Monday, December 19, 2011

Benjamin Franklin--A Most Unorthodox "Christian"

Onwards with the Judeo-Christian Nation issue to determine whether or not our American heritage is indeed, undisputedly as Ms Barbara Curtis of Mommy Blog asserts, a “Judeo-Christian nation.”  We looked at our colonial roots (December 15) which can give some affirmation to the idea and then to the Founding Fathers where the issue becomes more complicated.  We had two entries (December 16, 17) on Thomas Jefferson, principal author of the Declaration of Independence, as well as being the author of the Virginia Statute on Religious Freedom which, in turn, influenced the non-establishment clause of the Bill of Rights which lies at the heart of the problem of religious displays in public space.  Yesterday I tried to use the Tim Tebow phenomenon to illustrate the difference between government-space and public space as well as between religious holidays/symbols and cultural celebrations/symbols.  So now back to the Founding Fathers and we will look at Benjamin Franklin to see his religious convictions and what they might say about “Christian Nation.”  Franklin is usually identified as a Quaker but his roots, in fact, were Congregationalist and he was baptized as an infant at the Old South Meeting House in Boston.  His parents destined him for the clergy—a fate for which Benjamin would have been incalculably ill suited.  I don’t know that he ever affiliated with the Quakers—it seems unlikely as having fled to Philadelphia (the seat of American Quakerism) at age 17, then on to London for a brief period before returning to Philadelphia where he joined the Masons at the age of twenty-five and within four years was elected Grand Master of his Lodge.  Quakers eschewed secret societies and while Franklin dressed plain and lived frugally his ties to the Masons would indicate he had already become a rationalist rather than a believer when he settled in the City of Brotherly Love.  Indeed when Franklin wrote his autobiography in 1771 he identified himself as a Deist and claimed to have long been won to that philosophy.  Franklin was very interested in religion.  In 1774, when living in London as the agent of the Pennsylvania Colony, he was present at the founding meeting of Unitarianism.  A decade later while serving as ambassador to France, Franklin gave advice to the Papal Nuncio regarding administration of the Catholic Church in the newly independent United States.  Indeed Franklin recommended John Carroll as superior of the American Mission—the provisional administration of the Church until the establishment of a Catholic hierarchy in 1789.  Franklin had become acquainted with Carroll in 1776 when they journeyed together and with Samuel Chase and Charles Carroll (John’s cousin) to Canada to seek Canadian support for the Revolution.  Carroll, incidentally, was excommunicated for this act by the Bishop of Quebec, but he retained Franklin’s esteem.  Franklin, like so many liberals across the ages, was an elitist and while he admired Jesus as great moral teacher he favored organized religion principally because of its potential to shape the morals of the common people of which he did not consider himself one.  Not only did he not affiliate to any organized religion, but Franklin himself, while exalting moral behavior as the necessary foundation of any civilization, was no moral rigorist and always allowed himself considerable latitude in his personal life.  He was however, the consummate gentleman and charmed all, religious and agnostic alike.  John Adams said of him “The Catholics consider him almost a Catholic, The Church of England claimed him as one of them; the Presbyterians thought him half-a-Presbyterian and the Friends believe him a wet Quaker.” 
     In order to clarify Franklin’s religious stance we perhaps should briefly look at Freemasonry and also at Unitarianism and its relationship to orthodox Christianity and to Deism. 
      Freemasonry rose in Britain in the late 16th and early 17th centuries.  The oldest lodges were in Scotland but the movement seems to have travelled into the southern kingdom along with the Stuarts when in 1603 James VI of Scotland came to the English Throne as James I.  While the origins seem to have been a fraternal organization of artisans and craftsmen, from the very beginning there was an interest in scientific knowledge.  Indeed the Scots lodge at Kilwinning, considered to be the Mother or first lodge in Masonry, is spoken of in the 1559 Schaw Statutes: the warden of the lodge of Kilwinning …take trial of the art of memory and the science thereof, of every craftsman (fellowe of craft) and every apprentice according to the air of their vocations.”  William Schaw, by the way, was not only one of the leaders of the Kilwining Lodge but the “Master of Works” to King James VI of Scotland before his ascension to the English Throne.  This provides a possible link to the spread of Freemasonry from Scotland to England. 
     Scottish Freemasonry is linked to the (Protestant) Reformation in Scotland and while the Scots Reformation was Calvinistic many of its supporters were no more interested in Calvinism than Catholicism but only wanted the intellectual freedom that the break with Rome seemed to represent.  This is true in both Scotland and England where once papal authority was broken, the Church—now the Reformed Church—was never able to establish control over the belief of the citizenry.  The origins of the separation of Church and State are firmly rooted in the Reformation principles that each individual is the judge of his or her orthodoxy.  Freemasonry attracted inquiring minds that wanted to discuss matters of science, politics, morals, and natural religion without the dominance of hierarchy.  There are strong ties between Freemasonry and the Enlightenment.  While today many Masons are devout members of mainline Protestant Churches with an orthodox appreciation of the Christian doctrines of the Incarnation and the Trinity, that would not have been typical in the seventeenth and eighteenth century where Freemasonry was tied to rationalism and Deism—and even agnosticism. 
     Freemasonry requires the belief in a Supreme Being but as a matter of principle leaves that Supreme Being undefined.  There is also the reference to “Sacred Law.”  While in the United States this “volume of Sacred Law” is most commonly the King James Bible, it can be any religious or philosophical text depending on the makeup of the members.  Indeed in Lodges of mixed religious memberships—Christians, Hindus, Muslims—several “volumes of Sacred Law” might be displayed together.  In other words, religion is somewhat of whatever the individual decides to make it.  In a Christian context this not only produces a religious relativism, but it permits the Christian faith to be understood so broadly as to be without substance. In this system natural science rather than revealed truth is the basis of moral behavior and that would be perfectly consistent with the thought of not only of the Mason, Franklin, but the non-Mason Deist, Jefferson. It is not Christian doctrine however in which the teachings of Jesus are not only illustrative of good morals but their foundation.  Well, that is enough for today.  We will save Unitarianism for another day.  Suffice it to say that Franklin was very definitely post-Christian in his own beliefs but thought that organized religion was a good thing for shaping the moral character of individuals less sophisticated than himself and his fellow Deists.  I don’t think one could say that he supported the idea of a Christian Nation, one built on orthodox Christian (or Judeo-Christian) doctrine but while not practicing it himself, he did encourage formal religion for the common citizen.  It would be inconsistent with his thought, however, to claim that he would support special legal or societal status for one religion over another.      


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