It’s so easy to be now taken for granted, but offering religious freedom at the time of our country’s founding was a new, astonishing and radical concept. No other nation had ever considered replacing tyranny with a stable self-government based on belief in God as a matter of individual choice.
We may also need to be reminded that even today in many countries around the world, faith-abiding citizens are subject to violent persecution and the daily religious practices of individuals and organizations continue to be severely restricted.
Also, many Americans believe that the religious freedom we have enjoyed is under siege, with pressure from intellectual and political leaders who treat this right with cynicism and indifference.
As “First Freedom: The Fight for Religious Liberty” so expertly convinces, our Founding Fathers elevated religious freedom to a fundamental human right and believed that religious faith was fundamental to the establishment of strong government.
The illuminating documentary, which honors these men who carved the religious ideal into law, will be broadcast at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 18, on KUED and Sunday, Dec. 30, on KBYU.
While “First Freedom” will be telecast nationally on PBS, there are many Uthans and members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints attached to the production, beginning with Lee Groberg. The producer and director of this documentary became familiar through his “Sacred Stone: Temple on the Mississippi,” “American Prophet: the Story of Joseph Smith” and the recent KBYU-broadcast “Fires of Faith: the Coming Forth of the King James Bible.”
Funding for the project was provided by the Larry H. and Gail Miller Family Foundation and the George S. and Dolores Dore Eccles Foundation. And the musical score is by composer Sam Cardon, BYU alum and Orem resident. The companion book was published by Covenant Communications, an independent arm of Deseret Book, which will also sell the DVD.
Even the first interviewee to be identified is Matthew S. Holland, author of “Bonds of Affection” and president of Utah Valley University. (The university’s Center for Constitutional Studies hosted the Utah premiere of the PBS special in early November.) Holland is joined by national scholars from Duke and Rice universities and prominent writers and historians.
For other projects, Groberg selected Gregory Peck, Hal Holbrook and Walter Cronkite as narrators, and “First Freedom” is narrated by Broadway luminary Brian Stokes Mitchell, whose strong voice adds weight and importance to the production.
“First Freedom” includes readings from private letters and public documents written by George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, along with John Winthrop, who led the first group of Puritans to leave England; Anne Hutchinson, who was placed on trial for heresy for her religious meetings in the early Boston area; and George Whitefield, an English preacher who was at the center of a religious revival in the early 1740s.
Adding life to what could sound like a tedious program are historical re-enactments filmed at Monticello, Mount Vernon, Valley Forge, Independence Hall and the Plimoth Plantation.
One interviewed scholar indicates that religious observation “shaped the country without strangling it.” The overriding point of "First Freedom" is that through an early conviction of freedom of faith — our first freedom — religions could flourish and our nation would be defined for its beliefs.
“No man shall suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief but all men shall be free to profess their opinions in matters of religion,” wrote Thomas Jefferson. “Truth is great and will prevail if left to herself.”