(I’m sure nobody has noticed, but this blog has been silent for the past month as I’ve been on the road for a conference, research, and now an NEH institute. Alas, I’ll still be on the road for another month—gotta escape the Texas heat!—so my entries here will continue to be sporadic, though I do hope to put up a few book reviews and reflections on the NEH transcendentalist institute. I’ll return to weekly blabbering and book overviews in August.)
Thomas Kidd is one of those prolific authors who make you feel lazy. He puts out a book a year, most of which deal with religion in early America. (I hope to do an overview of his recent and brief survey of colonial America, which has a focus on religion and conflict.) His most recent book is on Benjamin Franklin’s religious life. Though typically depicted as, in Franklin’s own terms, a “thorough deist,” Kidd argues that eighteenth century America’s foremost renaissance man had a much more nuanced relationship to faith. A good summary of one of the book’s major points is found in a WaPo essay today in which Kidd argues that Franklin was a predecessor to contemporary America’s “doctrineless, moralized Christianity.” Though Franklin might not have been committed to particular Christian creeds, he was committed to a Christian ethic of living.
Let me first outline what I like about Kidd’s argument, and then egotistically push back a little bit.
As I wrote in one of this blog’s first posts over a year ago, I am all for expanding the boundaries of “religion” and, especially, “Christianity” in early America. The narrow definition popularly assumed by those arguing that America was founded as a “Christian nation”—which presumes fervent faith, dogmatic beliefs, and pious actions—is the product of twentieth century fundamentalism. The most persuasive and accurate critique, I think, is not to adopt a radically secularist framework that eschews all religiosity, but rather to problematize the notion of religion itself. Early America was profoundly religious, just not in the way that many assume. I’m not willing to forfeit the title of “Christian” to modern evangelicals who are ignorant of the tradition’s diverse past.
That’s what I like about Kidd’s project: depicting Franklin as religious, and even nominally Christian, broadens the definition’s parameters. Even if some superficial readers might use the book to reaffirm a naive Founders-as-Christian narrative, I would hope this image of Franklin will emphasize the porous nature of religious thought and practice.
But in the spirit of academic dialogue, let me push back a bit on Kidd’s Franklin. Or at least, offer a more pessimistic interpretation. As I wrote in an article a few years ago (published in this collection), I see Franklin as not only a deist, but perhaps closer to an atheist. At least, I think he held more atheistic beliefs earlier in his life, and I haven’t seen enough evidence to convince me that he ever changed his mind. Instead, I think his pragmatic political philosophy enabled him to appropriate religious language in order to curry cooperation. Franklin’s request for a prayer at he Constitutional Convention, an event Kidd highlights in his WaPo essay, was not made out of a sincere providentialist belief, but a hope to diffuse a tense political situation. Perhaps I am most influenced by David Waldstreicher’s work, but I see Franklin as a brilliant opportunist who can mold his image into whatever fits the circumstances. This isn’t a negative–we need more flexible politicians eager for compromise–but I’m not sure it matches the puzzled yet pious model of Kidd’s work.
So while I’m all for exploring the complexities of the founding period’s religiosities, I’m not sure Franklin is the best case study.
But there is certainly room for disagreement. Religion and politics is an endlessly fascinating point of intersection in early America, and I look forward to more Franklinian dialogue.