“When religion is good, it will take care of itself. When it is not able to take care of itself, and God does not see fit to take care of it, so that it has to appeal to the civil power for support, it is evidence to my mind that its cause is a bad one.”
Benjamin Franklin, Letter to Dr. Price.
I find much to admire about Ben Franklin. He was at various times in his life runaway, a scientist and a statesman, a writer and publisher, a Calvinist-raised Deist member of a Presbyterian church, a lover, a scholar and philosopher, an inventor, Postmaster, member of the committee assigned to write what would become the Declaration of Independence and all-round colonial Renaissance man who was the toast of both America and Europe. Undoubtedly, I have forgotten scores of his multiple professions, postions and accolades…and if I were to discuss them all, I would be writing a book and not a blog post.
More than once, I have quoted Mr. Franklin on this very blog–Ben is a bit of a historical crush of mine (I do, after all, like a man with a big intellect). But beyond the man that invented the bifocals, assessed daily how well he lived up to his list of virtues, made an epic kite flight, and penned a still-quotable and ultimately timeless book of colonial parables and wit, there was a man with deeply held questions of faith. As a Pagan, I can admire that.
His religious philosophy was (for anyone not familiar with religion in the early history of the US) not uncommon for the time, either among the Founding Fathers, or even among the greater populace of the time. It was not uncommon to find Christians that believed in Nature’s God and in the teachings of Jesus but neither believed in a Virgin Birth, Jesus’s crucifiction and resurrection, or other miracles of the Bible– Thomas Jefferson edited his own Bible and George Washington left church before communion. As George Washington (and I’ll get around to talking about him another time) would say, “Every man, conducting himself as a good citizen, and being accountable to God alone for his religious opinions, ought to be protected in worshiping the Deity according to the dictates of his own conscience.” Freedom of conscience was treasured by many in places like Virginia where unlicensed preaching would put you in jail and planters paid a tobacco tax to the colony-sponsored official religion and the privately held religious beliefs of individuals were often quite different than the publicly expressed religious sentiments common of the time.
This is taken from Franklin’s letter, written in his 80’s, one month before his death (after a long, productive life, well-lived in wisdom, reflection, always trying to be a better man, and in full acceptance of his humanity and his faults–including his love of the ladies), to Ezra Stiles the then-President of Yale upon the latter’s enquiry of Mr. Franklin’s religious beliefs:
“You desire to know something of my Religion. It is the first time I have been questioned upon it: But I do not take your Curiosity amiss, and shall endeavour in a few Words to gratify it. Here is my Creed: I believe in one God, Creator of the Universe. That He governs it by his Providence. That he ought to be worshipped. That the most acceptable Service we can render to him, is doing Good to his other Children. That the Soul of Man is immortal, and will be treated with Justice in another Life respecting its Conduct in this. These I take to be the fundamental Principles of all sound Religion, and I regard them as you do, in whatever Sect I meet with them. As to Jesus of Nazareth, my Opinion of whom you particularly desire, I think the System of Morals and his Religion as he left them to us, the best the World ever saw, or is likely to see; but I apprehend it has received various corrupting Changes, and I have with most of the present Dissenters in England, some Doubts as to his Divinity: tho’ it is a Question I do not dogmatise upon, having never studied it, and think it needless to busy myself with it now, when I expect soon an Opportunity of knowing the Truth with less Trouble. I see no harm however in its being believed, if that Belief has the good Consequence as probably it has, of making his Doctrines more respected and better observed, especially as I do not perceive that the Supreme takes it amiss, by distinguishing the Believers, in his Government of the World, with any particular Marks of his Displeasure. I shall only add respecting myself, that having experienced the Goodness of that Being, in conducting me prosperously thro’ a long Life, I have no doubt of its Continuance in the next, tho’ without the smallest Conceit of meriting such Goodness.”
Benjamin Franklin had, for all his intermingling of Christian, Deist and Enlightenment beliefs common to this era, a Pagan soul. In fact, in his twenties, Franklin penned the words “I believe there is one Supreme most perfect Being, Author and Father of the Gods themselves,” and that this Deist god had created lesser (but more interventional) gods in an attempt to reconcile a Deistic world view with that of the Calvinism of his childhood. Historians disagree on whether this view was ever literal and an embrace of polytheism on some level, or strictly metaphorical and representative of an attempt to reconcile religious pluralism, but either way the result was that Benjamin Franklin saw both the virtue and hypocrisy in religion and ultimately supported religious freedom. As author Steven Waldeman says in Founding Faith, “His true faith was religious pluralism. He wanted a society that was religiously dynamic and relentlessly accepting of differences.”
I want a society that is religiously dynamic and relentlessly accepting of differences too. I want to live in a country where I don’t have to worry about my children being picked on in school for worshiping differently. I want to live in a country where the destruction of the Constitution that I once swore to protect and defend against ALL enemies, foreign and domestic isn’t a political wet dream for the religious right. I want a society where it doesn’t matter if you celebrate Ramadan, Christmas, Hanukkah, Yule or Festivus. I want the state and condition of my daughter’s uterus to be between herself and her physician, and not some voyeur’s theological opinion. I want a society where the anyone can go to the courthouse and pay a marriage tax for a piece of paper like I did. I want to live in a society where a particular religion doesn’t indicate that someone is a better American. I want to live in a country that once again treasures freedom of conscience for more than just themselves.
And so I choose to invite the spirit of Benjamin Franklin, an Ancestor of these United States of America, to join our struggle in preserving the freedoms he helped secure for us in the first place. Our country has weathered threats from without and within, and our greatest threats to freedom have always been from within. As we go forth to face those that would have our freedom of conscience in favor of their dogmatic theocracy, our family will be setting a place at our table this Samhain in honor of the Founding Fathers. DC 40 has chosen to have their big, 3 day, state capitol prayer push (if you don’t know about DC 40, click here) at the same time as Halloween, All Saints Day and All Souls Day, which of course coincide with Samhain. In our home, we will hope that we may feel their presence and hear their voices and that we can give them our thanks and our assurances that their work will not have been in vain. I hope that you can consider doing the same, if not at Samhain, perhaps going forth on days like the Fourth of July, or a more modern and eclectic celebration at the time of the upcoming Hellenic festival of Demokratia (coincidentally on the 11 of September this year).
Benjamin Franklin believed that “Morality or Virtue is the End” and “Faith only a Means to obtain that End. And if the End be obtained, it is no matter by what Means.” I do not think that Benjamin Franklin would find Virtus in the Christian Dominionism movement. Indeed, Mr. Franklin was a man that built a place for a popular Evangelical preacher to speak after other congregations denied him the use of their pulpits and proclaimed, “even if the Mufti of Constantinople were to send a missionary to preach Mahometanism to us, he would find a pulpit at his service.” In the name of Columbia, celebrate the work, life and spirit of Ben Franklin.
Hail Ben Franklin!