A thoughtful documentary explores the rift between mainstream Christianity and Mormonism
[Originally posted on March 2, 2008 at AmericanFreethought.com.]
Article VI of the Constitution states, in part, “…no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.” It is generally agreed that this means no law or regulation may be implemented that would bar public servants on the basis of their faith – but it does leave individuals and private entities (like political parties) with the ability to discriminate on theological grounds.
John F. Kennedy famously defended himself against anti-Catholicism (both real and perceived) in his 1960 speech to the Greater Houston Ministerial Alliance – a tough room if ever there was one. Kennedy sought to allay concerns that a Catholic president would take marching orders from the Vatican, and while it’s true that there were plenty of people motivated either by pure bigotry or a desire to exploit JFK’s faith for political ends, it was not outrageous for rational citizens to be concerned. Catholicism is an authoritarian religion, its humanitarian ethics locked in place by millennia of doctrinal barnacles, and headed by a pontiff presumed to be infallible in some cases, and who has the power to condemn wayward souls to hell. (What, me worry?)
As everyone knows, Kennedy did win the election, but no other Catholic – indeed, no other non-Protestant – has ever been elected to the presidency. With the rise of the Religious Right, faith has become an open and perennial concern for both politicians and voters. And no Republican has felt this concern more acutely that Mitt Romney, whose Mormonism and moderate political résumé confounded the fundamentalist wing of his party, and was a key factor in his loss of the Republican nomination for president.
Once Romney dropped out, it would seem that any documentary film about Evangelicals-vs-Mormons would have a very short shelf-life. Released on January 15, 2008, Article VI: Faith * Politics * America seeks to defy its shelf-life, exploring the uneasy history of faith and politics in the U.S. and asking the question: “Can a Mormon get elected as president?”
Apparently, the answer is “No” for the time being; still, Article VI has some very interesting things to say that aren’t dependent on who’s on the ballot. The documentary is written and directed by Bryan Hall and Jack Donaldson, although Hall gets all the screen-time as narrator and interviewer. Hall, a bespectacled Gen-Xer, is himself a Mormon with a wife and young kids; nonetheless, he offers a balanced and thoughtful look at the hurdles non-Protestants – including non-Christians – must jump in order to achieve political acceptance in 21st century America.
Hall talks to an impressive array of punditry, including conservative talk show host Hugh Hewitt; Richard Land, President of the Ethics & Liberty Commission for the Southern Baptist Convention; Pastor Robert Jeffress, the lispy Baptist whose stemwinding sermons emphatically declare that Mitt Romney is not a Christian (and who sounds like a contestant on podcaster George Hrab’s “Gay or Southern?” game show spoof); Ruben Israel, a blue-collar worker who saves his hard-earned money to fund a street-preaching and Mormon-protesting hobby; and Rajan Zed, the Hindu priest whose prayer opening a session of the Senate was interrupted by protestors. Hall even talks to Ante Pavkovic, the Christian who led that protest. (Which raises an unanswered question: Why on earth are we still having organized prayer on the floor of the Senate to begin with?)
Hall spends half an hour summarizing the controversy before diving into what he perceives as the problem: that mainstream Christians are not only suspicious of Mormons, but many of them even deny that the Latter-Day Saints are Christians at all. Several pundits variously describe Mormonism as “a cult,” “a lie from the pit of hell,” and so forth. They take swipes at Hindus, atheists, and other non-Protestant faiths while they’re at it, so they can’t exactly be accused of picking on Romney.
What Hall doesn’t do is drill down to what the fuss is all about: What exactly do Mormons believe? How does it compare to the beliefs of mainstream Christians? And how might it influence national policy decisions should one of its adherents achieve the highest office in the land? The reason he doesn’t do this might not be obvious, but what it boils down to is that any detailed explication of Mormonism would expose it for the kooky sect that it really is; only slightly less kooky that Catholicism or any flavor of Protestantism, but not nearly as troublesome as, say, the implications of a Muslim gaining control of the Oval Office. Instead, Hall tap-dances around the issue as if Mormonism were no different than Baptism, Methodism or Lutheranism.
Hall concludes that one way to alleviate concerns, not just about the religious beliefs of political candidates, but the religious beliefs of our friends and neighbors, is to sit down, listen patiently to what the other person believes, and just get along. It’s a great sentiment – live and let live and let God sort it out in the afterlife. It’s true that if one were to know one’s neighbor, know his wife’s name and those of his children, sit down for a meal he’s cooked with his own hands, and just have a chat, it would likely be tougher to voice aloud the opinion that he’s going to hell in a handcart.
Still, from a rationalist, skeptical point of view, it looks like a nutty internecine conflict amongst factions that believe in competing fairytale versions of unreality. Mormonism doesn’t sound much crazier than any other religion – all believers share a partial disconnect from reality, or at the very least a dose of cognitive dissonance. From an atheist viewpoint, it hardly matters who has his finger on the Button: an Evangelical who believes Jesus Christ is returning in this lifetime, or a Mormon who thinks an enterprising 19th-century treasure-hunter had a hardcopy document exchange with the angel Gabriel.
In the end, Article VI does encourage us to reach out to one another in a spirit of tolerance and understanding. And Mormon Hall puts his money where his mouth is, sharing meals with anti-Mormon Ruben Israel and his cohorts. Perhaps the exchange will serve to humanize Mormons in the eyes of (other?) Christians, but it’s going to take a whole lot of people reaching out to a whole lot of other people to make this thing work.