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?”
Although Bowman acknowledges that Romney is in “a really, really tight spot” with regards to talking about his religion, he says “it is unfair to ask him to explain or talk about polygamy or the priesthood ban or any of those things because those aren’t the things that Mormons themselves normally talk about.
“Most Mormons think about their religion as something they DO,” Bowman said. “There are a set of theological propositions that they buy into, but once they buy into them, Mormons don’t sit around in Sunday School and debate those issues.”
Jowers disagreed jovially, indicating that when he was going to school in Cambridge, Mass., there was “a doctrinal battle every Sunday, where we would explore everything in the minutest detail.”
But, he acknowledged, “whether that happens as much in Bountiful, Utah, is another question.”
By and large, Bowman continued, “Mormon Sunday Schools aren’t really a discussion of the scriptures as much as they are a discussion of how we can live our lives better.”
“Most Mormons have little interest in the differing theology of Brigham Young and Orson Pratt,” he said. “Although there are some who enjoy those kinds of theological and doctrinal explorations, the lived experience of your average Mormon ward is not the place where it happens.”
Indeed, Jowers added, “the question of how we can take care of each other is more the kind of thing we talk about.”
Which is one of the reasons Hill felt compelled to create “The Religious Test.”
“I wasn’t trying to resolve anything — I just wanted to provide a lot of good information and let people draw their own conclusions,” he said during a conversation after the panel discussion. “The format is linear, and without narration. It’s a discussion, almost a dialogue, with a lot of people who have a lot of good insight about the LDS Church and whether or not Americans should be concerned about having a Mormon president — or someone from any different faith group, for that matter.”
Bowman and Jowers are both interviewed during the documentary, as are Sen. Joseph Lieberman, Richard Mouw, David and Nancy French, Joanna Brooks, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, Daniel C. Peterson, Quin Monson, McKay Coppins, Kathleen Flake, Richard L. Bushman, David Campbell, Nathan Oman, Newell Bringhurst and Kristine Hagland, along with a dozen or so others.
“I spoke to Mormons and non-Mormons, liberals and conservatives, Republicans and Democrats, trying to get them to tell their story in a cogent way,” Hill said. “I wanted to create one place where we can put all of the information out there for people to see and consider.”
And hopefully, talk about.
“The film is not intended as a solution or an answer,” he said. “I want it to be the catalyst for dialogue and discussion. We need to talk about the role faith is playing in the political process. We need to figure out why we don’t just say, ‘So what?’ to the religious question.
“If the film can start that dialogue, then it has fulfilled its purpose.”
For more information on the film, go to www.thereligioustest.com.
Copyright 2016, Deseret News Publishing Company