Movie Review: Article VI

Most politically-minded Americans are now very familiar with Article VI of the U.S. Constitution. As I’ve said before, it’s been a particularly good year for this article, kind of like how that famous clause in the constitution that gives us all the right to privacy got a big boost 35 years ago. (wait . . . there’s no clause?)

But for those still unfamiliar, here’s the text of Article VI, in pertinent part:

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.

This becomes both the foundational text and the jumping off point of a new movie about religion and politics in America, called, simply Article VI. (click here to visit the official site). Contrary to what you might think, this movie is not about Mitt Romney. In fact, it uses the 2008 race merely as a frame for bringing out a multitude of opinions on the core religious values that govern spiritual America, and the political values that attempt to share that same space without causing too much disruption. The result is a fascinating mixture of vituperation, rumination, and condemnation, with lots of different people participating.

Notably, and perhaps not surprisingly, all of the condemnation and harsh judgments come from members of one broad group- evangelical Christians. We see different members of this group ranting bitterly at Mormons attending a conference, praying loudly from the gallery of the U.S. Senate to drown out the opening prayer being offered by a Hindu clergyman, peddling messages like “truth is hate . . . to those who hate the truth” from the sidewalks, and even condemning Mormonism from the pulpit. We also see evangelicals (including Richard Land, and EFM’s David French) offering reasoned exhortations to moderation and exploring the boundaries of their own political theology as well.

The focus on evangelicals is predictable, given that group’s centrality to the discussion of religion and politics in America. Conservative Christians make up a very large percentage of total Americans, are often well-organized, and can wield great political power. Either as a cause or effect of that power, they often feel comfortable taking sharp political action motivated by their faith. Thus, it’s not uncommon to see an evangelical leader judge a candidate by his faith, and spew the unlucky pol from his mouth upon findings of lukewarmness, which always makes for great cinema.

But while the focus on evangelicals may be predictable, their treatment in this movie is far from standard. The movie casts several villains, willing to say all the right (read: mean) things about Mormons, Hindus, and everyone else that is obviously going to hell. However, somewhere near the middle of the film, there’s a transition in which these people move from being hateful talking heads to people full of real concern for America with actual notions of love for those they’re hoping to reach. The stock evangelical villains suddenly become quite sympathetic and are allowed to step out of the caricatures set out for them in the early part of the movie, as well as in countless media profiles.

It’s a brilliant film-making choice, as it allows the viewer to conclude that these issues are far more complex than one might think at first glance. The issues gain complexity not because they are hard to work out (they are), but because most points of view are heartfelt and motivated by sincere and unimpeachable intentions. One telling example of this perspective is in the movie’s portrayal of Reverend Bill Keller, by far the most vehement condemnor of Mormonism in the whole pantheon of anti-Mormon spokesmen this year (see here for one example). Keller is up to his usual tricks here, but near the end, he gives a very credible testimony of his hopes for those that wander in evil/Mormon paths, signaling that perhaps we can no longer divide our religious characters neatly into loving spiritualists and hateful firebreathers.

Article VI is a surprisingly personal movie, following the film’s director in his interviews with others, and in his attempts to reach and understand those who criticize his Mormon faith. This dynamic adds an emotional perspective to the film, showing the punches thrown by many critics of Mormonism alongside a person that is to some extent absorbing those punches. However, there may be moments in which the use of personal narrative passes just a bit too far from perspective-enhancement to self-indulgence. If the movie has a weakness, it is that it takes this personal viewpoint just a shade too far, casting Mormons more as victims in this fight than participants in the hurly-burly of sectarian give and take.

On the whole, however, this is the work of a mature film-maker, skillfully meshing controversy with analysis and deeply-felt spiritual feeling, and still packed with historical and political information that will be new even to those that have followed this issue closely. This is a great entry in our ongoing debate about the role of religion in our nation’s government. One only hopes it can gain the exposure it deserves while these questions remain as pressing as they are. If you care about faith and politics and the crazy, fiery ways in which they intersect, Article VI is a great way to get your fix.