Adam Christing directed the documentary, “A Mormon President: Joseph Smith and the Mormon Quest for the White House” now out on DVD, which looks to the Mormon founder’s presidential campaign for the challenges now facing the 2012 Republican candidates.
How did you get involved with this project? I should probably start by saying I’m not Mormon, but I am a member of the Mormon History Association and I find Joseph Smith to be one of the most fascinating characters in American history. He was the first presidential candidate in U.S. history to be assassinated while running for office (that was in 1844) he had the largest standing army outside of Washington, D.C. in the entire U.S. (when he ran for president, he ran as General Joseph Smith); he started the largest American-born religion in the world; he was mayor of the town of Nauvoo, Ill., which at the time was as large as the city of Chicago. I just felt like his story had never really been told. The Mormon church often will do a story on him, but it’s often what I might call a “puff piece” where it doesn’t really cover some of the more controversial aspects like his polygamy, his theology, or his politics. And then other groups, like Evangelical groups, have done things on him but they feel more like hit pieces where they’re using really melodramatic music and kind of make him into a monster. With a historical background, I wanted to make the most accurate thing I could and also make it engaging. And of course with Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman in the race I wanted to look at if we could learn some things from history that might shed some light on the situation today.
What went into the filming that you feel gave it an unbiased perspective? One thing is that we interviewed people from many different perspectives. We interviewed some of the very top Mormon scholars like Richard Bushman, who has probably written the most important biography on Joseph Smith in the last 50 years. We also interviewed historians like William Bringhurst, past president of the Mormon History Association, and Roger Launius from the Smithsonian. So the level of scholarship is very, very high.
Could you describe Joseph Smith’s campaign? It was kind of short-lived, some have said it was more of a protest, but it was a serious campaign. I think the fear that non-Mormons had at the time was that if he won Illinois he would influence who would ultimately get into the White House. Keep in mind the city he was running in had about 20,000 people living there, so he might well have won Illinois, and this was back when there was only something like 27 states.
From Smith’s perspective, the Mormons had just been so beat up and persecuted. When they were in Missouri in 1838 the governor, Lilburn Boggs, issued an extermination order, which is the only time in American history that I know where a governor said it was lawful to drive Mormons out of the state, and even kill them. In October 1838 there was a massacre in where a small village of Mormons in a place called Hauns Mill were just killed, bludgeoned. So you really can’t understand the Mormon perspective historically without understanding the sense that they had of being a persecuted people.
Do you feel there is a particular stigma to Mormonism especially challenging for anyone running for office? A couple things: one is secrecy. You have the temple that non-Mormons and even non-faithful Mormons are not allowed access to. And Mormons would say, it’s not so much secret as it is sacred. But when you’re not allowed in it kinda makes you think, “Well what’s going on in there?”
And the documentary covers one interesting aspect I’d never seen in a film, and in very few books, that in 1844 in the midst of Smith’s presidential campaign there was a secret ceremony by this group he pulled together called the Council of Fifty where he was actually ordained king of the political Kingdom of God on earth.
I think another stigma is simply the doctrine. For most people in America I don’t think that’s going to be such a big deal in the campaigns, but for real stanch Bible-believing Evangelicals, who are mostly Republican, it is a very big deal. I think they’re probably more concerned about Mitt’s prophet than Newt’s promiscuity, which is very interesting to me. Gingrich has some pretty big skeletons in his closet, with his affairs, multiple marriages, the lobbying. Romney doesn’t seem to, but he has skeletons in his grandfather’s closet - his great grandparents were polygamists, and it’s interesting that he might be punished for that.
Have modern incidents from radical sects of Mormonism acted as a set back? The church stopped practicing polygamy in 1890, so people like Warren Jeffs are really not Mormon technically (though, he would see himself as a true Mormon following Smith’s pattern of polygamy). But this brings up another interesting aspect we discovered while shooting: After Smith’s death most people are familiar with the famous trek westward to Utah with Brigham Young, but many other splinter groups formed. And one scholar I spoke to said there were something like 400 different sects. The second largest group, which as a child I grew up in, is the Reorganized Latter Day Saints, who followed Joseph’s Smiths son as their prophet after his death. That group denied that polygamy ever happened.
Why is it important to understand the historical context to understand the 2012 presidential candidates? History leaves clues for us. One thing, for example, is the Mormon perspective that they’ve been on the outside, attacked for their faith. But I also think it’s also important to look at the Evangelical perspective. Here’s an example: Smith was murdered by a mob in 1844, and the catalyst for that was a man named William Law (the Martin Luther of Mormonism, if you will) who published a newspaper called the Expositor. He wanted to expose Smith’s secret practice of polygamy, condemn his teachings of a plurality of gods, and criticize his presidential aspiration. And what’s interesting is today Evangelicals raise the very same concerns as William Law in 1844. For Evangelicals I think the big one is the plurality of gods idea, which the church doesn’t lead with, but if you dig deep their theology is indeed that human beings can be exalted to become gods.
Do you feel America is ready for a Mormon president? I do. However, I think that Romney, unlike the other Republican candidates, continues to remain standing but never rockets ahead of anyone. And I think, to be blunt, if he were Methodist, Baptist, Protestant, Evangelical he’d be at least 15 to 20 points higher in the polls. I don’t think it has to doom him, but it is an obstacle. So what it comes down to is whether Evangelicals base their vote on their checkbook or his church. And people are in so much pain right now they might just go with the checkbook.