Friday, October 15, 2010

Ben Franklin and the "Virtue" of the Founders

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.


  1. 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've heard Glenn Beck explicitly note that Franklin was not an orthodox Christian. Criticisms should be fair, and well-sourced.

  2. Can you please give me a source for that statement by Beck? I'd be interested in seeing it. Even so, can someone who stated that he doubted the divinity of Christ be called ANY kind of Christian? I suspect most the Christian proponents of the Christian nation case would say "no."

    More to the point, my post was prompted by a letter (cited in the post, with a link to the original) which explicitly used Franklin as evidence for the idea that the founders were Christians founding a Christian nation. Franklin's own words, quoted extensively in my post, demonstrate that he at least had no such intention.

  3. Listen, Mark, I'm not grenade-tossing. I heard Beck say it myself, and was passing along the info.

    I'm up on this stuff, and was pleased to hear Beck say it.

    As for Barton, although my POV is closer to his than yours, I don't want to get stuck defending him. He's sloppy [although he's corrected most of his amateurish errors], and reads too much into some quotes [see Adams on the "Holy Ghost" at Barton's Wallbuilders site---Adams is actually being sarcastic there, but Barton takes him straight, no chaser].

    As for the Franklin letter against Paine, Barton [if I recall] uses it as "proof," but it's still disputed the actiual letter was directed at paine or Age of Reason, as it's undated.

    As for Adams' thanksgiving proclamation, I found it meself, and it does serve as a principled rejoinder to the Tripoli argument.

    Please do stop by our groupblog, American Creation. We have disparate views from secular to evangelical and your participation would be extremely welcome.

    And for the record, the Christian Identity thing vs. Barton is a smear. There is no principled reason to reject his explanation that he didn't know they were whackjobs.

    The rest of Goldberg's piece was the usual rehash of Barton's sins, most of which he's corrected. There were more historical errors in Goldberg's comments section from the left than in any Beck university piece. She should mow her own lawn first.

  4. Oh, I see. You were referring to “Only a virtuous people are capable of freedom. As nations become corrupt and vicious, they have more need of masters.”

    Well, there's an implicit link of Franklin to Christianity there. But Franklin supported churches of all stripes, promoting the "virtue" that a republic needs, and as you know, numerous other Founders saw a necessary link between virtue and religion.

    So, OK, the author's a little fuzzy and conflating there, but still more right than wrong.

    The live question is what she wrote about rights being endowed by our creator and under "natural law." This Franklin undoubtedly believed, and that central truth is the true casualty of these culture wars.

  5. It seems more than implicit to me--it is the only evidence offered for the Christian nation assertion in the letter.

    Franklin (the subject of my post) clearly separated virtue from religion--he was fundamentally concerned with actions, not faith. People who emphasize Christian faith and use Franklin to support their case either do not know Franklin or are being dishonest. Franklin's concern was with the ideal of public virtue, and he recognized that people of ANY faith, or none, were capable of it.

    Franklin's support of churches was practical. If a church aided the cause of encouraging virtue, he was all for it--and he considered any church potentially useful that way. He praised Christianity as a moral system (like Jefferson did). He did not to my knowledge pass judgment on the validity of various faiths.

    The Christian nation argument does not promote any of this, and its proponents cannot accurately use Franklin to advance their views.

    BTW, if every author is to be held responsible for the accuracy of the comments section, everyone will shut down comments!

  6. Oh, I think at least some policing of the comments is in order. Otherwise the end result is more confusion than when the author started.

    We do not disagree about Franklin---I simply assert that even the stupid Christian Nationist wingnuts are hip to him and Jefferson.

    My constant complaint is that "the Christian Nation thesis" is more strawman than fact in these arguments.

    [For the record, soteriologically speaking, in a letter to Whitefield, Franklin rejects "works" as a way of getting into heaven. He thought it would be a gift from God, unearnable by man. And that said, he was completely agnostic on Christian dogma and the Bible.]