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Monday, September 19, 2011

The Religious Test: A Documentary Film on Mormons in Politics

Genesis Media Works, in collaboration with Old Future Studio Productions, is producing a documentary called The Religious Test, looking into why 1 in 5 Americans would not support a Mormon for President, and what that means for American democracy and religious freedom.

We talked with Meredith LeSueur, the writer behind the project, to get a few more details about their process, what they've found, and what they think the project will uncover about religious freedom in the United States.

Modern Mormon Men: Welcome, Meredith! Let's jump right in. This is a documentary about religion in politics. Do you feel comfortable sharing the faith leanings of your team? What about political leanings?

Meredith LeSuer: That's a good place to start I guess. Currently the production team consists of all Mormons, although interestingly we range in level of orthodoxy or have wildly different philosophical leanings with regards to religion and politics. We are also actively reaching out to people of different faiths to add depth to our bench and ensure safeguards to our journalistic approach. I'm confident our approach will be as objective and fair as possible given the dynamics of the team. Politically we range from conservative to libertarian to social democrat. I'm not sure who is what, we don't talk politics outside this project to be honest. Personally I'm too pragmatic to claim any political category, but I'm Canadian anyway so I can't vote.

MMM: This is obviously a sensitive subject for many Mormons. Since you are all Mormon, were you motivated by a need to defend your faith against attack?

ML: To be honest, that is how the project was pitched to us at Old Future, "1 in 5 Americans say they wouldn't vote for a Mormon? Isn't that awful? We need to set this story straight!" And it kind of put us off the project. Our response was, if you are wanting to make a pro-Romney propaganda piece, you'll need to find another studio. Not that we don't like Romney, but more that we don't like projects with an explicit motive. But after talking about the project more, we found there was room for asking a larger question. As the writer, the question as to why people would still feel comfortable admitting something so seemingly prejudiced was really interesting to me. If people feel justified in this hesitation, then it can't just be fear of the unknown, I mean some of it is for sure, but for it to have such legitimacy, it just seemed like there was something deeper, something interesting, a lot more interesting than, "Mormons are good people, forget your fears!" But maybe something we could learn about ourselves, about our culture and ultimately about our country.

MMM: Does that mean you will give some of the anti-Mormon rhetoric out there some play? Does that scare you?

ML: Well, I'm not interested in accommodating anti-Mormon rhetoric, but dissenting viewpoints are always an important aspect of any study. I come from a philosophy background, and so I approach any study with the question first, not the answer. Ultimately I don't know what we'll discover. I have my ideas of where it will go, but I'm not scared because whether or not a Mormon can be President doesn't have any sway on my testimony as a Mormon, its just a fascinating question.

MMM: What information will you cover?

ML: The narrative of the film will be two pronged. First, we question the definition of Article IV and explore whether or not American society should put more weight behind its significance. On one hand the quest for religious freedom was the reason so many came here in the first place. And on the other hand living in a liberal, or free-governing, society which offers religious freedom means voluntarily accepting the legitimacy of all religious beliefs, in as much as they can co-exist together. What happens if the religious belief of one Faith purports to undermine the ideals of the liberal society that supports it? In reality some Faiths claim their religious freedom by giving up other rights and freedoms available in American liberal society (think the Amish). Which brings us to the second prong; we delve into the political past of the Mormon faith. From our Theocratic beginnings, to our concessions to obtain Statehood, including abandoning polygamy. We'll discuss past and present Mormon politicians including Joseph Smith's political ambitions, Reed Smoot and the Smoot trials, George Romney's bid for candidacy for American President along with all the present-day LDS politicians holding office. We'll touch on the fallout from Prop 8 to explain some of the fundamental anti-Mormon sentiment coming from the Left and break down the multi-faceted issues arising from the Christian Right. The most interesting part of the story for me is the Mormon narrative of persecution and how that has crafted a deep cultural protection of our faith, meaning that the deepest and most reverent aspects of our faith are generally kept private - something very difficult for a public figure to navigate and it can translate into a lack of transparency that for the outside world can seem somewhat suspicious. The film ultimately seeks to uncover a path for Mormons out of the current socio-political wilderness.

MMM: How can people get involved?

ML: If people are interested in getting involved they can visit the website: They can also visit our kickstarter link to contribute funding for travel to crucial interviews. They can also email me directly at mere[at] We would love suggestions on who to interview, connections to prominent figures and we welcome feedback on the project in general.

MMM: Thanks for stopping by, Meredith. We hope The Religious Test is able to secure the funding it needs to get produced. Good luck!

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