Hitchens, Franklin, and Our Sundered America
I read Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography in high school. At least I think I did. I’m sure I must have read at least some of it, because otherwise how would I have such a vivid memory of disliking it? The doubt comes from the fact that I remember nothing specific about it, while I remember with perfect clarity what it was like to read the works of Shakespeare and Eliot and any number of others that caught my heart, even ones which I now see are of a lesser order, such as Thornton Wilder’s Our Town (which may once have been over-rated but might now, I suspect, be under-rated), and Carl Sandburg’s poems about Chicago and war and fog. In some of these cases I can in fact call to mind the look of the pages themselves, and often the place where I read them: I see “The Hollow Men,” for instance, laid out in my high school English textbook, and the book on my desk, and the desk in the classroom with painted concrete-block walls and some kind of institutional linoleum flooring, and the window to my left.
But Franklin? I remember only thinking that this was pretty dry stuff. It was all about being prudent and industrious, all worldliness and pragmatism. Though I wouldn’t have used those words at that time, I was able, over the next ten years or so of reading, in and out of school, to recognize what it was that I disliked in Franklin and many other American writers: a rationalistic practicality which seemed to have no eye at all for the mystery and richness of life.
I never read Franklin again, and having just read Christopher Hitchens on the Autobiography in the latest issue of The Atlantic, I doubt that I ever will. The number of books I want to read or re-read is now so great in proportion to any reasonable expectation of time remaining to me in which to read them that it seems unlikely that I will re-visit any of those with which I have little sympathy.
Mr. Hitchens is, of course, well-known for his detestation of religion. And if he reads Franklin correctly, he confirms my adolescent aversion, for he sees the Autobiography as being filled with a subtle but intense disparagement of Christianity, and the evidence he brings forward for his view says to me that Franklin was, as I think more than one of our founders were, an adherent of a sort of bloodless Whiggery, a thin and superficial skepticism which, while scoring just points against religious fanaticism and hypocrisy, leaves me feeling that I’m listening to a tone-deaf man complaining about the histrionic gestures of an orchestral conductor. He may be right that the conductor is a ham and perhaps even something of a sham, but if he doesn’t understand music, and why someone making music might be so moved as to seem eccentric, he is no more than a dog barking at a stranger.
We think of the American conflict between the irreligious and the believer as a relatively new thing, and it is newly virulent and now impossible to ignore, but in truth it has been there since the beginning. Most American writers and intellectuals have been at least quietly skeptical and often openly hostile to religion—meaning, specifically, Christianity—all along. My own sense, which pre-dates my conscious conversion, that the religious mind sees more deeply into things is most of the reason why I preferred English literature to American and never could bring myself to read much of Emerson and Thoreau. It was not that the English writers of the same period were more religious, only that they understood the issue: a writer like Carlyle knew what it meant for England to lose her religion.
Of course the religion which Franklin, Jefferson, and others rejected provided plenty of justification for their doing so. Puritanism was unattractive and difficult to sustain, and where it ebbed it left an even more unattractive shell. And so the American soul was split, with skeptical rationalism on the one hand and narrowness and emotionalism on the other.
The Catholic faith provides space and support for both these human impulses to fulfill themselves, where rationalism need not finally fling itself into the void and emotional fervor need have no fear of the facts, for it is perfectly justified by them. Although I can’t say it seems likely, it does sometimes seem possible that the future of the USA, or at least of its Christianity, is a Catholic future.