Raleigh, N.C. — Did the Rev. Billy Graham meet with a and praise someone he might describe as a "cult" leader last week?
The Protestant pastor and spiritual adviser to several presidents, met with Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney on Thursday. Following the meeting, Graham issued the following statement:
"It was an honor to meet and host Gov. Romney in my home today, especially since I knew his late father former Michigan Gov. George Romney, whom I considered a friend. I have followed Mitt Romney's career in business, the Olympic Games, as governor of Massachusetts and, of course, as a candidate for president of the United States.
"What impresses me even more than Gov. Romney's successful career are his values and strong moral convictions. I appreciate his faithful commitment to his impressive family, particularly his wife Ann of 43 years and his five married sons.
"It was a privilege to pray with Gov. Romney—for his family and our country. I will turn 94 the day after the upcoming election, and I believe America is at a crossroads. I hope millions of Americans will join me in praying for our nation and to vote for candidates who will support the biblical definition of marriage, protect the sanctity of life and defend our religious freedoms."
According to the L.A. Times, Graham met with President Barack Obama in April but didn't issue a similar statement.
According to Melany Ethridge, who along with A. Larry Ross serves as a spokesman for Graham, the pastor's statement was not an endorsement.
"No, I don't think one can make that assumption," she said, reading from an answer that had been given to other reporters last week. Graham had known Romney's father and had asked his son to extend an invitation to meet should the candidate ever be in the area, Ethridge related.
"It was more of an offer of spiritual support than a campaign endorsement," Ethridge said.
Graham's support, whether explicit or not, would be meaningful in the South, where he is a revered figure. That support is all the more meaningful given that many southern evangelicals are skeptical of the Mormon faith, of which Romney is a prominent member. He is one of thousands of LDS Church members who at one point held the title of "bishop."
In fact, as the Asheville Citizen-Times noted this morning, the Billy Graham Evangelical Association once expressed that skepticism. In a article that has since been removed from the group's website but appears to have been first posted in 2010, the association offered the Mormon faith as an example of a cult:
A cult is any group which teaches doctrines or beliefs that deviate from the biblical message of the Christian faith. It is very important that we recognize cults and avoid any involvement with them. Cults often teach some Christian truth mixed with error, which may be difficult to detect.
Some of these groups are Jehovah's Witnesses, Mormons, the Unification Church, Unitarians, Spiritists, Scientologists, and others.
In a separate posting, the association still broadly defines a cult as, "The basic mark of any cult, however, is that it rejects the divinity of Jesus. The Bible teaches that Jesus Christ was God in human flesh—that He alone was both fully man and fully God. Cults, however, deny this, and often confuse people who aren't familiar with the Bible by twisting its meaning."
Asked why the association removed the piece defining the Mormon faith as a cult, Ethridge said she and Ross did not speak for the association, but only Mr. Graham personally. Asked if Mr. Graham personally believed the Mormon faith to be a cult, Ethridge said that Ross would have to speak to that and return the phone call later.
A phone call and e-mail submitted to a spokesman at the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association Monday afternoon were not immediately returned.
Update: The association e-mailed this reply on behalf of Ken Barun, chief of staff for the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association:
“Our primary focus at the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association has always been promoting the Gospel of Jesus Christ. We removed the information from the website because we do not wish to participate in a theological debate about something that has become politicized during this campaign.”