'God in America:' A Question of Religious Liberty (VIDEO)

On October 12, 1492, Christopher Columbus thrust the banner of the Catholic monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella into the sands of the island he named San Salvador, or "Holy Savior," claiming the territory for Spain and announcing that henceforth its people would be Spanish subjects. Observing the native inhabitants, Columbus wrote: "I think they can easily be made Christians."

Thus began the tangled embrace between religion and politics in the New World, a story of conquest and conversion, faith and power, repentance and renewal that has continued for more than 500 years. The dynamic intersection of religion and political life in America is the subject of the forthcoming six-hour series God in America that premiers on Columbus Day, October 11 at 9:00 PM on PBS stations across the country. Night One of the series explores how religion imprinted America with a distinctive Protestant stamp and how religious liberty proved noble in principle but messy in practice.

In the New World, Spain coupled religious orthodoxy with political conquest. Pushing into the American Southwest, Franciscan friars, militant in their piety and zealous in their faith, accompanied settlers eager for land and conquistadors searching for gold. In present-day New Mexico, the friars encountered an indigenous people they called Pueblos. The religion of these native people was deeply embedded in their culture and their way of life. For them, all living things possessed a spiritual dimension. As the Spanish set about establishing a network of missions, two ways of the sacred, two cultures, collided. Pueblo educator and historian Joseph Suina observes, "The Catholic Church was saying, 'One true God and no others.'" The Pueblos were baptized by the thousands but continued to observe their native rituals.

In 1680, simmering tensions erupted in the Pueblo revolt. Led by a man named Po'pay, the Pueblos killed settlers and friars, smashed crucifixes and sent the Spanish fleeing down the Rio Grande. The Pueblos returned to their ancient ways. Old World orthodoxy had proved fatal. But it was persistent.

Protestants had their own version of orthodoxy. On the coast of New England, Protestant reformers known as Puritans imagined themselves as a people chosen by God to build a model Christian commonwealth. Destiny demanded conformity. But Anne Hutchinson -- daughter of a minister, fiercely intelligent, and schooled in scripture -- challenged the religious and political authorities of the colony. White-hot in her righteousness, she attacked ministers, polarized the community and nearly tore it apart. Brought to trial, she was banished and excommunicated. The establishment won. Orthodoxy held. Then came George Whitefield.

An Anglican priest, Whitefield ignored parish boundaries, denominational lines and local customs. Preaching in town commons and rural fields and farms, he called upon people to open themselves up to spiritual rebirth, to make their own immediate connection to God. Whitefield challenged the authority of established ministers, snug in their social status and accustomed to due deference. But under Whitefield's influence, ordinary people -- housewives, butchers, bakers and candlestick makers -- felt empowered to make their own religious choices, to claim their own religious experience. Established ministers were horrified. But, as historian Harry Stout has observed, "Whitefield smelled the disintegration of the old aristocratic order." As farmers put down plows and picked up guns, the sense of individual empowerment set loose by religious revival spilled into the political sphere, fueling the rebellion against Great Britain and endowing it with divine purpose.

The rebels won. Tattered but victorious, the fledgling nation forged its political and religious identity side by side. Religion was becoming more and more diversified -- Anglicans, Catholics, Mennonites and Quakers all vied for followers, while the numbers of Baptists and Methodists surged past traditional denominations. The Second Great Awakening drew tens of thousands of Americans into the evangelical fold and spurred a movement for social reform. The guarantee of religious liberty enshrined in the First Amendment encouraged competition in the religious marketplace. By the 1830s, America had built a solidly Protestant identity -- a New Eden -- proud of its traditions of opportunity and religious liberty.

In the 1830s, the Protestant establishment in New York City was challenged by Catholic immigrants from Ireland. Virulent anti-Catholicism had festered since colonial times. As Professor John McGreevy has observed, "Many Americans associated Protestantism not just with liberty but with progress, part of the progress of the modern world." Catholics seemed to threaten progress. Professor Steve Marini adds that it seemed that "Satan himself had invaded the Garden of Eden." Riots broke out in Philadelphia and New York. In Boston, factory workers burned a convent.

Into the fray stepped John Hughes, a self-educated Irish immigrant who rose through the ranks to become Archbishop of New York City. Like the parents of Irish schoolchildren, Hughes thought Protestantism pervaded the public schools: many teachers were former ministers; textbooks contained virulently anti-Catholic claims and the Bible read at the start of the school day was the King James Version -- a Protestant Bible. Catholics had their own Bible, one approved by the Vatican and richly annotated. The radical notion at the heart of Protestantism, that any person could read and interpret the Bible for himself, was anathema.

Hughes vowed, "I was bound to see that the religious rights of my flock should not be filched away from them, under the pretext of education." He took the fight over public schools into the hurly-burly arena of New York politics. In the end, New York voted to end religious instruction in its public schools. Hughes went on to build a system of parochial schools where Catholics could be educated according to the tenets of their faith.

The story of Hughes and the conflict over the public schools is one story in a continuing narrative about religious liberty in America and the ongoing struggle to define it. In the past, religious minorities -- Baptists, Jehovah's Witnesses, Jews and Atheists -- fought for their rights. Today the conflict over the establishment of an Islamic center near Ground Zero is part of this historical pattern. It is also a vivid reminder that liberty does not operate in a vacuum but in a cultural context. As legal scholar Sarah Barringer Gordon has observed, around the question swirl memory, fidelity, sacrifice and patriotism.

WATCH the trailer for God in America below: