Mormon filmmaker's journey helps him make peace with religious critics
PROVO — For a peacemaker like Randall Paul, a good ending doesn't necessarily resolve the conflict between religious believers over who is damned and who isn't.
That's why Paul, founder and president of the Foundation for Religious Diplomacy, was intrigued by an obscure documentary about a filmmaker who set out to discover why conservative Christian evangelicals labeled his Mormon faith a cult whose followers were going to hell.
At the conclusion of filmmaker Bryan Hall's odyssey, he's at the airport picking up Ruben Israel, a burly, goateed evangelical who travels from Los Angeles to Salt Lake City twice a year to heckle Mormons attending their church's biannual general conference. He asks Israel to bless the dinner in Hall's home and after eating pizza they shoot a game of pool.
Hall's evolution over the course of the movie from despising those who blasted his religious beliefs to breaking bread with them aligns with Paul's theory of effective interreligious diplomacy.
"The conflict goes on but the attitudes shift from suspicion and contempt to respect and trust. They are trustworthy opponents. Not best friends, but not enemies either," said Paul. "That's the great insight of interreligious diplomacy. You can work with someone and respect something that you resist."
And that's the message the foundation wants to spread to religious leaders and people around the world through its work, which includes promoting the film, titled "Unresolvable? The Kingdom of God on Earth." Paul, who has co-sponsored and participated in religious diplomacy efforts in Egypt, Tehran, China, Russia and the United States, said the foundation is in the process of scheduling screenings around the country later this year and next.
The screenings are timely coming at the close of a year of religious turmoil in the nation and the world, where Muslim extremists are trying to maintain their power in the wake of the Arab Spring, Islamaphobia has resulted in violence in the United States, religious freedom became an election-year wedge issue and a presidential candidate's Mormon faith was a litmus test for many Christian evangelicals.
"Humans will always disagree over what perfect state will look like," Paul said. "But can also agree in some way to go forward. It's the American way and it is a potent way of allowing many religions to live together in a form of co-resistance and collaboration at the same time."
'Finger of suspicion'
The setting for Hall's documentary is Mitt Romney's first run for president in 2008, when his Mormon faith largely derailed his candidacy for the GOP's nomination. Hall, the owner of a marketing and video production firm, begins his self-narrated journey by explaining his disdain for people like Israel who shout damnation at him and thousands of other Mormons in downtown Salt Lake City.
When Romney decided to run for president in 2008, Hall, a lifelong Utah Mormon, was surprised to discover his enemies weren't just the people gathering outside the LDS Church's Conference Center twice a year condemning his beliefs. Conservative Christians all around the country were labeling The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints a non-Christian cult, and surveys revealed many of them wouldn't vote for a Mormon like Romney even if he espoused their same political values.
Hall set out to find out why, traversing the Bible Belt interviewing pastors and congregants, including Dallas megachurch pastor Robert Jeffress, who told his followers in 2007 that Romney's religious beliefs were a reason not to vote for him.
The documentary often cuts away to President John F. Kennedy's famous "finger of suspicion" speech delivered to Protestant ministers in Texas during the 1960 presidential campaign. As Kennedy tried to allay their fears of having a Catholic president, he reminded them of the constitutional prohibition against a religious litmus test for public office holders.
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