If You Can Keep It: The Forgotten Promise of American Liberty, by Eric Metaxas ★★★
I ordered this book on-line in February from Amazon, and it arrived in the mail in late June. I’ve read another book by Metaxas which intrigued me, leading to me to order this book. I found out about the book on Facebook, coming from Metaxas’ blog site. I typically appreciate how Metaxas writes, and so felt that I would enjoy reading this book. I’ve met and chatted with Metaxas, I find him to be most likable, and would love to engage in more conversation with him. He is bright, and mostly right-on. The other book by Metaxas that I’ve read was “Bonhoeffer”, a stimulating read, though a book for which I felt Metaxas would frequently draw erroneous conclusions, such as to state that Bonhoeffer was a martyr, which he most certainly was not. That discussion might be found in my review of that text. But, let’s get on with “If You Can Keep It”.
The book is seven chapters, with an introduction and epilogue. I’ll comment on the chapters after I briefly summarize them. The introduction presents the topic, titled by a phrase uttered by Benjamin Franklin at the constitutional convention. When asked whether we would be a republic or a monarchy, Franklin noted that we would be a republic, if we could keep it. Focused on that phrase, Metaxas seeks to restore through the book the zeal to keep this republic founded roughly 230 years ago. Chapter 1 begins the argument by noting that a republic can function only in the environment of moral people. Government cannot make us moral, and each citizen must hold the responsibility for personal morality. Chapter 2 introduces a concept borrowed by Os Guinness called the golden triangle. Specifically, the triangle is that freedom requires virtue, virtue requires faith, and faith requires freedom. Chapter 3 was simply a summary of the ministry of George Whitfield in America, leading to a spiritual revival. Chapter 4 notes how civilizations will have historical heroes that are venerated. He discusses the American heroes that are too commonly forgotten, such as Nathanial Hale, and the founding fathers, including Paul Revere. Chapter 5 builds heavily on the importance of moral leaders, contrasting the immorality of such leaders as Bill Clinton to that of Cinncinaticus, George Washington or William Wilberforce. Chapter 6 explores further the idea of American exceptionalism, and why it is important in thinking about our country. Chapter 7 is a plea that one must love their country (America) in spite of its faults. The epilogue recalls the sentimental experience of Metaxas seeing the statue of liberty in the New York harbor soon after the 9/11 tragedy.
What is the problem with this book? Several…
- Metaxas doesn’t express deep insights into the real nature of America, and with what has gone wrong. Perhaps the seeds of destruction were sown at the writing of the constitution itself? Perhaps America’s “exceptionalism” has been not the virtue of its wonderful constitution but its transitory moments where many Americans actually had a true faith in the God of Christianity? Perhaps many of the symbols that evoke sentimental emotions with Metaxas are false symbols, such as the statue of liberty, which is about as pagan as you can get. Not that I dislike Lady Liberty, but I acknowledge that the Christian faith has a seriously different concept of the entire notion of liberty and freedom than pagan or humanistic sources provide for. Metaxas almost hints on that in the book, but fails to follow through, lapsing back into a “God, mother and apple pie” notion of America.
- Metaxas confuses general morality with a Christian morality. He spends much time talking about the importance of American’s being moral, but fails to explain why any morality not grounded in Scripture is really a false morality. In essence, morality essentially becomes what the state deems to be good and right. If tolerance becomes the greatest virtue, so be it, because the state has declared it to be so.
- Public heroes are nice and important, but only in the light of how they lived consistent with Christian beliefs. I can hold Latimer and Ridley as far greater heroes, dying for far greater principles, than that of Nathanial Hale, or those that perished in the Revolutionary and Civil wars. Heroes now tend to be sentimental figures that do not inform the public into taking a costly moral stance. Metaxas completely confuses this in his book on Bonhoeffer, who was executed for his attempt to assassinate Hitler, which might be noble, but certainly true heroes like David from Scripture had better restraint when an opportunity to assassinate evil Saul presented itself.
- The golden triangle, with deepest respect to Os Guinness, seems to be nonsense. There are no specific definitions of virtue (whose morality?) or faith (in what?) or freedom (from what or for what?). Faith in the Christian sense does NOT require freedom, but affords a much greater freedom than is offered by the constitution or any other man-created document or system of government.
Metaxas labors long about the importance of love for country, being sure to dismiss the “my country right or wrong” notion. He argues that you can love a country while hating the sins of that country. But, one’s love for country is far more complex than just “loving” America. Is he talking about America as a system of government? Do we idolize the good but seriously flawed constitution, the “living” document that now controls our country? Do we love it for its extreme secularism, that refuses to take a stance as a Christian nation, and supporting equally Islam, Buddhism, and even Satanism as legitimate religions of the land? Metaxas doesn’t mention that our only real citizenship is a heavenly citizenship, and on earth we are strangers and pilgrims. It’s not that we are solely citizens of an other-worldly realm, but that we have dual citizenships, and must reconcile how to deal with that, being both members of planet earth and asked to care for the earth, yet members of a heavenly kingdom. Some have responded by claiming that the US system is too far gone, and moved to a country which tended for stronger Christian sympathies. Others have moved on to more oppressive nations, though with the thought that they are subject to a King that is not the prince of this world. Others, like myself, stay, realizing that this is my Heimat, my homeland, that I can have an influence for good in the community in which I live. I do not find America to be exceptional, but like the prophet Jeremiah, spend my time weeping that my nation could have made better decisions but have gone the way of inevitable judgment of a most serious nature.
I see our government as far more corrupt than meets the eye. I see the constitutional structure as fatally flawed in that it is primarily a secular humanist document, and we are now reaping the consequences of that structure. I see the loss of a public Christian morality as the essential loss of anything that once was good about our country. I don’t view ourselves as having a representative government, or that our votes have any substantial meaning. A plethora of events within the last twenty years have shown that a government “of the people, by the people, and for the people” does not exist in the USA, and that it will never return, save for a cataclysmic revival in our country. Why can’t Metaxas see this? I don’t know. I ponder the imponderable question as to how the majority of our “well-informed, greatest-nation-on-earth” citizens could vote in a fool and evil person to be their president. I find it even more confusing that some of my Christian friends voted and still stand behind that man, and will soon vote in an even more evil, corrupt liar. These Christian friends are very moral people as well as well educated intelligent folk, and so a generic “morality” just doesn’t explain how to fix America, as Metaxas’ thesis claims.
There is much that Metaxas says correctly in this book. I appreciate his insights into American history and his dissatisfaction with the current status of our country. I appreciate his appeal to return to a moral stance. I would find it easy to get along with Metaxas if we were to meet in public, and could easily become a good friend with him. I hope that with time and age, Metaxas would write a text about America lacking the sentimental statements and the sense that America is a city on a hill that we all wish it would have been. I would hope that Metaxas’ love for America would remain strong, but become more mature, perhaps seeing America the same way that Jeremiah saw (and deeply loved) Judah.