WASHINGTON –– The foundations of America rest not on one religion, but many, according to historians at a panel discussion about a new PBS documentary on religious freedom.
Although contemporary Americans tend to think of the founders as being of one or a handful of Protestant faiths, “in the 18th century we had a seemingly religiously diverse country,” said Jon Butler, professor of American studies at Yale University.
He spoke as part of a three-member panel that also included Douglas Brinkley, professor of history at Rice University, and Charles Haynes, senior scholar and director of the First Amendment Center.
The panel discussion followed a 27-minute preview of “First Freedom: The Fight for Religious Liberty,” a documentary airing on PBS stations Dec. 18, about the Founding Fathers’ faith and religious freedom’s historical role in America. The Religion Freedom Education Project of the First Amendment Center hosted the event Oct. 18.
“We have become a more secular society, but religion still matters,” said Brinkley. “There is an open-mindedness in most Americans today.”
He said Thomas Jefferson was individualistic in his religious views, though he was far from the atheist that some have suggested. Rather, Brinkley said Jefferson was more like today’s “religiously unaffiliated.”
The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life reported in a study “Nones on the Rise,” released Oct. 9, that about a third of adults under age 30 do not think of themselves as belonging to a particular faith. That compares to about 10 percent of people age 65 and older and 21 percent of people ages 50-32.
Panelists also discussed the meaning of the First Amendment and its lasting significance. The amendment guarantees Americans five freedoms: speech, press, religion, petition and assembly.
With regard to religion, the First Amendment says: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
The First Amendment “is very radical for a very simple reason,” said Butler. “To use the phrase ‘an establishment of religion,’ you have to define any of those four words. What does ‘any’ mean, what does ‘establishment’ mean?”
“What does the word ‘religion’ mean?” he asked. He said that meaning was historically broad, but then narrowed by Jefferson when he coined the phrase “separation of church and state.”
He said the First Amendment creating a constitutional freedom of “religion” instead of freedom of “the church” was a revolutionary idea.
“This is the first time a Western government or any government ever established that state and religion, not the church, should be separated,” said Butler. “That is meaningful then and there is a meaningful way to interpret it now.”
Haynes said present-day restrictions on religious liberty look different for different people. “One person’s restriction is another person’s right,” he said.
As an example, he cited the objections raised by U.S. Catholic bishops and other religious leaders to the federal contraceptive mandate. They say religious freedom is being infringed upon by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services requirement that all employers, including most religious employers, provide coverage of contraception, sterilization and some abortion-inducing drugs free of charge to employees, even if the employer is morally opposed to such services.
“Therein lies a very important debate: What is religious freedom?” said Haynes.
The film covers the founding of religious liberty in the Bill of Rights and First Amendment as well as the intentions of the men involved in writing the documents.
The film was produced by Lee Groberg, a filmmaker from Utah who is a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-day Saints filmmaker from Utah and who specializes in historical documentaries.
“First Freedom” features historians and experts on faith and American history including Matthew Holland, president of Utah Valley University; Richard Bushman, professor of history at Columbia University; and Julie Fenster, author of “Parish Priest,” a biography about Father Michael J. McGivney, who founded the Knights of Columbus in 1882.