A new controversial documentary suggests Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman will have to defend more than their politics as they seek the White House — the former governors will have to answer for their Mormon faith.
Released Aug. 23, “A Mormon President” questions whether America is ready for a leader who worships with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. And although director Adam Christing said his goal was to leave the question open-ended, an early video preview of the film suggests an answer in the negative.
“We’re at a place in American history where we’ve elected a black president, but we don’t seem to be in a place where someone’s religion is irrelevant,” Christing, who grew up Mormon but now attends a Protestant church, told Roll Call. “It seems like people would sooner vote for a black female Jewish candidate than a Mormon. I wanted to explore that.”
Created with a $300,000 budget, the documentary includes interviews with Mormons, Mormon critics and historians. It has been criticized both by Mormons who say the movie is anti-Mormon and other groups who charge the movie actually is pro-Mormon.
Christing said he hoped to strike a balanced look at the founding of the LDS church, a middle ground between what he called “puff pieces” published by the LDS church and “attack films” disseminated by some evangelical Christians who don’t recognize Mormons as Christians.
The film focuses on the life of the much-debated founder of the Mormon church, Joseph Smith, who declared a presidential bid in late 1843 before he was murdered by an anti-Mormon mob. How is Smith relevant to today’s presidential bid?
“The past can shed a lot of light on things,” Christing said. Although he acknowledges that “Romney is not Joseph Smith,” the documentary seems to suggest a connection.
“Mormonism places an undue point of leverage upon their people to be absolutely tethered to the priesthood, and if the Mormon priesthood tells a person in public office something, they have to do it,” Rocky Hulse, who works at an organization that seeks to convert Mormons to other types of Christianity, says in the film. “And if they don’t, their eternity is at stake.”
Sound familiar? That’s a similar argument opponents used against electing the Catholic President John F. Kennedy. The pope, they said, would ultimately rule the country because Kennedy would be subservient to his orders. Mormons in Congress have not faced the same scrutiny — consider, for example, the different ways in which Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and conservative Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) approach legislation. They are both Mormons, but their political positions couldn’t be further apart.
What’s more, a July Pew Research Center study found that 68 percent of Americans said a candidate’s Mormon beliefs wouldn’t influence their votes.
But Christing said the question is legitimate: “You took the oath of consecration to the [LDS] church, and if the Constitution were to put you in a position that might go against your faith, how would you handle that?”
The film also explores the most contentious aspects of Mormonism and says little about teachings Americans might applaud. It might leave anti-Mormon viewers feeling justified in their prejudices and curious theology lovers feeling starved of a holistic view of Mormonism.
The film portrays Smith — who was a mayor, general and, according to LDS believers, a prophet — as someone with extraordinary visions for his church and America. He hoped to create within the United States an official LDS country, a pseudo-“theodemocracy,” as Christing called it. Smith eventually crowned himself the “King of Israel on Earth,” which he said was God’s will.
The documentary also highlights Smith’s most controversial teachings including a revelation (since rejected by most Mormon sects) that men could only attain the highest level of heaven if they married several wives, and his teaching on the “plurality of gods,” a belief that humans will eventually become part of God or like gods themselves.
And some of the interviewees in the documentary make shocking claims.
“If America knew the living embodiment of the power-seeking that was in Joseph and continues in the LDS church today, they would be very frightened to have a Mormon president,” Shawn McCraney, a former Mormon missionary who was excommunicated, says in the film.
Later in the video McCraney adds: “They send their missionaries out into the world, they learn languages of the world, they have temples dotting every country of the world that they can. They would love to take over the world, and I think they believe that they will someday do it.”
Christing said he had no intention of painting a negative picture of Mormonism but wanted to show that anti-Mormon sentiments still exist today.
“I think Mormonism is such a fascinating topic,” said Christing, who added that he personally has no problem with a Mormon leading the country. “I find it incredibly interesting that [Smith] could have a vision that included politics and eternal policies and be so popular.”
The version of the documentary released to Roll Call didn’t explore many positive aspects of the religion. It also did not specify that Romney rejects polygamy or emphasize that there are several hundred versions of Mormonism today. In a recent interview, Christing told Roll Call there is a newer version of the film that includes more interviews with Mormons and distinguishes these details.
“A Mormon President” is not available for viewing in theaters but can be ordered at amormonpresident.com.
Terri Henderson, 6, center, whose mother is El Salvador, attends a rally with members of Congress at Union Station's Columbus Circle to announce the Restore Opportunity, Strengthen, and Improve the Economy (ROSIE) Act on July 29, 2014. The legislation provides incentives for government contractors to pay a living wage and other benefits that would help low-income workers.