28.12.05

Citizen Ben

The great struggles of the 20th century were against fascism and then communism. As was made clear on Sept. 11, the great struggle of the 21st century will be between the forces of fanatic fundamentalism and those of tolerance. It is important to remember that America was not born with the virtue of religious tolerance, but had to acquire it. One of the myths is that the first settlers were advocates of religious freedom. In fact, the Puritans were very intolerant, not only of witches but also of any deviation from the tribal orthodoxy. The most arcane antinomian dispute ended up forcing people to move and found a new state like Rhode Island.

Franklin's freethinking unnerved his family. When his parents wrote of their concern over his "erroneous opinions," Franklin replied with a letter that spelled out a religious philosophy based on tolerance that would last his life. It would be vain for any person to insist that "all the doctrines he holds are true and all he rejects are false." The same could be said of the opinions of different religions. He had little use for the doctrinal distinctions his mother worried about. "I think vital religion has always suffered when orthodoxy is more regarded than virtue. And the Scripture assures me that at the last day we shall not be examined by what we thought, but what we did ... that we did good to our fellow creatures. See Matthew 26." (His parents, a bit more versed in the Scripture, probably caught that he meant Matthew 25.)

Tolerance

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