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Spring Is Here and Faith Is on the Air

By: for Religion News Service on May 3, 2007

Three upcoming documentaries about topics ranging from Jehovah's Witnesses to Mormons to atheism will air nationwide this spring on PBS. Although made independently, each film argues for the relevance of its subject in the United States, both historically and today. 

From Marginalized to Mainstream—the Mormons 

In "The Mormons," Helen Whitney depicts how a once marginalized, home-grown religion went from near extinction in the 19th century to becoming a force in American politics and culture in two generations. 

"Mormons are everywhere. There's Gladys Knight as well as Mitt Romney," she says, referring to the singer and the former Massachusetts governor who is running for president. 

Yet Whitney, an award-winning director and producer, says many stereotypes about Mormons persist.  

"I think it's somewhat exciting to shatter stereotypes and really not say everything, by any means, but give a big, broad picture of who they are and their history, the defining themes and ideas, and meet some Mormons up close, so you get inside," Whitney says.  

Part one of "The Mormons" covers Joseph Smith's founding of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, as well as its early history and eventual establishment in Utah. The second part addresses Mormonism in the 20th century and its transformation from religious minority to mainstream faith. 

"That's a very American quality, the gift of reinvention," Whitney says. "They've done that before and they'll do it again." 

"The Mormons" also squarely addresses controversial -- or as Whitney calls them "defining" -- issues, including polygamy, religious violence, racist theology and anti-intellectualism. She presents the "important" -- and often contradictory -- perspectives on each topic. 

"That is my posture, to be respectful but not uncritical," she says. 

While a Mormon presidential candidate is emblematic of the faith's success, polls indicating many Americans would not vote for a Mormon candidate show how far Mormons still have to go, Whitney says. 

The four-hour documentary airs April 30 and May 1. 

First Amendment Defenders: Jehovah's Witnesses

Joel Engardio is the co-producer and director of "Knocking," a one-hour documentary scheduled to air May 22. It tells the history of Jehovah's Witnesses, along with the personal and deeply emotional stories of two men. One is a 23-year-old who undergoes risky bloodless surgery in keeping with the faith's prohibition against blood transfusions. The other is a Holocaust survivor who found hope in the Jehovah's Witness message after losing faith in God in the concentration camps. His conversion causes consternation among some family members. 

While Jehovah's Witnesses are stereotyped as door-to-door annoyances -- the documentary opens with a scene from "The Simpsons" and a late night comedy show -- their contribution to American democracy often is overlooked, Engardio says. Jehovah's Witnesses have a long history of defending the First Amendment, religious freedom and free speech issues, appearing before the United States Supreme Court 62 times. 

Engardio notes that Jehovah's Witness court victories are relevant in today's culture wars, although Jehovah's Witnesses do not impose their beliefs through political means and do not vote. 

"Jehovah's Witnesses are like a canary in the coal mine when it comes to the First Amendment. What happens to them will determine what happens to the rest of us," Engardio says. "Because of the cases won by the Witnesses, atheists have a right to speak, Mormons continue to have a right, and many, many other groups. ... "  

Jonathan Miller is one atheist sounding a louder voice these days. He's the writer and narrator of "Brief History of Disbelief," a three-part series produced for the British Broadcasting Corporation in 2004, due to air May 4 on PBS. 

Miller, a Cambridge University-educated doctor and man of letters with extensive experience in the opera, theater and television, says that in the last year it's become less embarrassing to be an atheist. Indeed, this spring "The God Delusion" and "Letter to a Christian Nation," two books that challenge religion, were national best sellers. 

Miller says he was motivated to make the documentary in part because he feels more strongly about the role of disbelief in a religious world now that Christian fundamentalism in the United States and Islamic fundamentalism elsewhere are so powerful. 

While not a "born-again atheist," Miller talks openly about his personal lack of faith in the documentary, which traces the history of disbelief from the Greeks to the present and draws on thinkers in a range of fields, including philosophy and anthropology. 

In the first five minutes, the documentary addresses 9/11, an act that would be inconceivable without religious conviction, and the driving force of monotheistic religions in politics. Miller said that the United States has had more disbelievers than people think. 

"It seems worthwhile actually coming out in the open and saying there are in fact disbelievers who are perfectly respectable people," Miller says. 

©2007 Religion News Service 

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