Penn’s founder, Benjamin Franklin, was a faithful agnostic. When it came to civic life, Franklin believed that both Penn and the American republic itself should be steadfastly nonsectarian—welcoming people of all faiths and of no faith equally into the full blessings and burdens of good citizenship—as opposed to secular (no public law-sanctioned individual or institutional religious freedom protections or accommodations) or sectarian (public law-sanctioned preferences for one or more particular religious sects); and Franklin most emphatically rejected his day’s “Christian nation” notions (he left all such anti-democratic sectarianism to the expressly “no religious Test shall ever be required” Constitution’s opponents).
Moreover, Penn’s founder personally practiced the civic-minded religious pluralism that he preached by making charitable donations to many different religious organizations and communities in Philadelphia—churches, synagogues, mosques, and other religious institutions and causes—and encouraging core Abrahamic religious tenets (not this or that specific Anglo-Protestant creed) to be taught in his day’s public schools. As Messiah College historian John Fea wrote in Pennsylvania Heritage Magazine (Fall 2011), “Franklin’s religious beliefs were quintessentially American…It did not matter what one believed about God, as long as one’s religion contributed to a more benevolent society and made the world, one neighborhood at a time, a more enlightened and civilized place.”
The Catholic (James 2:17, ESV) precept that “Faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead;” the Jewish precept Tikkun Olam—“Repairing the World;” and the teachings and traditions associated with many other religions are what gave Franklin hope that the only miracle needed for America’s nonsectarian civic square to evolve, survive, and thrive over time would be successive generations of well-educated and well-meaning American leaders.
As University of Pennsylvania President Amy Gutmann recalled in anticipation of the September 2015 visit to Philadelphia by Pope Francis, Penn is today a “non-sectarian university that for more than two-and-a-half centuries has dedicated itself to our founder’s vision that ‘Doing Good to Men is the Only Service of God in our Power; and to imitate his Benificence is to glorify him.’ ”
Indeed, even before founding the University of Pennsylvania in 1740, Franklin co-founded the Library Company of Philadelphia. Its Latin motto is Communiter Bona Profundere Deum est:
To pour forth benefits for the common good is divine
The PRRUCS mission is to translate Benjamin Franklin’s timeless yet timely nonsectarian civic vision for Penn and for American democracy itself—a nonsectarian civic vision that models both robust respect for religious pluralism and a bedrock belief that sacred places, both on their own and via public-private partnerships, can and should serve secular purposes unto “the common good”—into a 21st century, university-anchored agenda of fact-based research on urban and other faith-based organizations; survey research on religion and democratic values in America; arts and sciences teaching relevant to religion; service-learning initiatives; and special events and projects that advance knowledge and promote mutual understanding concerning contemporary America’s most complex and contentious church-state issues.