“Since there is no proper ceremony for observing the Fourth of July, it’s left to each of us to decide how to reflect on the meaning of freedom,” begins an editorial in the New York Times, on this the Fourth of July, 2009. I am going to spend at least part of this Fourth reflecting on the meaning of freedom, which of course will be different from what it might mean for somebody else, especially down here in Southern Ohio. My reflections on freedom on the Fourth will focus on the most famous Boston native, Benjamin Franklin, one of the Founding Fathers. I will try to show how he might be relevant to us on this two-hundred and thirty-third anniversary of our nation’s independence.
Franklin was born in a place, and at a time, 1706, that was not hospitable to freedom, either political or intellectual. Massachusetts was still an English colony, which greatly limited its political freedom, and the political freedom of its citizens, who thought of themselves first, it should be pointed out, as English, not American. They didn’t think of themselves as having rights as Americans, because the United States, did not exist when Franklin was born. As they looked at it, it was their rights as English subjects, not as Americans, that were being violated. Boston was not hospitable to political freedom because England, and the King in particular, wanted to continue to exploit the Massachusetts colony for economic gain.
But neither was the Boston Franklin was born into hospitable to intellectual freedom, to freedom of conscience, because there was a tradition of intolerance in Massachusetts that had been established by the so-called Puritans, or Calvinists, who first settled the colony. The Puritans did not come to Massachusetts to establish freedom of religion. They came, at great personal sacrifice, and with heroic determination, to establish a colony where their religion, where their brand of Protestantism, would have a complete monopoly. The Puritans were, not to mince words, religious fanatics. If they had not been, they would not have taken the great risks and made the heroic sacrifices that they did. If they had not been religious fanatics, they would not have persecuted other Protestants — and Catholics—for not sharing their particular Calvinist beliefs, for not believing human nature was inherently and totally depraved and that salvation came not on the basis of what anyone might do or not do but only as a gift from God, who chose mercifully to spare a few of them at random from burning in hell forever for reasons known only to Him.
Massachusetts and Boston in particular was a bastion of Calvinistic intolerance in the 1600s, much like the Taliban intolerance of our own time. New England in general was a region obsessed with the issue of salvation, and who was and who was not going to be saved, and how it was possible to tell what the signs were that somebody was among the Elect, whom God had chosen for salvation. By the time of Franklin’s birth, the Calvinists had lost control of the colony, which was no longer a theocracy, but the tradition of intolerance and the obsession with salvation and doctrinal purity had not disappeared. Franklin’s father spent what free time he had in the evening reading and talking about religion. It was his hope that Benjamin, with his bookish bent, would study for the ministry. It was to America’s and the world’s great benefit that Franklin’s father did not have the money to send him to Harvard to become a minister, where Benjamin might have been indoctrinated into the ideology prevailing at the time. Instead, he was allowed to follow the bent of his genius and the pull of his proclivities, becoming the extraordinary self-taught, inventive and revolutionary figure that he did. Franklin regretted the time he had spent reading religious books in his father’s house, considering such disputes and speculations about doctrinal matters and the afterlife a waste of time. His sex drive was almost as strong as his drive to learn, and the restrictive attitudes that prevailed in his father’s house and in Boston toward the body and the mind, were not compatible with his nature, or for that matter with human nature.
When at the age of 17 he left Boston for Philadelphia, a city where the Quakers rather than the Calvinists had been the most influential of the Protestant sects, he found the kind of freedom he needed to flourish, economically, intellectually and, eventually, politically. He became part of the generation that embraced the ideas of the Enlightenment and revolutionized the world. It was a generation that saw science and technology, rather the religion and faith, representative government rather than theocracies or monarchies, as the best hope for humanity. The Founding Fathers were for the most part not orthodox Christians. They were Deists, who did not believe in revelation, the divinity of Jesus, the infallibility of the Bible, or in miracles. The opening paragraph of the Declaration of Independence refers not to the Christian, the Hebrew, the Muslim, or the Hindoo god, not to the Bible or to Jesus, but to “the laws of nature and of nature’s god . . .”
Deists believed God made the world, but once having made it He left it to function according to natural laws. He did not micromanage human affairs, He followed a hands-off policy. Knowing how oppressive theocracies were, the Founding Fathers and Franklin adopted a constitution and established a government that was tied to no particular religion or god. It was not an oversight or an accident that Christ and Christianity were not mentioned in the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution. The Founding Fathers and Franklin intended that church and state be separated, as a way of preventing the establishment of a state religion. A citizen of the United States could be of any religion or of no religion. The United States stood for not just freedom of, but freedom from, religion. A person had as much right not to believe in god as to believe in god. Christians have been trying ever since the Revolution to encroach upon and transform American government, arguing that America began and should remain a Christian nation. The majority of Americans may be Christians, but that does not make America a Christian nation, anymore than having a majority of Jews would make it a Jewish nation or a majority of Muslims would make it a Muslim nation. The fundamental constitutive fact of the U.S. implied in the Declaration and stated in the Constitution is that it is not a nation of any religion. The Founding Fathers and Franklin knew from the history of Europe and of Massachusetts that a theocracy is ultimately incompatible with democracy, that God makes a tyrannical and ultimately a rotten head of state. If a fish rots from the head down, so does a theocracy.
In response to a controversy over a Nativity display at Shawnee State Forest, I posted a River Vices blog titled “Common Sense” back in December 17, 2007. Recently, a little belatedly, the minister who had campaigned for a Nativity display on public property, Rev. Gary Chaffins, emailed me to express his consternation at what I had written about him, about the display, and about Christianity on River Vices. He wanted an explanation. I offer this posting, “Franklin and the Fourth,” as part of my explanation to him, my addendum to “Common Sense.” On this Fourth of July I invite whoever might be reading this posting to go back and read or reread that posting to see what I wrote. I would hate to think what this country would be like if fanatical clerics had the kind of political control and influence that they have in several countries today. God help us if the Christian Taliban ever take control at the local, state or national level in our country. If I recall correctly, Islamists destroyed a historic huge statue of Buddha because they saw it as an idol of infidels. This competition between gods and religions, between true believers and infidels, between the Elect and the damned, can get very nasty, and in this nuclear age it could lead to annihilation. Fanatical believers who can’t wait to get to the next world, and paradise, don’t have preserving this world as one of their priorities. In this age of technology, the people on our shrinking planet are like the passengers on that Egyptian airliner that was possibly taken down into the Atlantic by an apparently disturbed backup pilot who muttered something like “God is great!” One disturbed religious fanatic who is at the controls of a nuclear nation and believes fervently that God is great could be in position to take the whole world down with him.
It is sobering to recall that Governor Strickland, himself an ordained Christian minister, and at the controls of our state government, decided that the Nativity display could remain at the lodge in the Shawnee State Forest, and that no other religious group had the same privilege. Though previously opposed to the extension of gambling, Governor Strickland has recently decided that there should be slot machines at race tracks. Religious displays at Ohio public parks, slot machines at Ohio race tracks–they were both political decisions, I understand, and politicians cannot survive without making compromises and even on occasion sacrificing principles. The recent economic meltdown is a reminder of the wisdom of one of the American proverbs Franklin compiled in Poor Richard’s Almanack: Neither a borrower, nor or a lender be. Perhaps we should add neither a borrower, lender, or a gambler be. What we are doing as a nation when we allow those who think the Founding Fathers were, like themselves, true believers and Christian fundamentalists, is taking a big gamble. We are opening the door to ecclesiastical tyranny, opening the door to those who think they know exactly what God wants us to do, sexually, ethically, and politically. They know exactly because the Bible tells them so.
On this Fourth of July we should remember that one of our Founding Fathers rejected what his father believed, and only after he did was he able to become the extraordinary creative, constructive, revolutionary American that he was. Philadelphia, the city of Brotherly Love, not Boston, the home of the mean god, was the cradle of liberty. That’s what the Fourth is supposed to be—a celebration of revolutionary change, of the triumph of understanding and tolerance over ignorance and superstition, of liberty and freedom over spiritual and political oppression.