Through sources I cannot mention, by methods I will not divulge, I have a letter -- a copy actually -- in which a political figure responds to questions about his religious views put to him by a leading Christian activist. He says that while he finds "the morals and . . . religion" of Jesus to be "the best the world ever saw or is like to see," he has "some doubts as to his Divinity."
This well-known person even confesses that he doesn't spend much time dwelling on such matters because he is an old man. "I . . . think it needless to busy myself with it now, when I expect soon the opportunity of knowing the truth with less trouble."
So wrote Benjamin Franklin in 1790 to Ezra Stiles, president of Yale. Franklin died later that year. He was 84.
What distinguishes this letter is not only Franklin's wit -- a political figure nowadays can make fun only of himself -- but his confession of doubt, his dissent from orthodoxy. He was able to convey his view, even to a religious man, without fearing that his morality or patriotism would be called into doubt. That could not happen today.
On the contrary. Our political leaders feel compelled to announce that they are, down deep, religious. George W. Bush tells us about his encounter with the Rev. Billy Graham at his father's Kennebunkport, Maine, summer place and how Graham asked him if he was leading a Christian life. That question, somehow, "planted the mustard seed" that a year or so later led to a reexamination of his life, which in turn made him the nearly perfect man he is today.
Vice President Al Gore similarly has assured us that he is a pious person, as accepting of the orthodoxy as, say, that Bush fellow. He, too, has referred to his personal faith, and so has Elizabeth Dole. She said she once gave God a limited role in her life, but no more. She resigned as "master" of her own universe -- "and God accepted my resignation." As a journalist, I am tempted to ask for another source.
But I am truly tempted to say, "Who cares?" I don't know what any of this has to do with me. I recall that Bill Clinton was always a churchgoing man and that, moreover, he conferred with a minister on the morality of capital punishment before dispatching a brain-damaged killer named Rickey Ray Rector. You can find a clergyman to endorse anything -- even, once upon a time, slavery and then Jim Crow a bit after that. Now it is homophobia that is supposedly justified by the Bible. Of course.
I wonder what Franklin or, for that matter, Jefferson would make of all this. For them, religion was always in play, an evolving doctrine to be accepted, rejected or accepted/rejected in part. Thinking people thought, and one of the things they thought about was religion and the existence of God. These were tough questions in the 18th century. They have been made no easier by Auschwitz, Rwanda, Kosovo and even, on a much smaller scale, the misfortune of someone such as Christopher Reeve. How could these things happen? Why?
I think about these things, and I suspect I am not alone. A politician recently confided that he is brimming with religious doubt -- "My God, have you looked at the world?" he said -- but he would never admit such a thing publicly. He would be accused of being ungodly, un-American -- but he is a humane and charitable man.
As a matter of curiosity, it would be interesting to know if a politician had a crisis of faith and what set if off. It would be interesting to know a person's view of God. But to my mind these areas remain deeply personal and, anyway, tell you little about a person one way or another. An expression of religious faith is not like some CAT scan of the soul. I judge Gore to be a good man, and I do so based on his lifetime in the public eye. His personal religious beliefs add nothing to the picture.
Jimmy Carter is a decent man. He was not a particularly good president, though. Bill Clinton is a lying cad. All in all, he's been a good president. The lesson here is that there is no lesson. Spare me the sermons, give me the programs. I'm with Ben Franklin. When it comes to the ultimate questions, I'll get the ultimate answers in due course.