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Documentary asks 'so what?' about Mitt's Mormonism

Published: Monday, Sept. 17 2012 7:18 p.m. MDT

In this July 20, 2012 file photo, Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney speaks in Bow, N.H. Documentary filmmaker Trevor Hill hopes his new film, "The Religion Test," prompts dialogue about the role of religion in presidential politics — and maybe an occasional "so what?"

Associated Press

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On the surface, “The Religious Test” would appear to be a documentary film made by a Mormon in support of a Mormon candidate for president.

But Trevor Hill, director of the 90-minute documentary, says that isn’t the case.

“The film has a point of view,” he told students, professors and guests during a panel discussion of the film at the University of Utah’s Hinckley Institute of Politics Monday. “But there is no political agenda whatsoever. This isn’t pro-Romney or pro-Obama or pro-anything. It’s about how religion is used in the presidential election process, and it is more interested in the humanity of the election process than it is in Mitt Romney himself.”

Of course Romney’s membership in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is a critical element of “The Religious Test,” both in its creation as well as in its execution.

“About a year ago, a friend sent to me a Gallup Poll indicating that one out of five Americans say they won’t vote for a Mormon,” Hill said. “In a day when prejudice against almost every other religious, racial and gender group has gone down, prejudice against Mormonism seems to have gone up a little. My knee-jerk reaction was, this is completely unfair — not just for Mormons, but for people of other faiths, too. Religion shouldn’t matter in the election of a president.”

But it does, said Kirk Jowers, director of the Hinckley Institute, who participated in the panel discussion.

“You can’t stop people from having their own belief about who represents them the best,” Jowers said. “When they walk into the voting booth, they are going to decide who to vote for, and if that decision is based on religious preference, there’s nothing that can stop them from doing that. But that’s a different thing than an official religious test constitutionally.”

LDS scholar and author Matthew Bowman, who participated in the discussion over the telephone, said he feels that personal religious test has more to do with values than with specific religious denominations. But he acknowledged that for a long time, “Protestants were the people who could be trusted.”

“Catholics and Mormons belonged to a church where there was someone at the head who told everyone what to do,” Bowman said. “That made people uncomfortable, which affected Al Smith and John F. Kennedy. And I think now it also affects (Mitt) Romney.”

And that, Bowman said, is a “real and substantive and valid concern that needs to be addressed.”

“The fact is, Mormons do have a prophet,” he said. “They need to explain that if Romney becomes president, Thomas S. Monson won’t call him up and tell him what to do.”

But who, Hill wonders, is “they”?

“Is Mitt Romney the one who should be explaining the details of Mormonism?” Hill asked. “And if he isn’t the one to do it, who is?”

As far as Jowers is concerned, that is a difficult question.

“Mormonism has always been an interesting thing for the electorate,” he continued. “There are a lot of things in the Mormon faith that people outside the faith would find strange or disturbing or incomprehensible. That’s true of every faith. But then you add to that the fact that Mormons have elements of their faith that they consider ‘sacred’ and won’t talk about, and people think, ‘Wow, that stuff must be REALLY strange.’

“As a political candidate, how do you address all that?” Jowers said. “And once you start talking about it, how do you stop?”

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