What if Ben Franklin had gotten his religion?
Benjamin Franklin nearly started something that looked like a church, but then he went on to other things. What if he'd stuck with it?
One of the most appealing characteristics of Benjamin Franklin is how such a lofty figure from American history had so many observations about life that, aside from the obvious idiosyncrasies of technology and social mores of the time, sound utterly contemporary to modern ears. Franklin had thoughts about lies spreading through the media, about preachers who strayed from religion, and about the scruples of business partners and rivals.
■ One of the most intriguing ideas Franklin recorded in his autobiography was entered under "Chapter 9: Plan for Attaining Moral Perfection".
■ This plan, which starts as an exercise in his own effort to apply discipline to his own self-improvement, culminates in something that can only be described as a rough outline for a religious organization -- a church, really -- having only the loosest affiliation possible with what usually looks like religion.
■ Franklin's plan for "The Society of the Free and Easy" didn't get very far; he wrote that "I communicated it in part to two young men, who adopted it with some enthusiasm" before he put the idea on the back burner, never to be reanimated. But his purpose in outlining the plan -- "containing, as I thought, the essentials of every known religion, and being free of everything that might shock the professors of any religion" -- was, in a sense, to establish a civic religion in America.
■ Even in admitting its failure to gain traction, Franklin still endorsed it: "I am still of opinion that it was a practicable scheme, and might have been very useful, by forming a great number of good citizens". Considering that about a quarter of Americans are not affiliated with any religion, and that among those who are, many hear overt political exhortations from the pulpit (despite the ban on engaging in campaign activity under the tax code), it's an intriguing theoretical exercise to wonder: What if Franklinism had produced a real church?
■ Would it have survived the last three centuries? Would it have encountered schisms? Would it have produced fundamentalists? Or would it have produced Americans "free from the dominion of vice", as Franklin had hoped?