Tag Archives: Hugh Heclo

METAXAS ON AMERICA AS A “CITY ON A HILL”

In my last post I offered a summary review of Eric Metaxas’ new book, If You Can Keep It: The Forgotten Promise of American Liberty.  Metaxas believes unabashedly in American exceptionalism, although he is quick to disavow all forms of jingoism or triumphant nationalism.  The United States is exceptional, he contends, because we have a unique mission—a divinely ordained, unique mission—to be a blessing to the other nations of the world.

Although I’m sure he means well, the theological implications of this belief are enormous and appalling.  One of my favorite historians of the American Civil War, Steven Woodworth, calls this blurring of the roles of the church and the nation “patriotic heresy.”  In his book Bad Religion (which I reviewed here), New York Times columnist Ross Douthat echoes this critique, referring to such views as “the heresy of American nationalism.”  Hugh Heclo, Professor of Public Affairs at George Mason University, writes in his 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.”  This is not a minor concern.

Metaxas

I am not a theologian, but I have spent the past three decades as a professional historian, and what jumps out at me is the way that Metaxas offers historical evidence to support his essentially theological claim.  I could give numerous examples, but I’ll limit myself to one: his misreading of the message of John Winthrop’s 1630 shipboard sermon “A Model of Christian Charity” and its oft-quoted words, “We shall be as a city on a hill.  The eyes of all people are upon us.”  In fairness to Metaxas, he is hardly alone.  Heclo aptly describes the memorable metaphor as “rhetoric so beloved and so thoroughly misrepresented by later American politicians.”

So what did Governor Winthrop mean when he told the Massachusetts Bay colonists that they would be “as a city on a hill”?  The most common reading—Eric Metaxas’ reading—is that Winthrop was telling the colonists that God had given them a special mission.  The colony they were establishing (and by extension, the future United States) was divinely destined to serve as an example to the world.  God’s plan was for the new nation to model the values (religious, political, and economic) that He desired the rest of the world to emulate.  Metaxas strengthens this interpretation by adding the adjective “shining” to the metaphor—“a shining city on a hill”—although we have Ronald Reagan to thank for that phrase, not John Winthrop.

Admirers of this reading have been deeply convicted by the sense of America’s high calling that it embodies.  In If You Can Keep It, Metaxas exhorts readers to rediscover this noble mission and rededicate themselves to it.  Critics, on the other hand, have scorned the arrogance that Winthrop was supposedly reflecting and promoting.  Both evaluations miss the mark, because both are based on a misreading of Winthrop’s original statement.

Massachusetts Bay Governor John Winthrop

Massachusetts Bay Governor John Winthrop

In context, Winthrop was not remotely claiming that God had decreed a special mission for the political community that the Puritans were about to establish.  For nearly a century, a minority of the members of the Church of England had believed that the English Reformation had not gone nearly far enough.  Although they were openly critical of the established church, these “Puritans” had not withdrawn into secret “Separatist” congregations (as the group that we remember as “the Pilgrims” had done).  Instead, they had hoped to cooperate with the state in purifying Anglicanism of surviving vestiges of Catholic hierarchy, doctrine, and ritual that they believed were unsupported by Scripture.  Under Queen Elizabeth such an outcome had seemed possible, but the hopes for continuing reformation grew dim under her successor, James I, and vanished entirely when James was succeeded by the openly Catholic Charles I in 1625.  The eventual result was what historians call the “Great Migration,” a massive relocation to New England of perhaps as many as 20,000 Puritans during the 1630s.  In the technological context of the early 17th century, this was an undertaking of monumental proportions.

In his sermon, Winthrop reminds his listeners of the seriousness of the undertaking upon which they had embarked.  They were leaving England in search of a new home in which they could more effectively serve the Lord, increase His church, and distance themselves from the corruption of the English church that now seemed to them as beyond reformation.  If their venture was to succeed, Winthrop stresses, the migrants must purpose to “love one another with a pure heart,” “bear one another’s burdens,” and be willing to sacrifice their “superfluities” (material surpluses) “for the supply of others’ necessities.”  (Oddly, that’s a portion of Winthrop’s exhortation that almost never gets quoted.)  If the Puritans failed in these particulars, the governor warned, they would almost certainly fail in their overall endeavor.

This brings us, finally, to Winthrop’s famous phrase.  Far from claiming that the Lord had chosen the Puritan migrants to serve as a glorious example to the world, Winthrop was instead reminding them that it would be impossible to hide the outcome if they failed.  Their massive departure had unavoidably attracted the attention of the countrymen they left behind.  They would be watching, many of them hoping that the Puritans would stumble. If Winthrop had been writing today, he could have conveyed his point by telling his audience that everything they did would be under a microscope.  The point was not that they had been divinely selected to serve as an exemplary beacon, but rather that they could not possibly escape the scrutiny of their enemies.

So it is that in the very next sentence after noting that “the eyes of all people are upon us,” Winthrop warned that “if we deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken . . . we shall be made a story and a by-word through the world.”  In so many words, he was telling the migrating Puritans that they would become a laughingstock, objects of scorn and derision.  What was worse, their failure would “open the mouths of enemies to speak evils of the ways of God.”  Rather than puffing up the Puritans with claims of a divine mission, Winthrop intended his allusion to “a city upon a hill” to send a chill down their spines.

THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE AWFUL: ERIC METAXAS’ NEW BOOK “IF YOU CAN KEEP IT”

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.

Metaxas

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.”

TRUMP’S “EVANGELICAL EXECUTIVE ADVISORY BOARD”

I would like to have been a fly on the wall at Tuesday’s gathering of more than a thousand evangelical leaders and activists with the presumptive Republican presidential nominee.  The meeting has garnered comparatively little media attention thus far, in large part because the assembly was closed to the press—all news outlets, not just those on Donald Trump’s black list—and second-hand testimony is only slowing beginning to come in.

According to an article in the Atlantic, Ben Carson, Jerry Falwell Jr., and pollster George Barna were among those addressing the audience.  After Trump spoke,  former presidential aspirant Mike Huckabee moderated a scripted Q&A which Christian author Eric Metaxas described in a tweet as “eye-opening.”  Hmmm.  The most detailed first-hand evidence concerning the substance of Trump’s remarks comes from a tweeted video of a portion of the address from a Christian radio host in the audience.  The video captures Trump discouraging the audience from praying for our nation’s officeholders.  “We can’t be, again, politically correct and say we pray for all of our leaders,” Trump explains, “because all of your leaders are selling Christianity down the tubes.”

Three quick reactions come to mind: First, the quote is quintessential Trump—a sweeping declaration unburdened by evidence, appealing to emotion instead of reason, and designed to prey on the fear and anger that it incites.

Second, to the degree that evangelicals buy into such rhetoric, it encourages us to conceive of ourselves as an innocent and aggrieved majority in need of a political savior, rather than as pilgrims and strangers called to be light to a fallen world while recognizing that our citizenship is in heaven.

Finally, given Trump’s self-professed veneration for the Bible (he claims to  like it even better than The Art of the Deal), I am struck by his disregard for the New Testament’s stricture that “prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks be made for all men, for kings and all who are in authority, that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and reverence” (I Timothy 2:1-2).  I guess the apostle Paul was simply too “politically correct.”

The Trump campaign followed up Tuesday’s gathering by announcing the appointment of an “Evangelical Executive Advisory Board.”  According to the official media announcement, the group of twenty-five mostly white male pastors will “provide advisory support to Mr. Trump on those issues important to evangelicals and other persons of faith in America.”  The press release goes on to explain that the creation of this board represents Trump’s “endorsement of those diverse issues important to Evangelicals and other Christians, and his desire to have access to the wise counsel of such leaders as needed.”

The announcement continues, supposedly quoting Trump as saying, “I have such tremendous respect and admiration for this group and I look forward to continuing to talk about the issues important to Evangelicals, and to Americans, and the common sense solutions I will implement when I am president.”

So let’s boil this down and see what we have: A candidate known for his erratic inconsistency and unpredictability has just issued a blanket endorsement of  “issues important to evangelicals” without naming a single one.  A supremely self-confident celebrity famous for going his own way has promised to take seriously the “wise counsel” of evangelical advisers “as needed.”  (Who will get to decide when he “needs” it?)

Should anyone find this reassuring?  More to the point, would anyone who takes the Constitution’s checks and balances seriously fail to shudder at Trump’s confidence that he can unilaterally “implement” solutions to the issues that concern evangelicals (whatever they are)?

You can find the list of Trump’s evangelical advisers here.  I’m not familiar with the majority of those on the list, but a minority I surely recognize: James Dobson, Jerry Falwell Jr., Robert Jeffress, Ronnie Floyd, David Jeremiah, and Ralph Reed, among others.  The Trump campaign’s press release makes clear that the individuals named to the board “were not asked to endorse Mr. Trump as a prerequisite for participating on the board,” and some of those named have been openly critical of Trump in the past.  And yet, can anyone doubt that Trump will use the very existence of the board as a campaign talking point to buttress his appeal among the evangelical rank and file?

HecloAs I write this, I am mindful of a book that I read earlier in the summer: Christianity and American Democracy, by Hugh Heclo.  Heclo is a professor of Public Policy at George Mason University and a scholar who has spent much of his career exploring the interactions of faith and politics in American life.  In the book, which originated in a major public lecture at Harvard a decade ago, Heclo describes and evaluates the interplay of democratic values and Christian convictions since the American founding.  The general pattern that he describes should give every Christian pause: when tenets of orthodox Christian belief have clashed with prevailing democratic values, it is more often Christian belief that has retreated and conformed to the democratic culture, not the other way around.

Even more to the point is Heclo’s timely warning:

Worldly power, being worldly, is always ready and willing to use religion to win fights with political opponents.

 Whatever the motives of those who have accepted a position on Trump’s advisory board, I fear that they are being used.  And if Heclo is right, the end result is less likely to be a government that is more Christian than a Church that is more worldly.

Trump1