Thomas Kidd’s new biography attempts to answer that question. Look into Benjamin Franklin: The Religious Life of a Founding Father.
Thomas Kidd is not bullish on the Enlightenment. “The Enlightenment is an ideologically loaded term that implies that much of the western intellectual tradition before The Enlightenment was ‘dark.’ Much of that tradition was, of course, Christian. ‘The Enlightenment’ presupposes an arc of history toward secular democratic scientific liberalism.”
Today, he recommends five books on how this movement influenced Americans and the Founders. Here’s one of his recommendations:
Jeffry Morrison, John Witherspoon and the Founding of the American Republic (2005). From one of our finest scholars of Christianity and the Founding, I might also recommend Morrison’s volume on George Washington’s political philosophy. But here Morrison assesses the broad significance of Witherspoon, Princeton’s president and the only pastor to sign the Declaration of Independence, and his defense of the “public interest of religion.”
Jonathan Yeager tells Thomas Kidd about the great puritan preacher’s desires for the appearance of his work in print. No doubt, he would have loved today’s world of easy publishing.
Edwards was a meticulous author, and wanted his books to look a certain way. He was not the best judge on how his books should be printed, if the purpose was for them to sell well. Edwards wanted his books to have wide margins, generous line spacing, and to be printed on fine paper, with good type, and priced affordably. The model for Edwards was his book Misrepresentations Corrected, published in 1752. Ironically, Misrepresentations Corrected was his worst-selling book! A key reason, I believe, was that it was not economically printed. If a printer allows the use of wide margins and generous line spacing, it follows that it would require more pages, and therefore would be more costly.
Edwards vocalized his disgust with the way that his book Religious Affections was published in 1746, probably because it was concisely printed, with tightly cropped margins and line spacing. Despite his complaints, the printer for this book feared that he had not printed enough copies to meet public demand. In an advertisement at the end of the book, the Boston printer Samuel Kneeland remarked that some 1,300 subscriptions had been taken for Religious Affections, at a time when a colonial author would have rejoiced if 500 copies of a book sold.
Historian Thomas Kidd says he’s long had a theory about Christian colleges and universities. He thinks they “may be the best educational institutions today for fostering real political diversity.”
My theory is that if Christ is the center of a Christian university, that commitment can open the door for a real range of views on politics, because politics becomes a second-order priority. (Traditional seminaries, I would argue, are a different matter— there you must have stricter theological standards that tend to produce more uniformity in all areas of life and thought.)
He offered this theory to historian Molly Oshatz, who has written about hypersensitivity to differing points of view in elite colleges. She attested to the truth of this theory, citing experience at Florida State.
… my classes there included many students with strong faith commitments who were able to bring their perspective to the classroom in appropriate ways. Perhaps even more importantly, their fellow students responded to these contributions with respect and civility. A politically, religiously, and ideologically diverse student body, as well as a faculty that did not see their job as one of indoctrination, made for an excellent teaching environment.
Dr. Thomas Kidd is now blogging at The Gospel Coalition and he responds to a charge made this week that the Declaration of Independence is a systemically racist document.
“The greatest ideal animating the American experiment is here: the notion of equality by creation.” And yet, “if people are equal before God, then how can you justify slavery? Some African Americans like American soldier and evangelical pastor Lemuel Haynes asked this question within weeks of the promulgation of the Declaration.”
Haynes wrote an essay in response to Jefferson, in which he said, “Liberty is equally as precious to a black man, as it is to a white one, and bondage equally as intolerable to the one as it is to the other.”
But is the Declaration fundamentally racist? No, though it does have troubling spots, which only makes it an imperfect document. The key idea still isn’t racist at all, even if it was originally interpreted in a way we would not today. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”