Ben Franklin’s God in a So-called Christian America

As I type this, I’m listening to nationally syndicated conservative talk show host Dennis Prager.  I’ve been a regular listener of his for about 10 years. He’s one of my favorite conservatives, and I’ve always enjoyed his show for it’s focus on clarifying the Left-Right political divide, and the character he shows in his interactions with dissenting views.

However, the more Jesus-shaped my thinking, my politics, my worldview, my faith has become over the past decade, the more I have tended to disagree with him on various issues.  This is particularly true when he tackles faith-related topics on his show — which he does weekly on “The Ultimate Issues Hour”.  Prager is a devout Jew, and is one of the best representatives of the Americanized Judeo-Christian moralistic religion that many conservatives in America hold.

On his show today, he talked about Ben Franklin’s God.  He proudly championed Ben Franklin’s religion as his own faith, and believes our country was founded on this kind of religion.  I agree that America was founded on the beliefs/convictions of Ben Franklin’s God — too bad this God has little to do with Jesus and his upside-down Kingdom teachings!

Ben Franklin’s faith is governed by five core beliefs:

1. God is the Creator

2. God governs the world by his providence

3. The soul is immortal

4. God rewards good and punishes evil — either in the here or the hereafter

5. Doing good to one’s fellow man is the essence of true religion

Many have debated whether or not our Founding Father’s were Deists or Christians.  Just google that topic to come to your own conclusion.  What concerns me is that far too many of those who denounce the Founding Fathers for their unbiblical Deistic views, and claim to defend biblical Christianity, actually themselves hold to a kind of pseudo-Christianity that still leaves Jesus’ subversive teachings off the table. Instead, they uphold an Americanized form of faith that is shaped more by the values of the political right and the principles of our Founding Fathers than the kingdom teachings of Jesus.

This popular conservative, moralistic faith is often most focused on “taking America back for God”, keeping the 10 Commandments in courthouses, fighting for prayer in schools, pushing pro-life legislation, honoring our military heroes, and passing laws against same sex marriage.  (And these are all good things! But they’re not uniquely Jesus-shaped agendas.) Interestingly, the most influential teachers of this brand of faith (I don’t want to call it Christianity, though most of these folks would self-identify as such) are not pastors and preachers but political pundits such as Glenn Beck, Shawn Hannity, Rush Limbaugh, and company.

I’m not interested in their political views right now (I happen to agree with some of their views on economics, politics, etc.), but merely want to point out the obvious: The form of faith/Christianity/religion they espouse that is reaching a massive national audience is not rooted in the Kingdom teachings of Jesus. Not even close. Jesus is usually not mentioned in this faith system — except as a figure exemplifying the virtue of sacrificial love in a general sense. His unique Kingdom teachings as coherent ethical system are never brought into the conversation. Jesus is our savior for the afterlife in this view, but not a teacher worth listening to for the issues of this life.

I recently preached a sermon (inspired by this CT article) at the community wide Thanksgiving Eve service in town, where I pointed out that many 20- and 30-somethings are walking away from the church NOT because they are rejecting Jesus of Nazareth, but rather have been inoculated from experiencing true Christianity by a false form of faith sociologist Christian Smith calls “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.”

Quite similar to Franklin and Prager’s faith, the authors find that many young people believed in several moral statutes not exclusive to any of the major world religions:

  1. A god exists who created and ordered the world and watches over human life on earth.
  2. God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.
  3. The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
  4. God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when God is needed to resolve a problem.
  5. Good people go to heaven when they die.

I think this is the “Cultural Christianity” that is the water we swim in day to day, and hear espoused on the airwaves, see represented in movies, and we absorb quite unknowingly into our subconsciences.

But none of it engages the prophet from Nazareth.  None of it takes seriously the radical counter-cultural values of the Kingdom Jesus announced.  Many of us are still worshiping Ben Franklin and Dennis Prager’s God, but it is not the God revealed uniquely in the person of Christ.

It’s Christmas time, the season to wrap our minds around the unbelievable fact that the far off, Invisible Creator Deity of Ben Franklin and the Founding Fathers has come near in the incarnation of Jesus, and we now have a much clearer understanding than before. Franklin never took that step:

About March 1, 1790, [Franklin] wrote the following in a letter to Ezra Stiles, president of Yale, who had asked him his views on religion…:

As to Jesus of Nazareth, my Opinion of whom you particularly desire, I think the System of Morals and his Religion, as he left them to us, the best the world ever saw or is likely to see; but I apprehend it has received various corrupt changes, and I have, with most of the present Dissenters in England, some Doubts as to his divinity; tho’ it is a question I do not dogmatize upon, having never studied it, and I think it needless to busy myself with it now, when I expect soon an Opportunity of knowing the Truth with less Trouble….” (Carl Van Doren. Benjamin Franklin. New York: The Viking Press, 1938, p. 777.)

Ben Franklin held an idea of God as Creator and Judge.  Dennis Prager and others maintain this belief in a God whose main job is to provide a moral compass to live by.  But true Christianity believes God became a radically subversive Jewish peasant 2,000 years ago who started a revolution of love and announced a new way to be human while bringing an end to the old ways — including the way of merely following Torah.  Christ was the end and fulfillment of law-based religion.  Franklin erred in thinking he could “know the truth with less trouble” when Jesus himself claimed to be Truth-in-Person, the full revelation of the true God.  According to Jesus himself, the only way to know the Truth was the troublesome way of acknowledging Christ as God-in-flesh.

While many worry about those taking “Christ” out of Christmas, I’m more concerned about those who have, knowingly or not, taken the “Christ” which Christmas celebrates out of “Christian!”

“Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power” (Heb 1:1-3).

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