The Fight for Religious Liberty is the human story of how the Founding Fathers viewed faith, and how they broke with the Western tradition of religion-by-law to create a nation in which belief in God is a matter of choice.
"First freedom" is about the people who imagined a new way of approaching human and civil rights and ultimately transformed a nation and the world.
Often misunderstood, sometimes purposely distorted, the religious feelings of America’s founders are approached on the basis of fact. From the most non-conformist to the most devout, the founders might sometimes shock or surprise modern sensibilities regarding religious belief.
On the eve of the revolution, colonial America included virtually every Christian denomination, with no single religious sect holding a majority. Congregationalists were the largest single denomination; they comprised only twenty two percent of all religiously affiliated colonists.
Next were the Presbyterians, next was the Church of England. Judaism, Native American religions and the beliefs of a growing slave population also were represented. No European society looked like this. Up close, in any given town, the differences among sects were distinct, yet viewed from a distance the population of the colonies was homogeneous.
The new United States trusted its future not to the fear of force, but to the morality of its people. Making no attempt to lead citizens in matters of conscience, much less coerce, the nation broke with centuries of precedent.
It risked its very existence on the radical idea that a common morality could crystallize despite, and possibly because of, a lack of consensus on religious doctrine.
In their First Amendment to the Constitution, the founders guaranteed freedom of religion for each and every citizen in the new United States. As a matter of practical governance, that single action might have brought about the destruction of all that they had achieved and all that they had planned for the new country.
After all, no nation throughout the Western tradition, dating back thousands of years, had ever been created without a state-sanctioned religion, one that might well be controlled by the government in order to control the populace.
Thomas JeffersonA key figure in the fight for religious freedom.
The establishment of freedom of religion was not merely a matter of political bravery, however. FIRST FREEDOM: The Fight for Religious Liberty reveals the personal courage that made the First Amendment possible.
From both ends of the religious and political spectrum – and also from those who refused even to betray their personal beliefs – the founders found their way to an agreement. It was an agreement that reflected the extraordinary nature of the founders at their finest.
Those with the most influence over the religious future of the nation set aside their own personal beliefs, placing a greater value on the strength of freedom and the plurality it invited. The delicacy with which the founders managed their power in this crucial aspect of the birth of America was itself a revolution in human governance.
The right of freedom of religion in the United States instigated a fundamental shift in human history. No other aspect of the American Revolution was as intrepid in its own time, or ultimately, as influential worldwide. First Freedom: The Fight for Religious Liberty profiles the generation of colonial Americans who raised the ideal of religious freedom to the level of a fundamental human right. And it honors those founders who could not rest until it was carved into law.
FIRST FREEDOM: The Fight for Religious Liberty
“FIRST FREEDOM: The Fight for Religious Liberty” includes interviews with leading historians, authors and religious scholars, presenting important accounts and research. They are among today’s most respected scholars and writers on the subject of faith and American history, and include the following individuals:
Patricia Bonomi, historian/writer and Professor Emerita, New York University. Author of Under The Cope of Heaven.
Douglas Brinkley, project scriptwriter, professor of history at Rice University, and a contributing editor at Vanity Fair. Author of The Reagan Diaries and numerous other historical books.
Richard Bushman is Gouverneur Morris Professor of History emeritus at Columbia University. Prior to teaching at Columbia, he held positions at Harvard University, Brigham Young University and the University of Delaware. Author of The Great Awakening: Documents on the Revival of Religion.
Jon Butler, project advisor and Howard R. Lamar Professor Emeritus of American Studies, History and Religious Studies, Yale University. Author of Awash in a Sea of Faith.
Forrest Church (1948 – 2009), writer/historian and former pastor of All Souls Church, Manhattan. Author of So Help Me God; The Founding Fathers and the First Great Battle Over Church and State.
Julie Fenster, project co-writer and historian/writer. Author of Parish Priest.
Robert P. George, McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence, Princeton University; Director, James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions. Author of Law, Religion and Morality in Crisis.
Nathan Hatch, project advisor, scholar, and president, Wake Forest University. Author of The Democratization of American Christianity.
Dr. Matthew S. Holland, historian and President, Utah Valley University. Author of Bonds of Affection: Civic Charity and the Making of America.
David Holmes, project advisor, professor, College of William and Mary. Author of The Faiths of the Founding Fathers.
John Hope Franklin (1915 – 2009), Professor Emeritus, Duke University. Author of From Slavery to Freedom: A History of Negro Americans.
Jim Hutson, project advisor and Chief of the Manuscripts Division, Library of Congress. Member of the History Departments of both Yale and William and Mary. Author of The Founders on Religion.
Daniel Mariaschin, Executive Vice President, B’Nai B’rith International.
Jon Meacham, former Editor-In-Chief, Newsweek Magazine. Pulitzer Prize-winning author of American Gospel: God, the Founding Fathers, and the Making of a Nation and American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House.
Cokie Roberts, senior news analyst for NPR News, where she was the congressional correspondent for more than 10 years, and political commentator for ABC News.
Bruce Shelley, professor of church history at Denver Seminary. Athor of Church History in Plain Language, and other books.
Jack Welch, professor, Constitutional Law, J. Reuben Clark Law School, Brigham Young University.
Gordon Wood, Alva O. Way Professor of History, Brown University. Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Radicalism of the American Revolution.