Competing national dreams divide Americans
December 31, 2003
Who rank as the dominant shapers of how we regard our nation? Who influenced in lasting ways the dreams Americans hold for our country?
Those monitoring core national values nominate Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790) and Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758).
Both Franklin, the inveterate tinkerer from Boston who settled in Philadelphia, and Edwards, the brainiest thinker produced on our shores, fashioned visions for America that persist today, even if we don’t recognize our dreams coming from these founders. As a new year unfolds, those desiring the best for our nation will ponder these clashing dreams that are shaping our fair land.
Bold as a bald eagle
Franklin’s dream for the United States holds most Americans’ imaginations. He loved to recite the word “American.” As a church sign announced, the last four letters of this word describing a U.S. citizen spell “I can.”
Ben pulled himself up by his moral bootstraps. He checked off on a handy scorecard virtues by which he aced life. He excelled in persistence, making a buck and flying a kite. An electric pulse sparked by thrift and inventive adventure surged through his heart.
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Franklin had a penchant to look at life as an exquisite machine designed by nature’s god. He believed that the inner workings of this precision machine were functional, utilitarian and adept at producing creature comforts.
Ben liked to work independently and seized upon possibilities others did not see. He made pre-emptive strikes at home and in science, inventing the Franklin stove and keying in on lightning lit up his world.
Those who square their shoulders and dash forward, taking on the world, love Franklin. No wonder that Walter Isaacson, former Time Magazine editor who now heads the Washington, D.C.-based Aspen Institute, penned a recent
Franklin biography with an initial press run of over 200,000 copies.
Time featured this bestseller for its past 4th of July issue. Franklin epitomizes the American spirit that takes charge, cuts new deals, and acts as boldly as a bald eagle swerving and jutting amid expansive skies.
Calvin Coolidge, the 30th president of the United States who was in office from 1923 to 1929, stood for Franklin’s values. The usually taciturn Cal spoke effortlessly about lowering taxes, shrinking government, investing in the stock market and reducing Wall Street investor safeguards. Let the individual in America buy on call as they felt called by an entrepreneurial god. That was Cal’s clarion call.
How ironic that he sat in a special pew in the Edwards’ Congregational Church in his hometown of Northampton, Mass., across the street from Smith
College. When portraying the colonial preacher, Jonathan Edwards, I find
myself taking a seat next to Silent Cal’s pew in this historic church.
Blessed with the keenest mind of any American thinker delving into life’s values, Edwards spun a dream divergent from Franklin’s. This Puritan preacher saw life at its core, not as a machine, but as a luminous web of loving relationships crafted by God.
University of Chicago historian Martin Marty remembers how he formerly asked audiences to nominate candidates for a religious Mount Rushmore. Who would they chisel in granite as America’s most valuable shapers of values, making great our nation? Marty found out that Jonathan Edwards was the only name regularly suggested.
Edwards believed that an oiled machine Franklin invented was not at the heart of our universe. What pumps life into our lives is self-sacrificing love, epitomized by the crucified Christ. Edwards pondered upon a heavenly Father who created this love, a crucified Son who suffered on earth for this love, and the poignant power of this love the Spirit of both Father and Son shed upon humankind.
My college history professor George Marsden, now teaching at Notre Dame University, wrote a biography of Edwards, published by Yale University Press. The Washington Post ran a rave review. Northwestern historian Garry Wills, writing in the New York Times, gave it a “high-five.”
The initial press run amounted to 10,000 copies, dwarfed by the 200,000 in print for Franklin’s biography.
Just as the Father, Son and Holy Spirit thrive in communal love, so our dream flourishes, maintained Edwards. We must not walk alone, like a sauntering cowboy who clicks his spurs and gallops off as a solitary gunslinger to right the world.
My college and seminary chum Harry Stout – who holds the Jonathan
Edwards chair in American Christianity at Yale University – writes “Edwards’ vision for the history of redemption and the end of the world was, with the exception of a few ecstatic months in the ‘Great Awakening’ of 1740, never identified with America per se, but with Christians throughout the world, whose bond of faith with one another was more powerful than their bond of allegiance to any particular nation-state. This would not sit well with many evangelicals who insist on portraying America as a ‘Christian nation’ with special claims on God’s grace (and special exemptions from the moral restraints of society that other nations are bound to obey). Such an ‘American civil religion’ would have been, to Edwards’ lights, idolatry.”
Moral of Mount Doom
Who is right about life at its center, Franklin or Edwards?
In “Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King,” Frodo and Samwise trudge toward Mordor and Mount Doom. The movie teems with epic battles employing weapons of mass destruction.
When Frodo survives it all, though, he lies in a luminous bed of affection, surrounded by friends. That’s thumbs up for Edwards’ dream made real as reported in the Bible: “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life” (John 3:16).
With Americans flocking to this movie, Edwards’ may yet trump Franklin.
The Rev. Dr. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister serving with
MAJESTY, featuring creative music for worship. MAJESTY can be reached at
P.O. Box 8100, Avon, CO 81620. Web site: http://www.majestyministries.org. Van
Ens’ book, “How Jefferson Made the Best of Bad Messes” is available in
local bookstores for $7.95.