if-you-can-keep-it-bookSigh!

I like Eric Metaxas. I really do. But his fast and loose use of history is growing wearisome—and worrisome. This is especially true with his latest book, If You Can Keep It: The Forgotten Promise of American Liberty.

The title of his book comes from a conversation between Benjamin Franklin and Elizabeth Powel, a prominent Philadelphian woman. In the summer of 1787, outside of Independence Hall, Mrs. Powel met Franklin on the street after the final day of the Constitutional Convention and asked, “Well, Doctor, what have we got? A republic or a monarchy?” Franklin replied: “A republic, Madam, if you can keep it.”

Metaxas hopes his book will spark a national conversation—a movement—about keeping the republic Franklin spoke of. I’m sympathetic to his desire, as I’m sympathetic to his concern that the light of liberty is no longer a torch held aloft, but a flickering flame threatened to be snuffed out.

But I’m not sympathetic to his distorted historical interpretations and historical errors, or his poor theological reasoning. Metaxas’ book might begin the conversation he longs for, but the quality of the conversation will be anything but ideal.

Metaxas contends that republican forms of government can only survive if the people are virtuous. That is correct. Our founders believed likewise. Therefore, as Metaxas argues, if the republic is in trouble it must be in trouble because the people have lost their virtue. The solution then is to make the people more virtuous—to create citizens who will pursue the common good and make “the business of the republic” their business. [1]

Here Metaxas got the founders right—in the general. But in the particular, he got the founders wrong. Metaxas asks, “What would make someone behave virtuously?” His conclusion: “The answer—both practically speaking and theoretically—must be religion . . . the Judeo-Christian tradition.” [2]

To be sure, the founders did believe religion in general—and perhaps Christianity in particular—was a wonderful source for informing and forming the moral conscience. But they did not believe that religion—Christian or otherwise—was the only source that could create virtuous citizens. For example, Presbyterian minister John Witherspoon, who by today’s standards would be considered an evangelical Christian, believed conscience—the “moral sense”—also produced virtue. While Christianity is the best means of virtue, the Enlightenment idea of a “moral sense” or moral compass also serves as an effective means of virtue.

This is to say, that while the founders, including Witherspoon, believed God created the conscience, it mattered little to them whether the “moral sense” came out of the Judeo-Christian ether or from personal religious experience (the practicing of a particular faith). Metaxas would lead us to believe that there is a bold and straight line running through all but some of the founders when it comes to the question of how to promote a virtuous republic—that of religion only. The truth is otherwise. The views of Witherspoon and other founders on the interactions between religion and civic life were much more nuanced and complicated than Metaxas let’s on.

This is an important point since Metaxas has publicly stated that much of his thinking on this issue came from David Barton, the Christian nationalist who gained widespread popularity after Glenn Beck began promoting his writing and teaching. According to Barton, and adopted by Metaxas, the republic can only survive if we return to the republican virtues of the founders. Again, I’m sympathetic to this view. However, the buzz saw for Metaxas (and Barton) is in the question: How did the founders view the republic? What Metaxas implies—al a Barton—is that the founders conceived of the republic as a Christian nation. [3]

It is true that faithful believers in Christianity (like Witherspoon), Deists (life Franklin), and Unitarians (like Adams) agreed that the ethical teachings of the Bible—its principles and precepts—if followed, led to virtue and from vice. But these men did not agree on the doctrine of divine inspiration nor in the divinity of Christ. Neither Franklin nor Jefferson, for example—despite Barton’s tortured attempt to make Jefferson out to be—was a Christian in any orthodox sense. They believed in the moral teachings of Jesus as being the highest and best source of virtuous knowledge and practice, but they also saw value in the moral teachings of Confucius, for example. [4]

The founders were statesmen, not churchmen—that is to say, not theologians. So regardless of their individual beliefs about Christ’s death and resurrection or their responsibilities to promote the Kingdom of God, when it came to the art of statecraft, they used religion to promote virtue within the republic, nothing more.

The fact that Metaxas misunderstands the nuances of the founders’ political and philosophical positions concerning the complex relationship between religion and virtue is understandable. It is complex and can vary here and there from one founder to the next. But how he misconstrues John Winthrop’s famous metaphor of “a city on a hill” when so much ink has been spilled wrestling with it is unfortunate. Winthrop, the first Puritan governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, preached a lay sermon onboard the Arbella, just before departing England for Massachusetts in 1630, and said:

For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us. So that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken, and so cause Him to withdraw His present help from us, we shall be made a story and a by-word through the world. [5]

Winthrop derived his metaphor from Matthew 5:14–16:

You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden; nor does anyone light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house. Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven.

For Metaxas—and he is in good company, since John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, and Hillary Clinton have all used the “city on a hill” metaphor as he has—the metaphor points to the truth that America is a chosen nation to do God’s will in the world. [6] Would that were so. But unfortunately, this interpretation is fraught with problems—not the least of which is theological and biblical. Violating the most basic rule of biblical interpretation, taking something out of its original context, always leads to the wrong application. And Metaxas has does just that. Jesus was speaking of the community of faith—about His followers—shining the light of the gospel for all to see, not America being a beacon of liberty. In other words, the “city” is applicable to Christians, not generically to a nation. And the “light” is applicable in how believers live their lives, not to liberty. America has been a beacon of liberty, but this is not what Jesus intended, nor what Winthrop meant.

First off, Winthrop’s use of the metaphor was applied to a local community of faith—to Christians about to establish the Massachusetts Bay Colony. He in no way included other colonies that existed in America at the time, those in Plymouth, New Netherland (the Dutch colony that later became New York), or Jamestown—to say nothing of the United States writ-large. But more to the point, Winthrop used the metaphor as a warning, not as an encouragement. Historian Tracy McKenzie, who has also been critical of Metaxas on this point, explains this well. I quote at length:

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 misreading of Winthrop’s original statement. . . .

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 [in establishing a faith-based colony]. Their massive departure [from England] 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 divine mission, Winthrop intended his allusion to “a city upon a hill” to send a chill down their spines. [7]

But more disturbing than Metaxas’ (mis)use of Winthrop’ (and Jesus’) metaphor, is his link between the United States and God’s chosen people, Israel. He does this by quoting Abraham Lincoln’s remarks to the New Jersey State Senate, where Lincoln, recounting the glorious history of the American Revolution and the independence it brought, concluded:

I am exceedingly anxious that this Union, the Constitution, and the liberties of the people shall be perpetuated in accordance with the original idea for which that struggle was made, and I shall be most happy indeed if I shall be an humble instrument in the hands of the Almighty, and of this, his almost chosen people, for perpetuating the object of that great struggle. [8]

Metaxas takes this as proof as to what Lincoln thought of America—that “America’s exceptionalism [was not] a mere accident of history.” Rather, Lincoln viewed America “as nothing less than a holy calling . . . called by God not for ourselves but for the whole world.” [9]

But was Lincoln making a civil religious statement referring to America as God’s “almost chosen people” or was he making a rhetorical point? It is true that many in the America of the mid-nineteen century believed the nation was uniquely chosen by God to advance its form of government. Its practical implications, however, were often brutal and the antithesis of Christian virtue—slavery and the displacement of native Americas are two glaring examples. But Lincoln does not say that America was a chosen people. He said that America was an “almost chosen people.” Though Lincoln never clarified the qualifying adjective, “almost” means not quite. In other words, if America could have been a chosen people, she failed to reach that divine distinction. The adjective is important, but Metaxas doesn’t address it. Why?

Metaxas’ historical interpretations are troublesome. But he also got some historical facts wrong. For example, the Pilgrims did not come to America for religious freedom and America has not always been the benchmark of religious tolerance. Metaxas writes: “Since the Pilgrims came to our shores in 1620, religious freedom and religious tolerance have been the single most important principle of American life. This was the genius at the heart of it all.” [10]

The Pilgrims fled England for religious freedom and found it in Holland. They fled Holland, not because they suffered religious persecution, but because they, being farmers (primarily), found living and working in the city of Leyden difficult. They also fled Holland because their children were losing their distinct English culture—its language and mores—and they feared that their sons would soon be enlisted in the army of the Netherlands to fight a threatening war with Spain.

One of the ironies of early American history—as is often mistaught and misunderstood—is that the Pilgrims of Plymouth and the Puritans of Massachusetts Bay were committed to religious freedom. They were . . . their own. Anyone who chose to live and worship in Plymouth or Massachusetts Bay could do so—just as long as they obeyed the laws of those respective colonies and practiced the religion of the Pilgrim and Puritan settlers. If not, imprisonment, fines, or death was your fate. In fact, Roger Williams disagreed so sharply with the ecclesiastical dictates of the Massachusetts Bay Puritans, he was banished from the colony. (So was Anne Hutchinson.) Williams later founded the colony of Rhode Island, where religious liberty was truly practiced.

Other issues, such as Metaxas’ over emphasis on George Whitfield’s preaching in America and its tenuous links to the American Revolution, the “miracle” of Squanto, the native American who saved the Pilgrims from starvation, and the “miracle” of the Constitution all contribute to Metaxas’ thesis that God uniquely established America to accomplish His will on earth—to shine the light of liberty as a city on a hill. But Metaxas provides little to no concrete historical evidence to support his thesis.

Do nations rise and fall according to God’s good pleasure and according to His sovereignty? Yes. “God reigns over the nations,” Psalm 47:8 declares. And Daniel praised God because “He removes kings and establishes kings” (Daniel 2:21). Can God use nations to accomplish great things in the world? Absolutely. God told Abraham, “I will make you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great; and so you shall be a blessing; and I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse. And in you all the families of the earth will be blessed” (Genesis 12:2–3). The question is, did God raise up “[the American] nation for great things . . . chosen by God to bring a new kind of nation into the world, and through that nation to lead the whole world to take part in that experiment in liberty for all”? [11] I’d like to think so, but Metaxas does not prove it by the historical evidence.

Sadly, his helpful and useful chapters on the importance of a leader’s character, the link between liberty, morality, and religion, and the need for better history education are all diminished by his poor understanding and use of history, his uncritical thinking about the past, and his unwillingness to challenge the suppositions of Christian nationalism, which threatens to convert orthodox Christianity into a civic religion and kisses too closely to the idol of deifying America.

I believe God has blessed the United States of America because, on the whole, her values have reflected His values: compassion, justice, mercy, liberty, and love. I grieve with Metaxas that we are now sacrificing many of those values and may therefore lose God’s blessing. I’m just as concerned as Metaxas about the future of religious liberty within the United States, and whether my children and grandchildren will inherit a freer nation than the one I lived in. I fear they will not.

But my work and prayer as a Christian citizen of the United States, who through my own writing and speaking calls the nation back to our founding principles, does not require me to call America back to a history that never was. The history that was, is good enough to emulate the good and ameliorate the bad. If we do that, I believe God will bless our nation again. And if we don’t, well, what difference would it make if God had chosen us as a special people to shine liberty into the darkness of slavery?

[1] Eric Metaxas, If You Can Keep It: The Forgotten Promise of American Liberty (New York: Viking, 2016), 4.
[2] Metaxas, If You Can Keep It, 62 (emphasis in original).
[3] For a complete analysis of the idea of America being a Christian nation I encourage you to read John Fea’s excellent work, Was American Founded as a Christian Nation? A Historical Introduction (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011).
[4] Benjamin Rush, Pennsylvania signer of the Declaration of Independence and friend of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, wrote: “I had rather see the opinions of Confucius or Mohammed inculcated upon our youth than see them grow up wholly devoid of a system of religious principles.” Benjamin Rush, “Thoughts Upon the Mode of Education Proper in a Republic,” in Essays: Literary, Moral, and Philosophical (Philadelphia: Thomas and William Bradford, 1806), 8.
[5] John Winthrop, “A Model of Christian Charity,” 1630, http://winthropsociety.com/doc_charity.php.
[6] See Metaxas, If You Can Keep It, 25, 188–89, 194, 211–15 for examples.
[7] Tracy McKenzie, “Metaxas on America as a ‘City on a Hill,’” July 4, 2016, Faith and History (blog), https://faithandamericanhistory.wordpress.com/2016/07/04/america-as-a-city-on-a-hill/. See also John Wilsey, American Exceptionalism and Civil Religion: Reassessing the History of an Idea (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2015).
[8] Abraham Lincoln, “Address to the New Jersey State Senate,” February 21, 1861, Trenton, New Jersey, in The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, vol. 4, ed. Roy P. Basler (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1953), 237.
[9] Metaxas, If You Can Keep It, 211–12.
[10] Metaxas, If You Can Keep It, 70.
[11] Metaxas, If You Can Keep It, 213.

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One Response to Eric Metaxas’ Unfortunate History

  1. 1skorpia says:

    You’re right, this is really annoying. I mean, I understand that USA is on the brink to their (her?) next historical global move, I understand the duty of all Americans to write/speak/show some (generally) emulating things, but the blatant exaggerations simply produce the adverse effect. Plus, by a bungling, sloppy work they encourage and open the gates of opposition from detractors. Nothing is more damaging than a bad presentation of a good thing.

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