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For this Fourth of July holiday weekend, I want to tell you about a book that I very much enjoyed, one that I can say even deeply moved me. There are layers of complicated backstory around the topic of the book that I mostly won't go into, but you should know that I found this book to be a surprisingly gripping read for me.
I like the author's previous writing, enjoy reading about history, but have an allergy to books about patriotism. I've reviewed books on the endlessly interesting history of the Founding Fathers here at BookNotes before, and enjoy telling people about this genre about civic life, the common good, public faith and the ideas and virtues that have given shape to our North American culture, and our United States, particularly.
Oh how I love the kind of patriotism that cares about a land and a place and a country, honoring one's own heritage and history - the good and the bad - without necessarily demeaning others. These lines written by Lloyd Stone after WW I, sung to the achingly gorgeous tune of Finlandia always choke me up:
is my song, O God of all the nations,
a song of peace for lands afar and mine;
this is my home, the country where my heart is;
here are my hopes, my dreams, my holy shrine:
but other hearts in other lands are beating
with hopes and dreams as true and high as mine.
My country's skies are bluer than the ocean,
and sunlight beams on cloverleaf and pine;
but other lands have sunlight too, and clover,
and skies are everywhere as blue as mine:
O hear my song, thou God of all the nations,
a song of peace for their land and for mine.
I may not be in the majority, I am aware, although I know I am not alone, to say I worry about over-stated patriotism, both the cheap kind where people with flag-themed beer cozies think they are being honorable yelling slogans about American being Number One or the kind that insists we must be strong in military might and global influence as if we are an Empire that measures worth in sheer fire power.
I was raised in a very patriotic home - my family has lost loved ones in wars. The three older men I care about most (my father, my brother, and my father-in-law) all served in the military, proudly, as officers. (See, I have this reflex to say that because in my experience to say one is critical of unadulterated patriotism will surely be criticized, as if I don't care about vets. I don't know anyone who "blames America first" or fits the description of an "America hater" but so many right wing talk show hosts and conservative pundits tar us all with that inaccurate accusation. It offends me. Do you know what I mean?)
So, in part because of my own father's wisdom as a good conservative, I came to believe that too much misguided and uncritical patriotism is inappropriate, foolhardy, even, especially for Christians. To use the language of Saint Augustine, perhaps channeled afresh through Davey Naugle's beautiful Reordered Love, Reordered Lives or James K.A. Smith's must-read You Are What You Love, it is distorted affection and perhaps idolatrous to love a government too much, or in the wrong way. We should give all things their due and love the right things to a proper degree, and each thing properly; love of state isn't a bad thing, and the Bible calls us to honor the proper authorities. In a good world, at least, it would be disordered not to love your land and government, somewhat, somehow.
The mindless saying "My Country Right or Wrong" suggesting that one dare not criticize one's own land was not promoted in my Christian home, but it was in the air everywhere in the late 60s and 70s when I was coming of age and thinking about politics, citizenship and the role of protest (in the Bible and in contemporary society.) Large matters of public policy (the Viet Nam war, the nuclear arms race, America's role in propping up corrupt regimes from the Philippines to Iran to nearly every oppressive banana republic in Central America) were being debated. I cannot tell you how many times I was told I should move to communist Russia for daring to say that my beloved land was doing evil in the Third world, or that we had issues like race and poverty and justice for migrant workers or corporate shysters polluting our air and water without consequence to deal with here at home. Those stupid replies to legitimate social criticism still weigh heavy on my heart, decades later.
Civil religion became the phrase scholars used to explain the nearly religious way faith in one's own government, with no tolerance for critique, functions. Again, think of James K.A. Smith's analysis of "cultural liturgies" in You Are What You Love. Hand over heart pledges of allegiance and using Bible language of heaven ("alabaster cities gleam, untouched by human tears") to describe any temporal nation should give us pause. It is dangerous to allow the faith of the church to be used as window dressing for the secular state.
I shouldn't have to remind you that this kind of story of our own country as called and exceptional and somehow nearer to God than others is commonplace, but for Biblical people, unacceptable. Biblical scholars and some brave pastors use the analysis of civil religion as they draw upon the Old Testament prophets who offered solemn rebuke to ancient Israel when the injustices of the land were legitimized by implying God was on their side, no matter what. "The temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord" they would chant, and Jeremiah, for one, would insist that even God's covenant people couldn't get away with murder by claiming to be exceptional. Every nation will be judged by the sovereign of history, and no nation should be loved inordinately; patriotic sentiment or national loyalty ought never to allow us to overlook injustices or a lack of public righteousness. We must be careful that care for our nation doesn't turn into the idol of nationalism. Pride still goeth before a fall.
Jeremiah 22 the prophet extolled a former king for doing justice and taking the
side of the oppressed and hurting; liberal justice advocacy for the powerless
caused it to be "well" with him and indicated authentic spirituality ("for is
that not what it means to know me, says the Lord" v.16.)
Then the prophet bluntly condemned the new king for building a fancy palace without paying fair wages, for living high on the hog and thinking his legitimacy was based on his profitable international business dealings (see v. 14-15a, although the NIV misses the market aspect of it, "competing in Cedar.") Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, take note! It isn't the point of this column to document the vast amount of Biblical material that calls us to be critical of our own beloved land and to resist civil religion, but it is important to at least recall the dangers of quasi-religious, overly sentimental and uncritical faith in one's own country, or its founding mythologies, a sin that is as old as Sodom and Gomorrah (see Isaiah 1: 10-17 or Ezekiel 16:49 to see how the prophets used the economic injustice in those cities as emblematic of the sins of Israel) and as recent as any belligerent political debate where U-S-A, U-S-A becomes a chant for greatness, without proper humility.
I say all of this on the fourth of July, to tell you that I am not one who generally likes the "God Bless America" cantatas or other red-white-and-blue celebrations that seem to me to smack of civil religion. I detest "my country right or wrong" thinking and I believe, generally speaking, we have too much patriotism, or at least too much that isn't critically engaged in the realities of both the true goodness and evident evil of our blessed but broken land.
And, then, yet -- surprise -- to say this: I loved Eric Metaxas's new book If You Can Keep It: The Forgotten Powers of American Liberty (Viking; $26.00; 20% off sale price = $20.80.) Mr. Metaxas is a born storyteller, a great communicator, and a fine writer. I was worried about this book, to be honest (see the aforementioned fear of civil religion and my concern as a Biblical person that no one nation should be honored with religious-sounding absolutes which closes off an possibility of critique and repentance.)
But, despite a few small quibbles, I loved it. And I commend it to those who, like me, maybe wouldn't be apt to pick it up. Really, you should send us an order for this book - it's a great read, even if you want to push back on some points. It's a great time to read such a book.
I suppose many of you don't resonate with my concerns about misguided patriotism.
You might be quite likely to buy this book and we would be delighted if you ordered it from us. I don't have to convince you that Eric is an amazingly sharp guy, a talk show host and pundit who seems to bring the wit and depth (well, almost) of a William F. Buckley and the gritty evangelical faith of Chuck Colson, and the interest in talking to intellectuals and thought-leaders about big questions as might, say, Os Guinness or Nancy Pearcey. Eric is a gifted writer, a funny, funny, guy, and agree or not with all of his views (or like his jokes) expressed on his daily radio show, he is an author I suspect you appreciate.
If you read even somewhat in conservative evangelical circles, you know his wonderfully-written and fascinating Bonhoeffer biography (Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy) and his best-selling book about William Wilberforce, Amazing Grace: William Wilberforce and the Heroic Campaign to End Slavery from which they made the must-see, very moving film of the same title.
I hope you know his great pair of recent paperbacks, Seven Men: The Secret of Their Greatness and Seven Women: The Secret of Their Greatness. He has a real knack for getting important things said by way of telling the tales of historical figures. Without being didactic about it, he allows pretty conservative values and political tendencies to bubble up naturally as he tells us about this courageous freedom fighter or that justice advocate or that culturally-important poet or leader, telling us about folks from Jackie Robinson to Hannah More, from Mother Theresa to Eric Lidell. If you've read his books, you know he's got a knack for this and that his books are enjoyable and informative.
It is the readers who might not want to read Eric Metaxas, or who aren't drawn to read about the Founding Fathers, that I want to persuade to consider giving If You Can Keep It a try. It is a fast-paced book, serious but not dense, and, as I've said, I enjoyed it very, very much. Like reading David McCullough's 1776 or watching the TV adaptation of John Adams, it properly shamed me a bit, making me ask myself why I am reluctant to be clear about my appreciation of American ideals and the principles at the heart of the Republic. There really was a lot in here that I learned and a lot that made me feel some things pretty deeply. I hope you'll appreciate my remarks about it; they are heart felt, and writing this out is better for me than grilling hot dogs on this national day of honoring a brilliant revolution.
THE GOLDEN TRIANGLE
If you've read the books on civility and the public square by Os Guinness (most notably A Free People's Suicide: Sustainable Freedom and the American Future) one of the central teachings of If You Can Keep It will be familiar. Guinness has made explicit the three-fold flow of traits that are central to keeping America vibrant and healthy.
There is the constitutional assertion of freedom of and from religion that is a building block to American culture. Religion, Metaxas reminds us, channeling Guinness's own reading of the framers and founders, must not be coerced. Only a freely chosen faith can be sustainable and profound enough to guide and inform and bolster civil goodness in the public square. So religious liberty was a huge matter, freedom of conscience, for everyone, regardless of conviction. Ahh, but how does one maintain such religious liberty? Only a truly religious people can step up and live out such religious freedom (again: a coerced faith or state church or civil religion simply won't do.) So there is this significant interplay between freedom of and from forced religion and a robust, lived faith that offers a solid grounding for public virtue.
And, as he makes clear, virtue is needed. Otherwise, things fall apart.
is, by the way, one of the great insights in de Tocqueville, the mid-nineteenth century Frenchman who wrote his amazing memoir of his journey to and impressions
of America, called Democracy in
America. He wondered, a century after the great colonial revolution, how
the States were faring, what made America what it was. He famously found a deep
religiosity at the heart of the culture, everywhere he went. He concluded that
"liberty cannot be established without morality nor without faith."
Ponder it a minute: if we are free to do what we want but we are not moral people, then, inevitably, everyone will, in fact, do what they want -- for themselves, probably, disregarding the common good. The founders were seriously well-read in moral philosophy, and somewhat in theology, and were deeply aware (more than any of our contemporary public leaders) of a realistic perception about the nature of the human person. The human condition is, among other things, that we are sinful, disordered, often selfish, and such an insight must inform how we think about social arrangements and our view of power and the rule of law and political theory and the like. (Yes, too, the famous "checks and balances.") This is heavy stuff and the brilliant leaders of the Constitutional Convention (sometimes called the Federal Convention) in the summer of 1787 were serious thinkers, debating well this kind of thing. I suppose you know of The Federalist Papers, written the following year, just for an example of the depth of their discourse, which Metaxas cites on occasion.
So the question looms: what makes people want to be good, or at least good citizens, thinking of the commonwealth over their own individual needs and wishes? Great sacrifice for the commons comes from people who have a moral compass pointing them to care about others, and, it seems almost empirically obvious, that this most naturally happens when people are guided by a religious faith that teaches the golden rule and the like.
So there you have it, for starters, the bold claim that the Founding Fathers presumed a certain sort of worldview, if you will, and at least three things that they wrote about endlessly, but never quite so directly as when Guinness or Metaxas spells it out as the "golden triangle."
Freedom Requires Virtue
Virtue Requires Faith
Faith Requires Freedom
Metaxas notes that in recent years, this idea of the significance of faith and religious liberty for our public life is virtually unheard, at least in intellectual circles, and when it is, it is often dismissed if not mocked. The religious freedoms for mediating institutions and faith-based associations are woefully neglected (although Metaxas doesn't write about contemporary policy or court rulings much regarding this up-to-the-week topic.) Regarding his own education (his degree is from Yale) and the lack of awareness of the interplay of this necessary golden triangle of freedom, virtue, and faith, he writes, "Virtually no one seemed to understand what the founders had taken for granted as the secret center of their novel idea of self-government..."
Or as we might say today, the "secret sauce."
If America was indeed a country created not because of ethnic or tribal boundaries but instead because a people had come to believe - and therefore embody - as a set of ideas, how could America be said to exist if almost no one anymore knew what those ideas were? If these ideas had essentially evaporated from our national consciousness for forty years or more, weren't we unwittingly but unavoidable becoming Americans in name only...
If You Can Keep It:
The Forgotten Powers of American Liberty draws easy-to-understand images,
is chock full of illustrations and stories and episodes, offers primary source
excerpts from speeches and letters, providing good summaries, (if a bit too
sweeping at times) and gives mostly very solid insights about the nature of the
ideas behind the Constitutional Convention and the framing of our founding documents.
His point is that these genius thinkers - Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, John
Adams, Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, John Jay, and the others - despite
faults great and small - came up with a truly new and previously untried experiment
in self-government. This was a remarkably new idea, and they were deeply
committed to this new set of ideas, itself a remarkably new notion.
As a matter of small detail, a number of these great thinkers who were deputies at the convention did not sign the Constitution; Jefferson, whose influence was significant, was in France. Some of the gentleman, such as George Mason, and the interestingly named Catholic from Baltimore, Luther Martin, refused to sign on principle. Some awaiting a "Bill of Rights." Some had just gone home or fell ill.
Seeds that were sown through the centuries were taken up from the Greeks and Romans, through the Magna Carta, the Enlightenment, the Protestant reformation and the British revolutions, but no-where on the planet, ever, did anyone every come up with such audacious claims, and make such a bold and daring move to create a Republic such as ours.
I know this is often said, but it is nearly breathtaking to read of it again, and in Metaxas's hands, the radical and daring nature of this project (less, it seems, the Declaration of Independence, itself amazing, and the revolt from the King, dramatic as that was, but more so the new ideas to create a new form of government, rejecting monarchs or kings out of a whole new paradigm, so to speak) is utterly exciting. This book should be used in high school civics classes and study groups from sea to shining sea!
I could quote page after inspiring page of Metaxas writing about this stuff, but if you are a history buff, I don't have to tell you -- these eighteenth century revolutionaries were brilliant and eloquent, and even the small bits of their writings offered here are fabulous to read and ponder. I appreciate how Metaxas not only quotes them liberally but gives background and color, as a fine storyteller and popularizer should.
appreciate how he surveys how old-timers have written about these assertions;
his long and important chapter on the brilliance of the best Longfellow poem
(on Paul Revere) and how it was written for deep social purposes on the eve of
the Civil War, drawing on a sense of unity and the common good from the
Revolutionary era, was tremendous!
He has a chapter called "Venerating Our Heroes" which I thought was fabulous - I didn't know much about Nathan Hale, that's for sure. I would want to add a few other heroes that Eric might not, but his vision (or is it a strategy?) to keep virtue alive by telling the stories of virtuous leaders, is so, so necessary. (It is, by the way, the project behind his Seven Men and Seven Women books, each showing the "secret to their greatness" as a heroic sort of courage and integrity.) There is a lot to think about in this chapter, and it strikes me as urgent in our age of anti-heroes and sex-driven consumerism. (When will we grow tired of Kim Kardashians' boobs or Beyoncé's butt? And how bad has it gotten when even fundamentalist spokespeople like Jerry Falwell, Jr. happily pose giving a thumbs-up in front of Donald Trump and his framed Playboy cover?)
For a more sophisticated treatment of the role of anti-heroes as an indication of the gloomy secularized times, by the way, see the book I've been raving about in the previous BookNotes posts, How To Survive the Apocalypse: Zombies, Cylons, Faith, and Politics at the End of the World by political theorist Robert Joustra and film critic Alissa Wilkinson (Eerdmans; $16.00.) The point, again, is that Metaxas reminds us in that good chapter about the role of virtue in leaders, and the need to tell the stories of heroism, a practice that has fallen on hard times (amidst the coming zombie apocalypse and whatnot.)
He reminds us that,
self-government entails far more than obeying laws. Tocqueville refers to something he calls the "habits of the heart" and the "mores" of the American people. He says that it is these things that are really at the center of keeping our republic. Going to church and obeying laws are important, but there are other things that also deserve to be mentioned and examined as central to keeping our freedoms... we need to keep in mind that all of these things reinforce one another. We cannot pretend that one or another of these alone is sufficient. They are all part of a larger mind-set.
And so, he looks at the notion of the heroic in general, and the specific practice of venerating heroes. Again, I think of Smith's "cultural liturgies" project, thinking about the formative influence of cultural practices; who and how we honor the heroic is fascinating, and Metaxas invites us to think about that, from storytelling to parades, from public statues to how history is taught.
(And, yes, he addresses fairly, if not with quite enough gusto for my tastes, the important matter of hagiography, and of how to be honest about the large failings of past heroes. He is blunt about that, saying, "of course it is true that people can venerate heroes so much that they overlook important flaws" and he mentions, as examples, JFK, St. Patrick, and of course (given his expertise and passion for telling the tales of the abolitionists) the terrible irony that some of the framers were themselves slave holders.
In any case, in latter decades we have swung so far in the other direction that venerating heroes, which used to be part of our common vocabulary, is no longer a language we speak or really understand. But this has served to undermine the very idea of greatness and the idea of the heroic, which is deeply destructive to any culture but especially to a free society like ours, where aspiring to be like the heroes who have gone before us is a large part of what makes citizens want to behave admirably. Denigrating heroes, or simply failing to venerate them, has a cynical and toxic effect on the young generation, and we have now had fifty years in which we have neglected this "habit of the heart" so vital to our free way of life.
I think he is on to something, don't you?
PAMELA ANDERSON VIDEOS? REALLY?
Metaxas further illustrates how moderns have treated these things more generally -- our views of liberty and such -- sometimes with illustrations so vividly weird that one doesn't know whether to laugh or cry, as when Joy Behar, one of the hosts of ABC's The View suggested after 9-11 that we should resist the Taliban by dropping blow-up sex dolls and Pamela Anderson videos over Afghanistan. Yep, that's it - notice: freedom is most fundamentally understood as freedom from restraints of any sort, and, in the contemporary hyper-modern culture, that is most understood as freedom from sexual restraint. Eric notes, "It was a classically Freudian idea of the problem at the center of human life, and as far as she was concerned, that was what our American freedom existed to wipe out.
This suggestion that raining pornography and sex toys might pointedly express American freedom was an important and bracing moment in television history, because the divide between the founder's view of "liberty" and the current misunderstanding of it had never before been more perfectly contrasted. But what happened in the centuries since the ideas based on Montesquieu and Locke and Jesus had devolved into what amounted to an airdropped "kiss off" to the medieval coelacanths in their Afghani caves? During previous wars we might have thought to drop Bibles or copies of our Constitution because we knew that these contained the ideological dynamite to free those cultures of their oppressive bindings.
LIBERAL AND CONSERVATIVE MISUNDERSTANDINGS
It is very interesting and helpful that Metaxas has good pages exploring this, what he calls the "liberal" misunderstanding of freedom. We should pay heed of this somewhat philosophical question. But it is to his credit that he then also has pages looking at what he terms a "conservative" misunderstanding of freedom, where he is hard on the neo-con hopes that capitalism and economic growth will naturally bring about renewal and liberty and justice for all. The free market, he notes, "delivers what people want" and in that sense it is amoral, or at least deeply connected to what the people stand for, shaped by the values and desires of the culture.
Listen to him on this:
Neither in voting nor in finance is pure self-interest always in the best interest of the nation. You may recall Michael Douglas's character's infamous statement in the movie Wall Street. With his slick-back hair, Gordon Gekko declared, "Greed is good." In fact it is not. It's not only not good, it is evil. But it is not only evil and morally wrong, it will in the end lead to the debasement and destruction of the free market, just as naked and selfish self interest in voting will lead to the debasement and destruction of democratic government.
Metaxas is clear about the problems with the typical liberal and typical conservative tendencies and errors - and the "golden triangle" comes to the rescue. You see, the government cannot force us to be good. As people made in God's image with certain inherent dignity, we must have freedom, but for freedom to be sustained, to allow a culture that is healthy and a government "for" the people -- the common good, as Catholics tend to say -- we need good people, who will put common concerns above their own greed. And so we need religion to underscore morality, but we cannot have authentic religion without religious freedom. It really is an endless, inter-related triangle.
What this supposes is that we may not be able to sustain our ordered sense of liberty, our structures for democratic freedom, for being a republic, given our current greeds and ideologies and markets. (Decades ago, Francis Schaeffer, a popularizer of intellectual history and a wide-as-life worldview of Christ's care for every square inch of His world, predicted that by the early twenty-first century people may become so committed to their own "personal peace and affluence" that they will permit a national security state, accepting too much law and order to protect their own suburban pleasures. Wow!)
THE STORY THAT GIVES US THE TITLE
So, can we sustain our forms of government, our freedoms? Can we keep it?
As you may know, there is a historical conversation from which the book gets its title.
In that summer of 1787, when those most brilliant men met to devise a new constitution - cited for centuries later, by leaders from Lincoln to Martin Luther King (who called it "a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir") to idealistic reformers all over the globe - they understood that "American would not flourish without great help from all Americans." We must take up that "promissory note" and be good Americans.
That is the key take-away from the book.
"Future Americans depend on present-day Americans doing their duty in this," Metaxas writes, wisely.
(By the way, this was part of my approach in a recent Op Ed piece in our local York Sunday News paper criticizing a local knucklehead school board member making gross anti-Muslim comments and harassing a church that was reaching out in kindness to Muslim neighbors here in Dallastown. It was anti-American, I said, to be so ugly about fellow citizens' deepest beliefs, as if religious freedom is not for all or as if the common courtesy of wishing another well is somehow bad. I implied, sincerely, that this GOP delegate was a bad conservative and a bad American.)
Can we sustain the insight and virtue and freedoms dreamed about by the framers and founders? Can we be good stewards of these ideas and practices that have been handed down over time?
So do you know about the brief conversation between Benjamin Franklin and a Mrs. Powell, as recorded by Dr. James McHenry, a delegate from Maryland, the last day of the long, long convention in Philadelphia? Metaxas tells it well:
Benjamin Franklin was 81 that summer, described by Metaxas as "the oldest delegate, the eminence grise who for his part in those hallowed proceedings came to be known as the "sage of the Constitution." Franklin had by that time lived in Philadelphia sixty four years since arriving there in 1723, aged seventeen, so for all we know, he knew this now mythical and otherwise forgotten Mrs. Powell, who has come to stand for all of American since that day when she spoke to Franklin in a tone that seemed to bespeak some degree of familiarity.
According to McHenry, Mrs. Powell put her question to Franklin direction: "Well, doctor," she asked him, "what have we got? A republic or a monarch?"
Franklin, who was rarely short of words or wit, shot back: "A republic, madam - if you can keep it."
Keeping American constitutional freedoms, through careful attention to sustainable structures of freedom of religion and a robust, common-good sort of public morality, bolstered by sincere, lively faith, is not the only thing Metaxas writes about in If You Can Keep It. It is a good, good start, and worth reading this summer even if you know a bit about the Constitution and have interest in questions of public justice and religious freedom and the like. (And it is important to read if you tend not to read much along those lines - this is a lesson in patriotism unlike the simplistic and jingoistic stuff that sometimes passes for civic lessons and may inspire some of the jaded among us to take up this work of forging a healthy view of citizenship.)
Again, I was struck by how vital all this feels while reading Metaxas's energetic writing -- even when he overstates a few things. (He waxes eloquent noting how many good things have come from the United States, listing inspirational stuff from the invention of baseball and basketball to jazz to the invention of the computer and the internet, saying these things were made possible by "that one document written in that hot room in Philadelphia over the course of one hundred days -- that promise to the future of the world." Okay, so he makes the point with some purple passages. Let it go - he's mostly right on most of this, and it is good to be reminded.)
PERHAPS THE MOST SIGNIFICANT PERSON OF THE ERA
Some readers may find a few chapters to seem incidental, but I hope not, as I believe they are fully integral. There is a chapter, for instance, on George Whitefield. I thought I knew a bit about him, but this was a spectacularly interesting chapter. There are major historical biographies of the great evangelist, but for most of us, this will give us a helpful picture of his immense popularity in the colonies, and his unique friendship with Ben Franklin (even though they differed considerably on religious matters.)
could speak out loud, outdoors of course, to up to 30,000 people -- ever the
science guy, Ben Franklin measured it out. That up to 80% of the population of the colonies in the
mid-1700s had heard him preach is extraordinary. His sermons were published on the front page of the Pennsylvania Gazette. He was, in fact, what today we
would call a major celebrity. Metaxas may be overstating things (I don't know)
but he insists that in many ways, Whitefield was one of the most important
persons in the whole founding of America.
He almost single-handedly spurred a great religious awakening (begun, of course, by the preaching of Jonathan Edwards a decade earlier) - creating
fertile ground upon which the new ideas of self-government and self-restraint
for the sake of the common good could flourish.
Whitefield's own story, from poverty to Oxford, and his consequential concern for the poor and the underclass (hence his unconventional outdoor preaching) created an social ethos later called by historians democratization; that is, there was a populist sort of leveling - all people of all classes and stations are equally loved as created by God, all are equally guilty before God and all are equally redeemed by God in Christ. All had access to the throne-room of the God of the universe, only a prayer away. He loved the native peoples, preached to black settlements, and was respected by the rich and poor, the powerful and the weak, the learned and the unschooled. The vivid revival preaching and renewal of faith promoted by the Wesleys shaped the gifted Mr. Whitefield and his own tireless travels and inspired speaking informed the North American continent in ways no one had previously, ever.
THE IMPORTANCE OF MORAL LEADERS
There is a chapter in If You Can... that is ever and always important, one that helped clarify things for me, called "The Importance of Moral Leaders." He tells of a particular speech given by George Washington on March 16, 1783 in the middle of a very dramatic part of the war. I was moved by Metaxas's telling of it, what he calls "Washington's Finest Hour."
Washington, part way through the speech, "reached into his waistcoat pocket and pulled out a pair of wire-rimmed spectacles. He had been using them for some time, but never in front of his officers, so the gesture must have taken them aback. And then came the famous line: 'Gentlemen, you must pardon me. I have grown gray in your service and now find myself growing blind.'"
With these words, the mood of the room changed dramatically. There is no question that many of the angry, battle-hardened officers had been softened and moved by his speech, but now, seeing their noble leader in this unprecedented moment of weakness, they were undone. As Washington read the congressman's letter, many of them actually wept.
The longer speech of Washington is filled with value-laden words, words Metaxas suggests we do not hear much anymore, "sacred honor" and "dignity" and "glory" and such. I am not so sure that we do not hear them - they are perhaps tossed around too often or too brazenly to mean much. But I appreciate his concern, that we too often affirm leaders who are pragmatists, or who seem to have know-how and skills, but are short of deep virtue, both public and private. We need leaders of integrity, and we need to be people who care about virtue and goodness and integrity.
Metaxas writes, "One of the most fragile parts of our fragile system of ordered liberties is the necessity of a basic trust between the people and their leaders."
I recommend this chapter for careful consideration this election season. Methinks even Mr. Metaxas and those he has on his radio show would benefit from a good re-read. Can he make everybody read a chapter of his own book before their interview? Maybe not.
Metaxas deepens his good argument for leaders being those who can "make goodness fashionable" by drawing on familiar ground for him, the wonderful and complex story of William Wilberforce. This section is thrilling and beautifully compelling. I am sure you will value it - and perhaps it will draw you to read or re-read his earlier work on the great British parliamentarian who fought to not only abolish the slave trade but to create a larger culture where "morals and manners" were reformed.
ALMOST CHOSEN PEOPLE
Perhaps the thorniest chapter of the book is called "The Almost Chosen People" (a line from Lincoln) on "American exceptionalism" which Mr. Metaxas admits is "rightly controversial." Interestingly, it seems that the phrase itself comes from that nineteenth century Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville, in his landmark book.
Metaxas is clear that American exceptionalism "should have nothing to do with excesses of nationalistic chest-beating and jingoistic hubris." ("We may take some real comfort," he suggests, "in knowing it was in its first appearance a foreigner's cold-eyed analysis and subsequent wonderment at this country, when she was young.")
I believe this stuff is complicated and it is a chapter with which I take exception, as it isn't exceptional enough. (Sorry, I couldn't resist.)
I would suggest you read it, perhaps even with a group, and think this through for yourself. What a salon or coffee conversation you could have on any of these chapters, but especially this one. (Maybe over some tea, in honor the Brits, or some French wine, in honor of de Tocqueville.)
From the summer of 1630 when a fleet of ships, including the Arbella, set sail from England, we have the story of John Winthrop and the "shining city upon a hill" sermon. Metaxas says that Winthrop (the man chosen to be the new Massachusetts Bay Colony governor) "was making clear to them that what they were about to do was a tremendous burden, that they bore a responsibility to all other peoples then living and to history - and to the future."
They were not just, in Metaxas's telling,
merely running from religious persecution, which was considerable...but this trip was not merely about finding a place where they might live their lives in peace. For them, living their lives in peace meant they would have the opportunity to fulfill their responsibility to do something important for God. They understood that freedom was not merely the freedom to be left alone; it was the freedom to do what was right. Freedom was a gift from God and they must use it for his purposes.
This idea of freedom as something to be used in the service of others is at the very heart of the Jewish and Christian Scriptures; through Winthrop and the Puritans of Massachusetts it became an important idea at the heart of the American project in the seventeenth century and in the centuries after.
I think this book, and even this chapter, is balanced and fair. Mostly. I wish he would have questioned the too common misuse of the Bible's references and promises to the covenant people of ancient Israel applying them to any secular nation-state or people group. That's a hermeneutical matter for those who study the Bible, but utterly germane when talking about God's blessings upon any nation.
In this chapter of If You Can... there are lines that are grossly overstated, inexplicably failing to omit the dark side of how the pilgrims and Puritans acted, the mistreatment of indigenous peoples (perhaps in those years not as bad as some think, and not nearly as evil as the great genocides committed by the Spanish in Central and South America.) Metaxas is a scholar of the abolitionist movement and outspoken about contemporary slavery today, so he is not disinterested in the evils of injustice and racism, even those perpetrated in those colonials years. To not name them, though, in the appropriate passages in this chapter when he is talking about "the idea of living for others - of showing them a new way of living - that was at the heart of America" is either disingenuous or incredibly naïve. Either way, it's bad.
I love that
throughout the book (even on the cover) Metaxas is genuinely taken with the
spirit of Lady Liberty. He talks
about the great statue, and quotes at length the beautifully powerful poem by
the famous Emma Lazarus ("The New Colossus.") For a strong conservative
pundit, he is surprisingly critical of those who are disinterested in the
plight of the immigrant and he waxes eloquent on the goodness of our general
openness to immigrants in our past. He tells of his own family's rigorous
journey from Greece, and has obvious reasons to be sympathetic to the cause of
immigration. Yet, in his framing of this, as he offers a positive spin on
those who are anti-immigration, implying they aren't that unreasonable or
uncaring. I scribbled in the margins, "One would wish. His naiveté is
breathtaking." He then says "Very few are foolish enough to say that we don't
want immigrants at all. They are widely considered to be our strength." I wrote in the margins, "I wish!"
I suppose I should appreciate his optimism, but it struck me as almost willfully in denial about the harshness of some our fellow citizen's attitudes these days. I know one person who said "I think it's about time they took that statue down." So, there's that.
I wondered who was fact-checking this portion, for instance when he says that America has been "by a wide margin the most generous nation in the world." That statement is, as I thought nearly everyone who studies such things knows, not so. If measured in terms of the percentage of our GNP going to foreign aid, the United States is woefully low, with all sorts of countries offering a much more generous portion of their GDP to elevate world hunger and the like. Yes, many Americans are generous, and because we are wealthy, even a meager gift is a lot. I suppose it is true that we are first in line to send medicine and the like, but, again, this factoid about our generosity is glaringly wrong - we, as a nation, when talking about foreign aid other than military aid - are woefully not generous. And often, our foreign aid is tied to demands for policies which we craft, often coercing capitulation (perhaps through the IMF, say, serving our business interests.) Again, is Metaxas just ill-informed about these things? Is he not a member of the citizens anti-hunger group Bread for the World or has he never seen those charts listing our relative status compared to others, or hasn't he read Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger which documents this so carefully? One would think his editors, at least, would have caught that.
Still, as I've said repeatedly, this is a fine book with remarkably interesting stories, and much to ponder. There is stuff in here that I bet you've never heard. For instance, if you haven't read Metaxas' children's story Squanto: A Friend of Pilgrims you most likely don't know his nearly unbelievable story. He was called Squanto but also Tisquantum. He had been captured by Englishmen with evil intent in or around 1608, and taken to England. He became a Christian and years later returned to his native homeland in what we now call New England and served as an interpreter; he played a major role in the famous Thanksgiving drama of the pilgrims of the Mayflower being taught to survive when he walked out of the woods to greet them in the spring of 1621.
Squanto helped the Pilgrims establish a peace with the local Native Americans that lasted fifty years, a stunning accomplishment considering the troubles the settlers would have with native tribes in the centuries following. Sadly, Squanto died not long after this, but Bradford wrote that Squanto "desired the Governor to pray for him...Squanto even bequeathed his possessions to the Pilgrims "as remembrances of his love."
"It is virtually impossible for us to fully appreciate today," Metaxas observes, how innovative the creating of this was, this drafting of the Constitution, and how nearly it came to falling through. The men who struggled that long summer to write it were themselves in deep disagreement and it is nearly miraculous that they came to an agreement. (Alexander Hamilton, for instance, believed the President and senators should be chosen for life, just as Supreme Court justices are appointed for life.) From the remarkable Articles of Confederation (written in six months near us here in York, PA, by the way) to the ratification process, to the breathtaking drama of these brilliant thinkers confined to Philadelphia then tasked with hammering out this brave new document (including debates and compromises about slavery and slave holding states) Metaxas describes it in such an interesting way, and helps us see why it matters so much.
The whole book is not exclusively about the founding fathers, as he spends considerably time with Lincoln, including excerpting some of a speech given to the New Jersey State Senate that is brilliantly worded, expressing "Lincoln's own sense of history and his place in it." He ponders what Lincoln meant by that evocative phrase "the mystic chords of memory." He wonders how we can reform our own sense of God's ways for our land, and how we might appropriately and effectively share that with the world.
He critiques the contested idea of "Manifest Destiny" and he insists we have much work to be done. He often mentions the sin of slavery - sounding like Lincoln, at times, himself, struggling to help us see how we must become the sorts of citizens and faithful people who love our land and resist its greatest injustices and threats.
As I said, I am not one who usually appreciates books calling us to be more patriotic, to love America more, to get all cozy with what is often cheap sentiment or theologically dangerous civil religion. And this one, like others in that genre, has its blind spots and misstatements. But it is generous, it is interesting and enjoyable, it is mostly balanced. Importantly it reflects on the meaning of love, of love of country, of the virtues of knowing what is good to love. If You Can Keep It invites us to not love our land "in exclusion to the goodness in other things." He warns against making our goodness a false idol which, he says, is actually a posture which "hates real goodness."
If we are loving what is properly good and true and beautiful, we are ordering our affections against tribalism and jingoism; we are ordering our affections so that they are in line with God's affections, because the selfishness of tribalism and nationalism are the very enemies of what God loves.
Wow, to overstate our own goodness can be idolatry! And to fail to honor the goodness of Canada or Congo, Belgium or Bangladash, is "hating real goodness"? I think that is what he means. Once we learn to love and honor and value and work for the good, true good, we will obviously care about our land, but we will love the good elsewhere, as well. As those who are committed to the habits of heart of a democracy, we should be well-placed and well-equipped to be good global citizens. It is, in fact, a deep truth behind his friend Os Guinness's book applying these American principles of religious toleration and deep pluralism to the global scale in a book called The Global Public Square: Religious Freedom and the Making of a World Safe for Diversity. This illustrates a healthy way in which ideas and ideals from America's own revolution can inform and shape ideas about how we can make peace in the complex global world of the twentyfirst century. It's worth reading! And Metaxas would agree, I'm sure.
If You Can Keep It: The Forgotten Powers
of American Liberty proposes a sort of patriotism that seems right to me, and If You Can Keep It is a book inviting us
to live into that properly ordered, modest virtue of loving our nation well.
It isn't perfect and most readers will find something to ponder, maybe something to contest. But I do think it is a very good read, and hope you consider it, for a book group, a study class, to send as a gift to someone who might need a bit of civic education, or to ponder yourself in this increasingly contested political season. Agree or not with all of Eric's conclusions, I still think it is a good book, worthy of your twenty bucks. We're happy to suggest it; add one from the following list, below, and you'll be set for some holiday fire-works that matter.
John Fea (Westminster/John Knox) $30.00 I have previously reviewed this highly regarded and significantly awarded book and mention it from time to time here at BookNotes. I cannot say more clearly that this is a must-read for all of us, at any time, but surely now when there is much public conversation about this very topic. It would be a great supplement to Metaxas who is more storyteller and American evangelist than trained historian. (By the way, Metaxas is not making a claim that America is "a Christian country" the way some do, at least not in his book about the virtues of American patriotism and the centrality of religious freedom, If You Can Keep It. I do not mean to suggest Fea's book is an alternative approach, as the two books have two different intentions.)
Dr. Fea has poured over countless primary source documents, has spent his time at Mt. Vernon (where he has been a scholar in residence) and has created a balanced and thoughtful book - "with a calm and analytical clarity and profound knowledge" one reviewer said - that claries much about the complex matter of religion and the founding fathers. This is a conscientious and informed book, and his case studies of the faith and religious practices of seven key founding fathers is the best stuff I've ever seen on the topic.
American Exceptionalism and Civil Religion: Reassessing the History of an Idea John D. Wilsey (IVP Academic) $22.00 This is a major, recent work by a professor of history at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary who has written widely on the evangelical critique of the notion of a "Christian America." There are numerous raves reviews by serious historians and public intellectuals, such as this from Robert Tracy McKenzie, a Wheaton College professor (and author of the excellent The First Thanksgiving) who says, "Any thinking Christian who aspires to patriotism without idolatry would benefit from reading this fine work."
I noted that I had some issues with Metaxas's rendering of this topic in the fascinating chapter in If You Can Keep It. This would be a more scholarly, detailed study of the topic, and I commend it to you.
Between Babel and the Beast: America and Empires in Biblical Perspective Peter J. Leithart (Cascade Books) $24.00 This is a stunning bit of heavy scholarship and a powerful polemic in the publisher's "Theopolitical Visions" series. Listen to James K.A. Smith, who writes,
When I read a critique of the heresy of 'Americanism' from someone who nonetheless 'loves America,' I take notice: this is not the usual predictable boilerplate. In this important book, Leithart brings his usual verve, erudition, and nuance to bear on one of the central idolatries of our age."
Or listen to Princeton professor Eric Gregory:
Between Babel and Beast offers a bracing critique of American political history and a pastoral call for repentance from imperial 'Americanism.' But Leithart's distinctive analysis provides a more complex--and potentially more constructive--biblical perspective on international politics than can be found in the many ecclesial critics of empire. This crisply argued and highly readable companion to Defending Constantine confirms that Leithart is one of the most interesting voices in theology today.
God Of Liberty: A Religious History of the American Revolution Thomas S. Kidd (Basic Books) $26.95 We only have one of these gems left in hardback and aficionados of the topic will want in their collection. Kidd is a well respected historian and a Senior Fellow at an institute at Baylor University. The blurbs and reviews on this volume are remarkable - impeccable scholars such as Rodney Stark and Wilfred McClay, George Marsden and Mark Noll each offer fabulous endorsements. Peter Lillback (a popular author who writes about George Washington) says God of Liberty offers "an important critique of the mainstream interpretations of the American Revolution...the surprising partnership of devout believers and deistic doubters to secure America's victory makes for fascinating reading."
The Christian Century's review noted,
One of the many virtues of this book is that Kidd is a careful and judicious historian... He points out--correctly--the errors of both present-day secularists on the left, who insist that the founders barred religious voices from political discourse, and the church-state separation deniers on the right. The lesson of American history is that although church and state are institutionally separate, morality and freedom are seldom at odds and that, in fact, they are mutually reinforcing."
Forgive Us: Confessions of a Compromised Faith edited by Elise Mae Cannon, Lisa Sharon Harper,Troy Jackson, Soong-Chan Rah (Zondervan) $22.99
I do not think that Mr. Metaxas is unaware of the gross history of how even church-leaders authorized and legitimized exceptional evil in our nation's history. The mistreatment of Native peoples, blacks, immigrants and more are well documented and simply essential to understand. Of course, he was not writing a history of our nation, so it wasn't in his purview to talk about the massacre of Indian peoples in the 1800s in the West or the abuse of Asian railway workers and the like. But he was naming the goodness of our land, even arguing for an exceptional calling, so it needed to be address.
I understand that some think we have over-emphasized these injustices, and that wallowing in past social sin erodes legitimate national pride and keeps us from "moving on." I protest. It is a weakness in Eric's book that he didn't name more of these egregious sins (although he named some, and occasionally reminded us that we should never minimize our nation's faults and failings.) This book is a counter-weight to cheap patriotism, a necessary reminder of the sad stuff of our history and no celebration is legitimate without attending adequately to this need for pubic confession and serous repentance. I applaud these brave authors and this evangelical publisher for giving us this resource to know and lament these tragic moments and awful patterns of our past.
As Metaxas says,
without vital virtue, the republic is doomed. Without repentance of these affronts to God and neighbor and
the earth itself, it could be argued our virtue is wanting. This book is a
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