The virgin birth is part of the fulfillment of prophecy from the Old Testament (Isaiah 7:14).
What do Mormons believe? They believe that The Father had sexual relations with Mary (thus, not a true virgin birth).
Original Sin: Christendom subscribes to the doctrine of Original Sin. This is the view that the original transgressions of humanity are passed down, and no human being is born innocent. We are stained by our progenitors sin, and only Jesus Christ's death and resurrection can meet the Law's demand (a central tenet of grace). It is due to the virgin birth of Jesus, that he was born perfect, and thus, able to fulfill the requirements of the Old Testament Law (and being part of God, who defines sin, lived a life of 33 years on earth without sinning, despite temptation).' Jesus himself says "I am the way, the truth and the light. No one can go to the Father except through me." (John 14:6) This is called Grace.
What do Mormons believe? They deny the concept of original sin, and can only sin after the arbitrary age of accountability, 8 years of age. Thus, someone could become like Jesus, and die blameless, and thus, Jesus is not the only path to salvation.
But here's the big one; Christians do not accept additional writings after the Bible (a collection of religious writings, with estimates of publication at 2.5 to 6 billion copies in the history of the world) of which, there are no changes to the collection after the Ecumenical Council of Trent in 1545-63 (39 books of the Old Testament, and 27 books in the New Testament). All of these writings are traced in origin to writers in the First Century Common Era and prior. This is part of "scriptura sola" or "Scripture Alone." No additions allowed; all theological issues are resolved based solely on Scripture (most books were recognized at the Councils of Nicea, while those that did not make the grade were cast into the category of Apocrypha).
What do Mormons believe? They add to the Bible- their central figure is Joseph Smith, whose story is accurately portrayed in South Park.
But are Mormons part of a cult? The answer is of course, "it depends."
It is true that the fastest growing religion in the United States was Mormonism- they preyed on Christians who simply did not know enough about their own religion. This was low hanging fruit, and part of the Mormon mission groups (the guys in suits going door to door in pairs). The number of Mormon convert baptisms has decelerated since the 1990s as proof of this concept. I have met with Mormons on my porch trying to lure me away from my church to their beliefs; they used such phrases as "If you believe in the bible, why not this?" and held up the Mormon Bible version 2. It had interesting illustrations, but when they figured out I knew my theology, they gave up, and despite promising to return the next week, they never showed up again.
Here's the thing; Mormons are not part of the Universal Christian Church. They masquerade as Christians, but they are not. There are other such groups that claim Christianity, but the actual Christian community rejects them as well; this list includes Christian Science, Jehovah's Witnesses, Unification Church (the Moonies), and other poseurs. If you ever have any trouble figuring out if a denomination belongs to Christainity, all you have to do is use this central rule of thumb; Does this group ascribe to either the Apostolic Creed or Nicene Creed?
If the answer is no to either or both (some Eastern Churches accept the Nicene, but not the Apostolic), then they are not part of Christendom.
In sum, Christianity has 4 central unifying tenets; the Triune God, the Deity of Christ, Holy Scripture (no additions) and Salvation as a free gift through Christ's sacrifice and resurrection.
It seems as though most media personalities, when reacting to the pastor who is a surrogate for Rick Perry's attack on Mitt Romney's mormonism, do not actually know this.
Again, is it wrong to use religion as a litmus test for public office? Of course it is! Whether someone is a Christian, a Jew, a Hindi, a Mormon, a Muslim or an Atheist (and yes, atheism has all the tenets of a belief system, most notably, scientism, where proponents anthropomorphize science the same as any other deity such as "Science says __ about subject __") it should not matter how well they will perform in office.
However, don't make the same mistake many media heads (Ed, Chris, Lawrence) on the left are making; do not conflate Mormonism with Christianity. If you do, you probably do not know enough about either to tell the difference.
UPDATE: Bill Maher, noted Atheist and American Provocateur, pushed back against the media meme on Rachel's show last night, and his insights into American tolerance towards Mormons is useful.