Over the last decade Eric Metaxas, a writer, biographer, Yale graduate, and cultural commentator, has become a popular spokesperson for conservative evangelicalism.
Metaxas is best known for his wildly popular, but deeply flawed, biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. The book not only sold a lot of copies, but launched a speaking tour in which Metaxas was able to showcase his entertaining style of public lecturing. He now hosts a daily radio show–the perfect outlet for his blend of comedy and conservative political commentary.
The blurbs on his current book, If You Can Keep It: The Forgotten Promise of American Liberty, are glowing. Robert George, the Princeton law professor who is arguably the most important conservative intellectual working today, calls Metaxas “one of our nation’s most brilliant and morally serious public intellectuals.” Conservative talk show host Dennis Prager says that every American should read If You Can Keep It and should then “reread it aloud to their children and grandchildren.” Gregory Thornbury, the president of The King’s College, an evangelical college in New York City, writes that Metaxas has done “a great service to this country.” This is high praise from some important people. When I read these blurbs I concluded that this must be a book that should be taken seriously. So I asked Viking Books for a review copy and I read it.
Metaxas is an evangelical rock star. On the day Viking sent me a review copy of If You Can Keep it was ranked #4 on Amazon.com. The book’s launch was filmed for C-SPAN. During the Q&A following Metaxas’s talk, one woman in the audience urged him to run for President of the United States. Recently a history teacher told me about a parent who was urging him to adopt Metaxas’s book in his Advanced Placement United States history class. If You Can Keep It is getting a lot of attention.
The title of the book comes from a popular story associated with Ben Franklin and his role at the Constitutional Convention in the summer of 1787. Reportedly, when Franklin walked out of the Constitution Convention he was met by Elizabeth Powel, a women of prominence in colonial Philadelphia. She asked Franklin what kind of government the members of the convention had forged.. Franklin responded, “A republic, Madam, if you can keep it.”
Over the years Franklin’s words have been a mantra for those concerned about the fate of the American republic. His statement suggests that a republic is something that must be “kept.” Government by the people can be fragile. Unless the people are diligent in preserving the republic it will ultimately fail. Franklin was aware of this. So were all the other founders. As students of the past the founders knew that republics had not fared very well in the history of Western civilization.
But how should the American republic be preserved? Metaxas’s book offers some answers. He argues, as many have done in the past, that the republic is in trouble. But it can be revived again if people follow his formula, which he claims to have drawn from the lessons of American history.
According to Metaxas, in order for the republic to survive Americans must defend religious freedom, cultivate virtue informed by the teachings of the Bible and Christianity, do a better job of venerating the founding fathers and other American “heroes,” demand that their leaders have moral character, reclaim America as a “city on a hill” and an exceptional nation inspired by God with a moral and Christian mandate to spread love to other nations around the world, and learn to love their country again by celebrating the stories and other cultural manifestations of American patriotism.
Metaxas’s concern for his country is admirable. If You Can Keep It raises important questions. What kind of republic did the founders want to create? What role does history play in the preservation of the American republic today? How should we understand patriotism in a world that includes a growing number of critics who are disillusioned with some of the directions our country has taken?
Again, these are all good questions. Unfortunately, Metaxas does a very poor job of using American history to answer them. This book is filled with historical errors of both fact and interpretation. It also has serious theological problems, particularly in the way it conflates American history and the kingdom of God. Frankly, this book is an intellectual mess. Metaxas’s entire argument about the current state of the American republic is based on an incredibly weak and faulty historical and theological foundation. It is an example of how not to use the past to make an argument in the present and serves as yet another example of what historian Mark Noll has described as the “scandal of the evangelical mind.”
Over the course of the next several days I will offer my thoughts on this book here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home. Stay tuned for additional posts.