Max Weber’s famous analysis of the fate of prophetic religions — that their charismatic, living messages always get watered down, calcified, and expropriated by later followers — applies to prominent lay figures as well.
Exhibit A in the American experience lies with Benjamin Franklin, the oldest and perhaps the most beloved of the nation’s Founding Fathers.
A random troll through the blogosphere reveals the extent to which Franklin’s ‘sacred texts,’ in particular the aphorisms of his Poor Richard’s almanacs and, even more so, his Autobiography, have been claimed as their own by subsequent readers. On any given day, my inbox is dotted with contemporary references to the great man, from ads for Benjamin Franklin Plumbing to invocations of his written words in support of almost any cause under the sun.
No where is this more striking than in the fashion among of America’s religious right to portray the republic as a Christian project from the very outset, a campaign in which Franklin — a confirmed Deist with only a reluctant, utilitarian acceptance of organized religion– is made to feature prominently.
Behind this effort lies a concerted drive to tear down any Constitutional wall between state and religion and to enforce the Christian Right’s reading of holy writ on the rest of us. This campaign is all the more poignant as the nation heads into a presidential election, in which the Christian Right has once again flexed its considerable, if slowly dwindling, power.
Two recent examples caught my eye. A Web site called zazzle.com has offered to sell me what it calls “Conservative and Christian posters,” complete with a portrait of a wise and aged Franklin and words adapted from his large written corpus. Here, Franklin is made to opine approvingly on various elements of the conservative Christian worldview.
Separately, I was invited to view a video, from the Hague Wesleyan Church in Hague, New York, entitled: “Benjamin Franklin Speaks on ‘America: A Christian Nation!’” Needless to say, a character actor invokes elements of Franklin’s memoirs in support of the thesis, shared enthusiastically by the local pastor and his flock, that Christian writ, not secular law, should govern these United States.
Now, Benjamin Franklin was a complex man, with many and varied aims behind his voluminous writings. These included commercial success, political influence, self-promotion and self-justification, social advancement, and a quest for scientific legitimacy. Under the circumstances, it would seem unreasonable to demand absolute consistency in all of his published views.
However, there is simply no evidence that, after the age of 15 or so, he ever returned to the ideas and beliefs of his Puritan upbringing.
“Some Books against Deism fell into my hands,” Franklin recalled years later. “It happened that they wrought an Effect on me quite the contrary to that was intended by them: For the Arguments of the Deists which were quoted to be refuted, appeared to me much stronger than the Refutations. In short I soon became a thorough Deist.” Here, young Franklin was not alone. The great Scottish philosopher David Hume likewise turned to deism after reading polemics against it.
Repeated efforts by the leading cleric in Franklin’s adopted hometown of Philadelphia failed to return him to the fold, although he continued to underwrite a pew out of a sense of social obligation. Clearly, any sympathy the adult Franklin may have felt for organized religion and for its revealed teachings was, at best, utilitarian.
The chief value, then, of religious practice was the advancement of man’s virtue and protection of the weak against man’s natural inclination toward vice. “If Men are so wicked as we now see them with Religion what would they be if without it?” Franklin asked. Besides, “Talking against Religion is unchaining a Tiger; the Beast let loose may worry his Deliverer.”
This falls far short of a ringing endorsement of Scripture, and in fact Franklin specifically renounced Christian revelation, preferring to see God as the remote creator of a universe that pretty much ran itself. In other words, man, like all other creatures, was on his own.
This strikes me as a shaky foundation on which to erect a historical edifice of the United States as a republic dedicated to enforcement of a fundamentalist Christian code.
Yet, as with so many other figures in the public domain — religious and secular — Franklin long ago lost control of his ideas, his teachings, and his message. It is up to all of us to help him take it back.