‘First Freedom: The Fight for Religious Liberty’ airs on PBS

As numerous church leaders have warned in recent years, the rights of believers are increasingly under threat — not only around the world but within the United States as well.

So the documentary "First Freedom: The Fight for Religious Liberty" — a look at the origins of the religious guarantees enshrined in the First Amendment — makes for timely as well as educational television.

Filmmaker Lee Groberg's documentary — produced in association with PBS affiliate WETA in Washington — premieres on PBS stations Dec. 18, 8-9:30 p.m. (check local listings).

Narrated by Brian Stokes Mitchell, Groberg's film uses interviews with scholars, archival images and re-enactments to chart the shifting fortunes of religious liberty in the New World from the 1630 founding of the Massachusetts Bay Colony to the death of James Madison in 1836. It also explores the varied views of the divine held by such seminal figures as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Patrick Henry and second cousins Samuel and John Adams.

Most of these founders seem to have been believers of one stripe or another. John Adams, we learn, never missed Sunday service unless he was ill. But their outlook on faith was affected both by Enlightenment-era suspicions of the supernatural and by emerging challenges to the doctrine of the Trinity.

As the program makes clear, anti-Catholicism, a near-universal prejudice among their English forbears, was hardly unknown among the founders themselves. Thus, the Quebec Act of 1774, in which the British Parliament guaranteed recently conquered French Canadians the free exercise of their religion, drew fulminating oratory from Sam Adams and a caricature of Catholic bishops from engraver Paul Revere.

Washington, by contrast, seems to have been proof against such sentiments. As one dramatization shows, when he sent troops to invade Canada during the Revolution, Washington ordered their commander to respect both the property of the Catholic Church there and the sensibilities of its members. His equally laudable freedom from anti-Semitism is the subject of another re-enactment.

Catholic viewers might wish that the contribution of their ancestors in the faith who made Maryland a pioneer of religious toleration among the colonies had been highlighted. Still, given his limited 90-minute time frame, Groberg manages to craft a valuable overview of complex developments that viewers of all faiths will likely appreciate.

While the subject matter of "First Freedom" is unlikely to appeal to very young family members, the program is free of any genuinely objectionable material. It's rated TV-PG — parental guidance suggested.



Appreciating the gift of memory

Anne Hansen

Why do we hold on to so many things in closets, garages and storage units? What is it about the birth announcement of an adult child or the high school diploma of an elderly grandparent that keeps these objects carefully saved rather than discarded? They are of no use to anyone and take up space. Yet they are precious and difficult to part with.



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January 25, 2015

  • Saturday, January 24

    Building Bridges through Intercultural Competency: A Symposium on the Future of Education and Ministry in the Church, 8:30 a.m.-12 p.m., Loyola Marymount University, 1 LMU Drive, Los Angeles. Archbishop José H. Gomez of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles will deliver a keynote address, which will be followed by two panel discussions on issues of intercultural competency and diversity featuring experts and practitioners working in Catholic education and other ministries in Southern California and across the United States. For more information, please contact the LMU School of Education Office of the Dean at (310) 258-8768.

    Life in the Spirit Seminar, 9 a.m.-6 p.m. (Registration 8:30 a.m.), Incarnation School Auditorium, 1001, N Brand Blvd., Glendale. Led by Fr. Bill Adams C.S.s.R. (818) 421-1354.

    Journey Through Grief, 9:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m., Mary & Joseph Retreat Center, 5300 Crest Rd, Rancho Palos Verdes. (310) 377-4867.

    “One Life, One Light” Requiem for the Unborn, 6 p.m., Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, 555 West Temple Street, Los Angeles.

  • Sunday, January 25

    44th Annual Whale Fiesta, 10 a.m.-3 p.m., Cabrillo Marine Aquarium, 3720 Stephen M. White Drive, San Pedro. Free. Cabrillo Marine Aquarium celebrates marine mammals and the beginning of the migration of the Pacific gray whales along Southern California. Activities include building a life-sized whale out of sand, “Great Duct Tape Whale Contest” and “Whale Dynamics,” where participants will be transformed into a single “living whale.” (310) 548-7562.

    “Sisters of Selma: Bearing Witness for Change” with director Jayasri Majumdar Hart, 3-5 p.m., St. Bernadette Parish, 3825 Don Felipe Dr., Los Angeles. A discussion with Ms. Hart will follow the screening.  Free.

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