Monday, February 04, 2008

Article VI

Article VI: Faith, Politics, America
Written and directed by Bryan Hall

“The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the Members of the several State Legislatures, and all executive and judicial Officers, both of the United States and of the several States, shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.”—Article VI of the U.S. Constitution.

Gov. Mitt Romney is a Mormon, and the media will not let you forget. Evidently, for some people this is a deal-breaker. That media reaction became the spark for Mormon filmmaker Bryan Hall’s new documentary Article VI, which examines the practice of religious tests in the political process, imposed both officially by governments and unofficially by individuals, with admirable nuance and perspective.

Article uses presidential candidate John F. Kennedy’s Houston “Catholic issue” speech as a touchstone throughout the film, as opposition to Kennedy’s Catholicism parallels the opposition to Romney for his Mormon faith. However, Article also addresses both recent and historic American religious political controversies, spotlighting the early violent treatment of Mormons in America.

It may well be that many of the filmmakers are political conservatives and Romney supporters, as is definitely the case with executive producer and on-screen commentator Hugh Hewitt, but the film is consistently restrained and balanced. It is not afraid to criticize intolerant “Christian” expression, certainly including the mob protesting the Mormon Church’s annual conference, but also Judge Roy Moore’s Ten Commandments monument, and the so-called Christians who disgracefully disrupted the first Hindu benediction in the U.S. Senate. Article benefits from some telling commentary, as when Christian rights attorney David French implies Judge Moore made his work more difficult:

“The very weekend that Judge Moore was making his stand in Alabama, I was in a Federal court in Pennsylvania arguing for the free speech rights of some Christian students in the Pennsylvania higher education system, and it struck me as supremely ironic that the very moment I was seeking the aid of the Federal court to protect Christian rights, a few hundred miles down the road another Christian was defying the Federal courts. And I was just hoping the judge was able to separate the two and to realize that, yes, some of us do have respect for the law.”

William F. Buckley famously ran the Birchers out mainstream conservativism, making it clear there was no place for paranoid lunacy in the movement. Often, it seems a similar impulse is at work in Article, in an effort to sever mainstream religious conservatives from the strident fringe elements which insist on identifying themselves as Christian.

Filmmaker Hall though, has a surprise in store for his third act. He reaches out to one of the frightening protestors outside the Mormon conference, and makes a human connection. While interview subjects like Rev. Flip Benham of Operation Rescue and internet evangelist Bill Keller say some pretty unattractive things, Hall gives them an opportunity to show some humanity, which they do, even displaying a sense of humor. Only Pastor Robert Jeffress fails to take advantage of the opportunity, sounding downright Clintonian when asked if he could consider Hall a friend or neighbor.

Article is the second documentary in recent months to address Mormonism. However, Alex LeMay’s Desert Bayou essentially lines up with the protestors outside the Mormon Conference, including an uncomfortably hostile litany of perceived Mormon sins halfway through the film. LeMay sets out to demonize those he disagrees with, whereas Hall looks to humanize them. That speaks volumes about the difference between the two filmmakers’ approaches.

Throughout Article, Hall proves to be a talented filmmaker, who is scrupulously fair in his treatment of both interview subjects and the issues examined. Article appears to have a theatrical release in the offing. If it screens near you, it is not exactly the film you might expect, but well worth seeing.