A Philosophy Foundering on the Founders

In Sunday School yesterday, our Sunday School teacher introduced his lesson about Moses and the Israelites in the wilderness with a bit of trivia about the Great Seal of the United States. It turns out that Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson had wanted the symbol to reference Moses leading the Israelites from bondage.

While I am typically skeptical of such references, in this case, the teacher was right.

A dear old lady on the front row immediately commented that this fact said something about the ideas of all those who want God removed from government.

I refrained from commenting at the time, but I think that what really says something is that “The Founders” collectively rejected the idea of Franklin and Jefferson.

The fact that they minimized overtly religious and specifically Christian language in the essential documents of our nation says something about the ideas of those who want God expressly acknowledged and addressed by the nation and its government.

But I’ll fully address the importance of the separation of Church and State and a secular government from an LDS perspective another time. For now, I’d like to suggest that we not read too much into the seal concepts of Franklin and Jefferson.

After all, neither Franklin nor Jefferson are known as having been particularly pious. Both felt great affinity to the ideas of secular humanism. Franklin was not fond of organized religion, and even published a pamphlet (A Dissertation on Liberty and Necessity, Pleasure and Pain) arguing that an omnipotent, benevolent God is incompatible with notions of human free will and morality. He became more accepting of religious views as he aged, but never aligned himself with specifically Christian beliefs, and was more Unitarian in his beliefs (unconcerned with metaphysics and the dogma of religion, and favoring it only as far as it leads to positive social and moral action. Jefferson was a firm deist—not a Christian in a traditional sense. Like Franklin, his religious beliefs were of a practical nature, and was skeptical of miracles, revelation, and other sorts of divine intervention. He himself wrote on the subject—a pamphlet and later an outline for a book (The Morals and Life of Jesus of Nazareth) in which he applauded Christ as a moral teacher, but rejected Christ as anything but an ordinary man.

I find it ironic that Adams, one of the most devoutly Christian of “The Founders,” proposed for the Great Seal not an allusion to Christianity but rather a reference to Classical mythology (“The Judgment of Hercules”).

It is important to remember that Franklin and Jefferson were brilliant (if largely self-taught) scholars. Both were well versed in the literary tradition of the West. That tradition drew predominantly from two sources—Classical mythology and Christianity. They were well aware that most people were familiar with Biblical stories, and would be able to understand the political symbolism of Moses and the Phaoroh. It is for that reason, rather than any testimony or desire to link religion and government, that Franklin and Jefferson both proposed Biblical allusion in the Great Seal.

If the position that government should support and promote religion was well grounded in logic, it could be rationally defended without grasping at such straws.

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