Is America ready for 'A Mormon President’? - East Valley Tribune: News

Is America ready for 'A Mormon President’?

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Posted: Saturday, August 18, 2007 12:33 pm | Updated: 6:23 pm, Fri Oct 7, 2011.

Americans’ level of religious tolerance may be tested in the coming months as former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, seeks to do what no Mormon has done — win nomination and then election to the presidency of the United States.

New film shines light on 'terrible episode’ in Mormon history

Americans’ level of religious tolerance may be tested in the coming months as former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, seeks to do what no Mormon has done — win nomination and then election to the presidency of the United States.

His father, George Romney, former Michigan governor, attempted it in 1968 and lost to Richard Nixon in Republican primaries. Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, another Mormon, ran in 2000 but fared poorly.

The church’s founder and prophet, Joseph Smith, announced in January 1844 that he was running for president, but was gunned down that June at the Carthage (Ill.) jail, leaving historians to speculate how Smith might have fared in that campaign won by Democrat James Polk in a close race with Henry Clay of the Whig Party.

“I am observing that Mitt Romney has a much bigger challenge than even he may realize,” says Adam Christing, producer and director of “A Mormon President,” a documentary to be released this fall in two formats, a 90-minute film for theaters and a one-hour version for television. “About 35 percent of Americans say, 'I simply can’t vote for a Mormon for president only on the basis of his faith, not his politics.’ ”

The challenges for Romney, whom polls show among the leading contenders for the Republican nomination, are being compared, in the documentary, to Smith, who led early Mormons through an odyssey from New York to Ohio to Missouri and Illinois, amid persecution that peaked in 1838 with the Haun’s Mill Massacre in Missouri, in which 17 Mormons were killed.

Christing, who holds a degree in theology from Biola University and who grew up in the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (now the Community of Christ), calls “A Mormon President” an “interesting mix, almost like 'Dateline’ Meets the History Channel.” About a third of it contains re-enactments of key Mormon events in Missouri and Nauvoo and Carthage, Ill., where the church faced widespread hostility. Another third features scholars looking at Smith and his short-lived bid to go to Washington. The rest features comments by those answering the question: Is America ready for a Mormon president?

“There still today seems to be a real anti-Mormon feeling in many parts of the country, especially with the evangelical Christians,” Christing said.

“On a surface level, people still have sort of a knee-jerk reaction,” he said. “A lot of people say, 'Oh, they’re polygamists,’ which, of course, they are not.” The church formally repudiated plural marriages in 1890, allowing Utah admission to the Union.

Among scholars featured in the film is Todd Compton, author of the 1997 book “In Sacred Loneliness: The Plural Wives of Joseph Smith,” a carefully documented look at the 33 wives of Smith before his death at age 38.

A longtime fascination with Smith led to Christing’s research and eventually the documentary. “It goes back to who killed Joseph Smith and why,” he said. “The church says that he was a martyr. 'Anti-Mormons’ would say he wasn’t a martyr, that he died in a gunfight, and he did have a six-shooter that he emptied in Carthage Jail.”

“Who is this guy who starts a church in 1830” and 14 years later had a city of 20,000 Mormons living in Nauvoo rivaling Chicago, Christing asked. Yet in a few years, with Smith’s death and more turmoil, Nauvoo would be a veritable ghost town with Mormons moving en masse to the Salt Lake Valley of Utah.

“It really goes back to Smith’s fusion of church and state,” he said. “Nauvoo really was a 'theocracy’ where he was the general of the army with 5,000 men underneath him. He was running for president. He was mayor of the town, and, of course, he was the prophet of the church — and to make things more interesting, he had 33 wives at the time.”

The filmmaker said his crew gained almost “unprecedented access” to historic sites “because of the caliber of scholars that I interviewed,” he said. “The Community of Christ allowed us to film in Joseph Smith’s Red Brick Store (in Nauvoo), which is really where the temple got started in the upstairs room where a lot of the ceremonies first took place.” They filmed in the Carthage jail and were invited to Smith’s graveside to film a service marking the anniversary of his death on June 27.

After they filmed at the site of the Haun’s Mill massacre in Missouri, his crew learned anew that anti-Mormonism still exists. One town resident declared, “That massacre never happened. ... The Mormons are a bunch of thieves, and we’ll never vote for a Mormon president,” Christing said.

The filmmaker said he has found many evangelical pastors call the Mormon church a cult. “There have been many books and programs out there where these pastors are educating their people to say, ’Hey, Mormonism is like Scientology or the Moonies (Unification Church) or Jehovah’s Witnesses’ or whatever category they might have that they would call 'non-Christian cults.’ ”

Romney’s candidacy is troubled by “skeletons in his closet that might be 170 years old and go back to the theology of Joseph Smith,” Christing said. Romney’s family tree reveals that Miles Pitt Romney, one of the candidate’s great-grandfathers, married his fifth wife in 1897. That’s more than six years after the church banned polygamy. Another great-grandfather and church apostle, Parley Pratt, had 12 wives.

His Mormon faith has been called Romney’s biggest political hurdle. Repeatedly asked about it, he reminds listeners his church rejected plural marriage long ago and he personally rejects it. He tells audiences that most people “want a person of faith as their leader but they don’t care what brand of faith that is.”

Christing anticipates Romney will deliver this fall a definitive speech about his faith that will be compared to one John F. Kennedy gave in 1960 when he said he was not “the Catholic candidate for president” and “I do not speak for my church on public matters — and the church does not speak for me.”

Christing said Romney won’t likely change people’s minds with a similar statement. “Even though Catholicism was new for a political candidate for Americans (in 1960), most evangelicals and Protestants still thought of Catholicism within the family of Christian faith, and some do with Mormonism, but there are millions, we are discovering, who do not do so with Mormonism. So to make that comparison might actually backfire on Mitt, I think.”

Helen Schlie of Gold Canyon, a former Mormon bookstore owner, had Romney in her Sunday school class in their ward in Bloomfield Hills, Mich., in the early 1960s. Young Mitt, 15, was a good student, she said. He hung around with Dennis Gallagher, and the two could be anywhere in the stake building on Sunday mornings. “Once I got them rounded up in class, they were delightful, but I had to get them there first,” she said.

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