DVD review: "A Mormon President." Adam Christing Productions.
Straight documentary? Mitt Romney campaign video? One of those excruciatingly polite commercials for Mormonism? A Mormon President seems to be a hybrid of all three. And more: A look into how Mormons think.
Released directly on video, the documentary scans the life and struggles of Joseph Smith, the charismatic and controversial founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It honestly though sympathetically examines the doctrines that set it apart from other churches. And it praises presidential candidate Mitt Romney, well, to the heavens.
As the video points out, Romney has by no means been the only Mormon presidential candidate. He's matched by his contemporary Jon Huntsman and was preceded by his father, George Romney, in 1968, then by Morris Udall, Orrin Hatch -- and even by Joseph Smith, founder of the Mormon church.
The documentary then segues into a rather drawn-out account of Smith's life and ministry, starting with his alleged visit from God and Jesus and his writing of the Book of Mormon. The story is illustrated with some tame sequences of his rise and fall. We also see a lot of those portraits of Smith with half-smile and annoyingly large, liquid eyes, rather like traditional European paintings of Jesus.
Smith is treated as a man before his time, advocating things like smaller government and "gradual emancipation," freeing slaves by small steps over several years rather than all at once. The video, however, omits the fact that the LDS church didn't allow blacks to become priests until 1978. That's exceedingly gradual.
The video has a general Mormon flavor to it, with staid historical re-enactments and a lot of gushy praise of Smith from believers. However, producer Adam Christing is actually a former member of the breakaway Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He even allows commentary from anti-Mormon missionaries, although Mormons usually get the last word.
The bio portion, though, is forthright on the beliefs and deeds that scared Smith's contemporaries -- and make people today leery, rightly or wrongly, of anyone who follows his church.
Smith condoned plural marriage (although the church has since dropped the practice), wedding perhaps 33 women -- some in their teens, some in their 60s. He thought Independence, Mo., would become the new Jerusalem. He said there were many deities -- both gods and goddesses -- and every human had the chance to become one. Mormons defend and soften these beliefs onscreen, but they don't deny them.
Smith also raised his own army, strutted in uniform and literally saber rattled. He not only ran for president, but had his secret Council of Fifty crowned him king of the nation even as his campaign was starting. And he sent a gang to bust up the printing press of his former right-hand man, William Law, who had become a bitter critic -- and founded the rival Reformed Church.
Smith himself became a victim of a mob when he was shot and fell from an upper-story window. Although he declined to mobilize his private army, he is not painted as a mild-mannered martyr: He went down fighting, pistol in hand.
Here's where Mitt Romney comes in: The documentary compares Smith's enemies with the "right-wing evangelicals" who want to "derail" Romney's campaign. Through remarks by people inside and outside the church, the video throws doubt on his chances for the White House. This is presented as a pity: As a Mormon church member says -- very late in the video -- the United States Constitution bans any "religious test for public office."
Perhaps Mormons are happy just to use the 2012 presidential campaign as a kind of teaching moment. As the video quotes Romney at the end, "I believe in my Mormon faith, and I endeavor to live by it . . . Some believe that such a confession of my faith will sink my candidacy. If they're right, so be it." Whether Romney wins or loses, Mormons have a chance to spread their beliefs.
The "Mormon President" website has an interesting blog, with some background on the documentary and other items. One is a picture of death masks of Smith and his brother, Hyrum; both were killed in the same shootout. Another discusses similarities and differences among the 200 to 400 offshoots of the LDS Church. And not to get too far afield, another discusses whether Republicans are "ready" for a Mormon president.
There's also a link to an external website that has a lot of portraits of Smith, including what may be two photos of the man.