Many people view filmmaker Ken Burns as the poet laureate of American life. In documentaries such as The War, Baseball, Jazz and The Civil War, he has woven together words, music and pictures into incredibly moving accounts of the people and events that have framed our national life.
In an interview in the July 15 Christian Century, Burns talks a bit about his work, his views on religion and his take on the role of faith in public life. Born an Episcopalian, Burns says his spirituality has its roots in Christianity, but today he finds himself in the tradition of the founders – "what Thomas Jefferson would call a deist, I guess."
Asked if he thinks the Christian faith in the American experience is a possible film subject, Burns replies, "Absolutely. I think I am leery about pursuing it in a direct way – only because it then becomes appropriated by those who wish to use religion as a bludgeon, as a tool, as a political wedge, and that is not my purpose of religion or what I'm about.
"My mission – and I'm happy to say that there is a huge evangelical dimension to what I'm doing – is preaching the gospel of Americanism," he continues, "but one that is mindful of the fact that it is not separated from questions of the spirit and the soul's survival."
Then Burns gets makes a point a lot of us will find compelling.
"I think it's also important to say," he asserts, "that I believe absolutely in the separation of church and state. I would make the [church-state] wall even bigger and wider. The genius of America, again, is being able to worship God on our own. When religion becomes a force in government, it has lost its raison d'etre."
On this Fourth of July, 2008, I offer Brother Burns a hearty "Amen!" I expect a lot of you will want to do the same.
Happy Independence Day!