The Original American Society That Was “Spiritual But Not Religious”

By Victor Ochieng

Thomas Kidd is a regular name for readers of the Evangelical History blog on TGC, which he runs with Justin Taylor. In 2014, Kidd, a Baylor University historian, published  the biography “George Whitefield: America’s Spiritual Founding Father” and this spring released a new book, “Benjamin Franklin: The Religious Life of a Founding Father.” If you read the two books, you realize that Whitefield is featured in Franklin’s biography and vice versa, something that would make someone feel the two books should be paired.

In the books, Kidd emphasizes just how the two colonial figures made an enormous contribution to what is today’s American culture and spiritual DNA. Whereas Whitefield is known for inspiring the American Evangelical Christianity alongside Jonathan Edwards, Franklin went down in history as someone who inspired a great desire for hard work and a personal type of religious expression, which Kidd describes in his book as “doctrineless, moralized Christianity.”

In Franklin’s biography, Kidd digs into how this Founding Father struggled with the Scripture and Christian faith he’d come across while growing up in Boston.

With his faith being “elusive” and “enigmatic,” as Kidd puts it, Franklin developed his ideas over a period of time but also juggled with several other religious ideas. Franklin is someone who’d write a religious piece under a given pen name and write another strongly criticizing it under another.

In fact, this is one of the reasons why several authors, including David Holmes, John Fea, and Gregg Frazer, haven’t been able to pinpoint Franklin’s religious belief.

Growing up in Boston, Franklin’s family was strongly in Puritan faith. His avid study of different books would introduce him to several different ideas and movements that contested the authority of the Scripture and the fundamentals of Christianity. When he later moved to London, he called himself Deist, something Kidd describes as “1) doubts about Calvinism, 2) qualms about the Bible’s reliability, 3) resistance to churches’ claims of religious authority, and 4) a focus on ethics.”

This transformed his way of looking at things to the extent that he got to prioritize good moral behavior over predefined religious doctrines. But even as this happened, he still remained linked to the Orthodox Christians, something that admittedly held him from sliding deeper into more radical beliefs. His family and friends continued to pressure him to join the life of faith and shun his moralistic arguments.

Interestingly, Franklin knew his Bible so well that he had at times use it to assert some of his positions, including advocating for the establishment of a militia in the colonial Pennsylvania.

Kidd underlines just how Franklin contributed to what he calls “doctrineless, moralized Christianity,” a strong element of the American culture.

This, Kidd says, is part of what prompted the evident American celebration of success, having been a strong advocate for the pursuit of “The Way of Wealth.” Kidd carefully connects this Franklin’s trait to the current prosperity gospel and the famous and fast growing culture of being “spiritual but not religious.”

To this day, Franklin’s moralistic beliefs surge on and are described by Kidd in a way that it links to the “moralistic therapeutic deism” as spelled out by sociologist Christian Smith.

Yes, this belief veered from the traditional Orthodox Christian culture that was rampant in the American society, but is also reputed for the moral and religious principles embraced across the American society today.