Freedom and responsibility. These two concepts were the core of what Benjamin Franklin believed would be needed for a successful democratic experiment.
At the time of the writing of the Constitution, religion was an assumed presence in the American colonies. Franklin believed that for the democratic experiment to be successful, government would need to protect the individual rights of citizens and religion would need to promote the common good. It is this balance and maintenance of this awkward tension that would ensure a healthy democracy in Franklin’s view.
Many people today decry the loss of influence of the Christian Church and of the broader religious voice in our politics and our cultural norms. They point to the me-centered individualism of our society and the loss of morals that serve as the social glue that keeps us working together.
Those who decry the waning influence of the religious voice in our society are right to be concerned. But I also believe that their concern is misplaced. The problem is not the loss of religious institutions themselves but the loss of an inherently American belief that with freedom comes responsibility. At one time, the community largely looked to the religious sector to maintain its commitment to the common good.
But the answer to today’s dilemma is not the simple return to a time when our religious leaders held the fabric of society together from their pulpits. Because, today, even many of our pulpits contribute to the me-centered individualism of our society, as religion is promoted as a means only for personal salvation and individual prosperity. This is not the religion that Franklin imagined when he was crafting the assumptions of the democratic experiment. His was a religion of the common good.
I think that Benjamin Franklin got it right for his time regarding the democratic experiment. We need government to protect individual rights and religion to promote the common good. Today, religion doesn’t have the same traction it did over two centuries ago. I don’t think we can turn the clock back. But I do think we need to find new ways and new institutions that have the universal respect to advocate for the common good.
Without that, I believe Franklin is right. Democracy cannot survive unless we all agree that with freedom comes responsibility.
Get that message in your church, mosque or synagogue. Or get it somewhere else if religion is not your thing. The point is, just get it. Democracy depends on it. ▪
The Rev. Brian Heron is presbyter for Vision and Mission of the Presbytery of the Cascades, a geographic region that includes 96 churches in western Oregon, southern Washington and the border of California.