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Mormon filmmaker's journey helps him make peace with religious critics

PROVO — For a peacemaker like Randall Paul, a good ending doesn't necessarily resolve the conflict between religious believers over who is damned and who isn't.

That's why Paul, founder and president of the Foundation for Religious Diplomacy, was intrigued by an obscure documentary about a filmmaker who set out to discover why conservative Christian evangelicals labeled his Mormon faith a cult whose followers were going to hell.

At the conclusion of filmmaker Bryan Hall's odyssey, he's at the airport picking up Ruben Israel, a burly, goateed evangelical who travels from Los Angeles to Salt Lake City twice a year to heckle Mormons attending their church's biannual general conference. He asks Israel to bless the dinner in Hall's home and after eating pizza they shoot a game of pool.

Hall's evolution over the course of the movie from despising those who blasted his religious beliefs to breaking bread with them aligns with Paul's theory of effective interreligious diplomacy.

"The conflict goes on but the attitudes shift from suspicion and contempt to respect and trust. They are trustworthy opponents. Not best friends, but not enemies either," said Paul. "That's the great insight of interreligious diplomacy. You can work with someone and respect something that you resist."

And that's the message the foundation wants to spread to religious leaders and people around the world through its work, which includes promoting the film, titled "Unresolvable? The Kingdom of God on Earth." Paul, who has co-sponsored and participated in religious diplomacy efforts in Egypt, Tehran, China, Russia and the United States, said the foundation is in the process of scheduling screenings around the country later this year and next.

The screenings are timely coming at the close of a year of religious turmoil in the nation and the world, where Muslim extremists are trying to maintain their power in the wake of the Arab Spring, Islamaphobia has resulted in violence in the United States, religious freedom became an election-year wedge issue and a presidential candidate's Mormon faith was a litmus test for many Christian evangelicals.

"Humans will always disagree over what perfect state will look like," Paul said. "But can also agree in some way to go forward. It's the American way and it is a potent way of allowing many religions to live together in a form of co-resistance and collaboration at the same time."

'Finger of suspicion'

The setting for Hall's documentary is Mitt Romney's first run for president in 2008, when his Mormon faith largely derailed his candidacy for the GOP's nomination. Hall, the owner of a marketing and video production firm, begins his self-narrated journey by explaining his disdain for people like Israel who shout damnation at him and thousands of other Mormons in downtown Salt Lake City.

When Romney decided to run for president in 2008, Hall, a lifelong Utah Mormon, was surprised to discover his enemies weren't just the people gathering outside the LDS Church's Conference Center twice a year condemning his beliefs. Conservative Christians all around the country were labeling The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints a non-Christian cult, and surveys revealed many of them wouldn't vote for a Mormon like Romney even if he espoused their same political values.

Hall set out to find out why, traversing the Bible Belt interviewing pastors and congregants, including Dallas megachurch pastor Robert Jeffress, who told his followers in 2007 that Romney's religious beliefs were a reason not to vote for him.

The documentary often cuts away to President John F. Kennedy's famous "finger of suspicion" speech delivered to Protestant ministers in Texas during the 1960 presidential campaign. As Kennedy tried to allay their fears of having a Catholic president, he reminded them of the constitutional prohibition against a religious litmus test for public office holders.

"For while this year it may be a Catholic against whom the finger of suspicion is pointed, in other years it has been, and may someday be again, a Jew — or a Quaker or a Unitarian or a Baptist," Kennedy told the Greater Houston Ministerial Association. "It was Virginia's harassment of Baptist preachers, for example, that helped lead to Jefferson's statute of religious freedom. Today I may be the victim, but tomorrow it may be you — until the whole fabric of our harmonious society is ripped at a time of great national peril."

One of the first working titles of the film was "Article VI," a reference to the constitutional amendment that prohibits a religious test for public office. An early cut of the movie, which villainized the Christian right as intolerant of any faith but its own, made it into the hands of Richard Land, a top leader at the time for the Southern Baptist Convention, Hall said in an interview.

Land called up Hall to explain that Jeffress doesn't speak for all Southern Baptists, and they arranged for an interview. Land, who endorses the current version of the film as something "every good Christian should see," explained that Christianity is a strictly held doctrine for evangelical Protestants and not just a name or attitude. An evangelical's claim that Mormons aren't Christians is based on doctrinal differences and not on the character or good intentions of Mormons, Land said. But he also acknowledged that labeling other faiths as "cults" faiths isn't an effective way to build bridges and can call into question an evangelical's Christian attitude.

That made sense to Hall, who went back into production. "There's no question that (Land) played a role in opening my heart to understanding the position of conservative Christians," Hall said.

The next cut of his film shows Hall's change of heart through footage of him eating and socializing with his interviewees and their families after formal shooting.

Personal vs. politics

Those moments of unguarded reconciliation were what caught Paul's attention when he got a copy of the film from someone who had been working with Hall.

"I had never met Randall before he came to the studio and started to talk to us about" reproducing the movie into something the foundation could use, said Hall, who admitted he was a bit leery of Paul's exuberance at first. But Hall needed resources distributing his film, so they worked out a deal where the foundation purchased the rights to the film and hired consultants, including veteran documentary film producer Wilder Knight II, to remake the film to emphasize the message Paul was seeking.

"We wanted to make it into more of a personal journey than a political message," Paul said, explaining why it doesn't mention Romney's successful quest to become the GOP nominee in 2012 with prominent evangelical support.

They also changed the title to reflect the foundation's messaging that unresolvable differences over something as difficult as defining the kingdom of God on earth are inevitable, but they are not insurmountable obstacles to different faith traditions working together.

Despite Paul's intentions to play up Hall's personal journey and tone down the political angle of the film, the idea that Romney's foray into presidential politics created a religious debate that derailed his first effort to secure the GOP nomination will remain a strong central theme, considering the film's release coming right after the 2012 presidential election.

Romney largely won over evangelicals who voted in 2012, with exit polls showing that he captured more than 80 percent of that voting bloc. One of the legacies of his run will be how it exposed Mormonism to a larger audience, breaking down misconceptions and misunderstandings about his faith. The Rev. Billy Graham removed it from his list of cults, and Land now describes it as a fourth Abrahamic religion along with Judaism, Islam and Christianity.

While Romney's presidential run may not have produced many evangelical converts to Mormonism, it did cause many to reconsider their reasons for choosing a political candidate. Even Jeffress said he would vote for Romney, and many other evangelical leaders reminded their followers that they were voting for a commander-in-chief, not a pastor-in-chief.

"(The film) puts the message of a (religious) test in this country out there" for all faith traditions to come to terms with before future elections, said John H. Morehead, an evangelical and FRD board member. "What will happen when an atheist or a pagan runs for president?"

Upcoming screenings for 'Unresolvable'

WEDNESDAY NOV. 14, 2012 at 7 p.m.

Utah Valley University, Room SC 209a

FRIDAY NOV. 16, 2012 at 7:30 p.m.

The Leonardo Museum

209 E. 500 South, Salt Lake City

TUESDAY NOV. 27, 2012 at 6:30 p.m.

University of Utah

Ray Olpin Student Union Theater