If I had a dollar for every time I heard a discussion of America’s mytho-religious origins, I’d be a rich man right now.
This said, the speaker did have some evidence on his side, especially with regard to Benjamin Franklin. I had come to believe the man was pretty consistently a nominal Deist throughout his life, but our speaker pointed out that it was he who implored the Constitutional Convention in 1787 to consider the importance of prayer:
I have lived, Sir, a long time, and the longer I live, the more convincing proofs I see of this truth- that God Governs in the affairs of men. And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without his notice, is it probable that an empire can rise without his aid?
Some take this to be evidence of his turn towards orthodox Christianity later in life. Others probably feel it proves nothing. I’m not sure it matters.
After years studying American religious history, I’m rather tired of arguing back and forth about the Founding Fathers. The assumption seems to be that if we can just prove the religiosity of Washington, Franklin, Jefferson, and Adams one way or the other, then we’ll know something important about our world today. But that’s the past. The dead past. And while it is a worthwhile discussion to have, there’s no use arguing over it forever.
The truth is, even if the Founding Fathers were all orthodox and committed Christians, all that means is that they were committed Christians. But they lived in a much different world than ours and had their own human flaws and foibles. Besides, they did not institute a theocracy, but rather a democracy that enthroned no one faith as oversee of a State Church, but rather allowed for a freedom of religion.
To be sure, the earliest Puritan settlers of America did come forth to establish a “City on Hill,” but after a few generations even they (in 1700!) looked back to their past as better or more holy. It has become an American tradition to bewail the present and assume that returning to the past is the way forward.
I can tell you this, though: at no point has America ever been perfect. The Puritans actively persecuted those who didn’t believe as they did. The Founding Fathers were dedicated to freedom, but only as long as you were a white property-owning male. After tolerating and supporting it for 70 years, American Christians helped abolish slavery…and then countenanced Jim Crow for decades. And when the Islamic world calls American “Great Satan” today for its purveyance of moral decadence, sometimes questionable military interventionism, and economic imperialism and globalization, can we completely disagree?
Don’t get me wrong: there are many great things about the United States of America and it does much good in the world. I am a very thankful American and considered us to be a blessed land and people. But I also want to be an honest citizen, and that means being straightforward about where we need to think hard about our decisions as a nation and the way in which we currently operate.
More important than our mythic origins,therefore, is the question of what we are doing RIGHT NOW. It is a question not of simple identity but rather current purpose and trajectory. Forget whether or not Benjamin Franklin fits our model of appropriate Christianity, and ask instead: is the United States of the America as currently constituted acting in a Christian manner? This is a question I wouldn’t mind thinking–and acting–on right now.