One of the stranger aspects of the contemporary attempt to argue that the Founders created a "Christian nation" is its use of Benjamin Franklin. For example, as I noted in a recent post, Glenn Beck has appropriated Franklin's image for his own purposes.
I was reminded of this tendency by a letter to the editor in yesterday's Spartanburg Herald-Journal. The writer insists that "our nation was founded by Christians, on Christian principles." She then quotes Franklin as evidence for the "Christian nation" case: "Only a virtuous people are capable of freedom."
Franklin was a great man, but he was a hardly a Christian in any sense this letter writer would understand. Late in life, in 1790, Franklin was asked about his religion, and he stated forthrightly his views: "I believe in one God, Creator of the Universe. That … the most acceptable Service we render him is doing good to his other Children." Asked specifically about "Jesus of Nazareth," he said that while he valued Christ's "System of Morals" as the "best the World ever saw," he also had "some Doubts about his Divinity." I doubt that most modern-day Christians would consider that the view of a good Christian.
He also thought Christ's divinity was an unimportant matter—the important thing, he thought, was that people follow the moral teachings, and if people believing in a divine Jesus aided that end, Franklin saw no harm and much good in that. When it came to religion, Franklin felt it was best to "let others enjoy their religious sentiments, without reflecting on them for those that appeared to me unsupportable and even absurd."
The key to understanding Franklin, and I would argue most of the Founders, is the word "virtue." Today's "Christian nation" advocates assume that since most Americans in the late 18th century were in fact Christians, that they therefore must have equated Christianity with virtue. Thus every use of the word "virtue" in connection with the government they set up means that American government is based on "Christian principles." But the Founders meant something quite different by that word.
In his classic work Creation of the American Republic, the renowned historian of the American Revolution and Constitution Gordon Wood explains it well. The Founders did indeed believe that self-government "cannot be supported without Virtue." But what did they mean by "Virtue"?
This willingness of the individual to sacrifice his private interests for the good of the community—such patriotism or love of country—the eighteenth century termed "public virtue."
In short, it was not an explicitly religious, much less Christian, notion. Their "virtue" referred to "social behavior," not a particular religious faith. It was related to one's "sense of connection with the general system—his benevolence—his desire and freedom of doing good."
No one better exemplifies that attitude than Franklin. In 1735, Franklin wrote "Dialogue Between Two Presbyterians," in which he argued that it was not necessary to be a Christian to be moral or virtuous: "Morality or Virtue is the End, Faith only a Means to obtain that End: And if the End be obtained, it is no matter by what Means." Just in case that wasn't clear enough, Franklin added: "A virtuous Heretick shall be saved before a wicked Christian."
This was Franklin's "virtue"—it was, above all else, a matter of how one treated other members of the community. It was not a matter of religious faith, Christian or otherwise. Franklin did not care what people believed—he cared how they acted, their charity, their social behavior.
In 1738, Franklin wrote a letter to his parents, who were concerned that their son had "imbib'd some erroneous Opinions" and strayed from their strongly held religious beliefs: "I think vital Religion has always suffer'd, when Orthodoxy is more regarded than Virtue. … at the last day, we shall not be examin'd 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."
That is the "virtue" of the Founders. If today's "Christian nation" zealots truly wanted to honor the Founders, they would stop trying to impose a dogmatic political version of their own religion on others, and would devote that energy instead to doing GOOD to their Fellow Creatures.