Ask an American what faith they profess and you’ll find Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Moslems, and Hindus in abundance, with a liberal sprinkling of Bahai’s, Sikhs, and Zoroastrians. But hardly anyone will confess to being a Confucianist.
That’s odd, because Confucius is as American as Motherhood and Apple Pie. Our nation’s founders admired him greatly. Thomas Paine listed the Chinese sage in the same category as Jesus and Socrates and a manual for public devotion that he helped devise omitted any Biblical passages but included proverbs from Confucius and other Eastern poets. James Madison, the father of the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights, had a portrait of Confucius hanging in his
But it was Benjamin Franklin who first introduced Confucius to the American colonies. In 1737,
carried a series of papers “From the Morals of Confucius” in his weekly magazine The Pennsylvania Gazette. Franklin called the Chinese master’s philosophy “the gateway through which it is necessary to pass to arrive at the sublimest wisdom ….” Franklin
Holland Cotter summarizes the Confucian outlook in today’s New York Times as a pragmatic strategy of “you be nice to me and I’ll be nice to you,” getting along by going along. “He also believed that education, hard work and respect for the past were essential; that excessive anything — money, fun, religion — led to trouble; and that social harmony was best achieved when people interacted courteously, but basically minded their own business.”
Some doubt if Confucianism even qualifies as a religion, because it focuses mainly on ethics rather than on saving souls. Asked by a follower about life after death, Confucius supposedly replied, “Why worry about the next world when you haven’t yet learned how to live in this one?” For a founding generation of Americans tired of metaphysics, a practical religion that counseled public virtue and civic-mindedness while avoiding hair-splitting doctrine had a definite appeal.
As the father of a Korean son, I have come to appreciate Confucian culture more and more, as it helped to build civilizations that have endured for thousands of years—valuing decorum, promoting strong families, and instilling reverence for the highest standards of personal conduct.
So the next time I’m asked what religion I practice, I think I’ll answer “Confucian.” If it’s good enough for Ben Franklin, it’s good enough for me.