Thursday, May 24, 2018
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‘First Freedom’ on PBS examines religious rights sought by Founding Fathers

PBS's First Freedom: The Fight for Religious Liberty (8 p.m. Tuesday) takes a look back at the religious rights America's Founding Fathers intended through a mix of dramatic re-creations — filmed in Colonial Williamsburg and elsewhere, mostly along the East Coast in historic, colonial settings — and on-camera interviews with contemporary historians.

The 90-minute documentary begins in 1630 and advances through the years to the signing of the Declaration of Independence and drafting of the Bill of Rights.

"The great flaw in the Puritan experiment was the inability to allow serious dissent," narrator Brian Stokes Mitchell says. "But democracy in the 1600s seldom extended to faith. It would take another century to carve out the great American achievement of religious freedom. It would take a revolution."

While the notions of religious freedom and separation of church and state might seem like topics out of a musty history book, look no further than the most recent presidential election to see how the topic remains relevant. As I went to watch First Freedom, a tweet on my Twitter feed showed just how relevant as it linked to a petition that argued for stripping religious institutions of their tax-exempt status for tax-code violations that involve the mixing of religion and politics.

In the film, Jon Meacham, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of American Gospel: God, the Founding Fathers and the Making of a Nation, speaks of how the founders were shaped by their time and experiences.

"It gave them a confidence and a way of seeing the world in which the individual became the primary organizing element of the society," Meacham said. "It was no longer the king and the aristocracy, it was the citizen. And the citizen drew its authority from being a creature of God."

But he also adds that it's not just about the freedom to worship. "It's not simply the freedom to choose whether to be a Mormon or an Episcopalian or a Catholic or a Muslim," Meacham says. "It is the liberty of those not to believe."

Lee Groberg, producer/director of First Freedom, said he's always been interested in the Founding Fathers and religion.

"The First Amendment was of keen interest to me and I wanted to understand what it was that moved these men to want to move in this direction," he said in a phone interview last month. 

First Freedom serves up some surprising facts around the era of the nation's founding, including that in the 1750s only 20 to 30 percent of the colonists considered themselves religious. Today, some folks looking back ascribe religious aspirations to everyone, but that simply was not the case. Groberg said he was most surprised by the religious diversity of America's founders.

"I didn't know what their faiths were, though I assumed it was Anglican, Congregationalist, Presbyterian, the standards of the colonies, but they were all over the map," he said. "Some were Catholic, some were Baptists. It's important to know they were sensitive to the religious beliefs of others. The First Amendment assures people they could do as they wish."

.The Block News Alliance consists of The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Rob Owen is a staff writer for the Post-Gazette

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