Independence Day is almost here, so I thought I would share a few thoughts about the latest book from Eric Metaxas, just out this month: If You Can Keep It: The Forgotten Promise of American Liberty. If you’re not familiar with him, Metaxas is a “cultural commentator” or public intellectual, a best-selling author, and the host of a daily radio program, “The Eric Metaxas Show.” The book’s title comes from a (possibly apocryphal) observation from Benjamin Franklin at the conclusion of the 1787 Constitutional convention in Philadelphia. As the story goes, an interested citizen approached the aged Franklin and inquired, “Well, doctor, what have we got? A republic or a monarchy?” Franklin is supposed to have answered, “A republic, madam–if you can keep it.” Metexas builds on Franklin’s words to underscore the fragility of liberty and to make a case for how Americans might best nurture it today. The book offers some timely reminders, but its grasp of American history is weak, and the theological implications of its argument are frightening. Read on, if you want to learn more.
The inside flap of the book jacket of If You Can Keep It describes the work as “an extraordinary book that is part history and part rousing call to arms, steeped in a critical analysis of our founding fathers’ original intentions for America.” This is partially true. It certainly makes a semi-historically-informed argument about what America should be in 2016 and how that might be accomplished. And so yes, it is “part history and part rousing” exhortation to its readers. (The “call to arms” phrase is misleading, as Metaxas consistently, and appropriately, avoids appeals to “take back America” and similar phrases borrowed from the culture wars.) But the claim that the book offers “critical analysis” of the values and worldview of the Founders overstates the case, and by more than a little. The book is sprinkled with valuable food for thought and more than a few important historical truths, but these are offset by egregious flaws, including both serious misunderstandings of colonial and Revolutionary America and a dangerous conflation of the nation and the Church. In the end, I cannot recommend If You Can Keep It, although it contains elements that are worthy of our attention.
Let’s start with what is good. Metaxas asks undeniably important questions. (What did “America” mean at the founding? What did the Founders believe in and hope for? How might the promise of America be furthered by our own generation?) He writes for a broad audience, rather than for other cultural elites. He dares to bring a faith perspective to bear, not hesitating to acknowledge his own Christian commitments. He values the insights of history and wants to bring the present into conversation with the past. None of this is surprising given his previous books, most notably his popular biographies of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and William Wilberforce.
Boiled down, Metaxas has two main points to make, and each is worth making. First, liberty is fragile, and we must perpetually dedicate and rededicate ourselves to nurture and preserve it. This was essentially Abraham Lincoln’s 1838 message to the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, an address that I blogged about extensively at the beginning of the summer. (See, in particular, here and here.) The survival of American democracy is not inevitable. We cannot take it for granted. And should it ever collapse, we Americans will be far more responsible for that tragedy than any external foe.
Second, the Founding Fathers knew exactly what was necessary for government of the people, by the people, and for the people to survive and flourish. (For some unknown reason, Metaxas repeatedly refers to the Founders’ “secret formula,” although the Founders were not remotely coy about what their experiment in liberty would require to succeed.) Here Metaxas basically reiterates what Os Guinness calls the “golden triangle of freedom.” Like a three-legged stool, it has three equally essential components. The Founders believed that (1) freedom requires virtue, (2) virtue requires religious faith, and (3) religious faith requires freedom. We could complicate these generalizations greatly, but the basic pattern is historically sound. Guinness made the case well in A Free People’s Suicide (which I reviewed here) and although Metaxas does little more than restate it, I suppose you could say that we can’t hear such a crucial reminder too often.
Beyond these two important truths, Metaxas makes several suggestions that 21st-century Americans need to consider. In one chapter, for example, he argues that societies need heroes in order to promote virtue, and he offers some interesting speculation as to why contemporary Americans tend to sneer not only at heroes but at the very idea of the heroic. Another entire chapter focuses on the critical importance of moral leaders to any society laboring to preserve the fragile blessings of liberty. (The relevance for the current presidential campaign goes without saying.)
Metaxas also makes a compelling case for the importance of civic ceremonies, especially at the local community level. Perhaps reflecting his background as an English major at Yale, Metaxas also offers some intriguing suggestions about the importance of literature for building civic-mindedness, and he remembers fondly the old days when schoolchildren memorized historical odes like Longfellow’s “The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere.” (There are echoes here of William Bennett’s Book of Virtues.) Tying all these suggestions together is Metaxas’ belief that Americans need to fall in love again with America. As I said, there is much food for thought here, and there would be worse ways to celebrate American independence than pondering Metaxas’ exhortations.
And yet the book’s flaws are huge. I could go on at some length, but instead I’ll zero in on the two most glaring problems: (1) Metaxas repeatedly misrepresents the values of colonial and Revolutionary Americans which he looks to for wisdom, and (2) he consistently blurs the line between sacred and secular, conflating Christianity and democracy and confusing the role of the Church with the purported “mission” of the United States.
Let’s start with Metaxas’ understanding of colonial and Revolutionary America. Metaxas repeatedly imputes to key figures of the 17th and 18th centuries values that were foreign to that era. Here are two key examples:
* Metaxas insists that a commitment to religious liberty was not only nearly universal by the time of the creation of the Constitution, but that it had prevailed since the first arrival of European settlers. “Since the Pilgrims came to our shores in 1620,” he writes, “religious freedom and religious tolerance [not the same thing, by the way] have been the single most important principle of American life.”
This is astoundingly incorrect. The Pilgrims did not come to America “because they were being persecuted for their faith,” nor were they remotely committed to religious freedom in the colony that they established. The laws of Plymouth Colony prescribed fines or corporal punishment for neglecting public worship, for swearing or cursing by the name of God, for “vilifying” any church ministry or ordinance, for denying “the Scriptures to be a rule of life,” and for hosting or entertaining Quakers, whose heterodox beliefs would get them banished.
Although the trend over the next century and a half would be toward ever greater religious toleration, as late as 1776 most of the thirteen colonies still had government-recognized, legally established denominations, and long after the creation of the Constitution most states barred atheists (and sometimes Jews) from holding office. This was not hypocrisy or inconsistency on their part, but rather reflects the reality that they understood religious liberty very differently than we do.
* Second, the author also exaggerates the Founders’ commitment to democracy and faith in popular virtue. He is right that the Founders believed that “in the wrong hands [freedom] can be positively dangerous,” but it is misleading to claim simply that “the founders knew and trusted that the citizens . . . were prepared for what they had been given.” As James Madison noted in Federalist no. 55, republican government (i.e., government grounded in the consent of the governed) intrinsically presupposes a greater confidence in the people than monarchy does, but the Founders’ understanding of human nature is best described as skeptical: hoping for the best, but keenly aware of humans’ fallenness and foibles. The Constitution’s framers went to great lengths to limit the popular influence of the governed, and then they instituted elaborate checks and balances to mitigate the abuse of power by the government itself.
In addition to misrepresenting the world of colonial and Revolutionary America, Metaxas also dangerously conflates the role of the church and the mission of the state, effectively describing the United States in near messianic terms. The pattern emerges in the book’s earliest pages, when Metaxas badly misreads Massachusetts Bay governor John Winthrop’s famous exhortation in his 1630 sermon “A Model of Christian Charity.”
I have noted before that Winthrop’s statement to his congregation that “we shall be as a city on a hill” is one of the most misunderstood phrases in American literature, and Metaxas, like so many before him, gets it wrong. To begin with, he alters the quote, repeatedly suggesting that Winthrop referred to his colony as “a shining city on a hill.” The adjective was added by Ronald Reagan three and a half centuries later, and it wholly changed Winthrop’s meaning. The Massachusetts Bay governor was not declaring that the colony would be a model to the world, but rather that however it behaved—whether nobly or meanly—its success or failure could not be hidden. What is worse, Metaxas entirely passes over the reality that Winthrop was not remotely talking about the mission of a future nation-state but about the particular Christian community that he led.
This conflation of the church and the nation characterizes the rest of the book. In defining (and I would say, exaggerating) the cultural influence of evangelist George Whitefield, Metaxas says that Whitefield’s preaching had the effect of turning colonists into Americans. To be an American (not a Christian, but an American), was to accept certain religious truths about one’s status in God’s eyes. As Metaxas concludes in summing up Whitefield’s significance, “the Gospel of Christ . . . created an American people.” Strange, I somehow thought that Jesus promised to build his Church on that foundation, but I guess he meant the United States.
Although Metaxas focuses on the colonial and Revolutionary eras, he does allow Abraham Lincoln to join the conversation as well. As it turns out, Lincoln agreed with John Winthrop that the United States has a “holy calling” to be an example to the world. Minimally encumbered by evidence, Metaxas notes that Lincoln understood that “America had been called by God,” and that “to be chosen by God—as the Jews had been chosen by God, . . . and as the messiah had been chosen by God,” was a “profound and sacred and even terrifying obligation.” I’m not sure which is scarier: the analogy of the United States to Israel—God’s new chosen people—or the analogy of the United States to Christ.
The latter reminds me of a trenchant observation in Hugh Heclo’s fine book Christianity and American Democracy: “If America is the redeemer of nations and time, then America is the Christ of history,” Heclo writes. “This notion may be inadvertent, but it is blasphemy all the same.”