“I fancy,” Benjamin Franklin muses in discussing his famous decision to run away from his apprenticeship, “[my brother's] harsh and tyrannical Treatment of me, might be a means of impressing me with that Aversion to arbitrary Power that has stuck to me thro' my whole Life” (Franklin, 69). This is only a side comment – no more than a note to the main text, in fact – yet it succinctly summarizes the spirit of Franklin's legendary bid for independence. Preceding this symbolic break with the convention of apprenticeship, he had already broken with his family's conventional Puritan religion in favor of a temperate liberal deism, but it was not until several years later that he codified his personal beliefs. The thirteen precepts he outlines focus entirely on moral issues and he refuses to favor any specific doctrinal teachings. Franklin's approach underscores his independence and practicality in all spheres of life. He “conceived the bold and arduous project of arriving at moral Perfection” in a spirit of self-sufficient practicality which led him to renounce the authority of church dogma in favor of the natural virtues which could be ecumenically agreed upon and which a man of any religion could follow to become a model of “Probity and Integrity” (Franklin, 148, 158).
His moral code is marked above all by an ethic of tolerance which stems in part from a laudable desire to respect individual freedom, but also from a distorted definition of humility. In his list of virtues, humility stands at the end as a sort of addendum expressing his overarching concept of religious tolerance. “Imitate Jesus and Socrates” he instructs himself (Franklin, 150). The dichotomy in this instruction, obvious to anyone who understands Jesus as the Answer which Socrates stubbornly denies knowing, seems unapparent to Franklin. He strove for the classic Socratic modesty of “knowing that he knows nothing” and gains “at least the Appearance” of such humility, but it is not the humility of a Christian which arises from actual though unmerited knowledge of the Truth (Franklin, 157). Franklin's definition may indeed suffice for most practical purposes, and his primary concern was “the Utility and Excellency of [his] Method” (157). Through it he hoped to encourage human virtues among all sects. Reserving declarations of knowledge would promote respect for individual freedom with regard to beliefs about God and the nature of life, and adoption of a non-doctrinal code of virtue would, he believed, be in “every one's Interest... who wished to be happy even in this world” (Franklin, 158).
In evaluating the benefits of Franklin's purely moral religion, one must distinguish between its application in the sphere of government versus its application in the individual. Reducing religion to moral precepts discoverable by reason may be justified in the public sphere. Indeed, in a world where the religious turmoil of the 1500s and 1600s still reverberated throughout the West, removing governmental attachment to any “particular Sect” would be wise (Franklin, 157). However, within a church or an individual soul such tolerance becomes no more than false humility. Assuming that churches typically claim to be qualified to lead their members to the truth of Christ (or whatever else they hold to be ultimate truth), they must have certain convictions in context of which other beliefs are considered wrong. The human person, moreover, created for the truth as he is, will (like Franklin) be incapable of attaining true victory over pride, that “one of our natural Passions [most] hard to subdue,” if he does not recognize that there is a truth much deeper than the moral rules man can discover through unaided reason (Franklin, 160). Franklin's ethic of tolerance, then, is a useful guide for the government's approach to religious matters, but it cannot on its own produce the breed of upright citizens he hoped for (Franklin, 162).
Franklin was not alone in his distrust of arbitrary religious authority, this spirit having been predominant to some extent among the early colonists who had been driven from England by the new monolithic state religion. Principles of religious liberty as outlined in the First Article of the Bill of Rights underscore our Republican government's historic attachment to Franklin's Socratic humility with respect to religion. As long as churches have flourished within the consequent atmosphere of tolerance the tendency of this spirit to undermine individual citizens' prerogative to devote themselves to the Truth has been held in check. Today, however, as tolerance becomes more and more an autonomous religion in America and across the world, the Socratic mindset threatens to overwhelm Christian certainty of Truth. Franklin's style of tolerance is now many people's sole “religion” and the morality Franklin so valued, robbed of any firm foundational doctrine, is weakened to the point of collapse.