Matthew Holland, president of Utah Valley University, was one of several scholars interviewed for the documentary "First Freedom: The Fight for Religious Liberty," which aired Tuesday night on PBS. Holland recently spoke with the Deseret News about the project.
Is there a particular founder who you believe hasn’t received his due?
When it comes to religious liberty, I don’t think the contributions of George Washington have been adequately appreciated. For those who really study and know, there’s kind of a prominent role given to Thomas Jefferson and a prominent role given to James Madison in drafting the Bill of Rights.
But Washington’s carefulness as the first president — how he treated religious issues, how he reached out to religious minority groups to include them, and his carefully chosen words when it came to religiously oriented references in his public documents — really set a very important tone for the country to, on one hand, say that the civic realm was largely independent of the churches of the day, and yet on the other hand, there was a welcomeness and openness to religious belief and expression that he himself even took opportunity to express at that time.
In some ways, George Washington is the luminary of the founding generation, but often for other reasons: his military accomplishments, his role as first president. But I think there’s a lot to be said for his role as chief officer of the land who was navigating this new world of religious liberty.
How do you think we’re doing as a nation in carrying out this vision of the founders regarding religious liberty?
In some ways, I think we’re doing extraordinarily well. As a Latter-day Saint, I belong to a faith group that found itself in its infancy in a country that claimed to be committed to religious liberty. But the lack of full commitment to that principle meant that Latter-day Saints were forced, effectively, to flee the country.
We don’t face anything like that today, so that’s at least one bellwether of a national commitment to protecting the rights and privileges of all people whatever their religious beliefs may be. I think that’s just one example, and you could point to many, many others that show that over the years there’s been an increasing commitment to religious liberty.
That said, I think there are some warning signs on the horizon that as America becomes more and more divided about certain religious issues, there’s been a certain sort of contraction, if you will, with respect to religious liberty, and that religious people may feel increasingly confined in their abilities to feel like they can freely speak their mind about certain religious convictions.
A lot of that happens more informally than formally. But even in areas with respect to public prayer and other things, there’s been perhaps something of a receding, if you will, of certain aspects of religious liberty. So it’s an area that I think at once needs to be celebrated but also watched quite carefully.
Do you think there are any misconceptions that we have of the founders’ views of religious liberty?
Yes, I do. I think there are misconceptions. One thing I appreciated about this project is how hard the filmmakers worked to clarify some of those misconceptions.
I think sometimes there’s a tendency to make the founders more overtly and more traditionally religious than some of them were. On the other hand, I think there are other people who try to separate religion out of the life and mind of the founders too much. I think that what the project has done a nice job of is striking that balance of trying to get clear on what founders did and didn’t believe about religion and the role of religion in government.
Part of the story here is that religious liberty is created by some degree of separating church and state, or separating religion and politics. And yet the founders were not so committed to that, or didn’t have an understanding of such a separation, that it meant a complete and utter separation of anything religious and anything political, which in some quarters of the world appears to be how the founders are interpreted on that front.
So I think there’s a lot that needs to be reflected on by all parties, whether you’re inclined to see the founders as religious and be more favorably disposed to a religious republic, or if you’re more inclined to see the founders as secular and favor a more secularized republic. I think both camps might be surprised if they burrow into the facts and the historical details of what the founders really thought and believed.
In recent months, evangelical pastor Rick Warren and the Alabama attorney general (Luther Strange) have both said that religious liberty will be the civil rights issue of the next decade. Bishops of the Catholic Church have expressed a similar sentiment in some of their statements. What is your perspective on that?
I’m quite sympathetic to that view. I think that moving forward, the ability to express oneself and one’s religious beliefs and convictions will have to be watched and will increasingly come in conflict with other legal and jurisprudential trends in the country. Therefore, I do think it will emerge as a critical — and perhaps the critical — civil rights issue moving forward.
It’s always impossible to say exactly how things will unfold, but I think it’s certainly a candidate to be right at the top of a number of issues that may be considered key civil rights considerations.
What role did you play in the documentary and how did it come about?
The idea for the documentary was germinating just at a time that a book of mine was published called “Bonds of Affection: Civic Charity and the Making of America,” which was about some of the early religious influences on some of the key founding figures of America.
I think it was attention surrounding that book that caught the attention of the documentary makers, and they reached out and said, “Would you let us interview you for this project?” Given the nature of the project, I was happy to accept.
For additional news coverage of the documentary "First Freedom: The Fight for Religious Liberty", see the following:
David Ward is a writer living in Salt Lake City. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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