Today, Jan. 17, marks the 300th anniversary of the birth of Benjamin Franklin. Although Franklin was never known for taking up the cause of separation of church and state as strongly as Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, he did produce at least one great passage that rings down through the ages. It is especially relevant in this day of "faith-based" initiatives.
Writing to his friend Richard Price on Oct. 9, 1780, Franklin expressed his dismay with government-imposed religion.
Observed Franklin, "When a Religion is good, I conceive that it will support itself; and, when it cannot support itself, and God does not take care to support, so that its Professors are oblig'd to call for the help of the Civil Power, 'tis a sign, I apprehend, of its being a bad one."
Long known as a deist and a champion of the European enlightenment, Franklin was also famous for his religious tolerance and his desire to see all faiths live together in peace. "I have ever let others enjoy their religious sentiments without reflecting on them for those who appeared to me unsupportable and even absurd," he wrote at age 84.
Franklin once wrote to his sister, "There are some things in your New England doctrine and worship which I do not agree with; but I do not therefore condemn them, or desire to shake your belief or practice of them."
In 1776, the Continental Congress sent Franklin as part of a mission to Canada to try to secure support for the revolution among Catholics there. The committee was instructed to assure Canadian Catholics that "we hold sacred the rights of conscience" and told that it could "promise to the whole people, solemnly in our name, the free and undisturbed exercise of their religion...."
Franklin does not have perfect track record in this area. He unsuccessfully advocated prayers at the Constitutional Convention, for example. But more often than not, his support for religious toleration and interfaith harmony led to the right place. Franklin's support of reason made him a skeptic of dogmatic forms of religion and an early champion of the scientific method. He is today remembered as one of the most colorful of the Founding Fathers.
Happy Birthday, Ben!