Raised by Boston Puritans, Benjamin Franklin knew the Bible well. As a printer in Philadelphia, Franklin often used the language of Scripture in his writings. John Adams, himself a Unitarian and the second President of the United States, once wrote of Franklin, “the Catholics thought him almost a Catholic. The Church of England claimed him as one of them. The Presbyterians thought him half a Presbyterian, and the Friends believer him a wet Quaker.” Franklin made friends with people from all walks. In the early 1730s, he even began making a list of thirteen virtues to guide his life (i.e. temperance, frugality, industry, humility). Outside looking in, Franklin was a godly man. Indeed, he believed in God, but not the one in the Bible. As Thomas Kidd explains, “The checklist of thirteen virtues exemplified Franklin’s doctrineless, moralized Christianity.” He adds, “Franklin was setting foundational precedents for that distinctively American, quasi-religious genre, the self-help movement.”
Benjamin Franklin’s religion was and is the American religion: Deism (Dei = Latin for God). Deism is the belief in a supreme creator being who does not intervene in the world He created (otherwise known as clockmaker theory). The world operates according to natural laws and not meticulous divine providence. Deism was, in many ways, the religion of the Enlightenment. It glorified the autonomy of mankind, recognized only the authority of human reason, and acknowledged the intelligent design of God. As committed humanists, Deists rejected all supernatural activity and intervention by God in the world. Therefore, they also rejected miracles, the idea of divine providence, the deity of Christ, and special revelation in the Bible. Above all, Deists also misunderstood sin. Deism glorified the idea of virtue, which was always in the grasp of the human being. No need for rebirth. No need for salvation. No need for divine revelation. For the Deist, the only necessary communication from God was the sun, the trees, and the birds. One might say that the Deist acknowledged the revelation of Romans 1 and Romans 2 without the total depravity of Romans 3, or the justification of Romans 4 for that matter.
This was also the religion of Thomas Jefferson, who ripped up his Bible for a much less supernatural, more man-made version devoid of the notion of salvation. Like Abraham Lincoln (also a Deist who was raised in a Calvinistic home, but as a Baptist), Franklin grew skeptical of the Bible and did not believe it to be very practical for moral living. From a historical perspective, the American nation has been shaped by Deists. Today, this remains the American religion. Most Americans are, in some form, practical Deists. While claiming to be Christians or spiritual people, millions simply believe there is a God and that if they are a “good” person, God will reward them. This is Deism, but this is not Christianity. This is true of Benjamin Franklin’s and Thomas Jefferson’s and Abraham Lincoln’s God, but not of the Triune God of the Bible. God’s desire for our lives is not simply that we would lead virtuous lives. It is that God would be glorified in His Son’s salvation of his people and His Spirit’s adoption of His children. Deism is opposed to the Gospel because it does not plead for salvation, only morality. It puts the theological cart before the horse, or it leaves the horse out completely. But the Bible leads with redemption. In Titus 2:14, Paul says that Jesus “gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works.” Whereas American religion abides in good works, Christians abide in the vine first, and then produce the fruit of the vine. (John 15:1-17)
Deism is a vine-less church. In the 2005 book called Soul Searching, two Christian sociologists concluded that faith amongst America’s youth is basically something called moralistic therapeutic deism. In other words, more and more Americans believe with Benjamin Franklin that their standing before God hinges upon their own performance and not the work of Christ upon the cross. While Franklin and Jefferson and Lincoln were ardent patriots who molded our nation into the liberty-loving union we know today, their religiosity is deadly to the soul and their notion of freedom pales in comparison to the kind purchased for us on Calvary. Our notion of liberty should never conform to the Enlightenment more so than to the God of the Bible. Our religion should be “pure and undefiled,” seeking to care for the orphan not for virtue’s sake, but because we’ve been adopted into God’s own family by the Spirit of adoption. (James 1:27, Gal. 4:6-7) We are unable to come to God by ourselves. Our “virtuous” lives are but filthy rags apart from His sovereign grace. (Isa. 64:6) Instead, the Deity came to us. In Christ. That’s good news. It isn’t Deism. It’s the Gospel.