Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Benjamin Franklin's creed

Franklin is generally acknowledged to one of the least religious of founders. Early in his career as a public person, he expressed in private correspondence to family members his own aversion to orthodoxy in religion and its professions of faith, particularly if such orthodoxy detracted from orthopraxy (or right conduct):
I think vital Religion has always suffer'd, when Orthodoxy is more regarded than Virtue. And the Scripture assures me, that at the last Day, we shall not be examined [on] what we thought, but what we did; and our Recommendation will not be that we said Lord, Lord, but that we did good to our Fellow Creatures. See Matth. 26.
Letter to Josiah and Abiah Franklin, April 13, 1738, quoted in The Founders on Religion: A Book of Quotations, edited by James H. button (Princeton: 2005), pg. 80.

Interestingly enough, Franklin doesn't evidence a hostility for orthodoxy per se, simply orthodoxy that detracts from the cultivation of right conduct. Works were at the center of true religion for Franklin -- not to exclusion of belief in God, but as the foundation for how to determine if that belief was authentic.  And he cited to the Christian New Testament in support of his approach.  This balanced approach to belief and works appears in Franklin's most well-developed articulation of his religious convictions, found in his Autobiography, an articulation that he referred to as "an intended Creed, continuing as I thought the Essentials of every known Religion, and being free of every thing that might shock the Professors of any Religion." Franklin then set forth this "Creed":
That there is one God who made all things.
That he governs the World by his Providence.
That he ought to be worshipped by Adoration, Prayer and Thanksgiving.
But that the most acceptable Service of God is doing good to Man.
That the Soul is immortal.
And that God will certainly reward Virtue and punish Vice either here or hereafter.
Franklin's views on religious belief and the necessity of works are thus remarkably consistent over time, and far from evidencing a hostility or apathy towards religious life, manifests a concern that religion -- belief in a God who is an active creator & governor of the world -- must manifest itself in the life of the individual.

While Franklin's creed is not expressly Christian (and was not intended to be), it certainly is not incompatible with certain orthodox forms of Christianity.  Depending on how one parses its first article, Franklin's creed could be affirmed by a Roman Catholic, for example, who steadfastly held to the decrees of the Council of Trent.  And it would be completely consonant with the faith of Christian unitarians like Franklin's nemesis John Adams and Adams' wife Abigail. 

Franklin's statement of belief should put to rest any talk of him not have a theistic belief system. His God is no absentee landlord, but is an active presence in the world, who not only creates but "governs the World" via divine Providence. This God is worthy of worship -- including prayer and thanksgiving, indicating that Franklin believed that God acted in the lives of individual people -- hence the benefit of asking God for help (through prayer) and thanking Him for His blessings.

Most touchingly to me, Franklin insists on the importance of good works in human life.  The best way to serve this God is through good works, and that the judgment of each person's immortal soul will be based on what he or she has done in this life.

While not a regular churchgoer like Washington, or a Hebrew scholar like Madison, Franklin -- who attended no church regularly nor could read any biblical languages -- left a far clearer statement of faith than virtually any of the other founders, Jefferson included.  And it was a statement of faith that affirmed an active, providential Creator deity, a deity who would sit in judgment upon all human beings, rewarding and punishing them according to the deeds they did in this life.


Angie Van De Merwe said...

"Good works" as defined by WHO and WHAT?

"Providence" is really leadership, isn't it, since the Founders were Deists?

And since the Founders also didn't believe that leaders had special priviledge, then the Constitution was what granted the basis of "ordered liberty".

Revolution was the response of the Founders to the injustice of the British Crown, and is the right of every American citizen to appeal to their government about grienvances. Isn't this what the "Tea Party" movement is doing? Therefore, Providence was not understood to be an absolute, only an understanding of/about "order", or structuring government. But, that is also to say, that government structuring does not order personal lives, unless we believe government has positive rights, which is shouldn't as the Founders did not believe in limited government....

Angie Van De Merwe said...

And perhaps, this is the quandary, today. "Providence" is understood by the evangelical as a positive right of government because "Providence" IS God! Therefore, their understanding would be intrusion into the personal life of others.

Jonathan Rowe said...

Spot on Mark.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

But, perhaps there is a more sinister means to the ends of those "in the know" (leaders), and that is when those that have no faith, "Use" those of faith to carry out their "trash". Wouldn't this be suversive of the personal lives of believers? Wouldn't this be the ideas of Leo Strauss in Neo-conservatism? a two tiered approach to governing.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

correction...the Founders believed in limited government!

Tom Van Dyke said...

Leo Strauss was not a neo-conservative. He found the Wilsonian idea of "making the world safe for democracy" to be risible.

And perhaps, this is the quandary, today. "Providence" is understood by the evangelical as a positive right of government because "Providence" IS God!

Yes, "Providence" is God, and every Founder believed in it/Him.

And yes, the existence of God is an obstacle to anyone who thinks "liberty" means "license" and you can do whatever you want.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

I do not understand why you equate liberty with license. Perhaps, your understanding of license has been defined by a religious definition. Then, I suppose liberty would be license.

But, liberty is undefined territory within the parameters of lawful conduct. Individuals then, have the right of choices of value. A religious person might be uncomfortable with this "broad way" that leads to destruction, but it is the American ideal to allow for libety of conscience.

By implication, you suggest that "God" is in opposition to liberty. There have been many theologians and Church Fathers that did not beleive that liberty was in opposition to "God", as liberty was understood a "grace".

Angie Van De Merwe said...

Is "God' necessary to live a "moral" life? No, as morality would not be defined on authority of a tradition, text, or religious government, but on psychological and sociological sciences that would understand better ways of being a parent to a child, and living, as humans.

Tom Van Dyke said...

It's amazing, Angie, that you've read the blog this long and not be aware of the Founding era's distinction between "liberty" and "license," starting with John Locke if not before. And once again, we return to "natural law," with or without a God.

I can only assume you write here much more than you read.

I do not know what "morality" means. I don't use the term, meself. As you can see from its etymology below, it refers to "mores," from the French, meaning accepted "standards." Since you reject "accepted" standards, moral "rules," you reject morality. The word "morality" is meaningless in our modern day, since everybody creates their own morality.

moral (adj.)
mid-14c., "pertaining to character or temperament" (good or bad), from O.Fr. moral, from L. moralis "proper behavior of a person in society," lit. "pertaining to manners," coined by Cicero ("De Fato," II.i) to translate Gk. ethikos (see ethics) from L. mos (gen. moris) "one's disposition," in plural, "mores, customs, manners, morals," of uncertain origin. Meaning "morally good, conforming to moral rules," is first recorded late 14c. of stories, 1630s of persons. Original value-neutral sense preserved in moral support, moral victory, with sense of "pertaining to character as opposed to physical action." The noun meaning "moral exposition of a story" is attested from c.1500.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

As to morality, morality is based on what one understands will benefit society. It is understanding the needs of society and then, assessing what could or should be done about it. But, I don't think that a co-operative effort can be made if there has been discrimination? Isn't this the basis of morality, as well? How can a slave (no rights) be understood to have any ability to co-operate, as his life has already been bought and pre-determined.

Christians justify slavery because of scripture. God has sanctioned some to be slaves, because slaves are needed for society's flourishin! A presumption upon another's life is immoral, as this is what our laws protect in civil liberties.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

BTW, there is NO OUGHT, irregardless of what Kant said! That is if one believes in individual equality and liberty....

Sara said...

OK. At the risk of getting kicked around for being a Newb and for jumping right into the middle... not to mention that I'm probably getting ready to say something everyone here already knows.

But, here goes, anyway:

I know of another "Creed" statement by Ben Franklin. (I've studied him a lot, and I even named my son after him.) I can't find the exact quote, at the moment. But he was referring to some debates that had being going back and forth about Matthew Tindal's book "Christianity as Old as the Creation" which is (IMO mistakenly) referred to as the Deist's Bible. (Deist's don't have a bible, because 'the creation' is the Deist bible).
Anyway, that book and other similar writings of the time, defined what is meant by 'Reason' and 'Natural Law', and the Rights of Man, etc. If you haven't read that book, you ought to. When you do, you will recognize a lot of the philosophy in a lot of the early documents, and the light bulb will go off!
That book started a lot of debate, and there were many 'counter' books written to refute it.
Ben Franklin once said something to the effect that he had read the arguments for and against and found that the arguments against only served to increase his conviction that Deism was correct.
I'll have to do some searching to find the original quote.
If you read Tindal's book, you'll also understand what they meant when they talked about how religion that doesn't produce moral people is a false religion.
So, there's my two cents. Be gentle with me, I'm new. :)


Sara said...

In my (ever so humble) opinion the founding fathers (including Jefferson) were "Modern Deists" who were *also* Christian, (although not orthodox... meaning 'religion' was a man made institution that was not a 'requirement', even per the teachings of Jesus. (Because Jesus spent an awful lot of effort preaching against institutional religion).
But, they were Christian in as far as they thought Jesus was perhaps the greatest moral teacher. But, they fairly rejected the rest of the Bible, for the same reasons Paine detailed in The Age of Reason; and for the same reasons given in Tindal's book. Anyway, there's two more cents. Look at "Jefferson's Bible" and you'll see the parts he liked best.
There.. two more cents for you.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Thank you, Sara. I cover the Franklin passage you mention here in greater detail:

The money quote:

"I began to suspect that this doctrine, though it might be true, was not very useful."