16 July 2011

Ben Franklin, George Washington, and Christianity

One of the more controversial topics in modern American discourse is the question of how Christian the American founding fathers were.  There are people on either side of the argument.  Some argue that nearly all of the founders were devout Christians, while others argue that Christianity played a marginal role in the lives of the founding fathers.  In a previous post on this topic for the occasion of Independence Day, I pointed out that John Witherspoon, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence was a practicing Presbyterian minister with a strong Christian faith.

One recent book that looked into this topic was Washington's God: Religion, Liberty, and the Father of our Country.  In this work, Michael Novak and his daughter Jana argued that Washington was a devout Anglican who had a deep faith.  One of the arguments that they make is that Washington's use of the term "Providence," or some variation thereof, generally ascribed activity in the affairs of men to Divine Providence.  This, they argue, would preclude Washington from being the Deist that some scholars describe.  One of the weaknesses of both points of view is that, from what I've read, Washington never specifically laid out his religious beliefs.  This allows either side to speculate on Washington's status as a Christian, Deist, or something entirely other.

The argument regarding Washington's use of the term Providence being inconsistent with supposed Deist belief is weakened by a close reading of Benjamin Franklin's Autobiography.  Franklin was a self-described Deist.  He specifically stated he was a Deist.  Deists tended to describe God with the analogy of a watchmaker who builds the watch (universe) and then winds it up and lets it behave according to the natural laws he set into place.  This view of God is very impersonal and argues that God does not intervene in everyday affairs.  Novak argued that Washington viewed his Providence as being active in every day life.  However, in Franklin's Autobiography, the self-described Deist wrote that he "owe[d] the mentioned happiness of [his] past life to His kind providence."  On another instance, when Franklin described the founding of the Philadelphia Academy (which would later become the University of Pennsylvania), he pointed out the need for a building to house the students and stated that "Providence threw into our way a large house ready built," which had actually been used to house the meetings of George Whitefield.  In both of these instances, a self-proclaimed Deist mentioned God as acting in the activities of man. 

In the final analysis, while its nice to find founders who were devout like John Witherspoon, the Christianity or Deism of Washington or Franklin does not impact the truthfulness of the claims of Jesus.  There can be little argument that the founders were not at least culturally Christian, and that America was not culturally Christian at its foundation.  That did not, however, make America a "Christian nation."  Washington did not wear his religious beliefs on his sleeve, so there is a lack of certainty in what he did believe.  Franklin, on the other hand, pointed out his beliefs specifically, and although he was not against religion, he was by no means a conservative evangelical.  While I found Novak's work interesting, my recent reading of Franklin weakened one of his major arguments.  I shall post more on Mr. Franklin at a later date. 

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