With a presidential candidate, a recent television special and 13 million adherents worldwide, the Mormons have gotten an extra dose of media attention lately. But there's another indigenous American religion that is now making a bid for the spotlight. Formed in the 19th century, four decades after the Latter-day Saints, it, too, emphasizes a bizarre-seeming afterlife, attracts clean-cut and socially conservative adherents, encourages its members to evangelize and raises the ire of more-mainstream believers suspicious of its claims to Christianity. With "Knocking," a documentary airing this week on PBS, director Joel Engardio draws back the curtain on America's million Jehovah's Witnesses.
People know of Witnesses, if they know of them at all, as the folks who refuse to say the Pledge of Allegiance. They also don't celebrate birthdays or Christmas, they don't vote, they don't fight in wars and they refuse to accept blood transfusions, even in life-threatening circumstances.
They believe the end of the world is coming soon, and they bear witness to God by knocking on doors. What interests Engardio—who was raised as a Jehovah's Witness by his mother and has since left the church—is that despite their fierce separatism and fundamentalism, they use the courts to fight for their right to worship as they please and their legal battles, he argues, have made the world a better place for everyone else. In "Knocking," a young man who needs a liver transplant but refuses a transfusion is admitted to one of a growing number of hospitals that are experimenting with bloodless surgery.
Engardio's own story is compelling. Witnesses, like the Amish, are baptized as teenagers or young adults; at that moment, they accept the mantle of their faith. Engardio declined to be baptized, he says, because he thought he could do more good in the world than out of it. He is also gay. His sexual orientation didn't lead him to abandon the church, but long term, "it wouldn't have been a good fit," he says. "I broke my mother's heart. Twice." (Unlike some other fundamentalist sects, the Witnesses condone recreational sex, as long as it's within marriage; they prohibit homosexual sex.) And what of all the knocking, which so many people find so irritating? Witnesses knock on doors, he explains, in order to live as much as they can like the disciples of Jesus. That way, they will be prepared for Armageddon and for the perfect world of peace and health on Earth that will follow.