By Becki Steinberg - 07/25/11 11:43 PM EDT
With Mormons Jon Huntsman and Mitt Romney among the top contenders for the 2012 GOP presidential nomination, a new documentary explores their religion and how it plays out in their political careers. “A Mormon President,” premiering next month, touches on America’s first Mormon presidential candidate, Joseph Smith, his assassination and the long-running rift between Mormonism and other faiths. Adam Christing, the film’s producer, spoke with The Hill about the challenges facing a Mormon candidate, prominent Mormon leaders in today’s government and what he identifies as an “anti-Mormon prejudice in this country.”
I think they would be enlightened to know that the same problems or challenges facing those candidates, especially Romney, who does seem to embrace his religion more tightly than Huntsman … [were faced by] Joseph Smith the Prophet, [the Mormon founder who] ran for president in 1854. He was challenged by a party called the Anti-Mormon Party, and we noticed that in many states, including Illinois and Missouri, the original states where Mormonism began, some of the same controversies and concerns back then — about polygamy, Mormon teachings about a plurality of gods — are some of the concerns that people have about Mormonism today.
Probably the secrecy. There’s a lot of secrecy in the church. Faithful Mormons would call it sacred, but in the Mormon temple, for example, there are a lot of secret ceremonies, whether [they are] secret oaths and handshakes [or] being sealed to your husband or wife for eternity. … I don’t think Romney or Huntsman is part of [any sort of] conspiracy, but the secrecy that surrounds their religion has a lot of people curious and some people worried.
Q: How big of a role do you think Romney’s and Huntsman’s religion will play in the GOP primary?
I don’t think as much for Huntsman, because he seems to be more ecumenical. His family is more multifaceted when it comes to religion … He might come across more like a liberal Mormon … For millions of evangelical voters, it may come down to whether they will vote their pocketbooks. Are they willing to sort of plug their nose about a candidate’s Mormon faith to defeat Obama? Which is interesting, because Romney isn’t running for pastor. A lot of Americans tend to think that the president is like a father figure for their faith.
Q: Do you think a Mormon candidate’s religion plays a bigger role in the campaign than other candidates’ religions?
I think so, unless the religion was Islam. One of the media experts we interviewed thought it would be more likely for America to elect a Jewish president than a Mormon. I don’t know if that’s the case ... but many evangelicals would feel that the Mormon church is masquerading as a Christian church. If a candidate were to say, “I’m Episcopalian” … it doesn’t seem like they would have the same amount of scrutiny or controversy.
Q: What would be different about a Mormon president?
I don’t know that there would be much difference … Religion plays a bigger part in terms of people’s perception going into the White House than it does in actual governing … [but] I think a lot of people are concerned that in a time of crisis, a Mormon president would pray to God but not have the right phone number.
Q: Why do you think there has never been a Mormon elected president?
Romney is probably the first real qualified candidate they’ve had, and frankly, if he weren’t a Mormon he would have been the candidate in 2008. There’s kind of what Mormons would call an “anti-Mormon prejudice” in the country. When we were filming in places like Missouri, some residents were still talking about Mormons like they did in the 1830s and 1840s … they felt afraid Mormons would take over … [but] so much could happen between now and then. Someone like Romney could bring on an evangelical running mate that might kind of help evangelicals go for it.
Q: There are several Mormons in Congress, including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.). Did you look at how their religion has affected their political careers?
On Aug. 15, we’re [releasing] a bonus feature that does cover modern Mormon politicians … Reid is a good example people should understand … now you see a lot more diversity [than in the 19th century]. You’ve got Harry Reid and you’ve got [conservative talk show host] Glenn Beck … they’re both Mormons.
Q: Are there any religions comparable to Mormonism in terms of how they play out in political careers?
[For Mormons, having a Mormon president] would probably feel like the completion of an amazing story from the pioneer days, almost like the way many blacks must feel with the first African-American president — kind of like the story has come full-circle. Mormons would feel that way, too — “We were persecuted, having to move, always being outsiders, and now we’re in the White House.”
Q: How did you get involved with this project?
As a young guy I learned a lot about Joseph Smith … [he] always fascinated me. About five years ago, we started the process of making this documentary and it was so fascinating when Smith announced running for president in 1854 … [He was] not only Mormon, but also the first candidate in American history who was ever assassinated.
Q: What was the most interesting thing you learned while making this film?
We sometimes don’t realize how far-reaching ideas can be. For example, Smith had the idea that God had given the land of Missouri to the Mormon people, but Missouri did not appreciate that, almost today the way that the Palestinians reject the way Israel says that God gave [Israelis] this land. Religious ideas can have enormous consequences and lead to war.
Q: What was the greatest challenge in making this film?
To make sure we included all voices. This is such a hot debate … we did a very early screening one time in Salt Lake City and invited Mormons, non-Mormons, the media ... the Mormon people felt the film was anti-Mormon. The evangelicals felt that the film was pro-Mormon. We tend to see things not as they are, but as we are.