by Edd Doerr
PBS's Dec 18 90-minute documentary "First Freedom: The Fight for Religious Liberty" was a pretty good introduction to the subject. It traced the development of religious liberty in the US from colonial times to shortly after 1800. It came down nicely on the side of church-state separation and used so me nice period visuals, though it was not up to the level of the 4-hour Ken Burns PBS documentary a few weeks earlier on the "Dust Bowl". Washington, John Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Franklin and others came off well, but John Winthrop and the Puritans came of as, well, Purtitans unfriendly to religious freedom. A DVD is available.
I would give "First Freedom" a "B". It is high school level stuff and left out some important matter. While it highlighted Anne Hutchinson's banishment from Massachusetts, it failed to mention the execution of Mary Dyer and other Quakers on Boston Common, and failed to provide visuals of the Hutchinson and Dyer statues on the grounds of the Massachusetts state house. It contained no mention of Roger Williams and his accomplishments. It did not mention that Massachusetts was the last state to give up a religious establishment, in 1833. It highlighted Washington's 1790 letter to the Jewish congregation in Newport, RI (Ed Asner and I were speakers at the bicentennial of the Washington letter at the synagogue in 1990), but neglected to mention Jefferson's 1802 letter to the Danbury, CT, Baptists that has been repeatedly cited by the Supreme Court as explaining what the First Amendment means. It did not mention the 1797 US treaty with Tripoli, negotiated under Washington, ratified unanimously by the Senate and signed by Adams to much fanfare, which states that "The government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion," Finally, it left the vague impression that the First Amendment only outlaws a national establishment of religion, when it actually bars any federal law even "respecting" (having anything to do with) an establishment of religion.
Though the matter may have been beyond the scope of the documentary, it did not mention the ongoing threats to religious liberty in the US such as the unceasing campaigns to infringe women's religious liberty and freedom of conscience on reproductive matters, to divert public funds to religious schools through vouchers and to infiltrate fundamentalist religion into public schools.
On balance, First Freedom was a positive contribution to an important dialogue.