“Ben Franklin: Moralist”

John Fea’s Virtual Office Hours: Spring 2016 Season – Episode 12


greetings everyone and welcome to
episode 12
the spring 2016 season of the virtual
office hours we are getting close to
wrapping up we actually have two more
episodes after this so stay tuned i hope
you’ll finish strong with us as you know
we are discussing the book was America
founded as a Christian nation this book
will be coming out in the fall and we
will be revisiting some of the themes in
that book in light of the release of the
revised edition in September so we
thought we’d go back and talk about some
of these things Abby Blakeney as always
our producer is with us and as you
remember we’ve been talking about the
various religious beliefs of the family
fathers the last third of the book
really focuses on those things I have
the founding fathers with me but
actually as some of you been watching
for a while you know these are the first
five presence there were people who
perhaps fall under the realm of founding
fathers that were not presidents of the
United States and one of those people is
someone who we want to talk about today
namely Benjamin Franklin Benjamin
Franklin was very very interested in
religion for his entire life in some
ways you know he may be one of the most
when the most thoughtful people about
religion he probably thought about it
more than many of the other founding
fathers one of my favorite stories about
Benjamin Franklin comes when he’s at the
end of his life and the president of
Yale University in one of the great
Connecticut New England Divine’s
ministers Ezra Stiles who had a lifelong
correspondence with rights Franklin a
letter towards the end of his life and
he essentially I think this is about
1790 and he essentially asks Franklin to
tell him you know what is what is your
Creed then what is your religious
beliefs now that you’re getting at the
end of the light end of your life and
here’s what Franklin said this is what
he said in his letter to styles here is
my Creed I believe in one God creator of
the universe that he governs it by his
providence that he ought to be
worshipped that the most acceptable
service we rendered to him is doing good
to his other
that the soul of man is immortal and
will be treated with justice in another
life respecting in conduct of this these
I take to be the fundamental principles
of all religion and I regard them as you
do in whatever sect I meet with them as
for Jesus of Nazareth my opinion of whom
you particularly desire I think the I
think the system of morals and his
religion as he left them to us the best
of the world the best the world ever saw
or is likely to see but I apprehended
has received various corrupting changes
and I have with most of the present
in England some doubts to his
divinity though it is a question I do
not dogma ties upon having never studied
it and think it needless to busy myself
with it now where I expect soon an
opportunity of knowing the truth with
Wes trouble again classic Ben Franklin
here again his Creed essentially he
believes that Jesus was great
philosopher great moral philosopher but
certainly was not God but what does he
know right he’ll find out soon
and he’s
actually going to die shortly after he
writes this this uh decide this letter
two styles so so that’s Franklin’s Creed
at the end of his life very early in his
life Benjamin Franklin some of you know
he’s raised much like we talked about
John Adams last week he’s raised in a
Puritan family and much of his life i
think is an attempt to rise above or
overcome the limits especially the
limits of original sin he lived there
the limits of total depravity that that
new england life sort of placed upon him
so much of Franklin’s journey to
Philadelphia his quest for improvement
and experimentation and it’s been an
intellectual life is very much tied I
think with his motivations to sort of
break from his past in a very kind of
progressive almost there light in Midway
very early in his life he says that he
is a thoroughgoing deist what’s really
interesting about that is his father
some deist reading reading by deists and
he read them instead of being convinced
as to how poor the argument of the DSR
he’s actually convinced by the deists
and claims he is a thoroughgoing deist
later in life I think his his deism if
he ever fully embraced it sort of
softens a little bit he certainly has a
place for Providence in his in his view
of the world there’s the famous moment
in the Constitutional Convention where
he asks God to intervene and asks for
prayer so his God is certainly not
someone who’s distant but someone who
can interject and intervene into human
life but ultimately Franklin’s religion
as I read from that quote is a religion
of virtue it’s a religion of morality he
works hard at trying to follow these
virtues that he lays out for himself he
is one of the more comical stories he
sort of worries that he’s being too
proud so he adds humility to his list of
virtues but if he could live just a sort
of good honest frugal moral life he
believes he’ll be judged in the end in a
very positive way so I think that’s the
story of Franklin read the book get some
more details as a little more complex
than that but but Franklin certainly is
someone who thought a great deal about
religion and believes that it like Adams
and the other founders it is it is
important to the moral progress of
society so thanks for watching we have
two more episodes left we’ll see you
next time on the virtual office hours

Fred Rogers and the Loveliness of the Little Good

The power is in Rogers’s radical kindness at a time when public kindness is scarce. It’s as if the pressure of living in a time such as ours gets released in that theater as we’re reminded that, oh yes, that’s how people can be.

Moral elevation gains strength when it is scarce.

.. Mister Rogers was a lifelong Republican and an ordained Presbyterian minister. His show was an expression of the mainline Protestantism that was once the dominating morality in American life.

.. Once, as Tom Junod described in a profile for Esquire, Rogers met a 14-year-old boy whose cerebral palsy left him sometimes unable to walk or talk. Rogers asked the boy to pray for him.

The boy was thunderstruck. He had been the object of prayers many times, but nobody had asked him to pray for another. He said he would try since Mister Rogers must be close to God and if Mister Rogers liked him he must be O.K.

Junod complimented Rogers on cleverly boosting the boy’s self-esteem, but Rogers didn’t look at the situation that way at all: “Oh, heavens no, Tom! I didn’t ask him for his prayers for him; I asked for me. I asked him because I think that anyone who has gone through challenges like that must be very close to God. I asked him because I wanted his intercession.”

And here is the radicalism that infused that show: that

  • the child is closer to God than the adult;
  • that the sick are closer than the healthy;
  • that the poor are closer than the rich and
  • the marginalized closer than the celebrated.

Rogers often comforted children on the show and taught them in simple terms, but the documentary shows how he did so with a profound respect for the dignity of each child that almost rises to veneration. You see his visceral disgust for shows that don’t show respect — that dump slime on children, that try to entertain them with manic violence.

In the gospel of Fred Rogers, children are our superiors in the way

  • they trust each person they meet, the way
  • they lack guile,
  • the way a child can admit simple vulnerability.

Rogers was drawing on a long moral tradition, that the last shall be first. It wasn’t just Donald Trump who reversed that morality, though he does represent a cartoonish version of the idea that winners are better than losers, the successful are better than the weak. That morality got reversed long before Trump came on the scene, by an achievement-oriented success culture, by a culture that swung too far from humble and earnest caritas.

Rogers was singing from a song sheet now lost, a song sheet that once joined conservative evangelicals and secular progressives. The song sheet may be stacked somewhere in a drawer in the national attic, ready for reuse once again.