STEVE INSKEEP, host:
If you decide to just stay home in the coming days in the San Francisco area or elsewhere, you might be able to catch some interesting television. One of America's most mistrusted religions is scrutinized in the pair of documentaries on public television this week. The shows "Frontline" and "American Experience" are joining for the first time and they're going to focus on the Mormon faith.
It's a two-part series. It began last night. It continues tonight. And it comes as polls indicate that significant reluctance remains to support a presidential candidate who is Mormon.
NPR's Howard Berkes reports.
HOWARD BERKES: Republican presidential contender Mitt Romney declined to appear in "The Mormons," the documentary series airing on public television this week. But his mix of Mormon faith and presidential candidacy came long after producer Helen Whitney conceived her films.
Ms. HELEN WHITNEY (Producer, "The Mormons"): Well, when I started out on this documentary, it was well over three and a half years ago so he wasn't part of my thinking at all in how this film was structured and shaped.
BERKES: But Romney symbolizes in the broadcast the tension between the Mormon past and present, and between Mormon beliefs and mainstream Christian principles.
Ms. WHITNEY: I talk about this extraordinary journey the Mormons have made from the end of the 19th century. This church that was really on the edge of extinction - broke, on the run, its leaders fighting the federal government about polygamy - and within the space of a hundred years, really, almost mainstream. And Mitt's candidacy is really emblematic of that journey of how far the Mormons have come and yet the distance still they have to travel.
BERKES: Whitney is a self-described agnostic who traces every major challenge and embarrassment from the theocracy of founder Joseph Smith to the exodus forced by mobs, from the building of a righteous kingdom to the abandoned practice of polygamy, from spreading the Mormon gospel to how gays, women and dark skin have been viewed. Whitney frames all that with a reverence for faith.
Ms. WHITNEY: I have a particular interest in radical religious commitment, that all-encompassing not a Sunday religion but in many ways a seven-day religion.
BERKES: The depth of that faith is illustrated with personal stories. There's Betty Stevenson, an ex-con and former drug addict struggling to raise two kids when Mormon missionaries come by.
(Soundbite of documentary "The Mormons")
Ms. BETTY STEVENSON: And they came in and told me the most preposterous story I have ever heard in my life. They told me about this white boy, a dead angel, and some gold plates. And I thought, hmm, I wonder what they're on.
BERKES: Stevenson opened a "Book of Mormon" the missionaries brought.
Ms. STEVENSON: And it said, "I, Nephi, being born of goodly parents." And it breaks my heart even to this day because it seemed like at that moment I realized that I wasn't a goodly parent, and that I didn't have goodly parents to teach me in the language of my fathers - a family that can be together forever, of raising my children and learning how to be a good parent.
BERKES: Betty Stevenson's conversion experience is a reminder of the power of faith, says filmmaker Helen Whitney. She believes that non-Mormons have something to learn from the Mormon story, not as candidates for conversion.
Ms. WHITNEY: I think by looking in a searching way into this faith as an outsider, by looking at it and not seeing it as another but seeing it as enacting and deepening, you know, the origins of Christianity, you can't help but learn more about yourself as you look into the Mormon faith.
BERKES: The films do what some believe Mitt Romney should do if he really wants to be the nation's first Mormon president: raise tough questions about faith and answer them.
Howard Berkes, NPR News.
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